Friday, October 18, 2013

Better than Perfect

by Robert Giles

Harvey Haddix of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitched what many think was the greatest game by a pitcher in major league history. On May 26 1959, Harvey retired 36 Braves in a row - no runs, hits, errors, walks, or hit batsmen - twelve innings of perfect pitching.

My brothers and I stayed up to listen to the game on the radio. Usually we turned it off about 9 o'clock. Lights out. Bedtime.

At nine, I was a few years younger than Chuck and Dave, my brothers.

That night the game had a different feel - Harvey was pitching a no-hitter.

"Let's just listen to one more inning."

"OK, turn out the lights."

"Turn down the radio. And be quiet, Mom won't know we are up." Chuck held a finger to his lips.

Along about the eighth inning, the announcer, Jim Woods, as casually as he could, said that Harvey was working on a perfect game. He didn’t want to say more - if he did, he'd throw a wrench into the works. Harvey would be jinxed.

It was difficult enough for Harvey as it was. The Pirates were getting plenty of hits but couldn't score. No one had gotten closer to the plate than Roman Mejias, who was thrown out at third base trying to stretch a double.

The villain in the piece, Braves' pitcher Lew Burdette, was also pitching masterfully. If you're going to give up twelve hits in nine innings and win, you have to be evil. Pitch around the hitters. Leave those  base-runners stranded out on first or second. Let the opposition hit some long fly balls for outs.

The ninth inning was over. The game was going into extra innings. Still perfect. The tenth, the eleventh, the twelfth. Still perfect. Still no score. Maybe we ought to say a prayer.

"Darn that Mejias. He should have stayed at second. We could have won if it wasn't for that bone-head."

It was midnight. We were wide awake. The tension grew with each out. It was the top of the thirteenth. Again no Pirates had captured home plate.

Felix Mantilla led off the bottom of the thirteenth for the Braves.

"Felix Mantilla, what kind of a name is that? Come on Harvey, put him away."
Mantilla hits a sharp grounder to Don Hoak at third. Hoak fields the ball cleanly. Easy out. No wait, the throw to first is short. Rocky Nelson can't scoop the ball out of the dirt. 
Mantilla has reached base. Until now, Haddix has pitched a perfect game. But he can still win. 
Oh no, the meat of the Milwaukee lineup is coming to the plate - Matthews, Aaron, and Adcock. With horses like these, no wonder the Braves have been champs for the last two years. 
Matthews executes a perfect sacrifice bunt. Mantilla is now in scoring position. Hank Aaron steps to the plate. 
The signal goes out to the mound - don't take a chance with this guy. First base is empty. If Mantilla scores, Aaron won't matter. Swallow your pride. Walk him.Harvey pitches wide four times to Smoky Burgess, the Pittsburgh catcher. 
Joseph Wilbur Adcock strides out of the Milwaukee dugout. Remember when Joe hit four home runs in a single game against the Dodgers a few years back?Joe takes the first pitch for a ball.

It was then that Harvey made his first mistake. He threw his trademark breaking ball, but hung it for an instant ... before Adcock slammed it over the 394 foot mark in right-center.

The game was over, right? One clean shot off the bat of Mighty Joe and we all go to bed.

Except ... I didn't feel like sleeping. I felt like crying.

The radio was still on and making confused noises.

Aaron had gone to sleep on his way to third and Adcock had overtaken him. That made Adcock out for overtaking the runner ahead of him. Aaron had then gone towards the dugout. No, wait. He had tagged up at third for some reason, then crossed home plate. Since he hadn't touched third, he went back to tag the bag. Milwaukee had won 3-0, no 2-0.

Wait a minute. Shouldn't it be 1-0, since Aaron had gone out of the baseline and therefore had made the third out? What if Aaron had made the third out an instant before Mantilla crossed home plate?

Instead of a home run, Adcock's blast was ruled a ground-rule double. It would take a team of lawyers to score that last half inning.

Sweet Jesus. Perfection itself was ruined by a throwing error on an easy play to third. And on top of that, Harvey and the Pirates were beaten by a ground-rule double. Tragedy had descended into farce.

O, ye gods and mortals!

1 comment:

  1. My brother Mark & I listened to that game as well, although he might not remember since he was only 6. Very sad "the kitten" lost such an amazing performance. Bill Jula