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The five best pitching duels ever

 

By MIKE ATTIYEH, author of the newly released Ichiro, Satchel and The Babe

 

In this era of high-scoring games that more resemble softball contests, the artistry of a great pitching matchup with the inclusion of strategic maneuvers is becoming more rare. Today’s average fan, it appears, would rather cheer a slugfest, laden with home runs, than watch with breathless appreciation a low-scoring duel dominated by pitchers.

 

Though an opportunity for such a gem still exists as long as Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling stand on the mound, watered-down pitching and smaller ballparks have obviously decreased the chances.

 

For your reading pleasure, I’ve decided to go against the current mainstream grain and take you wonderful readers back to a more enjoyable time – back to a time when fans rooted for a good pitching performance and played armchair manager.

In this feature, you’ll read in detail the five greatest pitching battles according to this historian. In doing so, I had to leave out many great confrontations that just missed the cut. Among them were the Addie Joss-Ed Walsh duel in 1908, the Babe Ruth-Walter Johnson battle in 1916, the Carl Hubbell-Tex Charlton beauty in 1933, the specially arranged matchup of “Smokey” Joe Wood and the “Big Train” in 1912, and the Jack Coombs-Joe Harris marathon of 1906.

 

Below are the five best dual pitching performances ever, in reverse order.

 

 

Marichal, Spahn remember 16-inning battle 36 years ago

 

On a typical chilly summer evening at Candlestick Park a little more than 36 years ago, San Francisco’s Juan Marichal and Milwaukee’s Warren Spahn hooked up to deliver one of the best pitched games of all time. The 16-inning duel was a masterpiece; an event that remains as majestic as it is inspiring.

 

For that reason, I’ve chosen the Marichal-Spahn showdown as the fifth best ever.

 

Though both pitchers were en route to magnificent seasons and Hall of Fame careers, the resilience and drive both displayed on July 2, 1963 in San Francisco was memorable as well as against the odds. For one, a combined five Hall-of-Fame sluggers were penciled in the starting lineups: Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda for the Giants; and Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews for the Braves.

 

For another reason, Spahn was 42 years old. But on that night, the Braves’ lefthander and the Giants’ righthander pitched like their life depended on it as each refused to walk off the mound, refused to accept defeat and refused to be anywhere but the pitcher’s mound by game’s conclusion. And each had to thwart his manager’s attempts for relief.

 

Four hours and ten minutes later, each had gone the distance in a marathon that ended only after 16 intense innings of play. Each threw more than 200 pitches, and neither spent anytime looking over his shoulder waiting for relief. Though it didn’t start out that way, the duel transformed into a battle of wills.

 

“Baseball has (since) made non-athletes out of pitchers, unfortunately” Spahn told me in July of 1999. “Why would I want my son to be a pitcher … when you pitch once a week, they count the pitches and you don’t get to hit and you don’t get to run the bases.”

 

Marichal, as great pitchers do, escaped two jams “early” on.

 

Mays had to throw Norm Larker out at the plate to end the Braves’ fourth inning and a botched hit-and-run play cost Milwaukee another chance in the seventh. With two outs and nobody on in said inning, Spahn almost broke the scoreless tie by drilling a double off the right-field wall, which most likely would have driven in a run were it not for the mix-up that cost catcher Del Crandall (2-for-6) his place on the basepath.

 

“I got a double and they couldn’t drive me in,” Spahn said in a press conference during the 1999 All-Star break in Boston, where he was honored among the 100 greatest players of the century. Aaron then interrupted his former teammate and joked, “Warren, you forgot; we singled after that and you couldn’t score.” Actually, Marichal retired leadoff hitter Lee Maye to end the seventh, but the point was made: Marichal was so dominating that Spahn needed to create his own offense, and vice-versa.

 

The 25-year-old Marichal, who entered the contest riding a personal eight-game winning streak, refused manager Alvin Dark’s request for relief in the ninth. “In the ninth, Dark was about to take me out, and I told him to keep me in the game.”

 

Six innings later, Dark came out again, asking Marichal to call it a day. “I told Dark in the 15th, ‘I’m not leaving while that old guy is still on the mound.’ I remember I kept telling myself, ‘Okay just one more inning.’ I just didn’t want to leave before him. I didn’t want that old man lasting longer than me. But he was incredible, and I wound up staying there a lot longer than I thought I would.”

 

Marichal actually got stronger as the game developed, totally gaining control from the eighth inning on. After his shaky seventh inning, Marichal yielded just two hits and walked a pair over the final nine frames. In fact, he retired 17 straight Braves at one point.

 

Spahn, who allowed a runner to reach third base in the second inning and two runners to reach base in the seventh, came within inches of losing the game in the ninth. McCovey, who went 1-for-6, sent a pitch from Spahn well over the right-field fair pole that was ruled just foul.

 

In the 14th inning, Spahn demonstrated his mettle by escaping a bases-loaded jam. After Harvey Kuenn legged out a double – the second of only three extra-base hits in the entire game – and Mays walked, the Braves southpaw retired McCovey, Felipe Alou, and, after an error loaded the bases, Ed Bailey.

