'Immaculate:' the story of baseball's perfect innings

It's a rare feat, to be perfect, even for just one inning. A new book about perfection in baseball comes from John Cairney, a professor of child health at McMaster University.

Only 74 pitchers have pitched a perfect inning

A McMaster University doctor and medical researcher has written a book about perfect innings in baseball. 6:54

It's a rare feat, to be perfect, even for just one inning.

Only 74 major league baseball pitchers have done it, including Toronto Blue Jay Steve Delabar in 2013. A perfect inning happens when a pitcher throws nine strikes in a row and gets three outs. A new book, about this rare feat and the sometimes strange people who accomplished it, comes from an unusual source, John Cairney, a professor of child health at McMaster University in Hamilton. What makes a professor of family health write a book about brief and fleeting perfection in baseball? We'll find out.

Watch Delabar's perfect inning in the video at the bottom of this page.

Cairney spoke with CBC Hamilton's Conrad Collaco about the new book. You can listen to that full interview by clicking play on the image at the top of this page. Or, you can read an edited and abridged transcript of that interview below. 

John Cairney, Immaculate: A History of Perfect Innings in Baseball

What exactly is a perfect inning for a pitcher?

A perfect inning is a pitcher retiring batters in order on nine consecutive strikes.

What made a professor of family health interested in telling the story of perfect innings in baseball? 

I can actually date the origin of this book. I was driving home from work, from Hamilton. I was listening to a local radio station in July of 2013 and they were talking about Steve Delabar who was a relief pitcher for the Jays that season and his perfect or immaculate inning. I had never heard of that before. I went home and did a little bit of research and realized that his was going to be the topic of the first book. That's really where it comes from.

Is there something about your day job as a professor of family medicine, as a doctor, that makes the idea of perfection particularly appealing?

I'm a researcher. I spend most of my time with numbers and stats. That's probably why I am so drawn to baseball. Baseball is such an unusual sport. We consider a great hitter someone who gets a hit three times out of every ten appearances at plate. It's a game that defies perfection so when it does occur it stands out as a unique and unusual event.

In healthcare and research in general most of us strive for perfection but we live in a messy world. Perhaps there is a broader connection to the idea that when these sometimes fleeting moments occur they are cause for celebration and reflection and an extended treatise on the people who did it in this context. 

What did you learn about the men who threw these perfect innings?

Part of Steve Delabar's story is what drew me to Immaculate Innings. Here's a guy who was a major league pitcher but prior to that had a devastating elbow injury and thought his career was over. He found himself back in his hometown working part-time as a coach working with children. He starts training with a weighted ball so he can teach the kids how to use it so they can develop their own arms and he found that his velocity was increasing. One thing led to another and in 2013 he's back in the majors. He has an amazing season. He was a member of the all-star team. He pitched an immaculate inning. But after 2013 he vanished again.

I wondered how many Steve Delabar stories there were along side the greats. You've got Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson; all pitched more than two immaculate innings. Then you have Steve Delabar and Pat Ragan who was the third pitcher to pitch an immaculate inning, and it was pretty much the only thing he did in his career. 

At the end of the day, the book is 73 short stories of the pitchers who pitched an immaculate inning.

You mentioned that one Blue Jay pitcher has managed this feat. Are there any other Canadian connections to the perfect inning?

Delabar was one of two Toronto Blue Jays. The other one was Roger Clemens in 1998 against the dreaded Boston Red Sox. There was one Canadian-born pitcher, Rich Harden from Victoria B.C. He was the only Canadian. Didn't have a remarkable career. He'll never be a Hall of Fame pitcher but he can certainly put an immaculate inning on his list of accomplishments.

The Toronto Blue Jays open spring training on Monday Feb. 22, 2016.