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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Harvey Haddix pitched perhaps the best game ever

In 1959 Harvey Haddix pitched perhaps the best game ever -- and lost
Sunday, May 24, 2009

In his later years with the Pirates, after he was the pitching coach for the 1979 champions and before the baseball bureaucracy no longer recognized his game, Harvey Haddix reflected on the most extraordinary game ever pitched.

"Not a day goes by that somebody doesn't ask me about that game," said the left-handed pitcher known as The Kitten because somebody else bigger than he was already The Tiger. "I think I got more notoriety from it because I lost."

Indeed. Fifty years ago, against the formidable lineup of the Milwaukee Braves, he retired batter after batter, inning after inning, accomplishing what no other pitcher in the game has accomplished before or since.

He was perfect for nine innings, but because the Pirates failed to eke out a run, he had to work overtime. With tension and excitement building on every pitch, he was flawless for 10 innings. Then 11. And finally, the Western Union operator, the text messenger of his day, typed "nothing across" for the 12th time as 36 batters faced Mr. Haddix and 36 went back to the bench. Nary a one of them reached base.

Perfection then yielded to the bizarre in the unlucky 13th inning when an error broke the spell. Following a sacrifice and an intentional walk, Joe Adcock hit a high slider out of the park for Milwaukee's only hit. But what should have been a three-run home run morphed into a one-run double.

A script with such zaniness would be summarily rejected. Yet it actually was a dark and stormy night, with a surreal backdrop of jagged bolts of lightning and wind and rain. Suddenly, a perfect game broke out. And the ending was so flawed that the events of May 26, 1959, could only be called perfect theater.

"There's never been a game like this," said Bill Virdon, the Pirates center fielder that night.

Today, a pitcher gets credit for a quality start if he gives up no more than three runs in six innings. Put that up against a 13-inning game, featuring just two pitchers, played in a crisp 2 hours, 54 minutes.

As Mr. Haddix wove his masterpiece, Lew Burdette also went the distance, scattering 12 singles without walking a batter. He was bailed out by three double plays, which the participants say were induced by his spitball.

"I have to be the greatest pitcher who ever pitched," the Milwaukee pitcher would say in later years, "because I beat the guy who pitched the greatest game ever pitched."

If anything, the game has become even more amazing over the years.

Milwaukee reliever Bob Buhl told Mr. Haddix, and repeated in an interview with sports editor Steve Stout, of the Urbana (Ohio) Daily Citizen, that the Braves' bullpen had pilfered the Pirates' signs. If catcher Smoky Burgess called for a fastball, a towel was made visible to the batter. On breaking pitches, the towel was out of sight.

"Smoky couldn't bend over very far when he caught, so with binoculars, you could pick up every sign from the bullpen," Mr. Buhl said. "Harvey had such marvelous movement and changes of speed that night that it didn't matter if the hitter knew what was coming or not."

Milwaukee's Johnny Logan, who later played for the Pirates, didn't recall anything about stolen signs. But he had a perfect context to a game played at a time when the only performance enhancer was the size of a man's heart.

"It was a time," he said, "when baseball was baseball."

Mr. Logan is among those who consider the greatest game ever pitched to be Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series because it happened on baseball's biggest stage.

But plenty of baseball people believe that the Haddix game is unequaled.

"Twelve perfect innings, it doesn't get any better than that," said Dick Schofield, the starting shortstop that night. "It might never be done again."

'Like a machine'

The Pirates had won five consecutive games, beginning with a complete-game victory by Mr. Haddix, when they opened a road trip in Milwaukee.

In pregame preparations, Mr. Haddix, 33, noted how he intended to pitch against a team that had won two consecutive National League pennants and that included Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, Joe Adcock, Wes Covington, Del Crandall, et al.

"If you do what you say you're going to do, Harv, you'll pitch a no-hitter," said third baseman Don Hoak.

Laughter rippled through the clubhouse at the thought.

The Pirates would play without two future MVPs that night. Dick Groat was benched because he was slumping. Roberto Clemente, burdened with various ailments, didn't start a game between May 19 and July 9.

Fighting off a cold, Mr. Haddix got an out on his first pitch. Eddie Mathews worked the count full -- the only time a Milwaukee hitter went to three balls out of the strike zone -- before lining out. Hank Aaron, batting .453 at the time, flied out. Three up, three down.

Pitch counts and radar guns had yet to invade the sport, but according to the Western Union account, Mr. Haddix threw 115 pitches -- 82 of them for strikes. The most he threw in an inning was 14 in the 12th when he was tiring.

Not a single Braves hitter could solve the lively fastball, sharp slider or deceptive curve being thrown with pinpoint control.

Teammates in the dugout were awed.

