THEIR LIVES ARE ON THE LINE

Every time a player comes up, he risks a run-in with that specter of death, the beanball. Only one major league hitter has ever been killed, but fear and fractures have snuffed out numerous careers
August 17, 1975

It is recorded in the informal history of baseball, as well as impressed on the minds of pitchers, that once there was a young man named Dino Restelli, a rookie who never became a veteran.

Early in the season of 1949 Dino Restelli had the look of an eagle who would soar one day into the quiet dignity of the Hall of Fame. He was big and strong. His bat sang. He could not miss.

Then he came up for the first time against Ewe 11 Black well, a blackguard of a pitcher if ever there was one. Dino Restelli stepped up, dug in, then backed away and pulled out his big red bandanna. He held it up for the world to see and wiped off his glasses. O.K. A cocky kid.

He settled back into the box, dug in again and then waved like a cop directing traffic, signaling Blackwell to bring it in. Sure enough, The Whip brought it in. Dino Restelli's bat went one way. His hat went another. And Dino Restelli went a third way.

Dino Restelli finished the year hitting .250 and was sent back to the minors.

Fear is an elementary fact of life, as complex and quaking as the world that is forever shouting at us, or as quiet as drops of water constantly hitting the forehead—those snipping little terrors that are a psychiatric goldfield. The subject is all over the Bible, a lot of third-rate poets have grappled with it in curdling pentameter and it has been a favorite of politicians, who have used it often and badly. But there is hardly a whisper of dread from athletes, few pounding hearts, little residue of cold sweat, only the rarest hints that they, too, are imprisoned by flesh and blood and have minds that betray them and render their bones pulpy.

As hushed up as an ancestor's impropriety, the word fear does not exist publicly on playing fields, nor does it appear in the assembly line of "personal" books that promise to cut to the heart of a career, but only manage to clip a toenail. Where is the wide receiver who tells of that microsecond before catching a pass when the steamy breath of sheer animalism is upon him, or the quarterback who tells of being in a crumbling pocket and getting picked apart like an African kill? Where is the shortstop who, when the pressure is screaming, requests of the Deity a home run—anything except a ground ball hit right at him? What about jockeys who must guide 1,000 pounds of unpredictability through cracks that open and close as fast as a snowflake melts on a warm sidewalk? Don't they know how the stableboy felt inside?

"There is nothin' like a horse," the kid said one day. "I love 'em."

"Why don't you become a jockey?"

"I tried...no guts," he said, tapping his stomach. "That's a funny one. I can feel horses. It's like I'm a part of 'em. When I see a good one coming out at the top of the stretch, I'm on him and I can feel him. You know he's coming. You know he's tough and has it inside and isn't going to get himself licked, and I get mad when I think the horse has all that guts, and I don't have any."

Most athletes, even those who posture, are distant brothers to the stableboy. They know the sensation of a single butterfly fluttering up to their throats. Expressions covering fear are common—he choked up, his lump came up—including references to anatomical shortcomings in various parts of the body. Fear of physical hurt, of failure, dwells in the secret places of an athlete's consciousness, but few, most of them boxers, will even say that fear is often an agent of boldness. A player who admits fear is like a surgeon who confesses to having bad hands; it is not good for business.

"How do you kill fear?" Joseph Conrad wanted to know. "How do you shoot a spectre through the heart, slash off its spectral head, take it by its spectral throat?" That is what fear is in sports: ghostly, never seen, never heard, yet there, like a barely perceived ground fog far away. And of all the private terrors in sports, none is more swift in the extinction of a career, none sits on the shoulder of a player more threateningly nor extinguishes the spirit more abruptly, none is more deadly than the beanball.