 

The game came to an end in the bottom of the 16th at 12:31 AM. With one out, Mays (who got the first hit of his career 12 years earlier by homering off Spahn in his 13th career at-bat) stepped to the plate still vying for his first hit of the night. But Mays did much more. The Giants’ center fielder jumped all over Spahn’s first pitch and delivered it over the left-field fence to finally break the scoreless tie and send both teams to a much-deserved shower.

 

“I’ll never forget that. It was a very satisfying hit. I clobbered it,” Mays later recalled. Three dozen years later, Spahn still remembers the pitch. “It was supposed to be a screwball, but it didn’t do anything but float,” Spahn told me. “It didn't break like I wanted. It didn’t break at all.”

 

In all, Marichal’s 16-inning shutout included eight hits allowed, four walks and 10 strikeouts. Spahn displayed better control, walking only one – the intentional pass to Mays snapped a string of 31 innings without a base-on-balls – and allowing nine hits in 15 1/3 innings.

 

It was just a shame either one had to go home a loser that night. Both hurlers exhibited the skills that earned them a combined 606 wins and 626 complete games.

 

Marichal went on to record his first 20-win season, going 25-8 with a 2.41 ERA and his first no-hitter in 1963. That season, Spahn went on to register a 23-7 ledger to match Christy Mathewson’s record of 13 seasons with at least 20 wins. He remains the winningest lefthander in the history of the game with 363 victories.

 

And on July 2, 1963, a total of 15,921 fans witnessed why.

 

 

 

Oeschger-Cadore: the endless journey

 

Throughout the history of Major League Baseball, a few pitchers have stood out for their endurance on the mound. Cy Young won and completed more games than anyone. Joe “Iron Man” McGinnity distinguished himself for his ability to pitch both ends of a doubleheader. Jack Taylor still holds what may be the most unbreakable record – 187 consecutive complete games. But two hardly recognized and oft-forgotten names who epitomize endurance and stamina are Joe Oeschger and Leon Cadore.

 

During the 1920 season, Oeschger and Cadore made the baseball world stand up and take notice by locking horns and dueling to a 26-inning complete game tie. Jack Kavanagh and Norman Macht, co-authors of UNCLE ROBBIE, called the game “the odyssey to nowhere.” A little more than 79 years later, the feat looks even more mesmerizing, given today’s pitching structure.

 

For that reason, I’ve selected the Oeschger-Cadore showdown as the fourth best ever.

 

Joseph Carl Oeschger, 23 days shy of his 28th birthday, was a six-foot, 190-pound righthander who entered the 1920 season with a 31-44 career record over six seasons. The 29-year-old Leon Joseph Cadore, very similarly built at six-foot-one and 190 pounds, came into the year with a 28-27 career mark over his first five seasons.

 

On the first of May, Cadore and his Brooklyn Dodgers entered Braves Field to face Oeschger (pronounced “Esk-ker”) of the Boston ballclub. The meeting was a chance for Oeschger to exact some sort of revenge after losing a heart-breaking 11-inning defeat to Cadore – also a Chicago native – in Brooklyn 10 days earlier.

 

“It was a Saturday and I didn’t think I would pitch because (Braves) manager (George) Stallings usually pitched me on Sundays because I went to church,” Oeschger told Lynwood Carranco of Society for American Baseball Research. “He always played his hunches. I was happy to get the starting job because Cadore was pitching, and he had beaten me 1-0 in 11 innings earlier in the season. I wanted to even things.”

 

After raining for most of that Saturday morning, the drizzle stopped in time for the game to start at three o’clock in the afternoon, though the sky was still overcast.

 

After each pitcher threw four scoreless innings to open the contest, the Dodgers got to Oeschger for a run in the fifth. Catcher Ernie Krueger led off with a walk and advanced to second when Cadore’s grounder back to the mound was bobbled momentarily, just enough to prevent a double play and forcing the Braves to settle for just one out. Second baseman Irvy Olson then smashed a two-strike offering just over shortstop's Rabbit Maranville’s head, driving in Krueger with the game's first run.

 

The Braves didn’t waste much time tying the game by scoring in the bottom of the sixth. Walt Cruise tripled off the left-field scoreboard and scored on third baseman Tony Boeckel’s single. It was Boston’s first run off Cadore dating back to and including their game on April 20.

 

Cruise’s three-bagger was just one of three extra-base hits in the game. Oeschger and Hall of Famer Maranville (3-for-10, with a putout and nine assists) each doubled. Dodgers left fielder Zach Wheat was the only other Cooperstown inductee to play, going 2-for-9, with three putouts.

 

The Braves blew a golden opportunity to wrap the game up in the bottom of the ninth. But Cadore tightened up with the bases loaded by inducing second baseman Charley Pick to ground into an inning-ending double play, forcing extra innings.

 

Eight innings later, the Dodgers created the same opportunity by loading the bases with one out against Oeschger. The Braves hurler fielded a grounder by Rowdy Elliott, Brooklyn’s reserve catcher, before throwing home for the second out. Braves catcher Hank Gowdy’s attempt to throw out Elliott at first failed when his dart sailed a bit, taking first baseman Walter Holke off the bag. When the runner from second tried to score all the way, the throw back to Gowdy nipped the sliding Ed Konetchy, sending the game into the 18th inning.