"He was like a machine. We were breathing with him on every pitch," said pitcher Bob Friend. "It was the best game I ever saw pitched."

In the field, the play just moved right along.

"It was one of the easiest games I ever played in," Bill Mazeroski recalled. "Everything was pretty much routine. Everything was a two-hopper."

The opposing shortstops figured in what were the two toughest plays. Mr. Schofield speared a line drive off the bat of Mr. Logan in the third, and he also handled a grounder that took a funny hop in the sixth.

"Harvey was magnificent that day. He was throwing strikes, getting ahead of the hitters," Mr. Logan said. "Everybody on our bench wanted it to be a solid hit. We didn't want it to end on anything cheap."

Like his teammates, Mr. Schofield knew something special was unfolding.

"It seemed like every time I'd glance up at the scoreboard, there were two strikes on the batter and there were two outs," he said.

No one-game wonder

Harvey Haddix died of emphysema at age 68 in 1994 and is buried in the western Ohio farm country where he was born and raised. If someone was searching for the American heartland, the fertile fields about an hour west of Columbus would fit the bill.

Like many farm boys, Mr. Haddix took to baseball. Baling hay strengthened his hands and forearms. He learned to hit by tossing rocks up in the air and swatting them with a broom handle. He caught balls bounced off walls to hone defensive skills that would win him three Gold Gloves.

"He was just as happy putting on his blue jeans and doing chores while riding around on the tractor as he was on the mound," said teammate Vernon Law. "He did all the little things to better himself. He was a great competitor. He battled every hitter. Never gave in."

Mr. Haddix played his first organized baseball at Westville High School in Champaign County, riding to games in the trunk of the coach's car because he was the smallest kid on the team.

The Haddix family moved to a farm in Clark County, where Harvey graduated from Catawba High School. Signed by the Cardinals after attending a tryout camp, and following a hitch in the Army, he started his baseball career in 1947.

At 5 feet 9 and 155 pounds, he wouldn't merit a look today. It was the fight in the dog, not the dog in the fight, as they said in his day.

"I wish I had been 6-foot-4 and weighed 200 pounds. Then I wouldn't have had to work as hard," Mr. Haddix used to say with a laugh.

He was hardly a one-game wonder. A three-time All-Star, Mr. Haddix won 20 games in 1953 and was 136-116 in his career. He was the winning pitcher twice in the 1960 World Series, including the seventh game.

His first big-league win came in 1952 against the Braves, who then resided in Boston. The losing pitcher was Lew Burdette.

Mr. Haddix once flirted with a no-hitter in 1954. While with the Cardinals, he dazzled the Phillies for eight innings before Richie Ashburn broke up the no-no. He did, however, get the win.

Rain and bluster

While Mr. Haddix frustrated the Braves on that night in 1959, the Pirates couldn't buy a run. They bunched three singles in the second inning but didn't score because a runner was thrown out trying for third.

Even the weather was uncooperative. In the top of the seventh, the wind howled as it blew in from right field and rain began to fall.

With one out, Bob Skinner connected for what everybody thought was a home run to right. But the ball hung up in the wind and was caught at the wall.

On three occasions, when the Pirates had a man on, a double play killed threats.

"Burdette was in trouble a couple of times, but his spitball was pretty effective. That was his ace in the hole," said Mr. Law.

"He'd come with that great spitter at the right time," added Mr. Friend.

Best seat in the house

Baseball had its superstitions, andthe closest anyone came to mentioning all the obvious zeroes on the scoreboard was when Mr. Haddix came to bat in the ninth. Through his catcher's mask, Del Crandall said: "Say, you're pitching a pretty good game."

There was no TV that night, but Bob Prince gave hints all night.

"Don't go away," he told a rapt radio audience. "We are on the verge of baseball history."

Nine innings were complete when Mr. Burdette became the eighth and final strikeout victim. The County Stadium crowd of 19,194, which included a younger Bud Selig, the current commissioner of Major League Baseball, rose as one to salute Mr. Haddix. But it wasn't over.

Normally, bullpen ace Elroy Face would be all set for a call. But with Mr. Haddix so masterful, Mr. Face never went to the bullpen and never once warmed up.

"I sat on the end of the bench in the dugout all night. I had the best seat in the house. It was the greatest game ever pitched," Mr. Face said.

For the first and only time in major-league history, a perfect game went beyond nine innings. The Braves still couldn't scratch out a hit.

Then came the Kafkaesque conclusion.

Felix Mantilla led off the bottom of the 13th inning with a routine grounder. Third baseman Don Hoak fielded it cleanly, but his throw was in the dirt. Milwaukee's first base runner was aboard on the throwing error.

"Nobody felt worse than Hoakie, but he never once made an excuse. They still talk about Bill Buckner's error, too," Mr. Groat said.

