Last week major league baseball got off to its stormiest and most perplexing beginning in 87 years. No new multimillion-dollar stadiums were opened; no sagging old franchises had moved to rich new towns. The name of the game was still baseball, but the strict enforcement of an old rule was driving pitchers, at least in the National League, into an apoplectic frenzy. In the American League the same rule was being violated left and right (see left and right), and nobody seemed to care.
It all started when a little bird told the National League umpires to enforce the longstanding balk rule. (It must have been a little bird, because everybody in authority has since denied saying anything special about the balk.) The rule itself is as complex as a Philadelphia zoning law, but in essence it says that a pitcher must bring his motion to a full stop and hold the stop for at least one second whenever there are men on base. Strict enforcement of the rule is generally considered to favor the base runner because it prevents the pitcher from "quick-pitching."
During the first 20 games of this season, National League umpires called 20 balks, while American League umps, working under the same rules, called none. (Last year, National League umpires called only 48 balks in 812 games.) Pitchers were balking with about the same regularity in both leagues, but American League umpires are operating under some sort of mysterious astigmatism. The result is contented pitchers in the one league and pitchers who are going around talking to themselves in the other.
Like Bob Friend. The Pirates' ace is a nervous right-handed pitcher and worrier whose problem is inconsistency. In 1958 he tied for winningest pitcher in baseball; the next year he tied for losingest. When something goes wrong with Friend's pitching, he broods. Last week he had put himself in the books with a broody new record: most balks in one season—6. It took nervous Robert a mere 17 innings of work to come to this ignominious beginning. Now he will have to go through the entire season insecure in the knowledge that every time he balks he will break his own National League record.
Friend is only one of several hardship cases in the National League. Consider poor Roger Craig, who has enough troubles. At 1:15 p.m. on Opening Day Craig was sitting in a chair at the Polo Grounds, sipping a soft drink and waiting to pitch for the Mets. "I don't think I'll have any trouble with balks," he said. "The main problem seems to be that some pitchers aren't making that full one-second stop." Ninety minutes later, Craig had pitched two and one-third innings and had been slapped with two balks, equaling his output in 233 innings last year.
Five days later Craig had figured out his own personal answer to the umpires. He started in the Sunday game against Milwaukee, and when the Braves put men on base Craig took no stretch at all. He merely placed the ball in his glove, held it at his belt buckle, and then pitched. Came the 10th inning and the game was a double shutout. Milwaukee managed to get a man on second and Craig returned to his old style of pitching. On two consecutive pitches he failed to come to a full stop. But in this tense situation, neither balk was called, and Milwaukee was forced to win the game in the old-fashioned way: a sharp single to right. This was in contrast to an earlier game between the Cubs and Dodgers, when Los Angeles scored the winning run on a balk by Larry Jackson.
Fred Hutchinson, manager of the Reds, became so exercised over the haphazard law enforcement of the umps that he got himself thrown out of a game with the Phillies. "It's a mess," observed Hutch in language far different from the words he used on the umpires. "I'm unhappy with it all."
Warren Giles, the president of the National League, contends that he did not give any special instructions to the umpires with regard to the balk rule this year. "I just told them to enforce it," said Giles. "They have received the same instructions for years." One umpire had a different recollection of what the league wanted done. "The National League office," he says, "has asked that the balk rule be rigidly enforced. This year we're going to be more emphatic about calling balks, because we've had instructions along these lines from the National League president."
Joe Cronin, the American League president, tries to explain why no balks have been called in his league this way: "A few years ago the American League had to go through the same phase that the National is now. The National League has evidently now decided to crack down on the balk just as we did."
Some crackdown. The American League is more lenient with the balk this year than even the American League itself was last year. In the American any type of pause in a pitcher's motion is accepted. Milt Pappas of the Baltimore Orioles, for instance, pauses hardly at all, as was clearly evident in his 4-1 win over the Yankees last week. Instead of calling balks on Pappas the umpires planned to warn the Orioles before Pappas' next starting assignment.
The disparity between the balk calls in the two leagues can be traced directly to one thing: the growing superiority of running speed within the National itself. In 1962 the Dodgers, Giants and Reds—the first three finishers in the league—stole 337 bases while the Yankees, Twins and Angels of the American League stole only 121. With that amount of speed to contend with, National League pitchers began to develop quick pitches to protect themselves, and some clubs moved to exploit or prevent fast getaways on the base paths.
The Giants watered down first base to stop the speed of the Dodgers; the Dodgers hammered down their paths in Chavez Ravine, making them as fast as the brickyard at the Indianapolis "500."
Now, with the balk controversy under way, Gene Mauch, the manager of the Philadelphia Phils, says, "I firmly believe that Walter Alston of the Los Angeles Dodgers campaigned to get the balk rule enforced. I don't blame Alston. If I had the kind of running speed his team has I'd have done the same thing. The balk rule has always been there but seldom enforced. I believe, too, that Alston encouraged some of his pitchers—Don Drysdale and Stan Williams, to be specific—to violate the balk rule to bring attention to the rule. Drysdale was quick-pitching and it would confuse the runner and the hitter. Alston played both sides of the street to get this rule enforced. The Dodgers would complain about other pitchers and then let other teams complain about their pitching. That's pretty smart baseball."
Asked if he did teach Drysdale to balk in order to get the rule enforced and thus help his "Swift Set"—Maury Wills, Willie Davis, John Roseboro and Jim Gilliam—Alston said, "I guess I would have to answer that yes and no. If the balk rule isn't going to be called I want to know it. I want the same advantages for my pitchers that the others have. During 1961 I was tired of this business of pitchers not stopping. We had Drysdale take a couple of full windups, then a short windup and stop, and the runner goes and you've deceived the runner. He got away with it, but he got a warning on it. We haven't done it since. We were just trying to find out if they'd call it. The rule says you have to come to a set position for one second. The pitchers were coming to 'set' with slow runners like Frank Howard or Daryl Spencer on base, and not coming set with Maury Wills or Willie Davis. I think the umpires have been lax in past years about this business of coming set. Very few teams were stealing, and no one paid much attention to whether the pitcher stopped or not. Then two or three clubs started to run a little, and the pitchers took advantage of the laxity of the umpires. Personally, I think the fans like to see daring base running."
Worse times ahead
Much of the confusion and anger over the balk situation results from a misapprehension by baseball people. Most of them apparently believed that the umpires would call balks in spring training and then forget about them when the championship season began. Sure enough, the American League has followed this old familiar pattern—but the National League has committed itself to continuing the spring enforcement. Things are likely to get worse, rather than better, for National League pitchers. It must be remembered that Maury Wills, who has the potential to scare more pitchers into balking than any other base runner in baseball, has played but six innings because of an injury. How many balks will there be when he returns, and how much added confusion and concern? And, if the present trend continues in each league, what will happen in the World Series?
Freedom enjoyed by American League pitchers is shown inadvertently by Oriole Chuck Estrada in game Sunday with Yankees. At left, he comes to set position, which he should hold for a full second, instead, as shown by a sequence camera, he goes back into motion (right) a mere sixth of a second later. He should have been charged with a balk.
[See caption above.]