 

“Hanky Gowdy saved my neck,” Oeschger told SABR. “(Gowdy) threw himself across the line in front of the plate and tagged out Konetchy.”

 

It was about this time that Oeschger really began feeling the effects, though he began realizing the importance.

 

“I was just getting tired in the 18th inning, but the players kept telling me, ‘Just one more inning, Joe, and we’ll get a run.’ Stallings never did ask me if I wanted to come out. But the batters were griping to stop the game. I didn’t want to stop.”

 

The Braves never did score again for Oeschger.

 

Tied at 1-1 following the 26th inning, umpire Barry McCormick called the game because of darkness at 6:50 PM. Imagine that – a 26-inning game in three hours and fifty minutes. It was a shame only 2,500 fans witnessed the incredible joint achievement.

 

The book UNCLE ROBBIE reveals that Olson, “an Ernie Banks type, begged for one more inning. ‘Then we can play three games in one, he argued.’”

 

Although both starters allowed just one run and struck out seven in 26 innings, Oeschger was a bit more impressive than Cadore. He yielded nine hits (to 15 for Cadore) and walked four, one less than his Brooklyn counterpart. Oeschger batted 1-for-9 against Cadore, while the latter was hitless in 10 at-bats.

 

Neither pitcher allowed a run over the last 20 innings. Oeschger’s 21 consecutive scoreless innings in that game remains a record, breaking Art Nehf’s single-game mark of 20 consecutive scoreless frames on August 1, 1918.

 

Spatz is convinced the Oeschger-Cadore battle will never be duplicated.

 

“I'm mostly struck by the uniqueness of the Cadore-Oeschger game. There aren't many things in baseball that you can say will never happen again, but we can be pretty certain that we’ll never again see opposing pitchers both go 26 innings.”

 

The game was unique indeed as only 11 players from each side saw action and only three baseballs were used. The game was so long, reserve catchers combined to catch 37 innings. According to David Smith of Retrosheet, Elliott replaced Krueger to start the seventh inning behind the plate for the Dodgers, and Gowdy replaced starting Braves receiver Mickey O’Neil to begin the 10th.

 

Both pitchers succeeded by keeping the ball on the ground. Cadore registered 12 assists and his first baseman Konetchy accrued 30 putouts. Oeschger fielded 11 assists, while his first bagger Holke collected 43 putouts.

 

Although both pitchers willed themselves to the dual Herculean feat, the game obviously took its toll on them. For the next few days, Oeschger had to brush his teeth left-handed because he couldn’t raise his pitching arm. Cadore slept for the vast majority of the next 36 hours.

 

The game also took its toll on the Dodgers. A day after playing the longest game in history, the Dodgers on Sunday lost a 4-3 home contest in 13 innings to the Philadelphia Phillies. On Monday, the Dodgers returned to Boston to play the Braves and lost a 2-1, 19-inning marathon. In summary, Brooklyn played 58 innings in three days, and went winless (the 26-inning game was replayed in June, and the Dodgers lost).

 

Oeschger went on to register a 15-13 mark with a 3.46 ERA in 1920, before capturing his only 20-win campaign the following season. But he suffered through a lackluster 16-45 record over his final five years, retiring with a sub-par ledger of 82-116 and an ERA of 3.81.

 

Although he missed his next start and didn’t pitch again until May 13 after throwing more than 250 pitches in the memorable outing, Oeschger disagrees the game ruined his arm. He told Carranco he missed his next turn because of a pulled leg muscle, not arm trouble.

 

Cadore went on to win 15 of 29 decisions that year with a 2.62 ERA in helping the Dodgers win the pennant. But the righthander never again won as many games again, concluding his career with a 25-31 record over his final five seasons. He ended a 10-year career in 1924 with a 68-72 mark and a 3.14 ERA.

 

For one Saturday afternoon, two otherwise unspectacular pitchers went where no man had ever gone before and where no man will ever go again.

 

 

 

 

Fred Toney-Hippo Vaughn: the double no-hit gem

 

How many of you have witnessed a major league no-hitter in person? How many of you have witnessed a 10-inning, major league no-hitter? Have you ever attended a major league ballgame that included no hits by either side through nine innings? Unless you were in Weeghman Park on May 2, 1917, the answer to the last question is, “no.”

 

On that afternoon, Cincinnati Reds righthander Fred Toney and Chicago Cubs lefthander James “Hippo” Vaughn engaged in one of the most amazing games in major league history. Appropriately recognized by historians as the “double no-hitter”, the duel remains to this day as an incredible feat that most agree will be extremely difficult to duplicate.

 

For that reason, I’ve selected the Toney-Vaughn showdown as the third best pitching matchup of all time.

 

On a cold Wednesday afternoon early in the 1917 season, the Reds and Cubs - a pair of teams destined to finish in the middle of the National League standings hovering around the .500 mark – met in the ballpark on the north side of Chicago now recognized as Wrigley Field.

