An All-Star Game without All of the Stars

The first Major League Baseball All-Star Game took place in 1933, which was about 15 years too late.

Granted, that All-Star debut didn’t lack spectacle or star power – seven of the nine starters for the American League were eventual Hall of Famers, while four National League starters later earned Cooperstown entry.

Even the managers carried legend with them.  John McGraw and Connie Mack led their respective teams for 86 years between them, collectively winning 19 pennants and 8 World Series titles.  Both earned Hall of Fame honors and are still considered two of the greatest managers in the history of the sport.

So, as debuts go, the 1933 All-Star Game was, indeed, gold plated and diamond encrusted.

1933 All Star

Still, if the All-Star tradition had started a decade or two earlier, the 1933 edition would have still been played in all of its magnificence, it just would have been the latest in a string of great games leading up to it.  Earlier contests would have also allowed a whole slate of star players the chance to shine in such an elite showcase – a chance not afforded in 1933 because they had already left the game.

Consider 1919 – yes, the year of the Black Sox and the eternal tarnishing of baseball’s soul.  However, if there was an All-Star game that year, the American League could have matched the 1933 roster with seven Hall of Famers in the starting nine. And that magnificent seven would have included top-tier talents like Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, George Sisler, and Walter Johnson – all of whom had retired by 1933.

For good measure, the American Leaguers could boast about having Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the greatest left-handed hitters in baseball history, on the team and having the version of him before he decided to corrupt himself and his sport in the World Series that fall.  Harry Heilmann would also be available to them – the only big league player to crest .400, win four batting titles, be selected for the Hall of Fame, and yet remain shamefully invisible in the public’s collective memory.

Harry Heilmann Detroit Slugger

And if the game was close and the team needed an immediate offensive dividend, they could use a 24- year old outfielder from the Boston Red Sox named George Ruth, who was on the cusp of changing the sport forever by tethering the age of power hitting to his booming bat and sling-shotting it forward.

Ruth1918

In 1919, Ruth hit 29 home runs, 17 more than anyone else in the majors.  He also won nine games on the mound with an ERA under 3.00.  So, if the American League needed it, Ruth was capable of launching a homer to grab the lead and then pitching an inning or two to protect it.

As for the National League, they weren’t exactly sacrificial mutton, either.  They could roll out five Hall of Fame starters themselves, including second baseman Rogers Hornsby, a two-time Triple Crown winner, and pitcher Grover Alexander, whose 90 career shutouts are still the second most All-time after Walter Johnson.

Alexander

Coincidentally, the managers for the hypothetical 1919 game likely would have been the same ones who oversaw the actual 1933 contest, John McGraw and Connie Mack – except they would have been 14 years younger and strategically devoted to the more nuanced “dead ball” aspects of play at that time.

Since the “Dead Ball” era (circa, 1900-1920 and so named because of the lack of carry of the ball) emphasized pitching and base running above all else, the 1919 version would have been more stealing than slugging, more spitballs than fastballs, and much more bunting than anyone has ever seen since.  That is, such strategy would permeate until Mack decided to play his trump card, Ruth, and then the big fellow would try to put a hole in the outfield grandstands with one swing of the bat.

That mythical 1919 All-Star Game would have been an extraordinary thing to behold, for sure.  There would be a few things missing, though – namely, diversity and equality, along with some truly remarkable players.

If the times were more enlightened and the people who ran the majors – as well as the fans who watched – in 1919 had been more accepting and progressive in their thinking, this hypothetical All-Star game would have surpassed the actual 1933 debut in most ways imaginable.

Had star players from the Negro Leagues been allowed to play in the majors in 1919 the infusion of talent and innovation would have been enormous and transformed the sport in ways that might well still be felt today. Such integration would have also allowed two full generations of players to shape big league identities, preserving their baseball legacies in ways only Major League notoriety seems able to do – fair or not – and cast them forward.

But integration didn’t happen in 1919 or 1929 or 1939, it took Major League baseball until 1947 to finally tear down the invisible fence it had built on ignorance and stupidity and fear.  And that fence had deprived the big leagues of decades’ worth of historical impact and memorable matchups – not to mention the utterly unnecessary insult and vitriol it directed at hundreds, if not thousands, of faultless players.

The failure to integrate baseball in 1919 is especially galling, because America was only a year removed from its participation in World War I.  Among the soldiers sent to fight for flag and country were 40,000 African-American troops.  They served honorably, fought with tenacity, and died courageously.