Almost childish in its playground sound, the word can turn a dugout into a savage pit, can zipper the biggest mouth. Consider it again, picture the objects: a head and a ball. The head seems to be the easiest part of the body to move, but it isn't; a head has to be conditioned to move in an instant. Mainly because of the peripheral vision required, football, soccer and basketball demand superb head movements. This is not true of baseball, a game more of sharp angles than of fluid arcs, a game in which the athleticism is more studied than free-form. Rather than head agility, which many of them do not have, batters rely on instinct, the quick recognition of spins and paths of thrown balls, to preserve their fragile heads against the physics of ball and velocity.

Look closer at the head, and its vulnerability is even more chilling. The entire face is exposed, and the skull casing, eight hundredths of an inch thick at the temple, is protected by a thin plastic helmet. That is hardly a match for the pitcher, standing out on the rise of ground 60'6" away, so close, it seems, he could tell if one of your incisors needs dental work. The rise, of course, is never a mound. It is the Grand Teton, and on top of it (whatever happened to little pitchers like Bobby Shantz?) is usually a gentleman who is tall and bony, or tall and as wide as a bus. It does not matter, for they all seem immense and have foul dispositions.

In his hand (a prehistoric paw might be more apt) is a ball, a large white tablet of poison three inches in diameter. What he does with that very hard ball, and what you do with it, will be the basis for endless analyses and judgments: contracts sent back and forth with notes of hurt, maybe arbitration and more hurt, long winters of kicking your favorite hunting dog. According to hitters, the trouble is that a pitcher can do too much with the ball. He can make it curve like a cougar buzzing around a mountain corner, or give it a lunch-pail hop that, like the curve, has turned many an earnest young man into a labor statistic. He also can stick it in your ear—at 90 mph.

Along with the abject case of Tony Conigliaro of the Red Sox, who recently found himself on a lonely beach running with his golden retriever and trying to accept or reject being sent down to Pawtucket, the history of baseball is littered with the crumpled wills, ended careers and expired aggressiveness of players who have been hit in the head. Only one has been killed. He was Cleveland's Ray Chapman, who was felled in 1920 by a pitch from Yankee Carl Mays. Mays' pitches came from around the knees (from the bottom of hell, that's what hitters think of that kind of pitch), and although he was not the vicious predator some thought he was, he was not exactly fraternal either. Ty Cobb remembered the incident well: "The ball had rebounded from his left temple so hard that it bounded down to Aaron Ward at third base. Ward, thinking it a bunt, had scooped it up and shot it over to Wally Pipp at first." Chapman collapsed at the plate and died that night in the hospital.

Just a snap of the fingers is how long it takes for a pitch to be on top of you, and there is no question that it is the most dangerous moment in team sports. "It's dangerous every time you step in the batter's box," says Dave Cash of the Phillies. "Your life is on the line. You're subject to getting killed. I hate to put it that way, but how else can you put it?"

The Orioles' Paul Blair would agree, for he survived one of the messier beanings in recent years when he was hit by Ken Tatum of the Angels in 1970. The ball hit him on the left side of the nose and the lower part of the orbital ridge. His eye was swollen shut. "I put his nose back in place," said the doctor, "but we'll probably have to operate just to set it. It was all over his face."

Luckier than Blair, the Orioles' Brooks Robinson has been hit in the head seven times, although his reflexes are as sharp as a stropped razor. "Even if that's not a record, I've had enough," says Robinson, who recalls everything about each beaning but the color of the pitcher's eyes. "If it is a record, let's pray it stands unchallenged by any batter forever. It's amazing to me that more guys don't get hit. When you get a guy out there throwing hard, it's only a matter of inches. Even if the ball's close to being a strike, say four or five inches inside, you can get hit. When a guy throws hard, I don't care who you are, he has a scare factor going for him. And if you get hit too many times, it scares you. You think about it, think you might have a blind spot."

As basic a drive in humans as it is in baboons or mockingbirds, establishing dominance of territory is central to hitter vs. pitcher. Territory is at the core of many games, but never is it so maddeningly subtle as it is in this conflict that brings into play elaborate gamesmanship over a strike zone 12 inches wide and little more than two feet high. Catchers study it as if it were a map of land mines; pitchers keep elaborate mental and written notes on who did what while there; managers become crazed over it; and hitters twist and snarl in their sleep, dreaming of textbook pitches that are low and away. Even the best hitters view that portion of the plate through a glass darkly; it is a graveyard of lost ships, that killing ground.