 

The Reds entered the contest mired in a slump, unable to score a run the previous 24 innings. In order to shake things up against the southpaw Vaughn, the struggling Reds decided to go with an all right-handed batting order, benching lefty-hitting Hall of Famer Ed Roush. And Roush was no ordinary hitter that season, winning the first of two batting titles by finishing with a .341 batting average.

 

As told to historian Hal Totten, Vaughn explains why the Reds did this: “I'd always given Toney's team, Cincinnati, a fit; so this day they laid for me.” Toney and Vaughn, former teammates from the 1913 Cubs squad, were scheduled to pitch. The 28-year-old Toney and Vaughn, 29, were born eight months apart and each was considered big by that era’s standards. Toney stood six-foot-one and weighed 195 pounds. Vaughn towered at six-foot-four, weighing between 215-245 pounds, hence the moniker “Hippo.” Some sources say he weighed close to 300 pounds by the end of his career.

 

Both were en route to very successful seasons, finishing one win apart with the outcome of this game supplying the difference. Both pitchers were retiring the opposition rather easily, each receiving help from his defense.

 

Through the first nine innings, Vaughn did not allow a single batter to reach second base, while Toney allowed but one to reach the keystone base. Newspaper accounts of the game revealed that “Vaughn (was) assisted by remarkable defense by the Chicago infield” and “The Cincinnati outfielders several times saved the game for Toney. (Manuel) Cuerto on one occasion, backing into the left-field fence for Merkle’s fly.”

 

“After I'd gotten the first two men out in the first inning, Greasy Neale came up and hit a little looping fly just back of second base,” Vaughn said. “The second baseman (Larry Doyle) could have gotten it easy, but Cy Williams came in from center and made the catch. That was the only ball hit out of the infield off me until the 10th inning.”

 

Toney allowed only one base runner — Williams, who walked twice. Vaughn twice walked third baseman Heinie Groh, who was erased on a double play each time.

Down the batters went like bowling pins, and solid and striped balls in billiards. It was an impressive showing of talent by both hurlers.

 

Vaughn recalled to Totten when he first realized neither pitcher had allowed a hit.

“I was sitting in the end nearest the clubhouse. One of the fellows at the other end said, ‘Come on, let's get a run off this guy.’ Another one chimed in, ‘Run, hell; we haven't even got a hit off him.’ ‘Well,’ another chap added, ‘they haven't got a hit off Vaughn, either.’”

 

Vaughn started the top of the 10th inning by retiring Reds third baseman Gus Getz, who had taken over for Groh at the leadoff spot. Then Vaughn faced Larry Kopf, the Reds shortstop. Kopf singled hard through the infield to right-center field for the game’s first hit, bringing the miniscule crowd of 3,500 to its feet. One out later, Hal Chase lifted an easy fly ball to right field, where Cy Williams had moved over from center. Williams, however, dropped it, placing runners on the corners.

 

“Any outfielder ordinarily would catch it easily. It was just a plain muff,” Vaughn recalled.

 

With Chase on second base following a steal, up stepped Jim Thorpe – the same Jim Thorpe who won the gold medal in the decathlon event during the 1912 Olympics and also made a name for himself as a two-time All-American football player.

 

Thorpe was fooled on a quality pitch by Vaughn, but still managed to get a piece of the delivery for a swinging bunt to the left side of the mound. Vaughn picked it up near the third-base line and, realizing he couldn’t throw out the speedy Thorpe, flipped the ball home. But catcher Art Wilson didn’t react. He just froze, allowing the ball to hit his chest protector as Kopf slid safely for the game’s first and only run.

“I knew the minute it was hit that I couldn't get Thorpe at first. He was as fast as a racehorse. So I went over to the line, fielded the ball, and scooped it toward the plate.”

 

But as Vaughn explained, things didn’t go as planned: “Art just went paralyzed - just stood there with his hands at his sides staring at me. The ball hit him square on the chest protector. I'll never forget. It seemed to roll around there for a moment, and then it just dropped to the ground.”

 

Wilson finally picked up the ball in time to tag out Chase, who was trying to sneak in. But the damage was done.

 

“Wilson cried like a baby after the game,” Vaughn said. “He grabbed my hand and said, ‘I just went out on you, Jim; I just went tight.’"

 

Toney set the Cubs down in order in the bottom half of the 10th to complete the fourth 10-inning no-hitter to date.

 

Thus came to an end an incredible game, one that was swift (lasting 1:50), remarkable, dominating, flabbergasting and well played throughout the first nine frames. Vaughn struck out seven more batters (10-3) while each pitcher walked two, with Williams’ 10th-inning miscue being the lone official error of the contest.

“It was one of those days where two good pitchers were on their game and were aided by very cold temperatures and a strong wind blowing in,” Spatz said. “Actually, I'm surprised it's only happened once.”

 

The Reds first baseman Chase had 12 putouts. Cubs first baseman Fred Merkle, whose bonehead play that cost the Giants the pennant in 1908 overshadowed a solid career, recorded seven putouts.

