The big league batter with the built-in slump

June 10, 1963
June 10, 1963

Table of Contents
June 10, 1963

C. M. Clay Esq.
  • Martial music heralded an invasion of Britain last week. When the sound of trumpets turned out to be boxing's brash young man blowing his own horn, staid old London shuddered and dug in

Honest Warren Giles
Horse Racing
Baseball's Week
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

The big league batter with the built-in slump

Among weak-hitting pitchers the greatest is Bob Buhl, who not only can't hit his weight but once didn't hit his hat size

Your team islosing 2-0 in the sixth inning and there are two outs, but the eighth man inthe batting order has just doubled and now you have the tying runs on secondand third. Up to the plate steps Sting Ray Smith, the toughest, meanestleft-handed pitcher in the league. He bats right-handed. On the mound he is allman—strong, imposing, confident, capable. But at the plate, holding the bat asthough it were something he had always meant to take a good close look at someday, if he had time, he seems self-conscious and even embarrassed. He shouldbe: his batting average is .087. You sit back. You know that he is pitching agood game and that it is too early to take him out for a pinch hitter. But whydoes he have to come up at a time like this?

This is an article from the June 10, 1963 issue Original Layout

You shoutloyally, "Come on, Sting Ray, baby. Hang in there, kid." But your heartisn't in it, and neither is Sting Ray's. He backs away from an outside pitchand looks hurt when the umpire calls it a strike. He digs in, cocks his bat andfeels his stomach turn over as a fast ball slams by an inch from his navel. Theumpire calls it strike two, but this time there is no protest. Sting Ray ishappy to be alive and well. The third pitch is a curve low and away. StingRay's mind suggests to his body that it move forward and hit the ball, but hisnavel remembers the fast ball and pushes everything the other way. Compromised,the toughest, meanest left-hander in the league rocks gently back on his heels,reaches forward with his bat and waves at strike three. The inning is over, therunners have died on base, and the score is still 2-0. It stays that way, andafter the game Sting Ray mutters that the club sure hasn't been getting himvery many runs lately.

All pitchers arenot like Sting Ray. Some can hit—Warren Spahn, for instance, and Robin Robertsand Jim Bunning and Don Drysdale. But most can't. Last year 33 major leaguepitchers who were in 100 innings had batting averages beginning with a zero,like .062 and .053 and .044. This spring Bob Buhl of the Chicago Cubs extendedhis times at bat without a safe hit to 87 before busting out of his slump witha single. He followed with a rash of base hits (three, if you're counting) tolift his season's average, as of a few days ago, to a rich, ripe .137. Do notsneer at .137. When Buhl's average hovered at that memorable peak last week,the Cubs' 10-man pitching staff had a collective batting average of .128. TheCub pitchers had contributed a total of 15 hits to their team's batting attack.They had received five bases on balls and had batted in five runs. Statisticscan be unfair, but never mind—these say that Cub pitchers pony up one base hitevery three games and that they bat in one run every nine games, whether it'sneeded or not. And the Cub pitchers are nothing exceptional. They are justrun-of-the-mill lousy hitters, except for Bob Buhl.

Buhl is a big,quiet, good-looking fellow (he resembles the movie actor Rory Calhoun) who hascompiled one of the best won-and-lost records in baseball over the past 10years without attracting much attention. Then, last season, fame, walkingbackward, came to Robert Buhl. He became the Babe Ruth, the Ty Cobb, the HonusWagner of weak-hitting pitchers. The American League thought it had somethingin Hank Aguirre of the Detroit Tigers, who had only two hits in 75 at bats foran .027 average. Well, Buhl went to bat 70 times and had no hits, none at all,not one. He bettered Aguirre's average by 27 points. He batted .000.

Buhl's battingrecord, like an archeological find, is fascinating to sift through. He was notentirely unproductive at the plate in 1962. He scored two runs. He batted inone. He had seven sacrifice bunts and one sacrifice fly. He stole a base! Hewas caught trying to steal another. Most startling of all, he was walked sixtimes and once was hit by a pitch. This fragment is a museum piece. Imaginegiving six bases on balls to a man who would not get a hit all season! Not onlycan pitchers not hit, sometimes they can't pitch, either. It helps you tounderstand why some managers twitch and why others do TV commercials forstomach sedatives.

Why can'tpitchers hit? "They don't know how," said a veteran major leaguer, acatcher by trade who has spent a good part of his adult life warming uppitchers in the bullpen. "They're freaks. They don't know how to doanything but pitch. They're not athletes. They can't field, they can't hit,they can't bunt, they can't run bases. Did you ever watch the pitchers runningin the outfield before a game? They look like Mack trucks going up a hill.They're not athletes. That's why they can't hit."

Ernie Banks ofthe Cubs has another theory. "Pitching is very difficult," he says."There are so many things pitchers have to think about—the fast ball, thecurve, the change, where to throw the ball to different batters. Pitchers haveto concentrate on all that and they don't have time to concentrate on hitting.And you have to concentrate to be a good hitter."

Hitting is forfun

The truth is,pitchers are not encouraged to be hitters. Ordinarily they are given battingpractice only at their home park—and then early, before the crowd gets there.Oh, once in a while a manager will announce that his pitchers are going to getspecial batting practice and that a batting coach will work with them, but theexperiments don't last long. Batting coaches discourage easily. Pitchers atbatting practice are like kids playing around a swimming hole; they jump in andout of the batting cage and laugh at games like "base hit" and"home run." It's a time for fun, not learning. No self-respectingbad-hitting pitcher would dream of asking a batting-practice pitcher to throwhim a curve ball. They like fast balls, slow fast balls.

In spite ofeverything, pitchers take great pride in their hitting. Fred Martin, nowpitching coach of the Cubs, recalled the time he bet Vinegar Bend Mizell $10that he would outhit him over the season. "Vinegar hit .071 and I hit.172," Martin said. "I called the bet off. I told Vinegar that any manwho outhits another man by 100 points shouldn't take money from him."