Naturally, the pitcher is sensitive to any intrusion on the outside of the plate. He insists that it be left to him alone, and he resists any effort by the batter to steal any part of it by digging in and crowding the area. The warning comes quickly: a pitch at the batter. In the argot of the trade, such a delivery is called chin music, a brushback, a duster or, in more polite circles, a purpose pitch.

Besides the territorial dispute, there are other reasons why a pitcher will throw at a hitter: he wants to set him up for a certain pitch; he wants to remind him that, despite his huge salary, he is mortal; he believes strongly in Exodus 21:24, but in this case the head for a head is in retaliation for similar baseness by the opposing team; or he is just plain mean, beyond the help of a lobotomy.

Hitters react variously. Some drop like puppets whose wires have been cut, regain their feet a trifle shakily, maybe chat amiably with the catcher hoping to distract him with, say, flattery (about as effective as talking to a mugger) and then swing at the next pitch no matter where it is. Strike one for intimidation. Others get up, fulminating and vowing destruction—a line drive off the pitcher's kneecaps or a bunt down the first-base line so the pitcher has to handle it and can be splattered like the bug that he is. The trouble here is that nobody can hit back through the box when he wants, and few can bunt the ball anywhere safely. Then there are the Frank Robinsons of the game, who are a menace when aroused (managers do not like to ruffle big hitters, and Gene Mauch, when managing the Phillies, had a rule against anyone throwing at Robinson above the waist). Or there are those hitters who are genuinely frightened. They will be heard from no more, unless a pitcher is dumb enough to throw them a changeup.

"Establishing oneself to the inside of the plate" is what Cal McLish, the pitching coach of the Expos, calls it. That sounds nice. It has a solid pedagogic ring to it. But what about the pitch in back of the head, the kind that sends beasts of burden like Thurman Munson, Willie Horton and Greg Luzinski out to the mound with bats in their hands and murder on their minds. Is there such a pitch as a beanball, purposely thrown to put a hole in a batter's cranium? The old Dodger Don Drysdale says, "I don't like the word, it's a sandlot term." McLish says, "I'd never use that expression." Oddly, hitters are just as evasive; they do not want to believe that pitchers would throw deliberately at their heads. Whether or not the intentional beanball exists is a matter of controversy.

"Maybe we're just civilized today," says Cincinnati's Johnny Bench. "I think everyone realizes that we're all trying to make a living. I don't like the idea of throwing at anyone. I roomed with Steve Boros and Don Zimmer in the minors. Each of them had been seriously beaned. I know what can happen."

"I don't know any guys who are head-hunters," says the A's Reggie Jackson. "A lot of pitchers will knock you down, but they're not headhunters. Of course, some pitchers are unconcerned whether they hit you or not, pitchers like Jim Kaat, Bill Singer and Sonny Siebert."

Philadelphia's Luzinski says that Bill Greif of the Padres is a headhunter. "He's No. 1. He'd better wise up. He's going to get hurt bad one of these days. They all say they're trying to pitch you inside. But there aren't really too many headhunters around."

Says Cash, "It's hard to label somebody a headhunter. It's a thin line between getting the inside of the plate and hitting somebody. Say a guy makes a brutal pitch down and away. The next pitch comes in on you, and he says it got away. But he could be a liar."

"Guys that throw at batters are jerks," says ex-Phillie Richie Ashburn. "And usually they're not going to be good pitchers. Drysdale was not that good when he first came up because he'd rather hit you than win the game. I didn't get hit much. I wasn't a long-ball threat. They just got mad at me for fouling off pitches. I did get hit once in the minors. I got it in the neck and jugular vein. The doc said the impact of the ball and the blood exploding into my head were what gave me headaches for about six weeks. Intent, you can't read intent."

