No one remembers the place or the names because it happened a long time ago, but in that forgotten spring a rookie pitcher turned to the manager of a big league ball club and asked: "What's the best pitch in baseball? Is it a curve, a fast ball or what?"
"Kid," the manager answered, undisturbed, "the best pitch in baseball is a strike." He waited so that the rookie could grasp a point, put to perfection. Then, very slowly, the manager added, "And the second best pitch is the knockdown."
One reason no one has carved this counsel into marble is that so far no one has had to. The manager's words and sentiments endure, by themselves. Only two weeks ago Jim Bunning, a long-armed Detroit right-hander, knocked down Jim Piersall, a short-tempered Cleveland outfielder, with predictable results. Piersall, hit on the right wrist, arose, marched to the mound and threw a left hook at Bunning. (Since Piersall hooks like Johansson, no one was hurt.) Earlier this season Lou Burdette, Chuck Estrada, Pete Ramos and Mike Fornieles were all threatened by hitters rising from the dirt in fury.
Baseball propagandists, such as league presidents, say that the knockdown is overemphasized in the newspapers; this gives them a chance to get back at the press, which calls them baseball propagandists. Then, lately, there has been a curious tendency to mysticize and romanticize pitching. A pitcher has written a book and mentioned Bartok. A writer has pitched an inning and mentioned himself, along with Mantle and Mays Amateurism flourishes, and one tends to forget that no one hits a home run when he is afraid that the pitcher will throw at his head or at his ribs or at his groin. One tends to forget that, for all its art, major league pitching is largely a business of terror.
July 9, 1961
Consider a familiar tableau. The batter stands poised, bat cocked, leaning slightly toward the plate, the better to hit the outside curve ball he expects. As the pitcher throws, the batter strides forward. He wants all his weight behind his swing. Then, as he realizes that the ball is hurtling at him, that there will be no swing, the batter comes unhinged. He heaves his bat. His feet fly forward. His body twists down. He needs the ground the way an infantryman needs the ground. He wants to embrace it.
After the ball has passed overhead, the batter lingers in the dirt, breathing and relishing the privilege. When at last he gets up to hit again there is something he must regain, along with his bat and cap—his poise. One more barrier has been erected between the batter and a base hit.
The barrier is older than anyone really knows. Possibly it dates from 1867, the year in which Arthur (Candy) Cummings invented the curve and, presumably, quickly discovered that terror made his new pitch doubly effective. Through the decades the knockdown has gone by different names and, like any weapon, been used in various ways by various men. There are shadings, subtleties and nuances, hypotheses, theories and countertheories, but, primarily, all one needs in preparing A Practical Handbook for Terrifying Batters is a working understanding of three terms.
The BEAN BALL is thrown to hit the batter in the bean, or cranium. It is employed for reasons ranging from dyspepsia to viciousness and is specifically outlawed by Baseball Rule 8.02 (c), which is not to say that it does not exist. Spitballs, as Preacher Roe once pointed out, have been outlawed, too. To throw the classic bean ball, one aims at a point shoulder-high, about a foot behind the batter. As the batter strides he loses height. As he ducks he falls backward, exercising a conditioned reflex. The ball is below and behind the head; the batter falls down and back. Voila.
On August 16, 1920, Ray Chapman, a Cleveland shortstop, was struck near the temple by an underhand fast ball thrown by Carl Mays, who won 26 games for the Yankees that year. People who were there say that Mays's pitch—a "submarine ball" in the post-World War I argot—was only slightly higher than the belt. Chapman dropped into its path. He died the next morning in a New York hospital. A committee of baseball officials later exonerated Mays of any intent to hit Chapman.
The BRUSHBACK is thrown to frighten the batter, to make him step back, with no intent to maim. It is employed routinely as part of a pitcher's assortment, frequently to set up a curve or, for that matter, any outside pitch. Ordinarily, one brushes a hitter by throwing at or close to the front part of his body, from the level of the uniform letters on up. Plate-crowders, such as Minnie Minoso, have some difficulty in dodging brushbacks, but the great majority of big leaguers avoid them simply by leaning back or spinning away from the plate.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell a brushback which slips—goes an extra foot inside—from a bean ball, and on this issue many baseball wars begin.
"Oops," remarks the pitcher.
"——!" replies the batter. Shouting follows, and sometimes blood.
