Play it, Sam, one final mournful dirge in honor of Pirate Ken Brett, perhaps the last of the good-hitting pitchers. Make it a poignant remembrance of times past, when the pitcher-hitter was baseball's version of the Renaissance Man. This classical, well-rounded athlete, versed in the game's two most precious skills, could throw a shutout and win it with his bat.
Babe Ruth was the most memorable slugging pitcher, but there were many others. Walter Johnson hit .433 at age 37. Warren Spahn had 35 career home runs. Don Drysdale and Don Newcombe, sometimes used as pinch hitters by the Dodgers, share the National League single-season home run record (seven) for pitchers.
Aptly, today's inept bunch, most of them bushers with the bat, are being replaced at the plate by designated hitters. In the American League, which has adopted the DH, even the best-hitting pitchers do not bat. Rick Wise, who once threw a no-hitter in which he homered twice, is 0 for 0 with Boston. If the National League takes on the DH, all pitchers will be designated pitchers.
Fortunately for baseball purists, they at least can be sure the hitting pitcher will not exit with a thud. For Brett is the very paradigm of the old breed, a rock-'em, sock-'em ballplayer who is the second-leading hitter on his team with a .304 average. Many of those hits have been timely indeed. Brett has two homers and 13 runs baited in—one for every five at bats—and has helped himself by driving home teammates in nine of 20 starts. And he can pitch. Brett has a 12-7 record, a 2.86 earned-run average and was the winning pitcher in the National League's 7-2 victory in last week's All-Star Game.
One week earlier this season he combined these luminous talents by pitching two complete-game wins and lashing four hits. In the opener of a doubleheader against San Diego he had a perfect game for eight innings, eventually winning 6-0, and helped the Pirates take the nightcap 8-7 with a two-run pinch triple. Five days later he defeated the Reds 14-1 and had a single and a double.
In the best tradition, Brett perfected both skills at once. Playing for Philadelphia in 1973, he developed a slider to complement his fastball, rid himself of back trouble and wildness and was 13-9 for a last-place team. As a hitter he set a major-league record for pitchers with four home runs in consecutive starts—all of them wins—and finished the season with a .250 batting average. "He was loose up there," recalls Phillie Mike Schmidt. "He would sit there smiling in the dugout, really enjoying the thought of going up to the plate, and every time he hit the ball with that nice, easy swing of his, it jumped off his bat."
"I think you've got to be patient as both a batter and a pitcher," says the 25-year-old Brett, who was traded to Pittsburgh during the off-season for Second Baseman Dave Cash. "I'm a contact hitter who will occasionally hit a homer. If I get my pitch and I'm not trying for a home run, sometimes one and one make two." Brett had seven career homers and a lifetime average of .259 going into this season. If the National League rejects the DH, he could conceivably match Wes Ferrell's career .280 percentage and 38 home runs—including nine in 1931. Next to Ruth, Ferrell was probably the best hitter-pitcher in history and used his bat to help himself to six 20-win seasons with the Indians and Red Sox.
Unlike most pitchers, Brett never had to prove that he could hit. At El Segundo (Calif.) High School he batted over .400 as a centerfielder and pitcher, but only the Red Sox saw a big-league future for him on the mound.
At 19, he relieved for Boston in the 1967 World Series, but arm trouble caused him to slump. The Red Sox, ever wary of left-handed pitchers, traded Brett to Milwaukee in 1971. Even then, a National League man told Brewer Manager Dave Bristol, "If you can't use him as a pitcher, we'll take him as an outfielder." Milwaukee cared little for him as either and sent him to Philadelphia.
"He didn't hit all that well at Boston because he wasn't playing regularly and had to bat in Fenway Park, which is built for right-handed batters," says Phillie Pitcher Jim Lonborg, a friend and teammate of Brett's at Boston, Milwaukee and Philadelphia. "For Ken, it's all in knowing he can hit. Now he knows he can do it. He has great hand-eye coordination, hand action and strength."
Two questions are invariably asked of a good-hitting pitcher: Why not use him elsewhere in the lineup between starts; and if he fails as a pitcher, why not play him elsewhere full-time? The answer to the first is that the off-day experiment has never worked, except with Ruth. A pitcher's arm needs complete rest between starts. Regarding the second possibility, Brett says, "Should that happen, I'd like to give it a try, but it would be a last resort." Then he warns of overrating his hitting. "I'm getting a lot tougher pitches lately. They're not saying, 'This is just another pitcher," anymore. I'd be satisfied if my average ended up higher than my ERA."
Such virtuosity would not be out of character. Brett rates among baseball's top fielders at his position and he has been known to pinch-run. Playing with the spikes-high abandon of a latter-day Ty Cobb, he has been fined three times and was a principal in the Pirates' recent brawl with Cincinnati. "See if you can catch the fight on the 11 o'clock news," he said proudly after that game.
"When I put on my uniform, I'm a baseball player," he says, explaining his aggressiveness. "If I get on first base and a man hits a ground ball, I'm going to try like heck to break up the double play. I love to do that. I love to play hard, to bunt, to hit-and-run. I'll scratch and claw. It's just the way I play. It's the way baseball should be played."