Home plate on a baseball diamond measures precisely seventeen inches in width, and pitchers and hitters have been fighting over every single speck of it for more than a century. It is the eternal struggle in baseball and the most direct confrontation in all of sports. And it all happens in a fraction of a second.
Hitters have only the instant from the time the ball leaves a pitcher’s hand to when it arrives at the plate to do a myriad of things. Balance, speed, the proper timing of the hands, the correct angle of the bat, knowing a pitcher and what pitches he throws at what speed and with what degree of movement, considering the count and game situation and how that might effect pitch selection – a hitter needs all of that all at once, all in the time it takes to blink.
Although pitchers can be more deliberate – working with catchers via hand signals and other physical cues – to determine pitch type and location, their key contribution to the game action, the pitch itself, is just a flash. However, pitchers know the inner and outer sections of the plate provide the most difficult angles for hitters to squarely drive a ball. In order to maximize life on the edges, pitchers also know that each edge has a symmetrical relationship to the other. That is, even for a pitch to one side of the plate, the other side remains important, because pitchers necessarily need to convince hitters that any pitch in any batting sequence can be thrown to either edge.
So, while pitchers seek to create pitching angles, hitters naturally look to cut them down, to flatten them out as much as possible. And the closer a batter sets up to the plate the clearer the intent to try to block the inner corner, push pitch selection out toward the middle and opposite edge of the strike zone, and improve his reach to outside pitches.
In its most basic form, the pitcher-hitter showdown is territorial. However, such a standoff is more than just a simple property dispute. This simultaneous claim of ownership – with the very public success or failure of heated rivals at stake – brims with emotion. Add a dense leather sphere traveling at potentially lethal velocity into the equation, and the conflict over who holds the deed to the most valuable foot-and-a-half in the sport can turn deathly serious in an instant. In the time it takes one pitch thrown with angry intent to reach a hitter, a career can be jeopardized – or worse.
Fortunately, most encounters between pitchers and hitters do not remotely involve such dire circumstances. While there is commonly the uneasy hum of competitive tension bubbling beneath the surface on nearly every pitch, most throws that do go astray, by design or accident, result in little more than frayed tempers or dull pain and nasty bruises. However, improbability does not diminish the depth of consequence when something awful does occur.
In recent years, Major League Baseball has tried to minimize the risk of potential calamities at the plate by siding with hitters and regulating the intent of pitchers throwing too far inside. A system of warnings and ejections for perceived willful throws directly at batters is designed to blunt the motivation for such deliberate miscues.
Predictably, there has been resistance to the new process. Many purists of the game – and nearly all pitchers, of course – have taken umbrage at the idea of artificially policing what has seemingly been an organic part of the game, especially when that policing heavily favors one primary group of players over the rest. To such opposition, limiting a pitcher’s ability to fully protect the plate unnecessarily restrains a crucial part of the core activity in baseball. For decades, the tug of war between pitchers and hitters over creating and shutting off pitching angles to the plate has involved an uninterrupted procession of hissing inside pitches, hit batsmen, defiant hitters, and glowering pitchers, with little more than psychological warfare and thankfully few physical casualties as by products.
Perhaps, the mastery of the inside pitch as the ultimate tool of intimidation without the wreckage of shattered careers or serious injury was best embodied by a pair of extraordinary pitchers who ruled the mound in the 1960’s with the authority of despots.
St. Louis Cardinal ace Bob Gibson’s ferocity on the mound was only matched by his unshakeable resolve. In his eyes, every inch of the plate belonged to him. Gibson considered hitters who encroached on the inner edge – or even hinted at it – as trespassers. And he dealt with the unwanted intruders swiftly and severely. Whether the ball actually struck a batter or sent him sprawling in retreat, the missive was the same – back down or get down. It made little difference to him which, so long as he was free to operate on both sides of the plate. That hitters were made uneasy by the tactic was just an added bonus. And because his pitch command was so precise, he could send such messages without a hint of ambiguity.
