Mickey Haefner was a decent lefty pitcher for an up-and-down Washington team from 1943 to ’49. He won 10 or more games five seasons in a row, topping out at 16 in 1945. No taller than 5-foot-7 (not 5-8, as he himself confirmed in 1943), his nickname was “Itsy-Bitsy.” Despite the “last in American League” trope, the Senators actually finished second twice and fourth once during Haefner’s tenure.
Haefner featured a knuckleball, although he frequently threw a fastball and curve, all delivered sidearm. When the Senators fought the Tigers for the 1945 A.L. pennant, Haefner was part of a rotation that included four starters who threw knuckballs. In 1948, Shirley Povich called Haefner “my favorite ball player.” All of which should make Haefner more than a minor footnote in baseball history.
Yet one pitch in an exhibition game tends to bring up his name more often than anything else in his career.
After 1946 season, Haefner was a part of an A.L. “all-star” team assembled quickly to keep the pennant-winning Red Sox sharp as they awaited the winner of a three-game N.L. playoff between the Cardinals and the Dodgers.
On Oct. 1 in the first of three games against Boston, Haefner hung a curve that hit Ted Williams on the tip of his right elbow. The pain was bad enough that the Boston slugger had to leave the game. Although X-rays showed no break, Williams’ elbow swelled up. He didn’t play in the other two exhibitions.
Against the Cardinals in his only World Series, the Splendid Splinter famously went 5-for-25 with no extra-base hits as the Red Sox lost to St. Louis. “The Curse of Mickey Haefner” was born. Williams conceded years later that his injured elbow played a part in his shockingly subpar performance.
Haefner had one other, if obscure, claim to fame: an MLB record that still stands. On July 3, 1943, Ewald Pyle had relieved the Washington starter, Ray Scarborough, and pitched four no-hit innings. Haefner, a 30-year-old rookie, followed Pyle and held the St. Louis Browns hitless during the seventh, eighth and ninth. This was the first time in MLB history that two relievers on the same team had held the opposing team hitless for three or more innings each. A late Washington rally made Haefner a winner, to boot.
The Pyle-Haefner performance was matched in 2015 by Diego Moreno and Adam Warren of the Yankees against Texas. In this era of heavy bullpen use, this record soon could be matched or surpassed. But it remains a first.
In a snit over what he considered a less-than-all-out effort by Haefner on an infield dribble in a July 1948 game, Clark Griffith essentially cut the reliable lefty from his team, putting him on waivers. Several teams wanted Haefner, but he went to the White Sox for less than Griffith could have received in a negotiated deal. The Old Fox later regretted it: His Senators tanked horribly after Haefner left, and finished last.
Haefner – the first syllable of his name is pronounced “hay” not “half” — topped 225 innings pitched three years in a row. He completed 91 of his 179 starts. He pitched for the Chicago White Sox and briefly for Boston Braves before his career in the majors ended in 1950. In 1951, however, he pitched the Southern Association’s Birmingham Barons into the Dixie Series against Houston. Then, he beat the Texas League champs twice, including the clincher in Houston before 10,500 fans, to win the title. He retired from pro ball at age 38 after that season.
Mickey Haefner died on January 3, 1995, at age 82.
A version of this appeared in the February 2022 issue of Squibber, the online newsletter of SABR’s Bob Davids chapter. Read my full BioProject essay on Haefner at sabr.org