After a sacrifice bunt and an intentional pass, Joe Adcock came to the plate.

Ball one was high. The next offering was a high slider that Mr. Adcock pounced on, driving the pitch deep to right center.

"When he hit it, it looked like a lot of trouble," Mr. Schofield recalled.

At the crack of the bat, Mr. Virdon raced to the fence.

"I started going back, but there was no chance. None," the center fielder said. "Adcock was pretty strong. He could hit to any field in any park."

A charge rippled through the Braves' bench like a thunderclap.

"It was getting late. We were tiring out. When [Mr. Adcock] hit the ball, our thought was: 'Felix, get to home plate! Get this game over with!" Mr. Logan said.

The ball sailed over the bullpens at the 392-foot mark, but Mr. Aaron didn't realize it had left the park. Thinking the game was over, he headed to the dugout after rounding second after he saw Mr. Mantilla cross home plate. Mr. Adcock kept running and passed him up.

All was lost -- the perfect game, the no-hitter, the game itself -- as confusion held sway.

Mr. Adcock was called out for passing a runner, so the three-run homer became a double. The umpires announced the score as 2-0, which most morning newspapers carried in their headlines.

The next day, the league office set the score at 1-0.

"The score shall be determined by disregarding the 'home run' and recording it as it would be if [Mr. Adcock] had a two-base hit, in which case only the run or runs score which are necessary to win the game," National League president Warren Giles ruled.

'Just another loss'

In the stunned clubhouse, Mr. Haddix asked writers for a moment to collect his thoughts. Then, like a perfect gentleman, he answered every query.

"My main aim all night long was to win. The perfect game would have meant something to me then," he said. "It's just another loss, and that's not good enough for myself or the club."

Years later, he would add: "It didn't matter to me whether it was 1-0, 2-0 or 100-0. All I knew was that we had lost the game, and that's what hurt me most."

From the Braves' clubhouse, manager Fred Haney called it the greatest pitching performance he ever saw.

"Haddix held us in the palm of his hand," he said.

By phone, Mr. Burdette told Mr. Haddix he deserved to win. And in that droll manner that once defined baseball players, he told the man who had just lost a one-hitter: "You have to learn how to spread your hits out."

Mr. Haddix and Mr. Hoak shared a cab to the team hotel, the Schroeder.

"I've booted some before, Harv, and I'll boot some again," Mr. Hoak had told him.

In the company of Mr. Friend, Mr. Haddix found a diner for a post-game meal of bacon and eggs.

"Do you realize what you've just did?" Mr. Friend asked.

"Yeah, but I lost the damn game," Mr. Haddix answered. "I'd rather have given up six hits and won. I didn't go out there to lose."

Later, unable to sleep, Mr. Haddix walked the streets until dawn.

No perfect repeat

Telegrams, which were the e-mail messages of the day, poured in via Western Union, 58 in all.

There was an offer to appear on the "Ed Sullivan Show" for $500 plus expenses, but Mr. Haddix turned it down. He figured his place was with his team.

His next start was a week to the day after his loss, and 28,644 fans turned out for Harvey Haddix Night at Forbes Field.

Local fans provided a standing ovation in a pregame ceremony.

Any chance of perfection was gone on the third pitch when Don Blasingame of the Cardinals singled.

Asked if it broke any tension, Mr. Haddix deadpanned: "How could it? The last guy I pitched to before him got a base hit, too."

Mr. Haddix scattered eight hits and won a complete-game shutout.

A day in history

At the Haddix home in a tidy neighborhood of Springfield, Ohio, Marcia Haddix keeps some precious memorabilia in her late husband's honor.

One item is a seat from County Stadium, with the No. 12 on it.

The most treasured memento is a gift from the National League -- 12 silver goblets engraved with the play-by-play of each perfect inning, plus a silver tray etched with the autographs of his teammates.

The game is not officially recognized as a no-hitter by Major League Baseball. The ungainly named Committee for Statistical Accuracy in Baseball, chaired by commissioner Fay Vincent, announced in 1991 that it didn't meet the criteria because Mr. Haddix lost.

"I was really upset when we got the word," Mrs. Haddix recalled. "But Harvey said, 'I know what I did.' "

Speaking for all the Pirates, Dick Groat said: "I don't care if it's been taken off the books. It was still the greatest game I ever saw pitched."

Mr. Haddix died on Jan. 8, 1994. His tombstone is engraved with his moment of immortality.

And Tuesday, some column somewhere that prints what happened on this day in history will mention his game.

Robert Dvorchak can be reached Post-Gazette librarian Angelica Kane contributed to this report.
First published on May 24, 2009 at 12:00 am

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