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The Pride of Nitro

Baseball Star Lew Burdette

by David Driver

Behind the small house on Third Avenue is a hill where the family raised a few chickens, pigs, and cows on a nearly one-acre plot.

When the chores were done the two boys would climb that small hill to play, and from their vantage point they could look down toward their parents' pre-fabricated home built near the time of World War I.

Lew Burdette
Lew in the big leagues. 1955 photo courtesy of the Charleston Gazette.

"I didn't know what I wanted to be," Burdette told Sportmagazine in 1957. "I never figured much on being a ballplayer."

On many occasions one of the boys would toss rocks down the hill, as he aimed for the tree behind the house where they were born. More times than not he hit his mark.

This was the setting — the small town of Nitro in the 1930's — that propelled one of the greatest baseball players in the history of the state. It was there, in the World War I boom town northwest of Charleston along the Kanawha River, that Selva Lewis Burdette, Jr., was born on November 22, 1926, of French-German descent. He would grow up to sign his name "Lou," but his nickname was "Lew."

From his rock-throwing days at 28-34 Third Avenue to his 18 seasons as a pitcher in the major leagues, Lew Burdette more times than not was on the money with is offerings. Most of Burdette's success was with the Milwaukee Braves, and he was the toast of baseball after the 1957 World Series.

That October he started, finished, and won three games for Milwaukee against the hated New York Yankees, a team that had traded him late in the 1950 season. He allowed just two earned runs in 27 innings (0.67 earned-run average) in the Fall Classic, and the Braves beat the Yankees four games to three for the World Series title. Lew's dominance on the mound during the 1957 World Series was even more remarkable considering the muscle he faced at the plate — Yankee sluggers Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Enos Slaughter, "Moose" Skowron, Hank Baner, Elston Howard, and the rest of one of most powerful line-ups in the history of the game.


Like most boys in Nitro in the late 1930's and 1940's, Burdette welcomed the chance to play sandlot baseball games. "We would play a lot of street ball with tennis balls," he recalls. His father would occasionally take him to Charleston, about 15 miles away, to see semi-pro games.

All of his education took place at the Nitro school, which housed grades one to 12 under one roof. Burdette recalls punching a coach at the school who was trying to demonstrate his boxing skills to the young man during an athletic class.

"The coach was giving an exhibition and making me the guinea pig," Lew recalls. "I hit him in the nose (with a boxing glove) and bloodied his nose. I just popped him in the nose. That was in the seventh grade."

Nitro High didn't have a baseball team, and Burdette failed when he tried out for the American Legion squad. He had some early success in basketball and football, however.

A few days after graduating from high school in 1944 he went to apply for a job at American Viscose Rayon, one of the many plants that had sprung up in the Kanawha Valley town during World War II.

"I didn't know what I wanted to be," Burdette told Sportmagazine in 1957. "I never figured much on being a ballplayer."

You can read the rest of this article in the Fall 1998 issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.