(Warning: If you are a member of the pitch-count police, this article could be hazardous to your health)
Today marks the 59th anniversary of one of the greatest individual feats in the more than 100-year history of Pirates baseball. If it were not for 12 perfect innings pitched by Harvey Haddix in 1959, it could well be the greatest pitching performance in team history, although it is little remembered.
On July 19, 1955, Vernon Law was the starting pitcher in the Pirates’ 4-3 win over the Milwaukee Braves. Law, nicknamed The Deacon, was not the winning pitcher and didn’t even get a complete game on that Tuesday night at Forbes Field. But the absence of those barometers of success does not diminish his stunning accomplishment.
In this era of pitch counts, side sessions and all-around babying of pitchers, what Law did in 1955 is breathtaking in its magnitude.
The game went 19 innings. Law started and pitched the first 18 innings before being lifted for a pinch-hitter.
In those 18 innings, he allowed nine hits, two runs -- only one of which was earned -- two walks and 12 strikeouts.
ElRoy Face, the great reliever who was a teammate of Law’s, recalled the performance with awe. “He threw over 200 pitches,” he said.
Pitch counts are a relatively new statistic to baseball and no one was counting that night. But it’s pretty certain Law threw at least 200 pitches and probably closer to 250 to the 64 batters he faced.
Law’s pitching opponent that night was Lew Burdette, the same pitcher who dueled with Haddix four years later. In this game, Burdette went only eight innings.
It was no weak lineup that Law faced that night. Batting back-to-back at three-four were Hall of Famers Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron. Bobby Thomson, who hit arguably the most famous home run in baseball history in the 1951 playoff game to help the New York Giants beat the Brooklyn Dodgers, batted fifth. A young rookie outfielder named Chuck Tanner, who had two hits and drove in a run, batted sixth and Joe Adcock, who would send Haddix to defeat four years later, hit seventh.
Law was lifted for a pinch-hitter, Roman Mejias, in the bottom of the 18th, but the Pirates failed to score. In another move that would never happen in today’s MLB, Law was relieved by another starter, Bob Friend, who gave the Braves a run in the top of the 18th. But the Pirates came back to score two in their half of the inning to win.
It’s not like Law was well-rested going in to his 18-inning stint. In his three previous starts, July 6, 10 and 15, he had pitched nine, nine and eight innings.
Nor did there appear to be any effect on his arm from going 18 innings. Back then, starters worked every fourth day -- as opposed to every fifth in this era -- and perhaps as a concession for Law having pitched two games in one night, manager Fred Haney gave him an extra day of rest and didn’t start him again until July 24. He pitched a 10-inning complete game in beating the Chicago Cubs, 3-2.
Law did have a rough patch in late July and early August -- which, as was common for starters in that era, included two relief appearances -- but he soon righted himself and in his final four starts of August his earned run average was 1.98.
Law finished 10-10 that season and went on to become one of the best pitchers in baseball. He was 18-9 in 1959 and 20-9 in 1960, when he won the Cy Young award, which, back then, went to the best pitcher in both leagues.
By the standards of this era -- when a complete game is considered, by some, to be hazardous to a pitcher's health -- Law pitching the equivalent of two complete games in one night remains a truly remarkable feat.
(This article was originally posted on the 56th anniversary of Law’s 18-inning performance.)