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May 29, 2013

EXTRA INNINGS: Remembering Harvey Haddix and the greatest game ever pitched

OPINION — BASEBALL’S GREATEST game ever pitched took place on May 26, 1959. But 32 years after the remarkable game, it became just another boxscore.

It was 54 years ago last Sunday that Pittsburgh Pirates lefthander Harvey Haddix pitched nine perfect innings in Milwaukee. But Braves pitcher Lew Burdette had a pretty good game himself, keeping the Pirates off the board, scattering a dozen Pirate hits.

With the game tied after nine, Haddix went on to extend his perfection through the 10th, 11th, and 12th innings.

That’s 36 up and 36 down without a Brave ever standing on first base.

The first hitter in the 13th was Felix Mantilla, who hit Haddix’s fourth pitch of the inning to third. Don Hoak rushed his throw to first, his error pulling Rocky Nelson off the bag.

Eddie Mathews bunted Mantilla to second, and Henry Aaron was walked intentionally. Joe Adcock hit Haddix’s second pitch over the outfield fence in right center field, landing in front of another fence behind it. Aaron saw the ball hit the second fence, but didn’t realize it had been hit over the first. Figuring that the game was over on a ground-rule double, he cut across the pitcher’s mound after touching second base and seeing that Mantilla had crossed the plate. Continuing to round the bases, Adcock was ruled out for passing Aaron and credited with just a double, making the final score 1-0.

“People ask me all the time what the most memorable game I've ever played in was,” Bill Mazeroski told Sports Illustrated writer Albert Chen on the game’s 50th anniversary in 2009. Maz, of course, hit the greatest home in history the year after Haddix’s masterpiece. “Half the time I tell them it was game 7 of the 1960 World 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?’”

Haddix had almost everything going against him that day.

First, he was facing Burdette, who would collect a league-leading 21 wins in 1959. And the Braves’ powerhouse lineup led the league in homers that year, led by Mathews (the year’s MVP runner-up) and Aaron, whose career-best .359 average included 39 homers.

Yet Haddix had kept the first 36 batters off base, despite the Braves stealing catcher Smokey Burgess’s signs.

For Pittsburgh, three of the Pirates' best hitters weren’t even in the game: Dick Groat (benched due to a slump), Roberto Clemente (out with a sore shoulder), and Dick Stuart (given the day off.)

And Haddix himself suffered throughout the game with flu-like symptoms.

Only about 20,000 had turned out on a cold, windy Wisconsin night.

Pirate leftfielder Bob Skinner smacked a ball to right in the top of the seventh that appeared a shoo-in to blow out. But as Aaron raced to the right field fence, he suddenly broke back toward the field when, according to centerfielder Bill Virdon, "a strong wind suddenly came in from right field, and hard," with the ball ending up in Aaron’s glove.

Sports Illustrated quoted Pirates announcer Bob Prince as telling fans that the baseball had been “blown back by a tornado gale.”

“By the time the inning was over, the wind was completely gone,” Virdon told SI. “All I could think was, ‘OK maybe it just isn't meant to be for Harvey to win this game.’”

That Haddix lost the greatest game ever pitched pulled at fans’ heartstrings even more, but 32 years later, Haddix also lost his perfect game.

Proving that Bud Selig doesn’t have a monopoly on idiotic decisions, then Commissioner Faye Vincent had appointed the Committee for Statistical Accuracy in 1991, which changed the definition of a no-hitter to require that a pitcher throw at least nine full innings and a complete game without allowing a hit.

Still, everyone knows that Haddix’s one-hitter is still the greatest game ever pitched.

Jim Sankey is a baseball columnist for Allied News.

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