Like Gibson, Don Drysdale had a mean streak. There was menace behind his pitching, and he had no qualms about directing that venom toward the men standing at the plate to protect his stake in it. As proof, the long time Los Angeles Dodger stalwart led the National League in hit batsmen five times and finished his 14-year big league career with 154 of them. His fearless, and ruthless, demeanor earned him a reputation as an enforcer, as willing to hit opposing players if his teammates had been thrown at as he was to spin the enemy off the plate for crowding it. When Drysdale was on the mound, hitters knew he could turn the stitches on a ball into teeth and had little trouble sending it howling at them ready to take a bite.
So, it’s no surprise that Gibson and Drysdale have typically been the first names brought up in defending the strong armed tactics of pitchers chasing hitters off the plate. However, those pining for the “good old days” of self-policing, unfettered intimidation, and everything else that came with the distorted form of frontier justice practiced by the pitchers of yesteryear may do well to remember the destructive force a baseball carries when traveling the 20 yards from mound to plate at the velocity generated by a major league pitcher. They may also do well to remember that Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale were both Hall of Fame talents with the rare ability to place a pitch precisely where they wanted.
However, most pitchers do not have that exquisite level of control, and the chaos of a pitched ball gone amok is frighteningly indiscriminate. Any batter who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time can have his baseball world turned upside down in a heartbeat – great, not so great, grass green rookies – it doesn’t matter. Once the ball leaves a pitcher’s hand and veers wildly off course, fate bows to the law of physics. A fast moving projectile will be halted by a solid mass. That such an abrupt and violent collision can happen by accident only underscores the risk of deliberately throwing a pitch astray even without the intent to harm in any way.
An eventual Hall of Famer, a superstar in waiting, and a rookie stepping into a big league batter’s box for the first time all experienced those hellish consequences first hand.
Mickey Cochrane was a natural leader. His white-hot temperament and insatiable hunger for success simply wouldn’t allow any other way. As a catcher on Connie Mack’s great Philadelphia Athletics of the 1920’s and 30’s, he was the granite foundation for the burgeoning dynasty. Although Philadelphia’s rosters were loaded with stars during that span – including Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Lefty Grove (Hall of Famers, all), Cochrane deferred to none of them. His combativeness and commitment demanded attention and simultaneously ignited and challenged the competitive fire of his teammates. That Mack entrusted his catcher to prod, cajole, and browbeat his own hand-picked roster into a winning mindset spoke volumes about Cochrane’s leadership effect on a team.
However, Mack’s Philadelphia franchise was in perpetual financial difficulty due to lagging attendance. So, he was often forced to trade his star players to avoid hefty salary demands and garner additional cash in return. Cochrane’s turn came in 1934 when he was sent to Detroit.
However, no sooner had he arrived in Michigan than he was named skipper of the club and became one of the youngest player-managers in league history at the age of 31. Leading the Tigers to consecutive pennants in 1934 and 1935, Cochrane cemented his reputation as a star on the field and in the dugout. In fact, as icing, he capped that magnificent 1935 season by scoring the winning run to bring Detroit its first World Series title. By 1937, Cochrane had entrenched himself as a local sports icon in the Motor City and was still considered one of the best catchers in the game. Through late May of that year, he was hitting .306 with nearly half of his hits going for extra bases and appeared to be headed for another stellar year at and behind the plate. In a game against the Yankees on May 25, he hit a third inning home run and looked to follow that up with another damaging blow to the New Yorkers in the fifth. He ran the count to 3-1 and, without warning, the walls of his great career caved in.
The pitcher, Irving “Bump” Hadley, threw a fastball that momentarily seemed to be swallowed by the late afternoon sun and then just as suddenly came roaring from the glare, careening out of control and directly toward Cochrane’s head. The one device that would have spared him, the batting helmet, was still 15 years away from regular use. So, when the ball struck him in the head, he had only his wool ball cap between his skull and the horrific impact.