A Giant pitcher says, "If a guy hits a home run off me, he's gonna get it. If I don't get him that game, it'll be another time. I waited two years for a shot at one guy."

"I don't respect a pitcher as much who throws at me," says Reggie Smith of the Cardinals. "If he throws at the head, he should be ready for the consequences. They say a batter is a coward if he steps toward the pitcher with a bat in his hand. That's a lot of bull. The pitcher has a weapon in his hand, too. If anyone throws purposely at me, I'm going to do anything to get back at him, maybe even go after him some night in a dark alley. Somebody's going to pay for hitting me."

Retaliation is high on the list of motives for throwing a knockdown pitch or hitting a batter. Recently, after having abused the Orioles with his bat the night before, the Yanks' Munson took a pitch on his arm from Mike Torrez. Soon, the Oriole catcher, Elrod Hendricks, was buzzed under his chin and hit on the chest. That made the next move purely academic; his next time up Munson got a pitch that hit him on the shoulder. Catfish Hunter waited an inning and then let Bobby Grich have it on the shoulder; no one could recall the last time Hunter hit two batters in one game. His next time at the plate Munson tapped to third, but he did not run to first. He peeled off and went straight for Torrez. Munson said later that he was mad because Torrez "blew a kiss at me."

This business of retribution is a sensitive subject. The hitters want to be protected by their pitchers. In fact, they insist on it. When the pitcher does not support them, bad feelings often arise. When Frank Robinson was with the Reds, he once stopped a game and began running toward the mound from the outfield. The pitcher knew what he wanted and waved him back; his next pitch plopped off the hitter's rib cage. Recently, Willie Davis—in a snit because his pitcher did not "back me up"—went out to center field and sat on his glove. "When I was pitching, I had an automatic thing," says Drysdale. "It was 2 for 1. One of our guys, two of theirs."

Ken Forsch of Houston admits having hit Tito Fuentes with premeditation. "I thought it was necessary to protect my club. He went out of his way to get Joe Morgan [then with the Astros] at second base. Morgan asked me to get him, and I got him. But I was aiming below the waist, so I would be sure not to hit him in the head. Besides, he scored and ruined my shutout."

Maury Wills, the retired Dodger, used to spend a lot of time on his back because, he figures, the opposition felt humiliated by his base running. "My pitchers," Wills says, "would meet me at the top step of the dugout and say, 'We'll get him for you.' Sometimes I'd tell them to wait, to just put them on the list. When Drysdale retired, he owed me two. Larry Sherry owed me three. Stan Williams, he was up-to-date. He lived for that sort of thing. Williams once hit Henry Aaron and knocked his helmet to the backstop. Aaron would take a toehold against Drysdale, but not against Williams. He had the feeling Williams was crazy."

Along with Drysdale, Williams was more than an ordinary black hat. Like the Emperor Domitian, who impaled flies with a bodkin when bored, Williams seemed to feel a certain ecstasy at the sight of a sprawled hitter. "He hit me on the head with a 3-and-0 pitch," says Aaron. "I was just standing there. I had the take sign, and he conked me. He told his teammates, 'As long as I'm gonna walk him, I might as well hit him.' I've heard that he kept a photo of me in his locker and threw balls at it. Maybe that's why he didn't become a great pitcher." But Williams was a perfectionist, and if he was not satisfied with his work the first time, he would hit the same opponent with his pick-off throw to first base.

Drysdale once hit Johnny Logan with a pitch, then nailed him at first on a pick-off, starting a riot. With a delivery that seemed to come from somewhere near third base, Drysdale's work was inspired. A myth at the time was that when Drysdale was pitching, Willie Mays would drop in the batter's box even when Drysdale threw to first. "When a catcher flicked his fingers," says Drysdale now, the fire of memories in his eyes, "it was like a red light turning green."