 

No Hall of Famer played, but there were plenty of good players. Chase was unanimously accepted as the best fielding first baseman of his time, and today is recognized as one of the best ever, although he was accused by many for “fixing” games and had to defend himself in a National League hearing in 1919. Groh was a great defensive third baseman known for his “bottle bat”, which he used to bat .292 over a 16-year career. Williams won four home run titles, including a high of 41 in 1923. Doyle retired with a .290 average and 300 stolen bases. And Merkle was a member of five World Series teams, albeit all losing clubs.

 

And, of course, Toney and Vaughn were no slouches on the field, either, going on to record 24 and 23 victories that season, respectively. Vaughn, a five-time 20-game winner, was four years into a seven-year stretch in which he recorded 143 of his 178 career wins. In 1918, “Hippo” captured the pitcher’s Triple Crown during a war-shortened campaign, amassing a 22-10 mark with an ERA of 1.74 and 148 strikeouts, to lead the Cubs to the World Series. He retired in 1921 with 41 more wins than losses and a career ERA of 2.49 over 13 years.

 

For Toney, a two-time 20-game winner, the 1917 campaign marked his best season. The following year, Toney made history of a different kind by becoming the first and only major leaguer to be tried as a “slacker” for avoiding the draft. He retired after the 1923 season, compiling a 139-102 ledger with a 2.69 ERA over a dozen years in the majors.

 

For Toney, extra-inning no-hitters were nothing new. Toney also owned the distinction of having thrown the longest no-hitter in organized history, pitching 17 hitless innings for the Winchester Kentucky club in the Blue Grass (Class D) League in 1909. An interesting story behind that game was that his teammates proclaimed a moratorium in their assigned duties and refused to score any runs.

 

Titanic struggles were nothing new to Vaughn, either. Spatz points out that in Vaughn’s first big league start on Opening Day 1910, the 22-year-old Yankee rookie dueled Ed Cicotte and Joe Wood of the Red Sox to a 12-inning, 4-4 tie. And to this day, Vaughn remains the youngest pitcher to ever start a Yankee opener.

 

Eighty-two years later, the accomplishments of Fred Alexandra Toney and James Leslie “Hippo” Vaughn still seem far-fetched, unimaginable and unreachable.

 

 

 

 

 

Perfect out of necessity: Koufax outduels journeyman

 

Major League Baseball history has witnessed quite a few outstanding pitching duels such as double no-hitters, 16-inning battles, and 26-inning complete games. But in none of them was the difference in talent so vast as it was in the epic confrontation between Sandy Koufax and Bob Hendley 24 years ago.

 

For two-way dominance over nine innings, no matchup was ever better or more impressive than the Koufax-Hendley clash on September 9, 1965 at Dodgers Stadium. Only two men reached base, only one was able to get a hit (a record low), only one scored and only one was left on base (also a record).

 

For that reason, I’ve chosen the Koufax-Hendley showdown as the second best pitching confrontation ever.

 

Both Koufax and Hendley were six-foot-two lefthanders. That was about the extent of their similarities. The 210-pound Koufax was the best and most dominating pitcher in the major leagues, entering the contest with a 21-7 record. The 190-pound Hendley was with his second team of the year, bringing a 2-2 record into the evening contest between his Chicago Cubs and Koufax’s Dodgers in Los Angeles.

 

“Unlike some of the all-time great pitching duels, like Warren Spahn-Juan Marichal and Addie Joss-Ed Walsh, there was an enormous disparity in talent and reputation between Koufax and Hendley,” Spatz added. “Koufax (was) the greatest pitcher of his time, while Hendley was strictly a journeyman.”

 

Pitching under a pleasantly delightful evening sky, the 29-year-old Koufax actually took a three-game losing streak into his September 9 assignment. But Koufax, who had pitched a no-hitter in each of the three previous seasons, was in for a memorable night against the Cubs, whose lineup included Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Billy Williams, and the solid Ron Santo.

 

Both pitchers breezed through the first four innings, each retiring all 12 batters. In the fifth, the Dodgers scored an unearned run off Hendley without the benefit of a hit. Los Angeles clean-up hitter Lou Johnson led off with a walk, before advancing to second base on a sacrifice bunt by Ron Fairly. Johnson then decided to take matters into his own hands by stealing third base. But Johnson got more than he bargained for as Cubs catcher Chris Krug threw the ball wildly past third and into left field, allowing Johnson to score on the error.

 

The 26-year-old Hendley lost his no-hitter with two out in the seventh as the left-fielding Johnson victimized him again with a bloop double to right field. Hendley and Krug kept Johnson from scoring this time, working out of the inning.

 

But the Dodgers ace made it an irrelevant point. After striking out seven batters over the first six innings, thanks in large part to a devastatingly sharp curve ball, Koufax baffled Chicago hitters by breaking out a fastball he didn’t think he had that night.

 

"I got stronger as I went along, and that's something that had not happened to me before this year," Koufax told the media afterward. "In the last three innings, I had my best fastball in a long, long time. Early in the game, I had a great curve."

 

Koufax ended with a bang, striking out seven of the last nine Cubs he faced, including the last six in succession. The mound king whiffed Santo, Banks and pinch-hitter Byron Browne in the eighth inning.