Soldiers

When the fighting stopped and the soldiers returned, African-Americans collectively hoped that the battle sacrifices of black troops abroad merited social progress at home. Sadly, that did not happen.  Not much changed – in the factories or political arenas or on baseball fields.

Black men could take a bullet in France fighting a faraway war but could not take the field alongside white players in America.

It was a great shame, not just from a social equality perspective but from a sporting standpoint, too, because many of the best players in the world at that time were black.

To underscore this, if the American League could have fielded seven Hall of Fame players with their best starting lineup in 1919 – a rather impressive number – the African-American community of the time could have done even better.  Comprised of black players playing in their own professional leagues that year, an African-American All-Star team would have included eight Hall of Famers.

Centerfielder Oscar Charleston could do it all – a power-hitting, defensive wizard with speed.  And he did it with the kind of competitive edge that bordered on rage but stayed just controlled enough to be considered productive fury.  In 1919, he was 22 and hit a whisper under .400, while belting eight home runs in just under 180 at bats.

Charleston Oscar_FL w bat 6545.76 PDCharleston’s outfield mates would have included Pete Hill – a lean base stealer with a slashing, line drive-making swing, and Cristobel Torriente – a stocky Cuban power hitter with surprising stealth.  Defensively, the trio’s superb athletic range would have swallowed would-be hits like few others ever could.

As for defense, few players had better reputations for glove work than third baseman William “Judy” Johnson and shortstop John Henry “Pop” Lloyd.  Johnson had remarkable defensive reflexes.  His ability to charge and field bunts became a trademark of his Hall of Fame skills.

Even though he was 35 years old in 1919, Pop Lloyd could still play.  In fact, Lloyd played another 13 seasons after 1919.  Like Oscar Charleston, Lloyd had all-around brilliance to his game.  On defense, he earned the nickname “El Cuchara” when he played in Cuba for his ability to dig out tough grounders, scooping them to nab base runners as though served up on a tablespoon.  At the plate, his tremendous hands allowed him to place the ball all over the diamond and, when needed, he could lengthen the bat and send a booming drive for extra bases.

Lloyd

First baseman Ben Taylor was a gentleman first and ballplayer second.  That he had Hall of Fame baseball talent speaks as much or more to his grace and integrity off the field than his magnificent skills on it.  As a player, he was a smart hitter with a penchant for getting big hits and a nimble defender recognized for his agility around the bag.  As a mentor and teacher, he guided young players for decades after his playing days.  His most famous protégé, Hall of Famer Buck Leonard, credited Taylor with not only teaching him how to play first base but also how to be a professional.

Behind the plate, William “Biz” Mackey was everything a great catcher is supposed to be – tough, smart, fearless, and strong armed.  When he called a game, pitchers followed him, because he knew the psychology of hitters as well as he knew the physics of pitching.  It was a lethal combination.  Add to that, a .300 bat and a towering but classy presence, and the result is one of the great catching careers in baseball history.

Mackey Biz 1052.86_FL_PD

On the mound, Joe Williams – appropriately nicknamed “Smokey Joe” – had a fastball that rivaled any of the time for sheer speed and intimidation.  From Seguin, Texas, Williams had the classic look of a power pitcher – tall, broad shouldered, and deadly serious with a baseball in his hand.  Soft spoken off the field, Williams let his searing fastball tell the story.  And when it did, that story included a 27-strikeout, 12-inning shutout, a string of 20 straight wins early in Williams’ career, and a poll naming the tall Texan the greatest pitcher in Negro League history.

Williams

Like their Major League counterparts, a 1919 Negro League All-Star team could also supply a Hall of Fame manager.

Andrew “Rube” Foster had an aura – an impressive mélange of confidence, defiance, and ambition.  As one of baseball’s greatest managers, Foster also had an impressive range of vision.  He saw things as they might happen, how they should happen, and how best to narrow the distance between the two.

Foster

Above all else, Foster’s vision of the game emphasized speed and precision.  The synchronicity of runners flashing from base to base and the hitter putting the ball in play at the just the right moment and location required immense discipline.

Under less demanding leadership, such a bold strategy would have disintegrated into chaos.  However, Foster demanded attention and obedience because of his supreme confidence in himself and his players.  Subsequently, those players succeeded largely because they simply believed they could not fail.

