Less than an hour after the best rock thrower ever to come out of Nitro, West Virginia had intimidated the New York Yankees for the third time in seven days, Casey Stengel was doing his best to forget all about it. Sitting half-undressed in his office under the vast old Stadium and sounding a little as if he expected George Weiss to be hiding under the couch, Stengel talked about next year.
"Now I got to build another team for New York," he said, "and I'll build it. I got some pretty good ideas. There's that Denver farm club, it had a pretty good season. There must be some men there to disturb somebody."
"Maybe they cannot hit that pitcher we saw today, either, but then maybe he will not live long."
If this is the premise upon which Stengel hopes to recapture his westerly-flown world championship, it would be wise if Casey should prepare himself for disappointment. That pitcher, an erstwhile taxi driver, pool shark, amateur obstetrician and right-handed raconteur of renown named Lew Burdette, is singularly well equipped to survive the rigors attendant with becoming a World Series hero. Unlike Stengel's own Don Larsen, another man who pitched very well one October but failed to remember how he did it when April rolled around, Burdette will probably show up for the 1958 season better than ever.
For one thing, he is a better pitcher than Larsen, a fact frequently overlooked in the past by those citizens so concerned with the function of Burdette's salivary glands that they forgot he also had a rather remarkable right arm. But perhaps even more important, not the glaring television lights he will face in the next few weeks nor the cramped and unfamiliar stance required to sign some $10,000 worth of endorsements nor even the long winter of adulation and mashed potatoes which await him on the banquet circuit stand much chance of upsetting Lew Burdette's mountain-grown sang-froid.
From the November day in 1926 when he was born in a West Virginia ghost town until the October day not quite 31 years later when he became Milwaukee's No. 1 candidate for president of the world, Selva Lewis Burdette Jr. has been much more than just a pitcher. He is, in fact, baseball's No. 1 paradox.
A big (6 feet 2 inches, 190 pounds), square-shouldered man with a ruggedly handsome face, close-cropped sandy hair and a strange, floppy walk, Burdette is considered by National League hitters—and now the Yankees—to be meaner than an acre of snakes. Despite his nervous, fidgety mannerisms on the mound, he works with a vast confidence and determination. That is when he is pitching. When he is not pitching he becomes baseball's No. 1 screwball. "Burdette," they say, "is a real squirrel."
An interviewer capable of getting anything but a wisecrack out of Burdette is a fortunate man indeed. For that matter, his teammates are in the same boat. When Lew and Warren Spahn, the great left-hander who also happens to be one of the game's biggest clowns, get together, dignity deserts the Milwaukee clubhouse. It can also happen in hotel lobbies or on trains or even on the field before a game. Vaudeville would never have died if Spahn and Burdette had been around with their routine of crooked caps, absurd faces, ridiculous pepper games and jockeying antics from the bench.
Burdette's imitation of a drunk, only one of half a dozen impersonations he practices upon the long-suffering Braves, still brings down the house. But Lew feels cheated since he had to abandon his favorite performance, an almost perfect reproduction of a policeman's whistle. One night in Chicago he leaned out of a taxicab window, gave a blast—and snarled traffic for half an hour.
On the road, Spahn and Burdette room together. "Because we enjoy each other's humor," says Spahn. "Because no one else can stand us," says Burdette.
But the Braves do not really complain. "If that's what it takes to win ball games," they say, "we could use some more squirrels."
Undoubtedly one of baseball's worst hitters, Burdette was able to look back this summer through six long years to the last time he hit a home run, in 1951 when he was playing with San Francisco in the Coast League. But against Cincinnati on August 13, he hit not one but two. After the second, Lew puffed back to the bench and announced he was giving up home-run hitting.
"It's just too dang far," he said, "around those bases."
But beneath the clownish exterior on the one hand and the ornery, determined one on the other, Burdette is a man of many and diversified talents. He has driven a taxi, tarred roofs for a construction company, handled a public-relations job and is now vice-president of a real-estate firm in Sarasota, Florida, where for the last two years the Burdettes have made their off-season home.
He is an expert fisherman, a connoisseur of hillbilly and Dixieland music, a home repair man of repute ("Although, usually, when he gets through with cigaret lighters, they never work again," says Mrs. Burdette) and a singer ("This is questionable," says Spahn). Also an articulate and poised after-dinner speaker, a crossword-puzzle expert and, in fact, an expert on just about anything.
"If you want to know how much it usually snows in Alaska or what a salamander eats," says Joe Taylor, the Braves equipment manager, who really doesn't care for salamanders but is impressed nonetheless, "just ask Lew. He knows something about everything."
Burdette is also a deliverer of babies, a talent well hidden until Christmas Day, 1954, when the Burdettes' second child, Midge, was born in a police ambulance speeding toward a Milwaukee hospital.
"I'm in this ambulance with a cop and Mary tells me we're not going to make it in time," says Lew. "So I ask the cop, 'What'll I do?' And the cop says, 'See for yourself.' So 1 did and, by golly, I did all right."
