Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The 50th Anniversary of Harvey Haddix's 12-inning Gem

A Perfect Lesson Fifty Years Later

By Mike DeNero

My friend says I am obsessed with Harvey Haddix, but I don’t think he’s right. However, as I put pen to paper, and somehow simultaneously read the trailing lines of my composition, I realize that if I truly protest my friend’s opinion, I would have written that he’s dead wrong. But I didn’t. Thus, the realist in me is compelled to question whether I have crossed that delicate boundary between healthy curiosity and obsession.

But, if obsession is the appropriate descriptive term for my level of curiosity, I believe that there must also exist varying levels of obsession. Regardless, like Benjamin Franklin said of rebellion, a healthy obsession, every now and then, can be a good thing. Suffice it to say, I have been telling people for weeks that we were fast approaching the 50th anniversary of the greatest game ever pitched – that anniversary is today, May 26, 2009. And as you might have guessed, Harvey Haddix pitched that game.

Harvey Haddix is not a member of baseball’s hall of fame. His 136-113 career record and 3.63 E.R.A. does not merit induction in Cooperstown. But, he was a three time All Star who also won three Gold Glove Awards and two games in the 1960 World Series (including Game 7) to lead his Pittsburgh Pirates over the aging New York Yankees – the later accomplishment is overshadowed by Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off home run to win the series.

But despite a successful fourteen-year career in the big leagues, which began in 1952 with the St. Louis Cardinals, Haddix is viewed as one of the baseball’s tragic figures because on the evening of May 26, 1959, he pitched twelve perfect innings … and was tagged with the loss!

Harvey Haddix, suffering from flu-like symptoms, and his Pirates teammates arrived in Milwaukee that afternoon. Later that night, he would face a stacked Milwaukee Braves lineup, featuring Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, and a fellow named Joe Adcock. Lew Burdette took the mound for the Braves.

During the first twelve innings, Haddix retired all thirty-six batters he faced. He needed only 102 pitches and was never behind in the count on a single Braves hitter. His “perfect game” after nine innings was, for the moment, the eighth pitched in the history of Major League Baseball and only the first in the National League since 1880 (nearly eighty years prior).

But as the scoreless duel between Haddix and Burdette reached the bottom of the 13th inning, Braves leadoff hitter Felix Mantilla made it safely to first base on a throwing error by Pirates third baseman Don Hoak, ruining the perfect game but leaving the no-hitter intact. After he walked Hank Aaron intentionally, Haddix served up a three-run homer to Braves slugger Joe Adcock.

And that’s the story. As Haddix's pitching opponent that night, Lew Burdette, has said throughout his life, “the greatest game ever pitched I won, but I didn’t pitch it.”

History has painted Harvey Haddix as a tragic figure. But why? Because seventeen perfect games have been pitched in Major League Baseball history and due to the current definition of “perfect game” in MLB’s Rulebook -- a game in which a pitcher (or pitchers) pitches a victory that lasts a minimum of nine innings and in which no opposing player reaches base – Haddix’s feat is not counted as one of the seventeen.

So what? Haddix’s feat is widely viewed as the greatest game ever pitched, and it is probably the second most famous pitching performance in history behind Don Larsen’s perfect game in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series. Isn’t the recognition of being the man who tossed the best game in baseball’s history an accomplishment of greater magnitude than appearing on a list with seventeen other perfect game tossers?

So, as we celebrate Harvey Haddix’s feat today, fifty years later, don’t pity him. Harvey was a winner in the truest sense of the word. He never moped. In fact, he took it well. For example, the day after he pitched his masterpiece, he received a telegram from a fraternity that read: Dear Harvey, Tough S---!” Haddix stated that although the message disturbed him at first, he "thought about it for a few minutes and decided: Yeah. That says it all.”[i]

Mine is not an obsession. It is simply admiration. Not just for the pitching performance, but more for how he reacted to the so-called “tough luck.” In John McCollister’s Tales From the Pirates Dugout, there appears a wonderful black and white photograph taken sometime after May 26, 1959. Haddix is standing on the steps of a dugout firmly shaking Joe Adcock's hand. Adcock towers over the diminutive 5’ 9” Haddix. The players are smiling widely at one another; Adcock actually might be chuckling.

I look forward to the day that my sons are old enough for me to show them the photograph. Harvey Haddix and I will teach them one of life’s great lessons – respecting your opponent means you are willing to embrace him and celebrate his accomplishments, especially when he beats you.

[i] John McCollister, Tales From the Pirates Dugout (Sports Publishing LLC, 2003), 74.

Copyright © 2009 Mike DeNero's Vintage Sportscards, LLC. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

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