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PLEASE DON'T HIT ME, MR. JOHNSON.
August 15, 2003

by Bill Hogan

 
 

There's a quote on the baseball-almanac.com website from Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson. "One of the most valuable weapons at a pitcher's command", Gibson said, "is the brushback pitch. First let me clear something up. A brushback pitch is not to be confused with a deliberate knockdown. There is a difference."

Bob Gibson – winner of 251 games, two Cy Young Awards and the 1968 National League MVP – intimidated many hitters in his 17-year career with the St. Louis Cardinals. Every so often, his "brushback pitch" hit the poor sap standing in the batter's box. In fact, he nailed the batsman 102 times in his career.

 
 


In his 21 years with the Washington Senators, Walter Johnson won 417 games – second only to Cy Young – and hit 205 batters. Roger Clemens recently became the 21st member of the 300-win club. He ranks 22nd on the all-time list of hit batsmen with 140 – including the much ballyhooed beaning of Mike Piazza a couple of years ago.

History, it seems, dictates that in order to be a successful pitcher, you have to be willing to throw a little "chin music" every now and then. It's necessary to let the batter know who's in charge. Don Drysdale (209 wins, 154 hit batsmen) once said "if the hitter is timid, he has to remind the hitter he is timid."

Some say occasionally hitting the batter is part of the game. Others say it has no place in baseball. Nowadays, anytime a player is hit by a pitch, it's customary to charge the mound and start a bench-clearing brawl.

What's beyond me is how any of these players summon the courage to get into the batter's box in the first place. Standing sixty-feet-six-inches from someone about to wind up and sling a rock-hard ball ninety-five-miles-an-hour into an area the size of a shoebox.

It's no wonder these guys step up to the plate wearing helmets, batting gloves, elbow pads and shin protectors. Throw in a chest protector, face mask, knee pads and a cup and maybe, just maybe, I'd stand in there against Randy Johnson; hoping that I didn't do or say anything to tick him off.

Praying that he didn't get stuck in traffic on the way to the ball park, receive word from the IRS that he's being audited or find out that he's part of a blockbuster trade involving the Devil Rays. It'd be just my luck that I would be the spitting image of the buffoon he caught hitting on his wife at last night's fund raiser.

It makes sense that nasty people make great pitchers. By all accounts, Carl Mays was a moody, surly, mean spirited man. In 1920, Mays was the ace on the New York Yankees pitching staff and a notorious "head hunter."

Ray Chapman was a good natured, well liked, affable shortstop with the Cleveland Indians. On August 16, 1920, the Yankees and Indians, battling for the American League pennant, met at the Polo Grounds in New York. In the fifth inning, Chapman stepped to the plate to face Mays.

Mays' first pitch hit Chapman on the side of the head. He collapsed and was carried off the field. The next day, Ray Chapman became the first and only Major League player to die from injuries sustained from a pitched baseball.

Mays – seemingly unfazed by the tragedy - finished the 1920 season with 26 wins. The following year, he would lead the league with 27 wins. It's not surprising that hitters facing Mays may have felt somewhat intimidated under the circumstances.

What is surprising is that it took another twenty years before the Brooklyn Dodgers became the first team to wear plastic batting helmets. I would have been wearing a World War I Army helmet the day after Chapman's death – especially with Mays on the mound. FYI: though he certainly had the credentials, Mays never made it to the baseball Hall of Fame.

Modern day ballplayers are constantly criticized. They're over paid, spoiled, pampered and self-absorbed. Their success is often attributed to juiced balls, corked bats and rampant steroid use. They've lost touch with the fans, cop an attitude with the media and are ruining America's pastime.

In recent years, they've given fans plenty of reasons to become indifferent about the game. Well, here is one fan who is impressed simply because they have the nerve to step up to the plate.

Resources for this week's Hogan's Alley include historicbaseball.com, baseball-almanac.com and mlb.com.

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