 

“I've never seen Sandy throw as hard as he did when he struck me out in the eighth,” said Santo. “He threw one fastball right by me and I was waiting for it. He seemed to get a burst of energy in the late innings.”

 

In the ninth, Krug went down on strikes to lead off. Pinch-hitter Joey Amalfitano did the same, leaving everything up to Harvey Kuenn to break up Koufax's perfect game. The former American League batting champion recalled what Amalfitano told him as they passed, with Amalfitano heading back to the dugout and Kuenn walking toward the plate: “It's not worth it, Harvey. You might as well not even bother coming to the plate.”

 

The tension in Dodger Stadium, with 29,139 fans looking on, was tremendous. Amalfitano proved prophetic as Kuenn also went down on strikes, proving no one was up to the match that night against Koufax. By pitching modern baseball’s eighth perfect game, Koufax set the record with his fourth no-hitter to eclipse the previous mark set by Larry Corcoran and equaled by Cy Young and Bob Feller.

 

Koufax, who struck out 14 and permitted only seven balls out of the infield, increased his strikeout total to 332, 16 short of Feller’s single-season mark. Second baseman Glenn Beckert had more success than any other Cub, flying out twice - to right in the fourth and the seventh inning.

 

Somewhat lost in the night’s glamour was Hendley’s performance, easily the finest pitched-game of his career. Though not dominant, Hendley was stellar in completing his first start of the season, allowing the unearned run, yielding one hit and one walk, and striking out three.

 

"I can sympathize with Hendley," Koufax told the post-game media. "It's a shame to lose a game the way he did."

 

Hendley used that performance to inspire him for his next start four days later, during which he pitched a four-hitter to beat Koufax and the Dodgers, 2-1, at Wrigley Field. Those assignments against Koufax were Hendley’s only two complete games of the season, one he ended at 4-4 with a corpulent 5.96 ERA.

 

In leading the Dodgers to the pennant, Koufax went on to win his second of three Cy Young Awards, proceeding to shatter Feller’s mark with a whopping 382 strikeouts. Koufax also led the league with 26 wins, a .765 winning percentage, a dazzling 2.04 ERA, 27 complete games and 335 2/3 innings pitched. Koufax accomplished all that despite following orders from his doctor to not pitch in between starts. That October, Koufax won both his World Series starts to earn his second World Series MVP Award.

 

With a painfully arthritic arm (later diagnosed as traumatic arthritis) the following year, Koufax won 27 of 36 decisions, completed 27 starts and struck out 317 batters with a miniscule and career-best ERA of 1.73. Rather than risk crippling arthritis, Koufax retired after the 1966 season. Unlike many athletes who hang on too long or deem their athletic career more valuable than the rest of their life, Koufax proved his mental fortitude and maturity by hanging up his spikes.

 

"I've got a lot of years to live after baseball and I would like to live them with the complete use of my body,” said Koufax, who was born Sanford Braun but took on the last name of his stepfather.

 

With it ended, arguably, the most dominating six-year stretch by a pitcher in the lively ball era. From 1961-66, Koufax was nothing short of spectacular, compiling a record of 129-47 with a composite ERA of 2.19. During that time, Koufax led the National League in ERA during each of his last five seasons, paced the circuit in strikeouts four times, in wins and shutouts thrice, in complete games twice, and innings pitched on a pair of occasions. He also won the pitcher’s Triple Crown in 1963, 1965 and 1966.

 

That was in stark contrast to his first six years.

 

During the first half of his major league career, Koufax was a mediocre 36-40 with serious bouts of wildness. Koufax blamed that on infrequent assignments. While contemplating retirement in spring training of 1961, Koufax received some advice from catcher Norm Sherry and scout Kenny Meyers that turned his career around. Sherry and Meyers suggested to Koufax to give up on trying to throw the ball past the batters, instead to focus on control by allowing the hitters to hit the ball.

 

Koufax, who ended a 12-year career with a record of 165-87, an ERA of 2.76 and 2,396 strikeouts in 2,324 1/3 innings, became the youngest player ever elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972.

 

Hendley, on the other hand, concluded a seven-year career in 1967 with a 48-52 ledger accompanied by a beefy ERA of 3.97. Hendley, who pitched for four teams, never won more than 11 games in a season and enjoyed just one season in which he won more games than he lost – his last.

 

As overwhelming as Koufax often was, it is with the greatest of irony that he needed to be perfect - not in a World Series game or against a Hall of Fame rival like Marichal or Bob Gibson but - against a nomad by the name of Charles Robert Hendley.

 

 

 

A night when perfect wasn’t good enough

 

There have been 16 perfect games pitched in the history of Major League Baseball. Yet the most perfect game ever pitched is not among them.

 

On May 26, 1959, Pittsburgh’s Harvey Haddix and Milwaukee’s Lew Burdette locked horns in an unforgettable duel. The improbable happened that night in Milwaukee as Haddix retired the first 36 batters he faced and Burdette blanked the Pirates for a 13-inning shutout.