Teammate Charlie Gehringer was on deck and later said Cochrane looked like he’d been struck by an axe as he toppled helplessly to the ground. For the next 48 hours, Cochrane’s life was still in jeopardy as he drifted in and out of consciousness. Meanwhile, Hadley was clearly jarred – adamant that the pitch unintentionally went off course and troubled by the considerable damage it had done to Detroit’s great leader.
After ten agonizing days in the hospital, Cochrane steadily improved but his Hall of Fame career was over. In 13 seasons, he hit .320, won two MVP awards, and played on three World Championship teams. However, his final official big league at-bat illustrated how devastating a single baseball can be under the darkest of circumstances.
While few players have had to endure the anguish of a lone at-bat bringing an immediate end to their careers, an unfortunate handful have had their athletic promise irrevocably damaged in a single moment. Perhaps, that lost potential is even more heartbreaking than the abrupt end of a realized career because of the unanswered questions left in its wake. Crueler still are instances where enough promise is taken away to scuttle greatness but the remaining residue fuels false hope.
Tony Conigliaro was ready to take his place among the pantheon of great Boston sports heroes. Williams. Russell. Cousy. Yaz. They were all going to have to move a little closer together to make room for a young slugger who was bunching up home runs with impressive density at Fenway Park. His name was already written in pencil on the pages of legend, waiting only for his inevitable accomplishments to fill those letters in with permanent ink. But in one instant on one perfectly placid summer afternoon in 1967, it ended. In the time it takes to blink, his name simply vanished from the pages of history.
On one pitch in one game of the long baseball season, Tony Conigliaro’s magical run with the Boston Red Sox ended. California’s Jack Hamilton threw a fastball that sailed high and tight, and Conigliaro never had a chance. The ball struck him nearly flush on the left eye, scrambling his flawless eyesight like a beaten egg. Though he would eventually recover from the beaning, his eyesight would never be the same and his chances at baseball immortality went with it.
And so it was. Tony C, the local kid from Revere, Massachusetts who made good, the right-handed hitting phenom who hit 24 homers in 1964 at the age of 19, and the All-Star right fielder who was supposed to bookend with Carl Yastrzemski for the next decade and give the Sox the most feared lefty-righty punch in the league was essentially done before his 23rd birthday.
He did make it back to the big leagues in 1969 and hit 20 homers. He followed that up with 36 more the following season, a true triumph considering the toll it must have taken on his psyche to step back into the batter’s box and face his greatest demon – the pitched ball. However, the baseball gods simply wouldn’t give him a break, his eyesight, which had cleared enough to allow him back into the big leagues, went for good in 1971. Another comeback in 1975 ended disastrously and at 30 years old, the game had dispatched Tony C for good.
Sometimes, a baseball doesn’t even wait for a player’s big league clock to really start ticking.
A hitter’s first Major League at-bat is the Holy Grail of his professional career. After all, scores of hopefuls seek it, few find it, and fewer still build longevity and legend from it. However, those who do reach that apex never forget it, because that first official big league moment is the culmination of arduous labor and a lifelong love, the joyful intersection of toil and talent. Imagine, though, the cruelty of having that anticipation, built on years of dreams and evolution, evaporate in a noisy, dizzying moment of bedlam.
Adam Greenberg understood, above all else, the value of maximizing his resources. There were more naturally gifted prospects in the Chicago Cubs’ minor league system in 2005. However, few of them gave more effort or utilized their baseball strengths as constructively as the 24-year-old outfielder.
On July 9, the stars guiding Greenberg’s baseball future rose over Miami. He had been promoted from Double-A West Tennessee a day earlier and was in the Chicago dugout that evening wearing a crisp new big league uniform, awaiting a chance – the moment he’d been preparing for his entire life – to step onto a Major League diamond and etch his name into baseball’s most exclusive roll call. As befitting the pomp of a commencement, Greenberg’s family had flown in to attend the game.
