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Just the same, as far as Lew Burdette is concerned, it is very nice to receive recognition outside the inner circle of baseball for something besides embroilment in one controversy after another. What the real pros have long known about another real pro, the rest of the world has finally discovered. Here is one very good baseball pitcher. But back in Nitro, West Virginia they are still not sure they believe it. When Lew was a kid he couldn't play baseball at all.
Nitro didn't even exist until the last year of World War I. Then it arose from an 1,800-acre cow pasture on the Kanawha River, 11 miles below the state capitol of Charleston, to become a city of 24,000 inhabitants living in 1,724 homes and working in huge factories built in 10 months at a cost of $76 million to produce explosive nitrocellulose. The first shipment of powder was also the last. The war ended and Nitro became virtually a ghost town.
By 1924, however, a few major chemical companies had picked up the abandoned plants, and Lew's father moved there to take a job which has lasted 33 years. An industrial-league outfielder himself, the elder Burdette used to play catch with little Lew, who was called Froggy in those days "because he could beller like a big old bullfrog." But Nitro had no high school baseball team, and Lew, who had a try-out, couldn't even make the town's American Legion club. What he could do, though, was throw rocks.
An old friend, Dave Comstock, says Lew was the best and hardest rock-throwing boy Nitro ever had. "One night," says Dave, "a gang of us were knocking out windows in the Nazarene Church. Lew was half a block behind us, standing in a creek, and hitting those windows as regularly as any of us. The police came along and nabbed us and put us in jail for a scare, but they never found Lew. He got away," says Dave Comstock, "because he could throw farther than anybody else."
"He always could throw a rock like a bullet," says his mother. "One time he was up on the hill yonder and broke the headlight on our car. He came down and told us about it, though. The boy told the truth, I remember that."
"He used to go up the hill to a rock quarry after school, when he was about 13," says a neighbor, Mrs. Harry Birch, "and throw rocks by the hour. He would pick one target, then another, to improve his aim."
When Lew was 17, he had a chance to get a job as messenger boy with American Viscose Corporation, but the company had only two openings and was saving them for ballplayers who could help the plant team.
"I asked my father what to do," Lew says, "and he told me to try out for the team. 'Tell 'em you're a pitcher,' my daddy said. 'They sure need one.' "
Exactly what impact the future World Series hero made on the Nitro industrial baseball league depends upon who tells the story. Burdette says he pitched four scoreless innings in an exhibition game and got the job. The team manager, a man named Earl Snyder who is now retired, says he wasn't impressed.
"He was fast and fairly accurate," Snyder says, "but he was cocky, too. To come down to it, none of us thought he'd turn out to be any good as a pitcher. He wasn't so extra good at all. That's not to his discredit, understand. He just hadn't played ball before."