He threw a perfect game for 12 innings ... and lost
“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.”
“It” in this famous quote is baseball. The man who wrote those words was Angelo Bartlett Giamatti, who served as MLB’s seventh commissioner from 1988 until his death in 1989.
If there was ever a single regular season game that embodied Giamatti’s sentiment, it took place on May 26, 1959, when the Pittsburgh Pirates visited the Milwaukee Braves at County Stadium.
The Pirates’ starting pitcher that night was left-hander Harvey Haddix. Little did he know that by the end of this particular contest, his name would be etched in baseball history for all the wrong reasons.
That’s because on this night, Haddix would turn in one of the greatest single-game performances by any pitcher in baseball history, one that would lead many to consider him the unluckiest pitcher -- for one night, anyway -- of all time.
Haddix, 33 at the time, was already a three-time All-Star who entered that year with a career 3.66 ERA in seven Major League seasons. He was in his first season with the Pirates after pitching for the Cardinals from 1952-56, the Phillies from 1956-57, and the Reds in ’58.
Entering his eighth start of the 1959 campaign, Haddix was sporting a 2.67 ERA over 54 innings on the season when he faced Milwaukee and its dangerous duo of future Hall of Fame sluggers Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron. He was also suffering from a nasty cold.
Mathews would hit a Major League-leading 46 homers that season and finish runner-up in National League MVP voting. Aaron, meanwhile, finished third in NL MVP voting after belting 39 homers while leading the Majors in hits (223), batting average (.355), slugging (.636), OPS (1.037) and total bases (400).
Haddix certainly had his work cut out for him, but he was more than up to the task. In fact, he pitched a perfect game on 78 pitches through nine innings of a scoreless tie, then came back out for the 10th. He held the Braves without a baserunner for two more frames, but his offense inexplicably hadn’t scored him a run yet.
It’s inexplicable simply because Pittsburgh had by this time put eight runners on base in the contest, all by way of a hit, yet had failed to push across a run. Credit, of course, must also go to Haddix’s counterpart, veteran right-hander and 1957 World Series MVP Lew Burdette.
The Pirates’ best chances to score were both instances in which they had runners at the corners and two outs, in the third and ninth innings. But the runners who reached third in those frames -- Haddix himself in the third after singling earlier in the inning, and Bill Virdon in the ninth following a single of his own -- were the only men to get beyond first base through nine innings.
Burdette matched Haddix zero for zero until the bottom of the 13th, when an ominous error to open the frame portended things soon to come. Milwaukee’s Felix Mantilla hit a ground ball to third baseman Don Hoak, whose throw to first was off the mark and enabled Mantilla to reach.
The slugging Mathews then laid down a sacrifice bunt to move Mantilla to second, setting the table for future home run king Aaron. But Haddix intentionally walked Aaron to get to the next batter, Joe Adcock.
Incidentally, it was a line drive back to the mound by Adcock five years earlier that struck Haddix on his left knee and nearly ended his career. Adcock would strike again, but this time by breaking up the no-hitter and the shutout with one swing that resulted in a bizarre outcome.
On a 1-0 pitch, Adcock drove a ball over the wall in right-center field. It landed between two fences -- the first being the outfield fence. But Aaron, thinking it was a ground-rule double because it appeared to bounce before hitting the fence -- from his vantage point, he was apparently unable to distinguish between the two parallel fences -- thought the game was over when Mantilla scored the first run.
So Aaron touched second and headed straight for the Braves' dugout. By this point, Adcock had already reached third on his home run trot. He was eventually ruled out for passing Aaron on the base paths, making his home run a double. So instead of a 3-0 win, it was a 1-0 victory in the box score.
It made little difference to Haddix, though. The left-hander had pitched 12 2/3 innings while giving up one unearned run on one hit, walking one (intentionally) and striking out eight. He was charged with the loss. No other pitcher in AL/NL history has pitched 12 or more innings while giving up no earned runs on no more than one hit in a single game for which he got the loss.
There are many ways to evaluate a starting pitching performance. One prominent measure is the Game Score, a metric developed by Bill James to assign a value to every pitcher's outing. Haddix's Game Score of 107 is the highest for any game for which a pitcher was charged with the loss in the Live Ball Era (since 1920).
Out of the more than 200,000 games pitched in AL/NL history, only 47 resulted in a higher Game Score than Haddix’s 107 on May 26, 1959. And in only five of those was a pitcher charged with a loss.
It's no wonder Haddix was given the nickname "Hard Luck Harvey."
Still, given that Haddix was perfect for 12 innings, some call his effort that night the greatest game ever pitched. After all, there have only been 23 perfect games in MLB history, and none of them were more than nine innings in length.
Just how dominant was Haddix that night in Milwaukee? He was told later that the Brewers had stolen the Pirates' signs and were tipping off their hitters from the bullpen. All of Milwaukee's hitters except for Aaron, who refused to look for the bullpen's signals, knew what was coming and still couldn't hit it.
Notably, it was Haddix who would be awarded the win in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series after Bill Mazeroski hit his famous walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to lift the Pirates over the Yankees at Forbes Field. Haddix faced four batters, giving up a Mickey Mantle RBI single and a Yogi Berra RBI groundout in the top of the ninth after replacing Bob Friend, who had yielded back-to-back singles to open the frame.
Baseball is a grand game that has produced joy and jubilation for millions of people over more than 150 years. But as it’s been written, and as can be attested to by many hard-luck pitchers over those years -- none more unlucky than Haddix on May 26, 1959 -- it’s also a game that will break your heart.