The KNOCKDOWN describes any pitch that sends a hitter into the dirt, covering both the deliberate bean ball and the brushback that got away. It is almost, but not quite, a generic term. A pitch thrown at a batter's knees is an excellent messenger of fright but cannot be called a knockdown. Following semantics, the proper term would be "springback" or "shins aloft." The special importance of the word knockdown is that it covers the pitch that slips, the errant brushback that looks like a bean ball. Pitchers occasionally bounce pitches, missing their target by several feet. Fast balls sail and get behind the hitter, and sometimes a curve completely escapes control.
Don Zimmer, recently sentenced to serve as captain of the Chicago Cubs, was terribly injured in Columbus eight years ago when a high curve struck the side of his head. Two operations were required to save Zimmer's life, and afterward he had to learn to talk all over again. He had been struck near the speech center of the brain.
Whatever the name, the type and the intent, a close pitch, particularly an unexpected close pitch, shocks a hitter to his ganglia as it approaches, after which a number of things may happen:
1) The hitter does not duck quickly enough, with results ranging from extremes of horror and suffering to minor nicks, as with careless shaving.
2) The hitter curses, spits tobacco juice and hits the next pitch 480 feet. This demonstrates that the knockdown is the second-best pitch in baseball, not the best.
3) The hitter panics, swallowing the tobacco, and elects to swing at anything, just to escape the awful menace of the baseball.
4) The hitter rages and tries to ram the next pitch back at the mound. Such substitution of determination for poise is rarely successful. Lining a baseball off a pitcher is a fantastic feat of marksmanship.
5) The hitter, neither in rage nor in panic, loses confidence and, when he swings again, pulls away from the plate in an involuntary action. The hitter is not trembling, but he is rattled.
The furthest extreme, of course, was the Chapman case, the only occasion on which a major league batter has been killed by a pitch. Occasions on which major leaguers have been seriously injured are more numerous; so numerous, in fact, that one can select an excellent all-star team of beanees across the years. Mickey Cochrane (fractured skull) or Roy Campanella (fast ball into left ear) is the catcher. Around the infield are Jackie Robinson (fractured batting helmet) at first base; Cass Michaels (fractured skull) at second; Pee Wee Reese (concussion) at short; Pete Reiser (concussion) at third. Joe Medwick (fractured skull), Hank Leiber (concussion, shortened career) and Carl Furillo (six beanings, various effects) make up the outfield. Picking a pitcher for this squad seems innately wrong and hence will be skipped. Robinson admittedly makes it on a pass, but 1) after Steve Ridzik hit him Robinson's helmet looked like a relic of Hiroshima and 2) I want him on my team. Forpurists, Joe Adcock (concussion) is offered as alternate first baseman.
Beyond this distinguished group of victims stands an army of walking wounded, ballplayers who have been hit on arms and elbows and as a result missed days or weeks of play. Dick Groat, the Pittsburgh shortstop, was sidelined for a month last season and almost missed the World Series after Lou Burdette fractured his wrist. Dodger veteran Duke Snider reported trim and eager this spring and hit well until Bob Gibson's fast ball fractured his elbow on April 17. To any batter, the inside fast ball is a dear and present danger whether it comes dramatically as a bean ball or routinely as a brushback that flicks the letters at 90 miles an hour.
Before batting helmets were adopted, there was a distinct sound associated with beanings, a sound oddly and irrevocably wrong. It was deeper than the sound of a ball hitting a bat, softer than the sound of a ball striking the catcher's mitt, less crisp than the sound of a ball striking a concrete wall. It was always unfinished, a thump that died as it was born, died quickly, but not before one knew what lay ahead. This sound without echo meant—always—a solemn circle of men, busy trainers in white and finally the stretcher, borne by the victim's teammates, on whom baseball uniforms suddenly looked out of place.
The batting helmet has changed the sound and substantially reduced the number of skulls fractured by baseballs. But there is no armor against fear. The helmet has not significantly changed hitters' attitudes, nor has it provided complete protection. It does not cover the ears.
Adcock suffered his concussion while wearing the helmet and afterward somberly displayed it in the clubhouse. Red marks had been blasted into the dark blue plastic by the stitches of the baseball. A few reporters told Adcock he was lucky to have been wearing the helmet, but except for that the dressing room was quiet.
Ballplayers are neither more nor less heroic than any other group of young men, but they necessarily have adopted general codes toward their occupational hazards. Most accept the brush-back for what it is—an impersonal reminder that the ball is hard, that the pitcher disapproves of anyone leaning in.
