According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, perfect is defined as having no mistakes or flaws. With all apologies to old Mr. Webster, he obviously never met Harry Isom.
Exactly 50 years ago today, on April 21, 1966, the junior right-handed pitcher for Woodlawn High School laughed in the very face of that definition. Not only did Isom complete the ultra-rare feat of a perfect game, he struck out all 21 Meadows of Dan batters he faced.
One hundred years have passed since John Marshall defeated Harrisonburg 6-1 in the first state championship game on record in the Virginia High School League (VHSL) record book. In the 50 years prior to 1966, nobody in VHSL baseball history accomplished Isom’s feat of a perfect game with 21 strikeouts. Likewise, nobody has turned the trick in the 50 years since his web masterpiece.
In 100 years of high school baseball in Virginia, Isom’s feat stands alone on the mountaintop as the holy grail of perfection. No hits, no runs, no errors, and no ball hit in fair play for the entire game.
“You think about that in terms of state history, all the numbers of teams and numbers of games that have been played over that many years, to be the only person to ever do that – that’s quite an accomplishment,” said Carroll County head softball coach Rick Nester, who guides a record-breaking pitcher in her own right in sophomore Sydney Nester. “You are looking at all 21 outs being recorded by one person. That’s a case of one player basically beating an entire team of nine. It would have sure been nice to have been there that day to witness that.”
To put Isom’s incredible game in perspective, the VHSL record book only shows five contests in which a pitcher struck out 21 batters in a seven-inning contest. Likewise, the VHSL only lists seven perfect games in state history. Isom, however, is the only pitcher to combine the two and throw a perfect game in seven innings with every out coming on a strikeout. Isom was so dominant on that historic day, he never once reached a three-ball count on a batter.
Matt Tompkins, a JV baseball coach and head wrestling coach at Carroll County High School, threw the only perfect game in CCHS baseball history in 2005 at Grundy. Like Isom, Tompkins struck out every batter he faced. But Tompkins’ perfecto came in five innings as it was part of a doubleheader with the Golden Wave.
“To do something like that, so much has to go right. It’s not just a matter of you have to do everything right as a pitcher, you have to have a good umpire that is a little generous behind the plate,” Tompkins said. “I know with mine, they tried to bunt twice and they fouled it back on dumb luck. Everything has to click on all cylinders.”
Tompkins remembers his father, Joe, the head baseball coach at CCHS, putting him on a pitch count of 50 pitches. Zach Cochran was scheduled to come in for relief. With a perfect game in reach, Tompkins kept his son in and let him finish the perfect game on 54 pitches in five innings.
“I don’t know if I would have gotten to seven innings that game,” Tompkins said. “I couldn’t even imagine striking out all 21.”
Unfortunately, several members of the 1966 Woodlawn Raiders’ team have passed away, including Isom and his head coach at the time, Charles Smythers. And while Harold Golding would take over as Woodlawn’s head coach the following year after Smythers transitioned into a long career in administration, he coached Isom his senior year.
“He was an outstanding kid and an outstanding athlete. Harry was a great pitcher,” Golding said. “He had an excellent curveball and change-up and fastball. He wasn’t an overpowering pitcher, but he was tremendously smart and level-headed. He was a leader.”
Woodlawn was a powerhouse baseball program back in those days before the high school consolidated with Carroll County in 1969. During one particularly dominating stretch from 1964-1967, Woodlawn set what was believed to be a national record at the time (according to an article in The Roanoke Times) with 41 consecutive wins.
The unbelievable was the norm for the Raiders in those days. Roger Byrd once threw a no-hitter in his first pitching start, an 18-0 win over Glade Valley. Ken Melton, Isom and Larry Byrd combined for a no-hitter in a 23-0 thrashing of Glade Valley. After the 41-game winning streak was ended by Galax in 1967, Woodlawn took it personally. In the very next game, Roger Byrd struck out 20, threw a no-hitter and had a triple in a 25-0 win over Woolwine. Isom also made a big impact on that game, stealing a whopping seven bases in the win.
“Back in 1966 they didn’t have state playoffs or Woodlawn would have won them all,” Golding said. “They won several regional championships, which was as far as it went, and we won District R every year that I coached. Woodlawn was always rich in baseball tradition. It was simply amazing. Every kid that came through there tried out for baseball and the parents were very supportive. We played big schools and we beat big schools.”
Sadly, Isom passed away in 2009 with cancer.
“He was a great kid that always showed great responsibility.”
As a junior, Isom was hardly an imposing presence on the mound. Standing a mere 5-6 and weighing 140 pounds when he threw his historic game, the humble Isom went on to pitch another no-hitter later his junior season in a 7-0 Woodlawn win against Stuart. He pitched in five games that season – a perfect game, a no-hitter, a one-hitter and two two-hit games. In one of those games, a 15-2 win in which he allowed just one hit against Woolwine, Isom whiffed 17 batters. He gave up just five hits the entire 1966 season.
“Isom is an unassuming kid,” the late Coach Charles Smythers told The Roanoke Times in a May 1, 1966 article. “He had absolutely no reaction to striking out 21 straight batters.”
Isom would go on to play semi-pro baseball in Martinsville for the Cardinals’ organization. He gave up baseball to join the Navy for four years before beginning a long career with Volvo.
While Smythers passed away in 2012, he shared many of his favorite baseball memories with his children. Grant Smythers, a former coach at CCHS and a current teacher in Salem City Schools, said his father’s first love was baseball. Whether it was the Pulaski Braves, Salem Buccaneers or Boston Red Sox, he had a passion about baseball games. And even though Smythers was a three-sport athlete at Milligan College, he never talked about it much with his sons until they were in college and showed an interest in coaching.
“I told him I heard from so many people in the community what a great coach he was and he said, ‘Great players make great coaches.’ And he said, ‘I coached probably the best player in the area and one of the best players in the state.’ He was talking about Harry and how he was a natural. When the movie ‘The Natural’ came out he talked about how Harry as a natural, how he had great balance, such a smooth delivery and excellent control.”
Smythers said he found out later about Isom’s perfect game. When he asked his father about it, his dad told him it was not only a perfect game, he struck out all 21 men he faced.
“He said in all his years of coaching and being around sports, that was probably the best individual performance of anybody he had ever seen in any sport,” Smythers said. “Dad would joke about when someone like Roger Clemens or Nolan Ryan threw a no-hitter on TV. He said, ‘That’s not Harry. He didn’t strike them all out.’ He said Nolan Ryan, as good as he was, he didn’t throw one like Harry. I thought it was pretty cool to hear him say that all the time.”
Grant Smythers said his dad kept in touch with all his old Woodlawn players. Past Raiders got to know Grant when he was coaching basketball at Carroll County. They would tell him how much they thought of his dad and how they were part of something special that not many people knew about it.
Those old Woodlawn teams were always very disciplined and in better condition than the teams they played, Grant Smythers said, because they knew what hard work was before they took the field. Most of them had worked on the family farm or with a trade.
The younger Smythers remembers one funny thing his dad told him about Isom’s perfect 21-strikeout game. At that particular point in the game, Isom had struck out 18 and just needed to get through one more inning to secure history.
“Either an assistant coach or a player leaned over and asked dad, ‘Coach Smythers, do you think he is getting tired?” Smythers said. “And he said, ‘What do you mean? Tired of striking them out?’”
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN