Baseball is a team sport, but every play begins with a pitch.  The pitcher has more direct influence on the entire game than any other position, which is why baseball statistics assign wins and losses to pitchers, not to shortstops or right fielders.

It’s also why pitching can be one of the most high-pressure roles in pro sports.  All nine players take their turns trying to score runs, but it’s primarily the pitcher’s job to keep the other team’s batters from getting on base.  Managers are evaluated, criticized, and even fired over the decisions they make about when to pull a tired pitcher out of a game and who should replace him.

Phillies celebrate Halladay's perfect game

The Phillies celebrate after Roy Halladay completes the 20th perfect game in major league history.

The best possible outcome for a pitcher is a perfect game, a game in which not even one opposing batter is allowed to reach base.  This is harder to do than pitching a no-hitter, because there are several ways for a batter to get on base without getting a hit.

Nine innings, three outs in each– 27 opposing batters will come to the plate in a perfect game.  The pitcher can’t allow a single hit.  There must be no fielding errors (bad throws or misplayed balls) that allow a runner to reach base.  The pitcher must not hit a single batter with a pitch, and– perhaps hardest of all– he must not walk a single batter.

In 27 consecutive at-bats, the only acceptable outcomes are a strikeout, a ball caught in the air by a fielder, or a ball scooped up and thrown to first base before the batter can make it there.

A perfect game is certainly a testament to the pitcher’s skill, but it also requires a lot of luck– many of the things that need to happen for a perfect game to take place are outside of the pitcher’s control.  The outfielders need to anticipate where the ball is likely to be hit and be in the right place to catch it.  The infielders need to have quick reflexes and be on target with their throws.  The umpire needs to have a perfect game as well.

Needless to say, recording a perfect game is a huge accomplishment.  In the 135-year history of major league baseball, there have been only 20 perfect games.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have been around for most of that time, but the Pirates have never had a perfect game.

They just had a game that was even better.

On May 26, 1959, the third-place Pirates arrived at Milwaukee County Stadium to begin a three-game series against the league-leading Milwaukee Braves.  Their starting pitcher was Harvey Haddix from Clark County, Ohio.  Pitching for the Braves was Lew Burdette from Nitro, West Virginia.

The game developed into a classic pitchers’ duel.  No one from either team got on base in the first inning.

The Pirates recorded their first hit with a leadoff single in the top of the 2nd, but the scoring opportunity was erased when the next batter grounded into a double play, the first of three turned by the Braves that night.  Burdette controlled the game expertly, keeping the Pirates from advancing runners into scoring position despite their 12 hits.

Meanwhile, Haddix was pitching the game of his life.  He retired batter after batter.  The count only reached 3 balls once in the game, and that happened in the first inning.  Haddix would later look back with amazement at his focus in that game:  “I could have put a cup on either corner of the plate and hit it,” said the 5’9″ lefthander.

The Braves struggled to get the bat squarely on the ball– every play turned into a weak ground ball or a lazy pop fly.  In most no-hitters or perfect games, there’s at least one great diving catch made by a fielder in order to keep a hit from being recorded, but this wasn’t the case on that evening.  “It was one of the easiest games I ever played in,” said Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski.  “Everything was pretty much routine. Everything was a two-hopper.”

Haddix even played a big role in one of the Pirates’ best scoring opportunities, which came in the top of the 3rd inning.  With one out and a runner on first, Haddix hit the ball straight up the middle where it bounced off of Burdette’s leg.  The Pirates pitcher reached first base, but the runner was thrown out at third.  A single advanced Haddix to third, but the next batter flied out, stranding Haddix 90 feet away from scoring Pittsburgh’s first run.

In the 7th inning, a rain shower passed through the park and it began to get windy.  Pirates left fielder Bob Skinner hit a long fly ball that looked for a moment like it had enough distance to give the Pirates their first run of the game, but the wind slowed it down and Milwaukee outfielder Hank Aaron caught it at the wall.

As Haddix continued to frustrate Milwaukee’s offense– 15 batters retired in order, 20 batters, 25– the atmosphere at County Stadium became more tense as everyone knew there was a chance they would see history.  One of baseball’s biggest superstitions is that you should never talk about the potential for a no-hitter or perfect game, especially not to the pitcher who’s working on it.  No one wants to “jinx” the team by assuming a perfect game is inevitable or by making the pitcher nervous.  (Of course, sometimes having all of his teammates avoid him makes him nervous!)

Even the opposing team usually avoids speaking too directly about a potential perfect game.  When Haddix came to bat in the top of the 8th inning, Braves catcher Del Crandall simply commented, “Say, you’re pitching a pretty good game.”