TWO NORMAL BURDETTES
The other two Burdette children, Lewis Kent, now 6, and Mary Lou, now a little over three weeks, arrived in a less spectacular manner, although the baby was born the day after Lew pitched 10 innings in Milwaukee's pennant-clinching victory over the Cards.
Another thing Burdette may become quite soon is a very wealthy young man. After the longest holdout in the history of Milwaukee, Lew signed last spring for $28,000. His World Series share will be $9,000 and personal appearances and testimonials could add $20,000 more. Next year his contract will undoubtedly become fatter—and next year there will almost certainly be another World Series.
The Braves are a young team and a very good team, a fact suddenly more important than in the past because the Braves themselves also believe it now. They became world champions by surmounting a large number of difficulties, not the least of which was winning their own National League pennant in the first place. Whether the Braves of 1956 choked up or lacked the spark of greatness is now academic. In the World Series of 1957 they lacked nothing, and the way they beat the Yankees—after their best pitcher lost the first game, after being humiliated in the third, after losing the vital sixth by one run—was perhaps more important than that they did beat the Yankees.
The man who did most, of course, was Burdette. The defense functioned far better than anyone had expected but the hitters hardly functioned at all. The Braves batted only .209, a figure which stands unchallenged as quite easily the worst team average a seven-game Series winner ever compiled, and only young Henry Aaron, who is known for that sort of thing, emerged with his prowess at the plate undimmed. Among the pitchers, Bob Buhl, who won 36 regular-season games in two years, couldn't come close to winning even one Series game in two starts, and the legendary Spahn, who won and lost in two tries, was something less than his usual legendary self.
But Burdette, facing some of the most dangerous hitters in baseball and throwing an object which now goes "yipe!" when it is bashed with a bat instead of "ugh!" as in the days of Christy Mathewson, performed a feat unmatched since the great Matty's three Series shutouts of 1905. In the first three innings of the second game, the Yankees got to Burdette for two runs. After that, through 24 consecutive innings of tremendous pressure, they didn't score off him once. He beat them 4-2 (second game), 1-0 (fifth game) and 5-0 (seventh game).
In recent years only Harry Brecheen of the 1946 Cardinals has won three games in one World Series and the last of those was in relief. Before that, Stan Coveleskie of Cleveland (1920) started and won three Series games, and any reader who knowingly insists that there is more than slight coincidence between Burdette and this grand old spit-ball pitcher will only be referred back to Mr. Stengel.
"Oh, maybe he spits on the ball once in a while," says Casey, "but what the heck. If a man beats me three times I am not going to comment on him because he did a good job."
Whether Burdette actually threw the Yankees any spit balls or not, he certainly showed them an assortment of other things. In the three games Lew threw sliders, sinkers, fast balls, several varieties of plain and ordinary curves and even an occasional screwball, all backed up by a rather awe-inspiring display of control which found him walking only four Yankees, one of those intentionally, in the 27 innings he was at work.
Some of the Yankees, who had been worried most about Spahn, were surprised. Others, like Jerry Coleman, were not. "I knew he could pitch," said the Yankee second baseman. "I had seen him in the All-Star Game. He's tough and he keeps everything low and he's out there to beat you. He won 17 games, I think it was, and missed almost a month with a sore arm. You must be pretty good if you do that."
Said his catcher, Del Crandall: "Lew wasn't any better than he has been for the last two years."
Just the same, as far as Lew Burdette is concerned, it is very nice to receive recognition outside the inner circle of baseball for something besides embroilment in one controversy after another. What the real pros have long known about another real pro, the rest of the world has finally discovered. Here is one very good baseball pitcher. But back in Nitro, West Virginia they are still not sure they believe it. When Lew was a kid he couldn't play baseball at all.
Nitro didn't even exist until the last year of World War I. Then it arose from an 1,800-acre cow pasture on the Kanawha River, 11 miles below the state capitol of Charleston, to become a city of 24,000 inhabitants living in 1,724 homes and working in huge factories built in 10 months at a cost of $76 million to produce explosive nitrocellulose. The first shipment of powder was also the last. The war ended and Nitro became virtually a ghost town.
By 1924, however, a few major chemical companies had picked up the abandoned plants, and Lew's father moved there to take a job which has lasted 33 years. An industrial-league outfielder himself, the elder Burdette used to play catch with little Lew, who was called Froggy in those days "because he could beller like a big old bullfrog." But Nitro had no high school baseball team, and Lew, who had a try-out, couldn't even make the town's American Legion club. What he could do, though, was throw rocks.
An old friend, Dave Comstock, says Lew was the best and hardest rock-throwing boy Nitro ever had. "One night," says Dave, "a gang of us were knocking out windows in the Nazarene Church. Lew was half a block behind us, standing in a creek, and hitting those windows as regularly as any of us. The police came along and nabbed us and put us in jail for a scare, but they never found Lew. He got away," says Dave Comstock, "because he could throw farther than anybody else."