In 1910, Foster and his players perfected the concept.  Compiling an astonishing 123-6 record that season, the Leland Giants may have been one of the greatest teams to ever take the field.  Led by Pop Lloyd, the Giants were a blur on offense and seamless on defense, executing Foster’s demanding game plan flawlessly.

During one brilliant stretch, Foster’s teams won 12 championships in 13 seasons (1910-1922).  So, in 1919, Foster was still at the apex of his managerial genius.

After he left the dugout, Foster organized the Negro National League and became one of the most visible African-American entrepreneurs in the country.  When he was finished, Foster built some of the greatest black baseball teams in history, built the first black baseball league, and, finally, built a legacy which is still regarded as one of the most innovative and successful in the game.

So, if in some parallel universe, the powers that be organized an All-Star game in 1919 and were impartial and decent enough to allow all players of all races to participate, it would have been one hell of a show.

Consider some of the unforgettable showdowns.

Ty Cobb, sharpened spikes and all, racing into second on a steal attempt, in a virtual dead heat with Biz Mackey’s rifle-armed throw to the bag. Walter Johnson trying to sling his legendary fastball past Oscar Charleston, whose lightning fast reflexes rivaled those of any hitter that Johnson had ever seen. 

Johnson

George Sisler belting a ball deep into one of the outfield gaps then waiting to see if Pete Hill could run it down before it hit the turf.  And Joe Williams, with his cap pulled down taut, staring down brawny Babe Ruth with the game on the line. All the while, Rube Foster would match strategic wits with John McGraw or Connie Mack – three of the sharpest baseball minds in history.

As icing, all of this could have happened at the rollicking and rowdy Polo Grounds, right on the edge of Harlem in New York City.  It was the longtime home of the New York Giants and, with its enigmatic but fascinating oblong dimensions, would have been the perfect cathedral to house this perfect jewel of a game.

Polo Grounds

The fully integrated 1919 All-Star contest was the greatest game that never happened.

But if it had, it would have had a tremendous ripple effect by the time the American and National Leagues squared off in 1933.

Assuming integration continued – and thrived – the 1933 All-Star Game would not only have included big league greats like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Carl Hubbell, no fewer than 16 Negro League stars and eventual Hall of Fame players would have been available as well.

Catcher Josh Gibson, widely considered the greatest power hitter in Negro League history, and outfielder James “Cool Papa” Bell, similarly regarded as the fastest man to play in the league, would have provided remarkably dangerous levels of muscle and quickness to whichever side was fortunate enough to have them.

Gibson hit so many home runs and hit them with such force that the sheer volume – both in number and decibel level – seems overwhelming.  Some sources credit him with over 900 homers in his 17-year career, including one launched completely out of Yankee Stadium.  While debate may linger on the exact number of home runs he hit, few squabble over the devastating kinetics of his swing.

Gibson

Bell’s speed could not be reduced solely to the art of the steal – using the number of bases he took over his career as the only metric to evaluate his historic quickness.  He learned how to weaponize his speed, turning into as much psychological dagger as strategic windfall.  He often beat out routine grounders for hits and would sometimes score from second on a sacrifice fly.  And that consistent ability to take an extra 90 feet not available to ordinary players made Bell especially worrisome to opponents, because – as the cliché goes – speed never slumps.

Bell2

Pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige named his pitches, called out hitters, and then backed up all of that bluster the moment the ball left his hand.  Paige pitched for 25 seasons, hopping from teams and leagues like a symmetric stone skipping across a lake.  Everywhere he went, though, he entertained and impressed.  In exhibition games against white Major Leaguers, Paige garnered respect for his considerable abilities from a string of big league stars, including Joe DiMaggio and Babe Herman.  They all knew he could play at an elite level; it was only his circumstance that determined where.

Paige

To prove the point, when integration finally came, Paige signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1948 and became an important part of the team’s championship season. Even at the age of 42, he still had enough left in his arsenal to go 6-1 with a 2.48 ERA.

In 1933, though, Paige was 27 and still in the prime of his career.  Had he played in the All-Star Game that year, he would have undoubtedly pushed Lefty Gomez and Carl Hubbell for the starting pitching nod.

Speaking of Hubbell, his extraordinary run of five consecutive strikeouts against five Hall of Fame hitters (Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin) in the 1934 All-Star Game remains one of the most impressive moments in baseball history. 