One of baseball's more storied intimidators was Ryne Duren, whose glasses were as thick as the bottom of a soda bottle. Entering a game, he would sail the first warmup pitch high up on the screen. The Reds' former First Baseman Ted Kluszewski recalls this moment. "One day Duren gives up three straight hits. What's he do? With a magnificent gesture, he lifts those thick glasses off his face, sticks them in his pocket and then steps back on the rubber to pitch. I think he hit the guy in the on-deck circle."

Among active pitchers regarded as decidedly inhumanitarian are Bruce Kison of the Pirates, Greif of the Padres, Singer of the Angels, Nolan Ryan of the Angels, Torrez of the Orioles, Bob Gibson of the Cardinals and Larry Dierker of Houston. And then there is Philadelphia's Jim Lonborg, who as a young pitcher on the Boston Red Sox studied under the Marquis de Sade, better known as Sal (The Barber) Maglie, a tonsorialist noted for superfine precision on heads.

The story goes that Lonborg once knocked Mickey Mantle down, and Mantle hit the next pitch into the seats. Disgusted, the pitcher came back to the bench and said to Maglie, "I did what you told me to do, and still he hits one in the seats."

The Barber paused, stroked his chin and said sagely, "Yes, Jim. But sometimes you have to do it two times."

In contrast, there are pitchers who are intransigent pacifists and will not throw at hitters in any situation. The great Walter Johnson would never pitch tight, and Cobb always crowded the plate on him. Bucky Walters once told his manager that he would hang up his glove before he would hit anyone. Among more modern pitchers, Warren Spahn, Robin Roberts, Billy Pierce and Ferguson Jenkins rarely hit anyone. McLish remembers a pitcher for Montreal who refused to knock hitters down; he is now in the minors with another organization.

"When Ernie McAnally first came up to us from Winnipeg, he was as mean as he had to be to win," says McLish. "But in his last couple of years with us he found religion and became reluctant to push a batter away. It was against his principles. Well, I respect a man's religion, but when you're trying to earn a living, you must use the weapons at your disposal. I tried to tell him it was his right. He wouldn't listen."

Few agree on who orders the knockdown pitch. For the most part, it is an understood professional code, and the pitcher does not have to be told what to do. But some players think there are managers who issue directives from the bench, among them Mauch, Alvin Dark of the A's and Dick Williams of the Angels. "You want to know about bean-balls," says Catcher Barry Foote of Montreal. "Go ask the expert over there. Gene Mauch." Mauch is one of the reasons why Maury Wills never did well at Montreal. "I felt funny playing for a manager I had learned to hate," Wills once said. "When he was with the Phils and I was with the Dodgers, he used to order them to throw at me all the time."

Billy Martin, the new Yankee manager, always seems to be at the epicenter of beanball brawls. When he was a player, he broke the jaw of a pitcher who threw at him. As a manager, he is like a frontier general who gets a Gatling gun for the first time: he'll turn it on anything. Insiders laughed when Martin, then with the Texas Rangers, said he was angry with his pitcher for throwing at Elliott Maddox of the Yankees earlier this year. A few nights before, Martin had said that he hated Maddox, that he considered him gutless and that he would eventually take care of him.

"Would you order a retaliation?" Dark is asked.

"I don't even like to talk about it," says Dark, who sometimes reminds one of the Reverend Davidson in Rain. If pressed, he might come up with something like this: "Hurt is a purgatory and a revelation."

Beaning is not without its comedy, though it is not of the sort that produces a full belly laugh. Who can ever forget the sight of Ruben Gomez after hitting big Joe Adcock of the Braves? A sensible fellow, the Giants' Gomez took one look at Adcock charging toward the mound, the bat in his hand looking like a toothpick stuck in a side of beef, and ran to the clubhouse with Adcock in pursuit. Once inside, Gomez sputtered weakly that he would not return to the game. Ray Sadecki of the Braves recalls hitting Orlando Cepeda. "I remember a terrible scuffling around the plate, like two bulls fighting. Cepeda was wrestling with my catcher, trying to get the ball. He wanted to hit me in the head but all he managed to do was give me a few choice words in Spanish."

