Remembering the perfect game that wasn't
On May 26, 1959, Pittsburgh's Harvey Haddix threw what many regard as the greatest game in baseball history. And lost.
Seattle Times baseball reporter
Last weekend, Philip Humber of the White Sox pitched a perfect game against the Mariners, the 21st in history — a rare and magnificent performance by any standard.
But one person in Seattle remembers vividly when Harvey Haddix of the Pittsburgh Pirates did Humber even better. In fact, he one-upped every pitcher who has ever lived. On May 26, 1959, Haddix threw what many regard as the greatest game in baseball history. And lost.
Johnny O'Brien, the legendary Seattle University basketball star turned major-leaguer, started at second base that day for the Milwaukee Braves and watched Haddix mow down their powerful lineup. The Braves started Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews, not to mention slugger Joe Adcock, a trio that finished their careers with a combined 1,562 homers.
"As I look back over the years, it was nice to be part of something as fantastic as that game," said O'Brien, then 28 and near the end of a three-team, six-year career, now 81 and still going strong.
For 12 unbelievable innings on a foreboding night at Milwaukee's County Stadium, with lightning jagging the sky, the left-handed Haddix was flawless — 36 up, 36 down, a run of perfection unmatched in baseball annals. But Braves pitcher Lew Burdette was mowing down the Pirates as well, albeit while allowing 12 hits, all singles, and using what was widely believed to be a spitball to get out of jams.
Finally, in the bottom of the 13th, Haddix's luck ran out in one of the most bizarre, and heartbreaking, finishes in baseball history. Felix Mantilla — who had replaced O'Brien at second base in the 11th after O'Brien was pinch-hit for in the bottom of the 10th — reached on an error. Mathews sacrificed him to second (imagine asking a guy who would finish with 512 homers to sacrifice today), and Aaron, hitting .453 en route to a career-high .355, was walked intentionally.
Adcock — who five years earlier had hit a line shot off Haddix's knee, causing nerve damage that altered his delivery permanently — pounced on the only mistake Haddix made all night, a slider up. Adcock sent it over the wall in right-center, and chaos ensued.
Aaron, believing the ball had bounced over the fence, veered off the field when he saw Mantilla cross home plate and was passed by Adcock. Aaron hastily returned to the basepath at the urging of his teammates. The umpires ruled Adcock out for passing Aaron and determined the final score to be 2-0. The next day, however, the National League office declared that the final score was actually 1-0, and Adock was credited, for posterity, with a double.
That's all bookkeeping. The essential point is that Haddix's magnificent night went for naught, even if the Braves weren't quite sure at the time how to celebrate.
"It was a little different than you might imagine," O'Brien said. "There was confusion because Aaron came back to the dugout, and the umpires were meeting. It was not one of those 'run on the field and jump all over Adcock' situations. We were trying to make sure we won the game. Everyone waited to see. Finally, the umpire pointed at home plate, and we congratulated Joe on the way to the clubhouse."
Haddix would win 133 games in a solid career, but he would never have a night with command and stuff like this, when he threw 115 pitches and only the last was hit safely.
"He had a real good slider that night," O'Brien recalled. "It looked like a fastball all the way, and then darted in. He never threw anything in the middle of the plate all night. Only two balls were hit hard off him in the first 12 innings."
One of those was by O'Brien, who nearly ended the suspense before it even began. Leading off the bottom of the first, he hit a ball that was described by Sports Illustrated as "a stinging shot by Johnny O'Brien that shortstop Dick Schofield fielded cleanly in the first."
Haddix — a slight man (5 feet 9, barely 140 pounds) who smoked a cigarette after each inning lit for him by teammate Dick Groat in a superstitious ritual — died in 1994 of emphysema. He won two games in the 1960 World Series, one of which was, in relief, the decisive Game 7 of Bill Mazeroski home-run fame, selected in 2010 as the greatest game of the last 50 years by MLB Network.
Whenever he was asked the greatest game he played in, Mazeroski would usually mention that Game 7. But occasionally, he would say it was Haddix's anti-climactic gem. At the time, just six perfect games had ever been thrown. Three pitchers had thrown 10-inning no-hitters, but no one before or since had gone longer than that without giving up a hit — let alone no base runners at all.
But in 1991, commissioner Fay Vincent's Committee for Statistical Accuracy ruled Haddix's outing was not a perfect game, as previously regarded, because he had lost. Poof — it was knocked out of the record book.
"To me, that was stupid," O'Brien said. "It should have been recognized with an asterisk behind it. It will probably never be done again."
O'Brien remembers thinking that the wild throw by Pirates third baseman Don Hoak on Mantilla's grounder, which set into motion Haddix's downfall, could have been scooped by first baseman Rocky Nelson if he had stretched for it rather than sitting back. And O'Brien clearly remembers the surprising absence of an immediate buzz surrounding a game that over time has become legendary.
"It was interesting," he said. "We played them the next night, and no one even talked too much about it. It was like, here's the next game. That game's gone, time for another one."
Nearly 53 years have passed, however, and there's still never been another one quite like it.
About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.