In the ninth inning against Florida with the Cubs leading 4-2, Adam Greenberg graduated. He entered the game as a pinch-hitter and surveyed the scene – one out, flame throwing lefty Valerio de los Santos on the mound, and home plate beckoning dreamlike but as real as the crackling dirt under his cleats. As he sunk his feet into the batter’s box – a Major League batter’s box, the thought must have surely entered his mind that his chance to do something great with that first big league pitch was nearly at hand.
It probably seemed like an optical illusion at first. The ball appeared to be chasing him. Rather than focusing on the natural litany of items to hit a baseball, Greenberg had to convert aggression to evasion in an instant. And it was like trying to outrun a runaway train – everywhere and overwhelming to the senses, all at once – giving way to the horrible realization that a collision was inevitable. As the blur of white leather and red stitching ominously zeroed in on him, Greenberg managed to turn his head at the last moment and the ball glanced off of the back of his helmet and struck him fiercely on the neck.
He later recalled gripping his head as tightly as possible, because he thought it was about to split open.
The force of the blow knocked his helmet – the piece of material salvation unavailable to Mickey Cochrane seventy years earlier – off, and the rookie wilted to the soil. A horrible stillness settled into the venue. The pitcher, Santos, was mortified. He had no desire or reason to knock down the young hitter, let alone cause serious injury. Greenberg’s family was inconsolable, their moment of shared happiness turned so profoundly ugly. And Greenberg, himself, was trying to quiet the thunder clap rippling through his central nervous system and summon the courage to get back on his feet.
Fortunately, the pain was temporary. However, dizziness and headaches lingered, unwelcome souvenirs of his sour debut. Within a couple of weeks, though, he was back on the ball field again. In West Tennessee.
To date, he has yet to play in another Major League game. So, his lone experience as a big leaguer is an uneasy dichotomy of the best and worst things to ever happen to him in the game and a constant reminder of the chasm between what might have been and what was.
However, the blackest day in baseball history occurred in 1920 when a perfect storm formed over the 60 feet between the pitcher’s mound and the plate at the Polo Grounds in New York. Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman was in the eye of that maelstrom.
Chapman was a genial sort, well-liked by his peers, beloved by his teammates, and respected by all for his hard nosed play and his devotion to his team. He was also a productive player, batting .300 or better in two of the three years leading up to the 1920 campaign and, at 29, had several more useful seasons ahead of him. His ballclub, the Cleveland Indians, were one of the better collectives in the American League, finishing second in 1919 and again vying for the pennant in 1920.
Cleveland was an efficient team, they hummed with solidarity. Befitting their leader, Tris Speaker – one of the greatest combinations of speed, batting, and defense to ever take the field – they all understood the importance of outsmarting and outplaying their opponents. And, perhaps none of them grasped the concept better than the Indians’ versatile shortstop. Bunting is one of the least glamorous activities in the sport, but Cleveland’s game plan required it, lots of it. In 1920, they would go on to lead the majors in runs scored, chiefly because they also led the big leagues in sacrifices and walks. Put runners on, move them over, and allow the heart of the order to drive them home. It is a simple, time-honored philosophy but few have the patience and will to execute it.
So, Chapman, the reigning American League leader in sacrifices and the pace setter for the 1920 season, was the point man for arranging Cleveland’s chess pieces on the board to their liking. He was one of the most skilled bunters in the game and could place them virtually anywhere on the field that he wished, moving runners along or bunting for hits himself with impressive ease.
However, Chapman’s vocation also carried risk. He liked to practically hover over the plate during his at-bats to see the ball better and give him the best bunting angle possible. So, he had to rely heavily on his wits and reflexes to avoid danger at the plate because of that batting stance.
In mid-August, the Indians traveled to New York to open a crucial three-game series against the Yankees. Cleveland was tied for first with the White Sox and both held a precarious half-game lead over the third place Yankees. The three teams were separated by an eyelash and, on any given day, that eyelash could rest gently with one club only to have flit mercurially to another the next.