"He always could throw a rock like a bullet," says his mother. "One time he was up on the hill yonder and broke the headlight on our car. He came down and told us about it, though. The boy told the truth, I remember that."
"He used to go up the hill to a rock quarry after school, when he was about 13," says a neighbor, Mrs. Harry Birch, "and throw rocks by the hour. He would pick one target, then another, to improve his aim."
When Lew was 17, he had a chance to get a job as messenger boy with American Viscose Corporation, but the company had only two openings and was saving them for ballplayers who could help the plant team.
"I asked my father what to do," Lew says, "and he told me to try out for the team. 'Tell 'em you're a pitcher,' my daddy said. 'They sure need one.' "
Exactly what impact the future World Series hero made on the Nitro industrial baseball league depends upon who tells the story. Burdette says he pitched four scoreless innings in an exhibition game and got the job. The team manager, a man named Earl Snyder who is now retired, says he wasn't impressed.
"He was fast and fairly accurate," Snyder says, "but he was cocky, too. To come down to it, none of us thought he'd turn out to be any good as a pitcher. He wasn't so extra good at all. That's not to his discredit, understand. He just hadn't played ball before."
Last week, after watching Lew against the Yankees on TV, Snyder admitted that he was quite surprised by the improvement. "Looks good now," he conceded.
But if no one else was impressed by Burdette's potential in those days, a Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Alfred Montgomery, was. He recommended Lew to the University of Richmond and helped him get a scholarship.
He won 10 and lost two and a Braves' scout took a look at him. Like Mr. Snyder, the scout wasn't impressed. But the Yankees were and signed him in the spring of 1947 to a contract with Norfolk of the Piedmont League for a salary of $200 a month.
"I was a real bonus baby," says Burdette. "They offered me $175 but I told 'em my daddy wouldn't let me sign unless I got $25 more."
He moved up on through the Yankee chain, playing at Norfolk and Amsterdam of the Canadian-American League in '47, Quincy of the Three-Eye League in '48 and Kansas City in '49-50. After his season at Quincy he met a cute brunette telephone operator named Mary Ann Shelton at a Charleston bowling alley one night, dated her that winter and the two planned to get married after the 1949 season. Instead they got married on June 30.
"I kept going home every chance I got," Lew says, "so we finally decided we might just as well get married and live on that money I was spending on plane fares and telephone calls." They were married at Charleston despite an offer from the Kansas City ball club to have the nuptials perpetrated one night at home plate. "Heavens no," said Mary Ann, and that was that.
Burdette made it to the Yankees at the tail end of the 1950 season, pitched one inning, gave up a run on three hits and the next year found himself back down in the minors at San Francisco. It was then, in late August of 1951, that Burdette got his biggest break.
The Yankees, battling for a pennant, needed pitching help and they needed it quick. In the devious way of the waiver, they maneuvered around the rest of the league to get sore-armed Johnny Sain, nearing the end of a great career, from the Boston Braves for $50,000 and a minor league player. The player was Lew Burdette.
"Some people say he was just a throw-in," says Milwaukee General Manager John Quinn, "but we really had our eye on him. The Yankees wanted to give us Wally Hood, but our West Coast scout, Johnny Moore, insisted that we get Burdette."
It appeared for a while as if the Braves had indeed been fleeced. Working in relief against the Cubs at Wrigley Field, Lew bounced his first National League pitch into the dirt three feet in front of home plate, and only unusual agility on the part of his catcher saved the second from going into the stands. "My God," groaned a Boston writer, "is that what we got for Johnny Sain?"
"Plain truth of the matter was." says Burdette now, "I was scared."
79 WINS IN FIVE YEARS
He recovered, however, enough to win six games in relief for Boston in 1952 and became a starter midway through that first wonderfully hysterical year of 1953 in Milwaukee. In the last five seasons the big man who wears Sain's old No. 33 has won 15, 15, 13, 19 and 17 games, once led the National League in earned run average and finished runner-up another time. Yet until the second week of October 1957, it had generally been Burdette's misfortune to be remembered best for two things: a supposed prejudice against Negro batters, because of alleged bean balls, and a supposed prejudice against all batters, because of alleged spit balls.
"I guess I'm an old troublemaker," Lew once told Cleon Walfoort of the Milwaukee Journal. "If I went to church, they'd say I was into the collection plate. I'm not really mean up here, but I guess I was in the minors and the boys know I can still get mean."
Anyway, Burdette isn't worried about what people say any more. He is still young and, with experience, improving every year. He may never pitch again as he did on those three October days against the Yankees but, because of them, he will be a better pitcher in all the days from April to September still to come. Even an old hand like Casey Stengel can still learn things from a World Series.
"I learned in this one," says Casey, "that a pitcher of that type can be very valuable to a ball club. But I don't figure they want to trade him."