Haddix's masterpiece outing turning 50

| Sunday, May 24, 2009

Fifty years later, and the debate remains.

Was Harvey Haddix's near perfect-game against the Milwaukee Braves on May 26, 1959, the greatest pitching performance ever?

Strictly by the numbers, yes.

In 133 years of baseball, there has never been a no-hitter more than 10 innings. Yet, Haddix pitched 12 innings of perfect ball.

"He was," former Pirates shortstop Dick Groat said, "so magnificent."

Haddix retired the first 36 batters before losing the game, 1-0, in the bottom of the 13th inning on an error, a sacrifice and a home run that was later ruled a double.

Tuesday is the 50-year anniversary of Haddix's heartbreaking masterpiece at County Stadium.

"For 12 innings, it was the most masterful performance in baseball history," said Groat, who watched the game from the bench while in a prolonged hitting slump, "and it came against a great team."

The Braves were among the top hitting teams in baseball — they had won the NL pennant each of the previous two years — and, despite stealing the Pirates' pitching signs, they still couldn't hit the 5-foot-9, 170-pound left-hander who woke up that day battling the affects of a cold.

Haddix struck out eight, walked one (Hank Aaron intentionally) and needed only 78 pitches to complete the first nine innings in the duel with Braves ace Lew Burdette, who also pitched all 13 innings.

"It was probably the easiest game I ever played in," said Bill Virdon, 77, of Springfield, Mo., the Pirates' starting center fielder. "There were no tough plays. The only thing that looked like a hit was the ball to short (Dick Schofield's nice play to throw out Johnny Logan in the sixth). Everything else was routine."

Other gems considered among the all-time greats include Sandy Koufax's perfect game against the Cubs in 1965 and rookie Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout, no-walk, one-hitter against the Astros in 1998.

Haddix, who died at age 68 in 1994, will be honored this week in his hometown of Springfield, Ohio, to celebrate his legendary outing.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," Groat said.

Haddix lost the perfect game when third baseman Don Hoak misplayed Felix Mantilla's grounder to lead off the 13th.

After Eddie Mathews sacrificed Mantilla to second, Aaron was intentionally walked. Joe Adcock hit Haddix's second pitch, a high slider, over the right-center field wall for an apparent three-run homer. But during the mayhem, Aaron left the base paths and Adcock passed him. Because Mantilla had already crossed the plate, it was ruled a 1-0 Braves victory and Adcock was awarded a double.

The Pirates had 12 hits against Burdette — including three singles in the third inning — but couldn't score for Haddix, who would finish the season with a 12-12 record and a 3.13 ERA. Haddix's performance is more impressive because the Braves, as one of their players later admitted, were stealing the signs of Pirates catcher Smoky Burgess.

"I think it should get more appreciation than it does," said Virdon, who will attend the Harvey Haddix Day ceremonies Saturday in Ohio. "It's something that just doesn't happen. The sad part is we ended up losing.."

Haddix would lose again in 1991, when then-commissioner Fay Vincent strictly defined no-hitters and perfect games.

Haddix failed to meet the criteria, thus his near-perfect game remains in the footnotes. The "greatest game ever pitched" isn't listed among the 17 perfect games in the MLB record books and is found on other reference sites only under "unofficial" perfect games/no hitters.

"We all felt for him," Virdon said. "We wish we could have done more."

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