(Ed. Note: Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of Harvey Haddix’s “Imperfect Masterpiece.” When I started this, I asked Athenae how long is too long. Her answer: “No such thing as too long on the Interwebs. If people don’t want to read that’s what the scroll button is for.” Well, we’re going to test that theory… I spent my whole career writing 8-inch stories on deadline. I always wanted to try something longer and I’ve loved this story for my whole life, so pardon the self-indulgence and if you get through it all, let me know what you think. Thanks. -Doc)
The first thing that struck me about the man was how ordinary he looked.
During his playing days, he was listed as 6-foot-2, 190 pounds. From his position at the folded out card table in the middle of a dimly lit rec center venue, he looked like he’d shrunk a bit. His hair had grown wispy and gray while his midsection had expanded a good deal. He had a bit of a hunch to him as he scrawled his name across varying pieces of memorabilia.
When my turn at the table had come amid the sparse gathering of Milwaukee Braves fans and semi-interested interlopers, I had a million questions.
What was it like that night?
Did you think the game would ever end?
What were you thinking when Adcock finally ended it?
The answers I got were less than satisfactory. The man had pretty much gone deaf as he ambled into his 70s. The fellow next to him, a handler if you will, also explained the man had been slightly handicapped by a late night out on the town with some fellow baseball alums.
Rather than conduct a pointless interrogation, I instead asked him to personalize the autograph he was about to sign.
“What?” he asked.
I repeated the request. He shook his head like a dog trying to remove water from its ears. The handler hollered my name into the man’s good ear and then spelled it.
The man dutifully wrote it down, added “The best” and his name.
I shouted a request to shake his hand and get a picture with him. He happily obliged.
As his rough paw took a hold of mine, a smile I didn’t know I had in me consumed my face. I was touching the hand of Lew Burdette, the human instrument that had faced perfection the likes of which no one had ever seen and defeated it.
Fifty years ago this week, baseball fans witnessed something that had never happened before or since: a game in which a pitcher retired 36 batters in a row and had yet to complete the game. On a cool May night in Milwaukee, Burdette and Pittsburgh’s Harvey Haddix faced off for 77 incredible outs.
Haddix had been perfect.
Burdette had been better.