Haddix struck out the opposing pitcher for the final out of the 9th inning, prompting the Milwaukee crowd to give him a standing ovation.  What had happened was unprecedented.  Haddix had retired 27 consecutive batters, a perfect performance through nine innings.  And yet, with the score still tied 0-0, the game would go on.

As the game entered extra innings, Haddix began to show signs of tiring.  In the 10th inning, two Braves hit fly balls to the warning track where they were caught by Pittsburgh outfielder Bill Virdon.  In the 11th, Crandall hit a line drive that Virdon charged in to catch for the best defensive play of the night.  Still the Pirates were unable to get a run in against Burdette.

At the end of the 12th inning, the score was still 0-0.  Everyone watched in amazement.  Harvey Haddix had retired 36 consecutive batters without allowing a single baserunner– nine more than anyone had done before in a single game.  Four times through the Braves’ entire lineup.  How much longer would it go on?  How much longer could it go on?

The Pirates got another man on base in the top of the 13th inning, but again they were unable to advance the runner.  Felix Mantilla led off for the Braves in the bottom of the 13th.  He hit a routine ground ball that was fielded by Pittsburgh third baseman Don Hoak.  Hoak threw to first base, but the throw was low and Mantilla was safe.  The Braves had their first baserunner of the game.

Some in the crowd cheered when the official scorer announced that the play had been ruled an error and not a hit.  The game was no longer perfect, but it was still a no-hitter.  The next batter advanced Mantilla to second with a sacrifice, bringing Aaron to the plate.

With the chance at perfection gone and Hank Aaron batting .453 at the time, the Pirates decided to intentionally walk the future home run king, giving Milwaukee runners on first and second with one out.

Every play begins with a pitch, but baseball is a team sport.  Every pitcher who throws a perfect game knows that it is ultimately a team accomplishment– the catcher needs to call a good game, the fielders need to make great plays, you need to be lucky.  Who would have thought that a perfect game could be lost simply due the lack of a single run scored on offense?

Harvey Haddix

Harvey Haddix returns to the dugout after the Pirates' 1-0 loss in 13 innings.

With Braves first baseman Joe Adcock in the batter’s box, Haddix threw his 115th pitch of the game, a slider.  But the slider didn’t slide, and–

Everyone heard the crack of the bat as the ball arced through the air.  The Braves bench jumped to their feet, and every eye in County Stadium followed the ball.  It went deep into center field and carried over the fence.  The Milwaukee Braves had won, and Harvey Haddix became the losing pitcher in the greatest game ever pitched.  The game had taken just under three hours.

There was one more bizarre twist.  Hank Aaron didn’t realize that the ball had gone over the fence, so he thought the game was over as soon as Mantilla reached home.  Instead of circling the bases, he started to walk off the field.  When Adcock passed Aaron on the basepath, he was called out, leading to a final score of 2-0 instead of the expected 3-0.  The following day, National League president Warren C. Giles ruled that Aaron should have been called out as well, and the score should be 1-0, with Adcock’s home run counted as a double.  Unfortunately for Harvey Haddix and the Pirates, there was no way to erase that last run.

So should Haddix’s amazing game be counted as “perfect” or not?  He remains the only pitcher in major league history to retire 36 batters in order– indeed, he is the only pitcher to have retired more than 27 in a row.  But at the same time, the Pirates lost the game, and how can a game be “perfect” when you lose?

“I just wanted to keep the Braves from scoring, that’s all I was interested in,” said an exhausted Haddix immediately after the game.  “But we just didn’t get that run I needed.”  That night, he walked the streets of Milwaukee until the sun came up.

A week later back in Pittsburgh, Haddix received a standing ovation from his home fans in a pre-game ceremony at Forbes Field before pitching an 8-hit complete-game shutout– and winning!  The National League presented him with 12 silver goblets, one for each perfect inning from his game against the Braves.

In 1991, Major League Baseball’s Committee for Statistical Accuracy established new guidelines for the definition of a no-hitter:

“An official no-hit game occurs when a pitcher (or pitchers) allows no hits during the entire course of a game, which consists of at least nine innings.”

This meant that Haddix’s incredible game would no longer be listed as a no-hitter or perfect game.  Asked about the decision, the 65-year-old Haddix responded, “I know what I did.”

Instead, Harvey Haddix’s game exists in a category by itself, a perfectly flawed, one-of-a-kind game.  Was it better than a perfect game, or the worst possible way to lose?  It really depends on how you look at it.  Perhaps Milwaukee’s Lew Burdette had the best take on it of all:

“I’m the greatest pitcher that ever lived,” he said wryly.  “The greatest game that was ever pitched in baseball wasn’t good enough to beat me, so I’ve got to be the greatest!”

Sources:  Bob Dvorchak, Pittsburgh Post-GazetteGoogle Archive news search.