Hubbell C 1498.68 = 68 NBLIt is fascinating to ponder whether or not he would have been able to accomplish the same extraordinary feat if Josh Gibson or Oscar Charleston (even at 37 years old) had been swapped in as part of that fearsome sequence.

As for fearsome clusters of hitters, the Home Run Derby did not become a staple of All-Star festivities until 1985, five decades after the inaugural All-Star contest.  However, since hypotheticals are ruling the day (or at least this blog post), imagine an integrated Home Run Derby in 1933.

The American League quartet of Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, and Al Simmons – Hall of Famers, all – combined to hit over 2,000 career homers in the big leagues.  Even today, Ruth, Gehrig, and Foxx remain in the top 30 on the All-time home run list.  Foxx, in particular, was so physically intimidating at the plate that pitcher Lefty Gomez once mused, “He wasn’t scouted; he was trapped,” coinciding neatly with his nickname, “The Beast”.

Foxx

National League representation wouldn’t have quite the same pedigree, but the foursome of Mel Ott, Chuck Klein, Joe Medwick, and Wally Berger includes three Hall of Fame hitters and an aggregate career home run total of more than 1,200.  And Ott’s distinctive swing, which featured a prolonged and high-altitude leg kick, would have added a little panache to the proceedings.

Ott

Not to be outdone, the African-American contingent would have been comprised entirely of Hall Famers – Gibson, Charleston, Norman “Turkey” Stearnes, and Jud Wilson.  Despite a relatively ordinary baseball frame (5-foot-11, 175 pounds), Stearnes won seven home run titles in the Negro Leagues and once led his league in stolen bases, for good measure. Wilson was barrel-chested and massively strong.  Despite only being 5-foot-8, many considered him one of the hardest hitters in the history of black baseball.  His nickname, Boojum, was derived from the sound his crushing drives made when they struck outfield walls.

Wilson

The modern day Home Run Derby is – as most modern entertainment pieces are – a glossy, overblown thing designed to fascinate momentarily before being forgotten entirely.  It’s laden with product placement and players who bask in the flash and worship of the moment.

Derby

Mind you, there’s not wrong with it – as fun, fluffy events go.  In fact, most notably, participants are as varied as the international amalgam of the game itself in the 21st century.  In that respect, maybe, the derby isn’t all that fluffy and inconsequential, after all.

Still, a home run contest involving the Bambino, the Beast, Boojum, and a power-hitting “Turkey” would have been far more compelling.  In it, twelve sluggers – all but one in the Hall of Fame – would unleash their celebrated torque, sending an endless stream of great, big soaring drives out of Comiskey Park in Chicago with the wind howling.

No sips of Gatorade or glitzy scoreboard odometer readings.  Just twelve guys in wool uniforms knocking the holy living hell out of baseballs. 

Gehrig Derby

And if it came down to Babe Ruth squaring off against Josh Gibson to see who claimed the home run crown, it would have settled an awful lot of arguments that are now forever in dispute.

So, yes, the debut of the All-Star Game came a few years too late, while the integration of baseball came decades too late.  And all of the remarkable moments that would have come with better timing of both are left in the regrettable place that all other hypothetical triumph resides.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/heilmha01.shtml
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http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/hornsro01.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/register/player.cgi?id=charle001osc
http://baseballhall.org/hof/hill-pete
http://baseballhall.org/hof/torriente-cristobal
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http://www.baseball-reference.com/register/player.cgi?id=lloyd-001pop
http://www.thebaseballpage.com/history/john-henry-lloyd-0
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http://baseballhall.org/hof/mackey-biz
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http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/AL/1933-batting-leaders.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/NL/1933-batting-leaders.shtml
http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/gibsonj.html
http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/bell.html
http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/paige.html
http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/HR_career.shtml
http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/stearnes.html
http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/wilsonj.html