On August 16, the Yankees sent their best pitcher, Carl Mays, to the mound for the series opener. Mays, who was on his way to 26 wins in 1920, was something of an enigma. Where Ray Chapman was always ready with a smile and a warm handshake, Mays was taciturn and distant. He could also be prone to fits of rage on the mound if things went poorly and had little patience with teammates who did not measure up to his standards. However, there was no questioning his pitching ability. He had developed a devastating side armed delivery and practically brushed his pitching hand on the ground just prior to releasing the ball. The unusual arm angle also created an unpredictable break on the ball as it snapped toward the plate.
The miserly ways of baseball owners of the time, however, were sadly predictable. Baseballs cost money, umpires had the discretion to determine whether or not to keep them in play, and umpires were employed by the league. With impressive economic pragmatism, owners wasted little time in stringing the three elements together. Umpires were, therefore, instructed to remove as few baseballs as possible from play. Discoloration and/or blemished surfaces were not sufficient reasons for retirement. That such imperfections made the ball harder to see and more difficult to track were trumped by its manufacturing cost.
While clouds began to gather over the Polo Grounds, no one realized what awful fury they carried inside.
The Indians wasted little time in pressuring Mays and his teammates, scoring in the second and again in the fourth to open a 3-0 lead. Leading off the top of the fifth inning, Chapman stepped into the batter’s box and likely didn’t notice how thick the air was with bad omens.
It was, indeed, the perfect storm and a horrible, horrible thing to behold – a hitter standing on top of the plate, a pitcher with an unorthodox delivery and a brooding demeanor, and a darkening ball in the fading afternoon light all amid a heated pennant race with its soupy tension simmering to a slow boil.
Like Cochrane after him, Chapman failed to pick up the flight of the ball and, because of the times, had no protective headgear to deflect the imminent blow. The horrific impact was so great that the ball deflected all the way back to Mays, who fielded it and threw to first, assuming that the pitch had struck Chapman’s bat rather than his head.
Chapman steadied himself for a moment before sinking to the ground like an untethered marionette. While the injured player lay prone in the batter’s box, Mays opted to confront the umpire by brazenly offering the fielded ball as evidence that it been roughened, the scuffed cover causing the errant arc of the pitch. The cause had clearly superseded the unnerving effect for the New York pitcher.
And the effect was dire. Chapman never recovered and became the first and only player in Major League history to die as a result of being hit by a pitch. For his part, Mays always insisted it was an accident, but the label stuck with him – the man who threw the only fatal pitch in the big leagues.
Cleveland somehow carried on, despite the heartbreak and anger. They went on to outlast both Chicago and the Yankees for the pennant and completed their mission by taking the World Series. However, the unimaginable cost of their beloved comrade forever marred the triumph. The struggle of sport paled to the hard truth of mortality.
Yet, even after these cautionary tales – Cochrane, Conigliaro, Greenberg, and especially the awful episode that took Chapman’s life – hitters and pitchers still skirmish over that prized pentagon with the intensity of a blood feud. Unfortunately, blood has been spilt and, because the key active element in the exchange – a baseball traveling at high-speed – will always carry destructive kinetic energy, that terrible potential still exists.
However, the pitcher-hitter dynamic is a complicated one. Because pitchers have such a finite area in which to ply their trade, it is understandable that they absolutely refuse to concede any amount of that precious space to the group that is in direct competitive confrontation with them. And it is equally justifiable that hitters, in turn, cannot tacitly accept a practice, regardless of intent, that carries the possibility of ending careers – or lives – merely in the name of sport. So, it remains a standoff with little chance of a resolution that would keep the delicate balance of the game intact.
One can only hope that the participants fully understand and respect the danger within the confines of this standoff and that the vagaries of chance do not happen upon another perfect storm on the diamond. More than anything, the forces of competition should never obscure the importance of valuing people over the games they play. Ray Chapman’s memory and the lesson of that tragic August afternoon deserve at least that much.
Charlie Bevis (1998). Mickey Cochrane: The Life of a Baseball Hall of Fame Catcher. Macfarlane.
Mike Sowell (1989). The Pitch That Killed. New York, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.