"Ain't gonna hit me that way," Willie Mays says. "They can throw close all they want. I ain't gonna be there."
Mickey Mantle goes further. He endorses the brushback. "You got to throw at hitters up here," he says, "and if I was a pitcher I would. Otherwise, they'd wear you the hell out."
There is a good deal of pragmatism to this approach. Pitchers are going to continue brushing hitters in their impersonal, nonmalignant way as long as the ball remains hard, and the hitter who makes a fuss about brushbacks is obviously troubled. He thus becomes a candidate for impersonal, nonmalignant brushbacks every time he comes to bat.
But one suspects that many players who kid about the subject are not really so delighted to be brushed as they would like to appear. For public consumption they follow an old approach to unpleasantness: Don't admit it's unpleasant, and maybe it will go away. A few hints of resentment slip through. Early Wynn once was batting against Allie Reynolds, the old New York Yankee right-hander, when Reynolds spun Wynn backward with a fast ball. "Yogi," Wynn said to the embryo author behind the plate, "you better tell your pitcher to start pitching me outside, because if he doesn't, Yogi, I'm gonna start pitching you inside." Berra pirouetted to the mound, and Reynolds switched to the outside corner. Wynn, armedwith his own considerable fast ball, could afford to issue an ultimatum and make it stick. Other ballplayers, however, lacking Wynn's temperament, reputation and position (pitcher), cannot.
In the case of the bean ball, acceptance is neither required nor expected; it has been the Sumter of a hundred baseball battles. The batter, if he survives, may bunt toward the first baseman. This forces the pitcher to cover first, where he can be spiked or mauled. Maglie threw behind Jackie Robinson in 1955—he claims the pitch slipped—and Robinson saved himself by standing stock-still. Then he bunted toward first. Maglie, outweighed, refused to cover. A second baseman named Davey Williams, who had a history of back trouble, did, and Robinson banged into him so hard that Williams was never able to play regularly again.
Eschewing the bunt, the batter may rely on team loyalty, in the form of a retaliatory bean ball. Most managers recommend throwing retaliatory bean balls at big hitters on the opposing team, telling their pitchers, in effect, "You've got to protect our hitters." In one recent game a pitcher threw a bean ball, and half an inning later the other pitcher threw an equalizer. The plate umpire walked to the mound, summoned both managers and announced: "O.K. You've each had your shot. Now the next time there's a bean ball the pitcher gets fined." Alvin Dark, the manager of the San Francisco Giants, recently announced an interesting variation on this. From now on, he said, the Giants would throw only at rival pitchers and catchers.
The ultimate counter to the bean ball is to start a riot, preferably on the pitcher's supine form. Don Drysdale threw behind Johnny Logan's neck when Logan played for Milwaukee, and Logan led a battalion of Braves in a short charge. Eddie Mathews worked on Drysdale's head, Logan handled the body punching, and after the tall pitcher had been felled, Carl Sawatski, a large-hipped catcher, sat on his chest. Drysdale escaped with contusions—which, considering the odds, was a tribute to his powers of self-preservation.
Joe Adcock, convinced that Ruben Gomez was throwing at him, once sprinted to the mound, whereupon Gomez sprinted to center field, a distance of 70 yards, in 7.2 or 7.3 seconds. (As always, officials' watches varied.) Other inciters include Billy Martin and Carl Furillo, the latter establishing a National League record for slow-reaction time. After being hit on the wrist, Furillo trotted to first base, mused extensively on man's inhumanity and finally bolted toward the Giant dugout where he was ultimately diverted from his intention to assault and batter Leo Durocher, the once and future manager. Furillo had decided that Durocher ordered the pitch.
Such considerations as these, rather than Rule 8.02 (c), make most pitchers somewhat reluctant to throw bean balls. The brush back is effective enough, and besides, there are other means of squaring personal grudges. "I like to hit a guy once in a while," one veteran concedes. "1 don't want to murder anyone, but I want them to know that when I'm working they can get hurt." This pitcher has perfected a fast ball at the rib cage. "Nobody gets killed that way, but when a guy takes my fast ball in the ribs, he knows he's been hit." Jim Brosnan of Cincinnati is on record with a statement that he has tried to hit batters, and of course an enraged pitcher may try to bean a batter at any time.
