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A look at Harvey Haddix’s strangely unsatisfying career

Harvey Haddix started with the Cardinals but at least a few years later than it should have been

Portrait of Harvey Haddix

On May 26, 1959, left-handed starter Harvey Haddix was pitching the best game of his life. Hell, he was pitching the best game that anyone had ever pitched. Through 12 innings, he was perfect against the Milwaukee Braves, who at the time had in their prime versions of Hall of Famers Hank Aaron (175 wRC+) and Eddie Matthews (166 wRC+) plus Joe Adcock (134 wRC+), catcher Del Crandall (103 wRC+) and shortstop Johnny Logan (116 wRC+). None of them even got on base through 12. And then an error in the 12 turned into an IBB to Aaron which turned into a HR turned double by Adcock (due to Aaron walking off the field and Adcock passing Aaron).

I already knew who Harvey Haddix was thanks to the second most famous perfect game, but not in baseball history. Did you know a Braves pitcher later admitted that the Braves were stealing signs from the Pirates and it barely mattered? Did you know Haddix only threw 115 pitches in that game? Did you know Haddix previously played with the Cardinals and in fact started his career with them? And did you know that was in fact a better player when he pitched for the Cards despite being popularly associated with playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates? I did not know any of this.

Harvey Haddix’s career kept getting delayed at the beginning. He came from a farming family, with few people to play with except a neighbor and his brother. The family bought a farm in Ohio and he made the local baseball team as a left-handed shortstop as a freshman. Senior year, they needed a pitcher when the primary pitcher graduated, so he took over duties and they won the county championship. After high school, he attended an open tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals, who signed him during the 1943 season.

He was sent to the A ball Columbus Cardinals for two weeks, but had to return to register for the draft on his 18th birthday. He didn’t have to fight in the war, because he received a military deferment from military service for being a farmer. What this meant was that he could only work on the farm, so for three years, he couldn’t and didn’t play baseball. At 21, he was sent to a Class C Carolina league team, where he excelled and was promoted to the Cardinals AAA affiliate in 1948. Here’s where timing was unfortunate again.

The Cardinals didn’t need Haddix and especially didn’t need another lefty. In the 1949 season, the Cardinals staff consisted of five members who, for their career, combined for 142.2 bWAR. Between the five of them, they had 14 seasons from 1948 to 1950 - Max Lanier has his own interesting story of being banned from baseball for three years for signing in the Mexican League, so he came in 1949. On average, the five of them averaged 3.4 bWAR in those 14 seasons. There were only four below average seasons among those 14, and each pitcher had two other seasons with at least 2+ bWAR (with Lanier only having one).

The point is that Haddix was stuck. On September 9, 1950, it was announced on Harvey Haddix Day that his contract had been purchased by the Cardinals, but of course his time would have to wait yet again. He got drafted into the Army, where he became Fort Dix athletic director for two years, with his service expiring in August of 1952. He managed to stay fresh for the big leagues by pitching for the camp baseball team. Once his Army service was done, he went to straight to play for the Cardinals. That’s why, when you look at Haddix’s career, his career started at 26 and didn’t play in his first full season until he was 27.

He was immediately good. He had a 2.79 ERA in 42 IP in those six starts (plus one relief appearance), which led to what ended up being the greatest season of his career in 1953. In 1953, he made the All-Star team, got 17th in MVP votes, and was second in Rookie of the Year voting to a guy I’d never heard of before, Jim Gilliam, who actually had a very good career! He pitched 253 IP and a 6.4 bWAR season. He pitched six more innings, but wasn’t as good in 1954 with a 4.1 bWAR season, but he did make his second All-Star team.

In 1954, Haddix was hit in the kneecap by a line drive by none other than Joe Adcock, the future nemesis who would break up his no-hitter later in his career. Reportedly, the injury affected him the rest of his career, which is at least partially supported by the fact that he was never the same after 1954. In Haddix’s own words, “After the leg was hurt, I couldn’t run well and my conditioning suffered. A pitcher is only as strong as his legs.”

In 1955, he made the All-star team for the third straight year, but he was only a 1.4 bWAR pitcher and pitched only 208 innings in the season. After a slow start in 1956, he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies after just four starts. He regained his form with the Phillies, but after an inconsistent season with them in his second season, he was traded to the Reds. In 1958 in his only season with the Reds, he went no windup because he had a recurring problem with tipping his pitches, and the no windup was a huge success, but he was traded to the Pirates after that season in a massive seven player trade.

He essentially repeated his season in Cincinnati in Pittsburg except of course he never had the 12 inning perfect game in Cincy. As soon as that game was over, he was an instant celebrity and that was pretty much the only thing he was known for - there are worse things to be known for, but Haddix wished his team had gotten the win.

By 1960, just his second season with the Pirates, Haddix’s small frame had cost him the stamina of his younger self. “I’ve been a seven-inning pitcher at times because I’m a little man and have to work harder out there than some other fellows. I can’t afford to coast.” As weird as that sounds nowadays, I’m reminded that he only threw 115 pitches in that 12 inning game and he had a pretty low walk count through his career, so he may very well have not thrown more pitches than any modern pitcher does now. The 1960 Pirates won the World Series, thanks to Haddix winning Game Five and being the winner pitcher in the infamous Bill Mazeroski walk-off homer in Game 7. He came in the game with two runners already on with nobody out, and both runners eventually both scored to tie the game in the 9th.

Haddix had a bit of a second life in the bullpen. He was moved to the bullpen in September of 1961 after a pretty solid season, and was supposed to stay there for 1962, but injuries forced him back in the rotation. He had a solid 0.9 bWAR in the bullpen full-time in 1963, and was even better for the Baltimore Orioles in 1964 with 2 bWAR. In 1965, he ran out of steam and walked more than he struck out in the bullpen, which marked the end of his career at 39.

Haddix had a very fine career, but you have to wonder “What if?” What if he didn’t turn 18 exactly when World War II was happening and thus delaying his minor league career until he was 21. What if he wasn’t behind an absolutely stacked pitching staff once he finally did get a chance to showcase his talents. What if he didn’t get called to the Army at pretty much the exact moment when he was supposed to go to the big league club. And what if he was never hit in the kneecap by that Joe Adcock line drive?

He had a very good career in spite of all that, with 29.9 career bWAR, and yet it feels like he should have had so much more than that. I don’t know if I would go as far as to say we missed out on a potential Hall of Famer here, but he signed as a Cardinal at 17 and didn’t end up pitching in the majors until nine years later. With what we now know about how players age, he missed out on some pretty key seasons. He seems to obviously have been ready for the majors by 1949, his third year in the minors and second in AAA, and I think it’s probably fair to say he’d be ready earlier if he didn’t miss three years due to farming.

Then of course there is the kneecap injury in 1954. It’s very, very easy to imagine Haddix making the Hall in an alternate history. Think about it. He was the famous man to pitch 12 perfect innings. If he was even borderline, he’d make the Hall. Just look at Jack Morris, who seems to have made the Hall based off one game, and who only had 43.6 bWAR. It’s not a stretch to imagine 14 more career WAR out of Haddix had he simply entered the league earlier with the circumstances not constantly delaying his career.