Remembering Johnny Vander Meer: A Sister's Story
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the only back-to-back no hitters ever pitched in major league baseball. It is a feat that never has — and probably never will — be repeated on a professional field. It was achieved by a young man who grew up on Rea Avenue and learned to pitch on a sandlot ball field on Godwin Avenue, Midland Park's native son and most famous resident Johnny Vander Meer.
This "unbreakable record" will be celebrated by the Midland Park Rec Department on Opening Day, April 13. On the eve of the commemoration, Midland Park Press sat down with Vander Meer's "baby" sister, Garberdina Nywening to talk about growing up in Midland Park with her yet-to-be famous brother.
Johnny Vander Meer was born in Prospect Park to Dutch immigrants, Jacob and Katie Vander Meer. When Johnny was 4, the family, which included his older brother, Martin, moved to Midland Park. Twenty years later, he put the small Bergen County town on the map by pitching two consecutive no-hitters.
Part one of the record took place on June 11, 1938, when the Cincinnati Reds pitcher threw a no-hitter against the Boston Bees. The record setting game was played on June 15, 1938, against the Brooklyn Dodgers during the first night match ever played on Ebett's Field.
Vander Meer showed interest in baseball when he was very young.
"He was always throwing a ball from a little kid on," Nywening told Midland Park Press. "My grandmother bought him a baseball uniform when he was just two years old."
She recalled her brother and his friends would play ball on a field off Godwin Avenue near Irving Street. The field has since been built up with homes.
"Even as a kid, he was good." she said. "I remembered he would win all the games in the sandlot."
Her brother, she added, helped to start a baseball league associated with the Obadiah Society and then later formed the Midland Park Rangers with other kids in the area. Their older brother, Mart, would catch while Johnny pitched.
Vander Meer traveled all over northern New Jersey playing against any and all challengers. Nywening remembered going to a game in Paterson against the House of David, a Jewish ball club who's players grew long, Gandalf-like beards. Vander Meer's powerful pitch got the best of them.
"They did not like him," Nywening said with a laugh. "He struck out many of them and then when he came up to bat, they tried to hit him with the ball."
Eventually his pitching skills attracted the attention of a baseball scout in 1933. This led to Johnny playing for several minor league teams, ending up playing for the Cincinatti Reds in 1937, and in June 1938, he attracted attention outside the world of baseball.
"[After he pitched the first no hitter to the Boston Bees], the residents of Midland Park actually drove to Ebetts Field for their first night game," said Nywening, remembering cars and buses filled with residents looking forward to see her brother pitch. "I sat with Lois, Johnny's girlfriend, and several other friends of John in the box seats."
Immediately after the game, the whole Vander Meer family was whisked away to have pictures taken.
"We didn't get home until almost 1 a.m. and Johnny said to not go home because our street would be crowded with newspaper reporters," said Nywening, adding with a laugh, "When we got home, Johnny went fishing."
The family took his advice and kept their distance from Rea Avenue for the day, even to the point of skipping school.
"I said to my father I would need a note, but he just said, 'Your teachers will know where you've been when they read the newspapers'," she said with another laugh.
The following day when she returned to school, several boys were standing, ascending up a staircase, near her locker waiting to ask about the June 15 game, and she had a great deal to tell, including meeting Babe Ruth.
"I like to say Babe Ruth sat on my davenport," she said. "It had been arranged for him to come to Midland Park and meet Johnny."
Her brother wasn't exaggerating when he warned the of the crowd of reports. They littered the front yard and neighborhood with used flashbulbs. "My father filled two baskets with the used flashbulbs," she said.
Vander Meer continued to play baseball until he joined the Navy in 1944. After serving, he went back to baseball but ultimately retired from playing in 1951. He went on to manage the Cincinnati Reds minor league team and retired from baseball in 1962. While he worked several years for a brewing company, he never forgot baseball nor Midland Park.
"John started a scholarship for students who played baseball from their freshmen year to senior," she said.
Nywening said that she is grateful that Midland Park is remembering her brother and hopes they continue to do so in the future.
"I think it is wonderful that Midland Park is keeping the story alive," she said.