It is difficult to determine whether more bean balls and brushbacks are thrown these days than formerly. Branch Rickey has said that pitchers throw at, or close to, hitters less; Andy High, a fine third baseman in the 1920s, feels that pitchers throw toward hitters more. A greater number of oldtimers agree with Rickey, but many of them suffer from the Cobb syndrome: i.e., baseball was better, rougher and more American in the old days. The weighted results of a poll prove nothing.
Most of the truly great pitchers brushed back hitters, but only incidentally. "It would be an insult to the memory of Christy Mathewson to call him a knockdown pitcher," Rickey says. "Matty was a master of velocity and rotation. He could learn to throw any sort of breaking ball as soon as he saw it." Still, a hitter leaning in to hit one of Mathew-son's breaking pitches courted Mathew-son's fast ball, high, tight and hard.
Grover Cleveland Alexander, who pitched 16 shutouts in 1916, possessed a quick curve and a fine sinker. "Alex didn't knock you back much," recalls Hans Lobert, who hit against him, or tried to. "But whenever he did wing you, it hurt like hell. He threw a heavy ball. It felt like a chunk of cement."
Walter Johnson, probably the fastest of all pitchers, was one of the few who was genuinely afraid of hitting anyone. Ty Cobb reportedly crowded the plate against Johnson, and the pitcher, considering his speed and his conscience, felt obliged to work the outside corner. It was a neat trick, but never widely popular. Plate-crowding against Johnson demanded arrogance and a taste for self-destruction.
Although Mathewson, Alexander and Johnson are a trio not easily matched, pitching generally has grown better and more sophisticated, as befits a semi-science, and there is not much question but that Sal Maglie carried knockdown research further than anyone had before. Reflecting in tranquillity now, as a coach with the Boston Red Sox, he points out: "It depends on the ball game when you use it. The pitch is no good for a two-strike no-ball situation (which is when it was traditionally used—the son of a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED editor was beaned in a Little League game last week on a two-strike, no-ball count, showing that children are traditionalists after all]. There it's routine. It's expected. A good time is two and two." By using the knockdown when it was unexpected, Maglie made it the expected pitch every time he wound up.
Hitters' choices as the best knockdown pitchers practicing today are Drysdale, Larry Jackson of the Cardinals, Art Ditmar of the Athletics, Jim Coates of the Yankees, Jim Perry of the Indians and Early Wynn. Drysdale, Jackson and Perry, comparatively young, undoubtedly profit from the lessons Maglie learned. Wynn, a contemporary of Maglie's, has conducted his own independent research. His particular contribution to the art of the knockdown is a glare, devoid of expression and therefore devoid of humanitarianism, preceding each pitch. It has been known to intimidate not only the batter but the man in the on-deck circle.
How important, then, is the knockdown in winning games? By itself, it has no importance. Any muscular young man can throw at other people's heads, but few muscular young men can win in the major leagues. The knockdown is important only when a pitcher knows how to use it, working it into a combination of curves and fast balls and sliders. Then it changes the very nature of the game.
Ultimately, contemporary baseball has been created in the image of Babe Ruth. The home run, that utter negation of the pitcher's might, dominates. It is what fans come to see. It is why fences are close. It provides the climactic instant of modern baseball.
More than any other single act, the high, inside fast ball alters that emphasis. Bean ball, brushback, knockdown—all these terms conjure up the image of a fallen man. Perhaps he is twitching. Perhaps he is lying still. Either way, the game is forgotten. When it is remembered and resumed, the fresh image lingers. The pitcher suddenly seems vicious. Each pitch becomes explosive with danger. For that time at least, in a hitters' game, the balance has shifted. For that time, the pitcher rules and the shade of Ruth lies still.
Once Ion ago I walked into the Dodger trainers' room, just after Carl Furillo had been felled. The ball had struck his hand and smashed into his nose, remodeling it. Furillo, a powerful, perfectly proportioned man, was lying on a table, ice packs covering his nose and his eyes, so that he could not see. He was lying very still, very quiet.
"How do you feel?" I asked, offering my hand.
He clutched the hand hard, as one does in blindness. "That you?" he wanted to know, calling my name.
"Hey," Furillo said, "am I gonna be O.K.?"
Only a few days later I heard a baseball official say that knockdowns were not much of a factor in the game. They didn't bother ballplayers, he said. Only fans and newspapermen.