 

For that reason, the Haddix-Burdette showdown is my choice as the best pitching duel of all time, concluding my countdown of the five best-pitched games.

 

Haddix, a five-foot-nine, 170-pound lefthander, came over to the Pirates prior to the 1959 season after spending the first seven years of his career with three teams. Part of a seven-player deal with the Cincinnati Reds, the 33-year-old Haddix arrived in Pittsburgh with an 83-68 record. Nicknamed “The Kitten” for his resemblance to Cardinals southpaw Harry “The Cat” Brecheen, Haddix wasn’t the same pitcher he was earlier in his career when he won a combined 38 National League games over the 1953 and 1954 seasons in St. Louis.

 

The six-foot-two, 180-pound Burdette was more stable and as consistent as they came. The veteran 32-year-old righthander was in his 10th major league season – all but the first for the Braves – and in the middle of a six-year streak that included no less than 17 victories a season.

 

The day didn’t begin well for Haddix, who woke up ill “with a cold and a sore throat.” But Haddix, who pitched a one-hitter with 19 strikeouts despite a fever 12 years earlier in the minor leagues, didn’t let that get him down. It was an impressive mindset for Haddix who was preparing to face a powerful Braves lineup that featured Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews, and fellow sluggers Joe Adcock and Wes Covington.

 

“I never entertained the thought of not pitching,” said Haddix, who passed away on January 8, 1994. “It was my turn.”

 

Both teams were good. The Braves entered the 1959 campaign having won consecutive National League pennants, beating the New York Yankees in the 1957 World Series before losing a three games-to-one lead the following October to the same Bronx Bombers. The Pirates were one year away from their first World Series appearance since 1927.

 

The weather for the game in Milwaukee County Stadium wasn’t much better with clouds covering the sky and weather forecasters warning of possible rain, thus explaining why only 19,194 attended the game and why even less where there by the game’s historic conclusion. But the game got under way nevertheless.

 

After retiring the first six Braves, Haddix came up to bat in the top of the third. With Roman Mejias on first base and one out, Haddix singled off Burdette’s leg, a shot that ricocheted to the left side of the infield, where Braves shortstop Johnny Logan fielded the ball and threw out Mejias attempting to advance to third base.

 

The base-running mistake cost the Pirates and Haddix a run as Dick Schofield followed with a single that would have driven in Mejias from second. Neither team knew it at the time, but that was the best scoring opportunity for either time for a while. Relying as he did for the entire night on a good fastball and a great curveball, Haddix retired the first 15 batters with relative ease. He wasn’t picking and choosing either, recording the outs via fly outs, groundouts and strikeouts alike.

 

With the start of a light rain in the sixth, Logan came up with one out and did his best to end Haddix’s no-hit bid by grounding one to the hole between short and third. But the glove wizardry of Schofield prevailed as he reached the ball and fired to barely beat Logan.

 

Haddix retired the next seven batters to reach the ninth inning with a no-hitter for the second time in six years. In 1953, as a Cardinal, Haddix allowed a pair of ninth-inning hits to wrap up a two-hit shutout of the Philadelphia Phillies.

 

Although Haddix was entering the 10th inning, he was not terribly tired after using only 78 pitches through the first nine frames. Haddix had consecutive close calls in the 10th inning as pinch-hitter Del Rice and Mathews each flied out deep to center field, where Bill Virdon made the grab each time in front of the wall. Aaron followed by grounding out to end the inning and give Haddix the longest-lasting no-hitter in history, never mind perfect game.

 

In the 11th, Haddix induced Adcock to ground out to short, got Covington to fly out to center and Del Crandall to line out to center, where Virdon had to come in to make the catch after first back-pedaling. Haddix knew he had a no-hitter because as he puts it, “the scoreboard was in full view.” What he wasn’t so sure about was “about it being a perfect game.”

 

In the 12th, Haddix boldly was going where no other pitcher had ever dreamt of going. He retired Pafko on a comebacker to the mound and Logan on a fly to shallow left-center field to bring up Burdette. The opposing pitcher Burdette, who quietly was pitching his best game as well with 12 scoreless innings to his credit, lined a hard grounder that Pirate third baseman Don Hoak made a great stab on to throw him out.

 

“Because the scoreboard only carried 10 innings worth of ciphers, Haddix had ‘lost track of innings’,” wrote Bert Randolph Sugar in BASEBALL’S 50 GREATEST GAMES. “Yet the 12th looked like the 11th, which had looked like the 10th, which had looked like the ninth, which had looked like every inning before.”

 

After Burdette set down the Pirates for the 13th time, Haddix walked to the mound to do the same.

 

But for once, he was unable.

 

Felix Mantilla, whom Haddix thought he had struck out looking when home plate umpire Vinnie Smith called the two-strike pitch a ball, hit an easy grounder to Hoak. The Pirate third baseman fielded the ball cleanly, but his throw was too low for Pirate first baseman Rocky Nelson, who was unable to scoop it up.

 

With the error, Mantilla became the first Brave to reach base, thus ruining the perfect game. "They gave Hoak the error, but Rocky could have stretched and caught the ball," Burdette stated years later. "He opted to backhand it and trap it against the bag and the ball ran up his arm. That's what lost the game for Haddix."

