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The Greatest Game Ever Pitched
June 01, 2009
Fifty years ago Harvey Haddix threw 12 perfect innings—more than any pitcher before or since—and then lost. How the unassuming lefty's brilliant effort turned bittersweet
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June 01, 2009

The Greatest Game Ever Pitched

Fifty years ago Harvey Haddix threw 12 perfect innings—more than any pitcher before or since—and then lost. How the unassuming lefty's brilliant effort turned bittersweet

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HARVEY HADDIX stepped onto the rain-softened mound and exhaled. It was May 26, 1959, nearing 10 o'clock on a muggy night in half-empty Milwaukee County Municipal Stadium. Dark clouds loomed overhead in the windswept sky, lightning flickered in the distance. There were two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, and the Pittsburgh Pirates lefthander tugged at the bill of his black cap, glared at his catcher from underneath and nodded. Not one player on the field had said anything to him that even hinted at what he was on the verge of accomplishing. Later, when Haddix stepped up to bat, Milwaukee Braves catcher Del Crandall would break the silence and state the obvious: "Hey, you're pitching a pretty good game."

All night long Haddix's head had been foggy from a nasty cold and all the lozenges he'd been popping in between innings, but he was well aware he had a no-hitter going—he couldn't ignore all the white zeros on the scoreboard below the COME TO MARLBORO COUNTRY sign beyond right centerfield. Haddix thought he had walked a batter earlier in the game, but he hadn't. Facing one of the National League's most feared lineups, the 33-year-old was one out away from pitching the seventh perfect game in major league history. By now radio stations across the country, as far west as Los Angeles, as far east as North Carolina, had picked up the broadcast of KDKA in Pittsburgh. Just outside Springfield, Ohio, Haddix's wife, Marcia, sat in the family car in her mother's driveway and listened to static-filled radio play-by-play.

Haddix reared back and put everything he had into his 78th pitch of the game. All night he'd been blessed with impeccable control—"I could have put a cup on either corner of the plate and hit it," he would later say—and this pitch was a heater that blew by the flailing swing of his counterpart, Milwaukee pitcher Lew Burdette. Inside the press box overlooking home plate, a button popped off the plaid sports coat of KDKA announcer Bob Prince as he screamed, "Harvey Haddix pitches a perfect no-hit, no-run, nine-inning game!" Pirates players swarmed to the dugout steps to congratulate their pitcher, who stepped off the mound without as much as a fist-pump. For the first time that night the 19,194 fans in the stands rose to their feet, and a roar for Haddix echoed across the ballpark.

But the game wasn't over. The scoreboard read 0--0. Everyone in the ballpark knew they were watching history being made. But what they didn't know was that there were still four innings to be played. They didn't know that Haddix would exceed recorded pitching perfection—and still lose. They didn't know that they were witnessing the greatest game ever pitched. "People ask me all the time what the most memorable game I've ever played in was," says Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski, who would hit his legendary World Series--winning home run against the New York Yankees a year later. "Half the time I tell them it was Game 7 of the '60 Series. The other half of the time I tell them it was the night Harvey Haddix threw the finest game in the history of baseball. Then they'll look at me and say, 'Harvey who?'"

In the days after the heartbreak loss they would call him Hard Luck Harvey. "You're a born victim, Harvey Haddix," a columnist in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin wrote. "You were riddled in a shotgun accident at the age of five. Fate has trailed you like a relentless bloodhound ever since." It's true, Haddix was nearly killed during a hunting trip when someone firing at a rabbit accidentally caught little Harvey in the spray of buckshot, five pieces of lead becoming imbedded in his skull. And yes, Haddix's career nearly ended in 1954, his third season in the big leagues, when a vicious line drive off the bat of young Braves slugger Joe Adcock ricocheted off his left knee, leaving him with nerve damage that forced him to permanently change his pitching mechanics. "He was a good pitcher who would have been great if he hadn't lost something off his curveball," St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Stan Musial would say in his autobiography. "He never was quite the same after [that play]."

But Haddix always said he had good fortune on his side. How else to explain that he was a major league pitcher in the first place? He grew up on a 450-acre farm in central Ohio—on summer days he threw a rubber ball against the concrete steps in front of his house while Cincinnati Reds games buzzed from a radio in the basement—and didn't pitch in an organized game until he was a senior in high school. In 1943 he was 17 and working with his dad on the farm when he saw in the newspaper that the Cardinals were holding a tryout in nearby Columbus. When Haddix showed up, he was handed a form; next to POSITION he wrote PITCHER, CATCHER, OUTFIELDER. A scout glanced at it, said, "Boy, you can't be all three," and scratched out everything but PITCHER. Haddix threw only 12 pitches, but the Cardinals liked what they saw. He signed with them in '47. When he arrived at his first camp, the St. Louis players saw his rail-thin frame and thought he looked like a thinner version of their ace, Harry (the Cat) Brecheen. They called him the Kitten.

He looked more like a schoolteacher than a major league pitcher—listed at 5'9", 170 pounds during his playing days, though Marcia says now that he was "never an ounce over 145." Of German and Pennsylvania Dutch descent, he had black hair, watercolor blue eyes that stood out against a dark complexion, big ears and a wide smile. When a minor league manager saw Haddix for the first time, he sized him up and walked back into his office. "I ask for a good lefthander," he huffed to a coach, "and they send me a half-grown kid." No one, though, mocked Haddix after his rookie year, 1953, when he went 20--9 for St. Louis. "You know how much I think [of] Brecheen," longtime Cardinals outfielder Enos Slaughter said to reporters in '54. "Harvey is even better. He's not only faster, but he's got more stuff, and he's an even better fielder."

Despite his talent Haddix bounced from St. Louis to Philadelphia to Cincinnati over the next five years and quietly established himself as one of the NL's better lefthanders. In the winter of 1958 he was the key player in a seven-player trade between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh that sent third baseman Frank Thomas to the Reds for Haddix, third baseman Don Hoak and catcher Smoky Burgess. Before the '59 season Haddix said to his mother, "This is going to be my big year."

On the afternoon of May 26, 1959, Haddix woke up from a nap with a scratchy throat. The cold he had been fighting had gotten worse. Outside the Schroeder Hotel in downtown Milwaukee where the Pirates were staying, the weather was gray and miserable, with the forecast calling for strong winds and rain that evening. "We wondered if there'd be a game at all," says Bob Skinner, Pittsburgh's leftfielder. "Harv was sick as a dog, but before the game he didn't even say anything to our manager [Danny Murtaugh]. For some reason he was determined to start that day." Haddix got out of bed, had his usual dinner at the hotel (a burger and a milkshake) and took a cab to the ballpark. He headed straight to the trainer's table to lie down.

An hour before the first pitch, Haddix emerged for the team's pregame meeting in County Stadium's closet-sized visitors' locker room. He had gotten off to a good start with his new team, 4--2 with a 2.67 ERA. That night was the first of a three-game series between the Pirates, who were 21--19 and on a five-game winning streak, and the first-place Braves, who had appeared in the previous two World Series thanks to a rotation headed by Burdette and Warren Spahn and a high-powered lineup that would lead the league in home runs. Batting second in the Milwaukee order was third baseman Eddie Mathews, who would finish second in the 1959 MVP voting. Batting third and playing rightfield was 25-year-old Hank Aaron, who would hit a career high .355 with 39 home runs. The cleanup hitter was Adcock, a slugging first baseman who was overshadowed by his two future Hall of Fame teammates but was just as feared. "I remember that Aaron came into that series hitting over .450," says Vernon Law, who would start the second game of the series for the Pirates. "They were the last team you wanted to face at that time."

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