Near the conclusion of his, shall we say, incredible 22-game hitting streak, Denny Doyle, the Boston Red Sox' compact 31-year-old part-time second baseman, was asked by a newsman if he felt he was imperiling the record 56-game streak set by the immortal Joe Di-Maggio in 1941. Doyle, a red-haired Irishman who can take a joke as well as the next streak hitter, pondered the facetious inquiry for a few moments, then replied solemnly, "No, I don't think so. I doubt if DiMaggio would be too worried if he came down to the batting cage and saw this little guy in there choking up on the bat."
Doyle, who is approximately 5'9" and 165 pounds, is one little man not afflicted with a Napoleonic complex. Instead of seeing himself doing big things, he regards himself as a master of little things. He is respected by his teammates as much for his ability to see himself for what he is and act accordingly, as for what he has actually done for them.
"I've learned what my limitations are, what I can do to help a ball club win," says he. "If I fail in some of those small things—moving the runner along, making sure things go smoothly in the infield, doing what I can to pick us up when we're down, then I'm no help at all."
Doyle has been doing all of the little things and enough of the big things with such consummate skill that his popularity in Boston rivals that of his larger teammates, Carl Yastrzemski, Carlton Fisk, Fred Lynn and Jim Rice. "Doyle is one of those ball-of-dust, dirty-uniform second basemen," wrote Boston Globe Columnist Leigh Montville, "one of those little-guy pests...."
Doyle was acquired as "infield insurance" by the Red Sox on Friday, the 13th of June, from the California Angels for cash and a player or players to be named later. The player or players are still unspecified, although Red Sox Manager Darrell Johnson, watching Doyle bounce harmless grounders during batting practice in Oakland last week, joshed, "We're not going to give up any six-footers for that midget." Johnson needed Doyle as a backup man for his injury-prone regular second baseman, Doug Griffin, and as a general utility man. Doyle quickly gave evidence he would be much more than that when in his second game for Boston he hit a game-winning home run. It was his third hit of the season (he had gone 1 for 15 with the Angels) and it equaled his home run total of the previous season, accumulated in 147 games and 511 at bats.
Johnson platoons Doyle, a left-handed hitter, with Griffin, a righthander, but because visiting managers are loath to pitch lefthanders in Fenway Park, with its accessible left-field fence, Doyle has done most of the playing since his arrival from California. He has made the most of it. From July 12 to Aug. 5 he hit in all 22 games in which he came to bat. He missed one full game when Yankee left-hander Rudy May went the distance against the Sox and he did not come to bat in another game that he entered in the late innings as a defensive replacement for Griffin. In a few others, he substituted for Griffin so late he was limited to only one or two times at bat. Even in the games he started and finished, Doyle was not always swinging for base hits, such is his self-sacrificial nature. Batting second, he feels it necessary to "give himself up" with a sacrifice bunt or "move the runner along" by grounding to the right side.
Once, attempting to do no more than advance Bernie Carbo from second to third, he accidentally hit the ball over the right-field fence. Afterward, he had to be restrained from apologizing to Johnson for such a selfish act. So on one rather esoteric level, Doyle's modest 22-gamer rivals DiMaggio's majestic 56-gamer in that Joe was never asked to do anything more than hit the ball hard. Anyway, Doyle's hitting streak is the longest in major league baseball this year.
Though assuredly selfless, Doyle did want to extend the skein. He had some anxious moments along the way. On July 31 he did not get his hit until the 10th inning. The following evening the streak seemed finished at 19 games when Boston entered the ninth inning with a 6-3 lead over Detroit, Luis Tiant pitching and Doyle hitless. But Tiant unaccountably lost his stuff and the Tigers scored four runs to move ahead 7-6. Doyle led off the bottom of the ninth with a single up the middle, then scored the tying run in what was to become an 8-7 Red Sox victory. After the game, an impish Doyle approached still-smouldering Tiant. "Luis, I appreciate what you're doing to keep my streak alive," he said, preparing to duck, "but I think in the future you should just go ahead and win the game."
During the streak, Doyle had 31 hits in 79 at bats for a .392 average. His season's average jumped from .208 to .289. He scored 16 runs and batted in 13 and he hit eight doubles and two homers. He did not strike out at all. The Red Sox won 18 of the 22 games. Curiously, Griffin seemed to thrive on his second-base rival's good fortune. Pinch-hitting for him nine times, he had seven hits and seven RBIs.
Doyle's streak was finally stopped last Tuesday, when the Orioles' Jim Palmer shut out the Sox 3-0 on two hits, neither of them Doyle's. Doyle was, in fact, the last out of the game. But he hit safely on Wednesday and Thursday, sat out Friday's game in Oakland in favor of Griffin, then returned to the lineup on Saturday with a two-run homer, his fourth of the season. A .245 hitter in his five-year big-league career with Philadelphia and the Angels, he has become one of the American League's toughest outs.
Before the Friday night game with the A's, Doyle watched from the dugout as some of his more luminous teammates took batting practice. "People would ask me during the streak if I didn't wish the pressure would end," he said. "Actually, there was no pressure on me at all. I knew with my lifetime batting average it had to come to an end. Still, I felt good about it. I'm really having fun this season. I'm hitting second, ahead of guys like Yaz and Lynn and Rice and Fisk, who can really hit. That's where I belong."
No proper Boston fan would dispute that typically humble assessment.