 

Mathews sacrificed Mantilla to second base before Pirate manager Danny Murtaugh called for Haddix to intentionally walk the pernicious Aaron, setting up a possible double play with Adcock coming up.

 

But Adcock, who had struck out twice and grounded out a pair of times in his first four trips to the plate, didn’t cooperate. The Braves first baseman took to Haddix’s second pitch, a high slider, and launched it over the right-center field fence to end the no-hitter as well as the game. "It was a bad pitch," Haddix recalled. "I made a few other mistakes, but I got away with them."

 

But things got a bit bizarre when the apparent game-ending, three-run homer was ruled a double.

 

Adcock’s drive was changed to a two-bagger after Aaron, who thought the game was over the moment Mantilla touched home plate and didn’t require him or Adcock to actually round the bases, loped past third base and headed across the diamond toward Milwaukee’s dugout.

 

Adcock, running with his head down and not realizing what Aaron had done, continued his home run trot. As he rounded third base, he was startled to be called out for passing Aaron, who was then in the dugout. Officially, Adcock's game-winning hit was recorded as an RBI double, making the final score: 1-0.

 

"My main aim was to win," Haddix said. "(In the 13th inning), I was more tired than nervous. All I know is that we lost. What's so historic about that?”

 

Burdette, who pitched the 13-inning shutout, struck out two, did not walk a batter and scattered 12 singles for one of his four shutouts that year, during which he led the league in hits allowed (312) and starts (39).

 

Haddix, who struck out eight, finished with a pitching line that doesn’t even come close to doing justice:

 

Pirates IP H R ER BB SO

Haddix 12.3 1 1 1 1 8

 

In a historical sense, Haddix’s accomplishment will get little argument as the best single-game individual pitching performance ever. Whereas no other pitcher had thrown more than 10 hitless innings, Haddix went 12 perfect.

 

Spatz points out that Haddix’s accomplishment came against a superior hitting team during an offensive-orientated era. In 1959, the National League batted 11 points higher (.260) than it did six years later.

 

“Haddix was pitching a perfect game against a team that had Mathews, Aaron, Adcock, Crandall, Covington, etc.,” Spatz said. “This was no 1999 Montreal Expos (against whom David Cone threw a perfect game). I just think Haddix and Burdette were pitching against better hitting teams. Of course, Burdette allowed a bunch of baserunners, but the essence of pitching is keeping the other team from scoring, and he did that.”

 

Spatz has another reason why he regards the gem by Haddix as the best pitching performance ever, pointing out the Braves had the Pirates’ signs and still couldn't get a hit.

 

Although it didn’t finish as one, Haddix’s perfect game was recognized as such until 1991, when then-Commissioner Fay Vincent ruled those games not ending in a no-hitter (regardless of innings) can not be counted as such. And so Haddix’s Picasso was among 50 erased from the no-hit record books eight years ago.

 

Regardless, many still refer to Haddix’s outstanding achievement as “the 12-inning perfect game.” On any other day, Haddix would have had himself a perfect game, and a win.

 

Even Burdette was touched by Haddix’s masterpiece, and almost saddened by its fate. So moved, in fact, that he told him so that night. “I called Harvey that night in the visiting clubhouse (and) told him, `I realize I got what I wanted, a win, but I'd really give it up because you pitched the greatest game that's ever been pitched in the history of baseball. It was a damned shame you had to lose.’"

 

Schofield echoed the thoughts of everyone when he said, “it was such a shame that we couldn't score for him.”

 

Haddix went on to a 12-12 season in 1959, with a good ERA of 3.13. But his brightest moment yet may have come during the following year’s World Series, during which he earned two wins (including the Game Seven decision in relief) to help the Pirates upset the New York Yankees for the title. After the 1963 season, Haddix was traded to the Baltimore Orioles following a five-year stay with the Pirates. He retired in 1965 with a 136-113 career ledger and an ERA of 3.63 over 14 years.

 

Burdette went on to win a career-best 21 games that season, tying teammate Warren Spahn for the NL lead in wins despite a 4.07 ERA. It was an illustration of how good the Braves’ offense was that year - the same offense Haddix mastered for 12 innings. The crafty and savvy second starter for the Braves, whose three World Series wins in 1957 helped Milwaukee beat the team that originally signed him, pitched another eight years before retiring in 1967 with a 203-144 mark to accompany a 3.66 ERA. He is usually one of the names that pops up when the subject of “players who deserve more consideration for the Hall of Fame” comes up.

 

With all that Burdette accomplished in his career - the World Series glory and success, playing with Aaron, winning 20 games - all anyone wants to ask him about is his confrontation in 1959 with Haddix.

 

And for good reason. The Haddix-Burdette duel was a masterpiece; an event that was as majestic as it was unpredictable. It was quite simply the best pitching matchup Major League Baseball has had to offer.

 

Mike Attiyeh is the author of Who Was Traded for Lefty Grove? His sequel, Ichiro, Satchel and The Babe, just hit major bookstores nationwide.

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