One of baseball’s finest control pitchers, Nitro Lew Burdette reached 200 wins not on a blazing fastball but on guile and deception. At times he looked like a mental patient on the mound–fidgeting and talking to himself–but was usually in control despite an appearance of a lack of control. His famous quote, “I exploit the greed in all hitters,” is a phrase issued by a master of control.
After high school graduation, Burdette enlisted in the Armed Forces during World War II. When the war was over, the teenage Nitro Lew began his baseball career in the Yankees organization. Initially called up in 1950, Lew saw little action with the Bronx Bombers, spending the bulk of the year with their AAA affiliate, the Kansas City Blues. Burdette never really got a trial with the Yankees who shipped him off to the Braves the next year.
Burdette was used out of the bullpen by the Braves in 1952 and led the club in saves. In ’53 he still put out fires but was used also as a spot starter, posting a nifty 15-5 record on a 3.24 ERA. Skipper Charlie Grimm felt hat Lew would be best used in the rotation in 1954 and Burdette gave Jolly Cholly 15 wins and a tidy 2.76 ERA in ’54. That year Lew finished second in the NL in shutouts, showing Grimm that he had the stuff to carry his club deep into games. He kicked off an eight year run of tossing at least 200 innings each season.
1956 was Burdette’s breakout season. The right-hander paced the senior circuit in shutouts and ERA while winning 19 games for the Braves. But his finest hour came the following year in 1957. Lew went 17-9 during the season and his numbers were simply of the modest variety, but in that season’s World Series, Lew put on a pitching clinic. Determined to beat the club that gave up on him too soon, Burdette stood the Yankees on their ears the entire Fall Classic. He won three games, tossed complete game shutouts in Game 5 and Game 7, and had an overall World Series ERA of 0.67. The Yankees realized their blunder of parting ways with Lew as a prospect… up close and personal.
After his World Series heroics, Burdette fashioned his first 20-win season in 1958. He tied for the league lead in winning percentage and finished third in Cy Young Award voting. The ’58 World Series had the same cast as the ’57 Fall Classic but the opposite outcome. The Yankees beat the Braves and they handled Lew with general ease in the Series.
Burdette won 21 games in 1959 (tied for the league lead) while also tying for the NL lead in shutouts. Named to the NL All-Star team, Nitro Lew honed his accuracy to perfection that season. He averaged just 0.131 walks per inning while Hall of Fame peers Don Drysdale (0.343), Warren Spahn (0.240) and fellow marskman Robin Roberts (0.136) possessed less put-’em-where-I-want-’em than Burdette. The next year Lew tied for the NL lead in complete games while walking just 35 batters in 275 innings of work.
Burdette paced the NL in innings pitched during the 1961 season, fashioning an 18-11 record with an average of just 0.121 walks per inning. But all the years of 200+ innings spelled doom for Lew in 1962. From that point on, he never again reached 200 innings in another season. The Braves severed ties with him in 1963, trading him to the Cardinals who in turn dealt him to the Cubs for Glen Hobbie in ’64. After a rough ’65 season split between the Cubs and Phiillies Nitro Lew had his last fine season in the American League with the Angels in 1966, posting a .778 winning percentage out of California’s bullpen as a 39-year-old.
W 203/L 144/PCT .585/G 626/CG 158/IP 3,068/H 3,186/BB 628/SO 1,074/SHO 33/ERA 3.66