Baseball is the easiest sport for fans to criticize because almost all of us have played the game at some level. We’ve fielded ground balls, thrown from the outfield and maybe even hit a home run or two. So, when a batter flails away at a pitch in the dirt or a fielder misses the cutoff man, we’re quick to attach a negative analysis to the event. That all stops, however, when we see a major league player get hit in the head by a 95-mph fastball.
Watching the recent embarrassing brawl between the Tigers & Yankees, in which four batters were hit and eight were ejected, makes you wonder if baseball will ever get rid of the unwritten rules of “retaliation”. It’s one thing to go after a batter who has been “showing up” the opposition, but throwing at someone who hit a Home Run in his last at-bat is childish.
Even though some modern writers and broadcasters use the term “bean ball” to describe a pitch that hits a batter anywhere on his body, the historic definition seems much more narrow and means being hit in the head or “beaned”. As with many rules within the game, the issue in keeping it under control falls to the umpires and leaves them with the difficulty of determining “intent.” For that reason, players and managers still take the position that HBP (Hit By Pitcher) should be self-policed and retaliations often escalate into “beanball wars.” MLB has yet to figure out a reasonable solution to bench-clearing brawls and we all have some visual available in our brain of one of those fiascos. Mine is 72-year old Don Zimmer charging after Pedro Martinez in the 2003 Yankees – Red Sox ALCS.
The other day, I watched a telecast where an Aroldis Chapman fastball registered 105 mph on the radar gun. Ironically, a player named Chapman is the only major league player to have died from being hit in the head. On August 16th, 1920 at the Polo Grounds in New York, Indians Shortstop Ray Chapman was hit by a pitch thrown by Carl Mays and died 12 hours later. He was 29 years old and in his ninth major league season. Accounts of the incident seem to suggest that Mays was a noted “headhunter.” Pitching for the Yankees, he won 26 games that season and led the American League with 27 wins the following year. Babe Ruth was his teammate during this time and hit 113 Home Runs in those two campaigns.
Many players have had their careers impacted dramatically after being struck in the head by a baseball. Tigers Hall of Fame Catcher Mickey Cochrane was in his 13th season in 1937 when he was knocked unconscious by a pitch and spent seven days in the hospital…he never played another game. Another Hall Of Famer, Lou Boudreau, played very little after being beaned in 1951 and retired the following season. Despite this type of outcome, baseball waited until 1956 before implementing a requirement that batters either wear a batting helmet or protective plastic liners under their caps. Full helmets didn’t become mandatory until 1971 and the earflap was added in 1983.
Players of the last 50 years certainly haven’t been immune from these sad stories. Tony Conigliaro of the Red Sox was one of the brightest young stars of the game in the mid-60’s. In 1965, he led the AL in Home Runs at age 20! On the night of August 16th, 1967 at Fenway Park, “Tony C.” was hit in the face with a fastball thrown by Jack Hamilton of the Angels. The injuries were so devastating that he missed the entire 1968 season and even though he played with some success in ’69 & ’70, his deteriorating eyesight forced him to retire at age 26. Dickie Thon came back from a gruesome beaning in 1984, but was never the same player. Twins Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett had his jaw broken by a fastball late in the 1994 season and it would be his last game as he developed glaucoma the following Spring and had to retire.
Getting hit by a pitch can also be strategic instead of tragic. Ron Hunt of the Expos holds the major league record for HBP with 50 in 1971. This was right in the middle of a 7-year run where he led the National League each year. Minnie Minoso of the White Sox led the AL in 10 of 11 seasons from 1951-1961.
Of course, as in all things baseball, humor can always be found. In the 1950’s, Yankees legend Yogi Berra was hit in the head by a pitch and was carried off the field before being taken to the hospital. The headline in the newspaper the next morning said, “X-Rays of Yogi’s head show nothing.”
As for me, I’m going to fire up that InterWiFi thinggy and download some Chin Music.