Friday, February 1, 2008

the night the kitten roared

the kitten
Harvey Haddix from The New York Times

Harvey Haddix was a rookie phenom in 1953, going 20-9 for the Cards and following up with an 18 win season. He was christened with his sobriquet "the Kitten" while with St. Louis. The Cards had lefty Harry Brecheen on their staff. He was known as "the Cat" because of his quick reflexes fielding balls hit through the box. The smallish Haddix was also slick at flashing the leather, and hence became "the Kitten."

But pitchers aren't thrown out on the mound every fourth day because of their fielding, and Haddix had settled in to become a .500 pitcher after his blazing start. He bounced from the Cards to the Phillies, from the Phils to the Reds, and in 1959 landed in Pittsburgh with Don Hoak and Smoky Burgess for Frank Thomas and three other players. These Bucs, with a weak attack, would finish 78-76 and nine games out of first, still a year away from capturing lightning in a bottle.

On May 26, 1959, Haddix was scheduled to take the mound at County Stadium against the back-to-back NL champs, the Milwaukee Braves. He was fighting a cold, but true to the pitcher's code of the era, Haddix took the ball and marched atop the hill. He ended the evening hurling what many people still call the greatest game ever pitched.

The Braves were loaded with hitters like Hammering Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Wes Covington. Haddix made them look like little leaguers, sticking primarily to a pair of pitches, the heater and a sharp slider. He sailed through the first nine innings, needing only 78 pitches as they went 27 up, 27 down. Ducky Schofield, subbing at short for Dick Groat, twice robbed Johnny Logan of hits, and the rest of the outs were recorded in fairly routine fashion. There was just one fly in the ointment.

Lew Burdette was matching Haddix goose egg for goose egg. The Pirates threatened only twice despite getting 12 hits (three double plays didn't help the cause.) Roman Mejias, playing right field for the injured Roberto Clemente, was thrown out going from first to third - on an infield single. The next batter singled. And Bob Skinner blasted one into right field, but a stiff breeze blowing in from a threatening storm held the ball up. Aaron put his back against the the wall and pulled it in.

And so it went, 10, 11, 12 innings. In the unlucky 13th, Felix Mantilla was jammed and hit a two strike roller to Hoak at third. The Tiger skipped his throw past Rocky Nelson at first and after 36 consecutive outs, Milwaukee finally had a baserunner. Mathews bunted him to second and Aaron was intentionally walked.

Then Haddix left a slider over the plate and Joe Adcock crushed it over the 375' mark and out of the yard. He was only credited with a double, though, as Aaron, seeing the winning run score, turned and ran to the dugout after crossing second base. Adcock was called out for passing him. The final score was 1-0.

12-2/3 innings, one hit, one run (unearned), 8 strikeouts, and whatta ya get? A bunch of telegrams, the 1950 version of the text message, after the game. One said "Dear Harv - tough s**t." Haddix said of the wire "It made me mad, until I realized they were right. That's exactly what it was." To add insult to injury, in 1991 MLB changed its' rules so that a no hitter had to span the entire game, not just nine innings. So Haddix lost his perfect game in 1959 and his no hitter 32 years later.

Just how well did Haddix throw that night? Years later, Dick Groat, traded to the Phils, ran across new teammate Bob Buhl who was a Brave when Haddix tossed his gem. Milwaukee's batters had known in advance every pitch that was coming.

Groat said Buhl told him that he was in the center field bullpen and stole Burgess' signs. Buhl then signaled the hitters with a towel, letting them know if it would be a fastball or breaking pitch. I guess it goes to show that good pitching does ace good hitting.

Burdette used the game for his advantage, too. Trying to wring an extra $10,000 out of Milwaukee, he told them "I'm the greatest pitcher that ever lived. The greatest game that was ever pitched in baseball wasn't good enough to beat me. So I've got to be the greatest." The Braves, by the way, didn't buy the argument.

The Kitten had the last laugh. A year later he won the fifth game of the World Series as a starting pitcher and then the seventh game as a reliever, the beneficiary of Maz's shot. He was 2-0 with a 2.45 ERA against the powerhouse Yankees.

In 1964, Haddix was traded by the Pirates to Baltimore for Dick Yencha, a minor league infielder, and cash. His playing days were over two years later.

Haddix finished with 14 years in the majors and compiled a 136-113 record. He threw 2,235 innings, pitched in 453 games (285 as a starter), was a three time All-Star with a World Series ring and finished with a 3.63 ERA. Haddix then coached for five teams, including the Pirates, before passing away in 1994 at the age of 68.

No comments: