The Atlanta Braves, once Milwaukee’s pride and joy and who earlier called Boston home, will take on the Houston Astros in the 2021 World Series.
The Braves have a rich history that’s largely lost in baseball’s sands of time. In his book “Boston Braves,” author Richard A. Johnson reminded readers that the Beaneaters pulled off one of baseball’s greatest upsets when, in 1914, they surprised Connie Mack’s heavily favored and powerful Philadelphia A’s in a four-game sweep.
In all, the Braves’ New England version captured 10 National League pennants, and put 38 players in the Cooperstown Hall of Fame, among them Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Casey Stengel, Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn.
A near-miss for Cooperstown induction is Milwaukee’s Selva Lewis Burdette, a 203-game winner who dominated for the Braves in his team’s thrilling 1957 World Series triumph over the mighty New York Yankees.
Burdette was commonly known in baseball circles by his hometown nickname, “Nitro Lew,” his West Virginia birthplace. In the seven-game 1957 series, Burdette hurled three complete game victories, including a shutout in the Game 7 finale on just two days rest. In those three games, Burdette held slugging Yankees’ future Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra to a harmless single between them and, for the series, a 0.67 ERA.
Burdette became the first pitcher to hurl three complete games, and two shutouts since 1905 when the New York Giants’ Christy Mathewson performed the remarkable feat. And “Nitro Lew” went about his Yankee domination quickly. The times of Burdette’s three starts were, respectively, 2:26, 2:00 and 2:34.
Society for American Baseball Research historian Alex Kupfer remembers Burdette as a fidgety moundsman whose constant hat and jersey adjustment, forehead-wiping, lip-touching and muttering to himself distracted batters who were convinced that the hurler was throwing a spit ball. Once asked to identify his best pitch, Burdette replied that it’s “the one I do not throw,” a subtle denial that he moistened the bulb. Originally drafted by the Yankees, Burdette had a golden opportunity to learn how to throw the spitball. During early days in the Yankees system, Burdette occasionally worked with roving pitching coach Burleigh Grimes, one of the game’s great spitballers. But, he was concerned that if he showed Burdette how to throw a spitter, the promising young right-hander would be thrown out of professional baseball.
Two years after his World Series Most Valuable Player performance, Burdette was a key protagonist in one of baseball’s most extraordinary games. On a rainynight in Milwaukee on May 26, 1959, Burdette faced off against the Pittsburgh Pirates’ crafty Harvey Haddix. For 12 innings, Haddix retired 36 consecutive Braves, while Burdette also tossed scoreless, but not perfect ball. Then, in the 13th inning Braves slugger Joe Adcock drove in Felix Mantilla, the winning run.
Mantilla had reached first on Pirates’ third baseman Don Hoak’s error. The imperfect Burdette nevertheless turned in an excellent performance; he threw 13 scoreless innings, allowed 12 hits and walked none. After the game Burdette phoned Haddix to sympathetically tell him, “You deserved to win, but I scattered all my hits, and you bunched your one.” Not appreciative of either Burdette’s sense of humor or his timing, the still-smarting Haddix hung up.
Before his 18-year career ended in 1967, Burdette had short, occasionally effective stints with the St. Louis Cardinals, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Chicago Cubs and the California Angels. When his active career ended, Burdette scouted, rejoined the Braves as Atlanta’s pitching coach, worked in public relations for a Milwaukee brewery and broadcast on Florida cable television. Although Burdette appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot for 15 consecutive years beginning in 1973, he always came up short.
In 2007, Burdette, a lung cancer victim, died at age 80 in Winter Garden, Fla., where he had taken up residency during his post-baseball career. At Burdette’s funeral, his World Series teammate, shortstop Johnny Logan, didn’t shed light on the decades-long unsolved mystery about crafty righty’s spitball. Logan, however, admitted in his eulogy that he couldn’t tell if Burdette threw a wet one, but he knew that his teammate “was a hell of a competitor.”
– Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers’ Association member.