Lew Burdette’s Near-Perfect Game

Lew Burdette’s Near-Perfect Game

We do not talk about Lew Burdette enough. The University of Richmond product joined the organization before their move to Milwaukee and, for a time, was among the greatest pitchers in baseball and the perfect #2 to unquestionable ace, Warren Spahn. And on this day in 1960, he was at his best, throwing a near-perfect game against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Burdette originally signed with the New York Yankees in 1947. Over four years later, the Yankees, needing a bit of help for the stretch run, traded Burdette and $50,000 (roughly a half-million now) on August 29, 1951, to Boston for Spahn’s former #2 – Johnny Sain. Prior to the trade, Burdette appeared in two games for the Yankees in 1950. He spent the next season in the minors before the trade opened up an opportunity for him and he got into three games as a 24-year-old reliever for Boston.

After a couple of seasons as a swingman sandwiched around the move to Milwaukee, Burdette finally secured a spot in the rotation in 1954 with a 2.76 ERA in 238 innings. Two years later, in 1956, he secured his only ERA title with a 2.70 ERA. His follow-up wasn’t quite as good – his ERA went a run higher – but his best pitching came when things mattered the most. In three starts against his former Yankees team in the World Series, he allowed two earned runs over 27 innings, including a pair of shutouts. His success landed him the World Series MVP.

His next two seasons were solid – including leading the NL in FIP, a stat nobody knew existed. By the end of the decade, Burdette established himself as one of the better arms in baseball. Despite not earning a full-time gig as a starter until 1954, Burdette is ranked 20th in fWAR. He was also a workhorse. From 1955-59, only Spahn and Robin Roberts threw more innings than Burdette.

By 1960, the brief period of dominance by the Braves was beginning to fade. The Braves would finish the season 88-66 and seven games out of first. They wouldn’t finish in either of the top two spots again until winning the NL West in 1969. The aging Braves, though, still had some big-time players including Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Spahn, and – yes – Burdette. Like the roster, he was only getting older, but Burdette had a 3.36 ERA and 3.26 FIP. It would be his last great season.

Which is a long way of getting to what happened today, August 18, in Milwaukee. The game was originally scheduled for April 30 but was postponed due to rain. I’m sure in the middle of August, neither team was excited about losing an off day, but those were the cards they were dealt with. Milwaukee was trying to reel in the Pirates, entering play 63-49 and 7.5 games out. They would spend the rest of the season continuing to chase Pittsburgh. The other team in Pennslyvania, the Phils, was one of the worst teams in baseball. They entered the day with an expected win-loss record of .386 and that’s as bad as it sounds. Philly would finish with 95 losses despite the best efforts by the aforementioned Robin Roberts.

Facing Burdette today, sixty years ago, was right-hander Gene Conley. Conley was a former teammate of Burdette and a member of their 1957 championship team. He never was quite able to live up to a dominant 1954 campaign where he finished third in the Rookie of the Year race with a 2.96 ERA. He only appeared in one October game during back-to-back World Series runs – allowing a two-run homer by Mickey Mantle in the fourth inning of the 12-3 Game Three rout by the Yanks in 1957. Before the 1959 season, the Braves moved Conley to the Phils in a six-player trade in which none of the three players the Braves got back played a significant role.

Milwaukee’s lineup included their regulars like Bull Bruton and Wes Covington joining Aaron in the outfield, the powerful infield corners Joe Adcock and Mathews, and Del Crandall behind the plate. The Phillies didn’t have a comparable lineup but also started many of their regulars, including the young and intriguing outfield of Tony Curry, Tony Gonzalez, and Johnny Callison.

Burdette cruised through the first, including a strikeout when Tony Taylor was caught looking. The Braves tried to counter with a rally as Mathews singled to center with two outs, but despite getting a second shot after a foul ball was dropped by the Phils catcher, Aaron couldn’t take advantage of the situation. The Braves got another chance in the third when Burdette singled but was thrown out after getting into a rundown following a Bruton single. Bruton would also get thrown out after trying to score on a base hit by Crandall.

After setting down the first 13 he faced, Burdette got a little sloppy against Gonzalez. His 1-1 pitch came in and hit the youngster, which led to the Phillies’ first baserunner. But Burdette got back on schedule, getting a weird double play off the bat of Lee Walls. The third baseman grounded out to Mathews, who threw Walls out at first. Gonzalez got too greedy and tried to take third base. The ever-alert Logan covered third base and Adcock threw out Gonzalez trying to advance to third. Apparently, baserunning still thought that today was an off day.

Both Conley and Burdette continued to roll with the latter being far more dominant. Conley gave up a pair of hits in the sixth, but Covington grounded out to end the threat. Neither team would do much but groundout until the bottom of the 8th. Burdette stepped in and smacked a double to left field. Bruton followed with a double of his own and Burdette scampered home, breaking the scoreless tie. Conley rebounded against a tough trio of Crandall, Mathews, and Aaron to leave Bruton in scoring position and give the Phils a last chance at figuring out Burdette.

Gene Mauch would use his bench liberally in the ninth. After Jimmie Coker grounded out to Burdette, Ken Walters hit for Ruben Amaro. Walters sent a grounder to Mathews, who picked it up and sent the ball to Adcock for the second out. Conley’s spot was due up next and Bobby Smith got the at-bat. Smith would hit .286/.317/.382 for the season. But all he could do against Burdette was golf a ball to right field. Aaron settled underneath it and ended the game.

27 men up, 27 men down. It wasn’t a Perfect Game, but it was quite nearly one. Burdette ranked the game as his second favorite moment as a ballplayer behind being on the mound when Milwaukee beat the Yankees in the 1957 World Series. Burdette was especially appreciative of his catcher, telling Crandall after the game, “Nice going, Del. Wonderful…beautiful.”

Spahn had the line of the night, though. He told Burdette, “it wasn’t your pitching that was so good. If it weren’t for your hitting, you’d be pitching yet.”

Burdette would continue pitching with the Braves until they traded him to the Cardinals in 1963. A year later, St. Louis traded him to the Cubs. He’d play for the 1965 Phillies along with the Angels in 1966-67 before his career ended. Burdette, who appeared in three All-Star Games, spent 15 years on the Hall of Fame ballot. He never quite reaching a quarter of the votes and fell off the ballot after 1987. At the age of 80, Burdette passed away in 2007.

1 Comments

Absolutely wonderful article! At a Boston Braves Historical Association reunion, Gene Conley commented on how fitting it was for Lew Burdette to get his no-hitter the year after he threw 12 scoreless innings in the Harvey Haddix perfect game. Nobody remembers it was Lew who matched Haddix, but now a year later he had gotten the headlines.

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