Then there was the time Charlie Grimm tried to use a little foresight. Walking toward the plate after several hit batsmen in a row, Grimm looked out to the mound and he did not like what he saw. "I could see the big pitcher's neck swelling and getting red," he recalls, "so I laid down on the ground in the batter's box. The umpire asked if I was trying to be a comedian. 'No,' I said, 'this first one's gotta be a beanball. Let's get it over with—then I'll get up.' "

Alex Grammas recalls a time on the Cardinals when he batted in back of Ken Boyer, who used to wear out Dodger Relief Pitcher Jim Hughes. "Each time Boyer got a hit I would go down as the next hitter," says Grammas. "Well, we're in Ebbets Field, and there's Boyer against Hughes again. Boom! He hits one off the wall. Now, I know what's going to happen. Hughes is steaming, pacing the mound like a caged tiger. I figure if I stall in the on-deck circle, maybe Walter Alston will take him out. Sure enough, here comes Alston. But before he can get to the mound, Hughes turns and throws at me in the on-deck circle. I swear it happened that way. Mad as he was, he had to throw the ball somewhere."

Back when Grammas was playing, somewhere was at the head—with sincerity. Up until the early '60s, beanball wars were as common as the antiwar rallies that came later in the decade. Players today like to think that those times are gone, but that is all it is, wishful thinking. Despite the batting helmet and Rule 802d, which requires a warning, then automatic ejection for such tactics, baseball has never been able to cope with the problem. The helmet helps immeasurably. But the rule has only made execution more stealthy while forcing umpires into nearly impossible judgment calls. "I've only warned one guy in the last three years," says Umpire Ron Luciano, even though this season alone there have been at least five beanball brawls, including one between the Dodgers and Padres.

Leading 10-1, the Padres tried to squeeze in a runner. Annoyed at the overkill, Dodger Pitcher Charlie Hough hit the next batter, signaling hard times for all, especially his catcher, Joe Ferguson, who later said he had ordered the pitch. In the next half inning, Dodger Willie Crawford was sent sprawling by four pitches. With debate not on his mind, Crawford went out and punched Pitcher Greif. Ferguson then joined in and suffered a fractured wrist. "I hope he enjoys his stay in the hospital," Greif said.

All a part of the game, most players will reply, until one of them is the "hit-tee." Caught between club ethics, practical necessity and what they know inside to be wrong, players look away, certain that their frontier law—swift and sure justice—can tolerate headhunting well short of open warfare. Their ostrich view is all they have, must have, through the long summers. It is the nature of the pitcher to throw at a hitter, and before he changes, or the practice is stopped, there is better chance of the surreal world of Magritte's paintings becoming real: mountains turned into eagles, clouds of granite and commuters who rain down from clear skies.

And always there will be casualties of the kind that remain forever burned into the mind: Don Zimmer unconscious for 13 days, hospitalized for 31, his weight dropping from 170 to 124, unable to talk for six weeks. Zimmer again in 1956, hit in the left eye, wearing a blindfold and pinhole glasses for 12 weeks, unable to bend over or be around his children. Former Kansas City Manager Jack McKeon riding to the hospital with one of his players who faced emergency brain surgery and had a 50-50 chance to live, staring blankly at the player's head, "which had an indentation in it that looked like a deflated basketball." Paul Blair, before he was helped by hypnosis, his heart racing, his breath coming in short heaves, his body going limp whenever a pitch came in close. All of those who never made it up, or back, and became only shadows walled in by shadows.

ILLUSTRATIONALLAN MARDON ILLUSTRATIONALLAN MARDONThe pitch that killed Ray Chapman hit him so hard the third baseman fielded it. ILLUSTRATIONALLAN MARDONPitchers use knockdown pitches to protect the outside corner and their teammates. TWO ILLUSTRATIONSALLAN MARDONThe Barber's specialty was the close shave.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)