Photos:

http://jolietlibrary.org/sites/default/files/1930sa/All-Star%205%20-%203.jpg
http://f.tqn.com/y/detroittigers/1/L/K/0/-/-/Harry-Heilmann.jpg
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http://baseballhall.org/sites/default/files/styles/fullscreen_image_popup/public/externals/cb1e797507872e6cf1c0285af52acaa0.jpeg?itok=xdSXRkZk
http://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/pressofatlanticcity.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/4/6e/46e9288a-982e-5ac6-93c2-55ddc174c077/571407ecd8204.image.jpg?resize=300%2C331
http://s.hswstatic.com/gif/biz-mackey-1.jpg
http://www.blackpast.org/files/blackpast_images/smokey_joe_williams.jpg
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http://baseballguru.com/jholway/image001.jpg
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http://dailydsports.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/20150707-6-satchel.jpg
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https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-VznPJDAh68g/TWxuim1_4jI/AAAAAAAAAPg/gl1u07TPI0w/s1600/db_Jud_Wilson_20071.jpg
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Baring Knuckles – 100 Years of the Game’s Wildest Ride

Perhaps, Robert Allen Dickey was inevitable – the evolutionary apex of a hundred years of baseball’s most mercurial pitch.

*May 27 - 00:05*

A knuckleball is one of the oddest things in all of sports. It’s a pitch that employs no rotation whatsoever – a bobbing apple of a thing that flutters along on the whim of an afternoon breeze and is as hard to catch as it is to hit. Even its most capable practitioners sometimes have no way to control it.

So, it takes an atypical pitching mindset to commit to it, because nearly all success from the mound – particularly at the Major League level – is predicated on knowing precisely what a given pitch will do and exactly where it will go. A knuckleball is none of that, and the players who throw it know it.

But they throw it, anyway, because when it works, when it dances along with just the right current, it becomes a mesmerizing, unhittable thing. Most pitches are whirring, violent expressions of physics – the dark red stitches of the ball cutting into the wind to provide whatever darting angles are used to try and fool big league hitters. But a knuckleball dances freely – Ginger unencumbered by Fred; a baseball independent of the preordained rules of pitch trajectory. Since it doesn’t spin, it does whatever it damn well pleases once it leaves the pitcher’s hand.

WILHELM

That tenuous balance – the intoxicating lure of a perfect pitch tempered by the volatile nature of the outcome – has naturally limited the number of those who attempt to use it.

The knuckler isn’t an easy pitch to physically deliver, either. It requires the complete nullification of a ball’s strong tendency to spin off the hand when thrown, so any pitcher who throws a knuckleball needs extraordinarily strong fingers to press hard enough into the seams to reverse the rotation. And if those fingers aren’t powerful enough to halt that spin, the pitch won’t knuckle, instead tumbling helplessly forward – a Little League lollipop at the mercy of Major League damage.

However, an adventurous few have been tossing those erratically bobbing apples since the earliest days of the professional game.

The origin of the knuckleball is as nebulous as the pitch itself. As with much in the pioneering age of baseball, it’s difficult to say with any certainty who dreamt it up and had the nerve to fling that first one. During the formative stage of the sport, with so much to be discovered and put into practice, the impetus for invention was overwhelming. However, the early record keeping for attributing various innovations to their specific innovators was not.

Someone had that initial burst of creative pitch design. History just hasn’t been able to determine who that was. The best that such hindsight can do is narrow the field of would-be inventors down to four players, all from the early 1900’s – George Napoleon “Nap” Rucker, Eddie Cicotte, Ed Summers, and Lew Moren.

It’s easy to picture one of them toiling on the mound some random afternoon; his thick wool uniform, damp with sweat, scratching at his neck and shoulders. A heavy bead of sweat trickles from the brim of his cap all way down the bridge of his nose. As he removes the cap to brush the moisture from his face, he pauses and grins – a great, big toothy smile pushing the corners of his chapped lips upward.

He takes a look at the baseball in his hand – the cover of the ball tinged nearly mahogany with an amalgam of dirt, tobacco juice, and saliva smeared across its surface – and the idea just unfolds, a spontaneous parachute of a notion, floating easily in his mind. His fingers reflexively follow the mental picture and curl around the baseball – two of them bent at the knuckle with the tips pressed hard into the seams.

Cicotte Knuckle Grip

His crooked smile widens, because he has no earthly expectation of what the ball will do once he releases it. So, he contorts himself into an elaborate windup – hands thrown behind his head, leg kicked high in the air, and arm swept forward in a wide arc – and throws the new pitch with the unconventional grip, as eager to see the outcome of his invention as he is fearful of being made a fool.

The batter, umpire, and catcher all freeze momentarily; transfixed by the jagged movement of the ball as if a juggling pin had been thrown from the mound instead of a baseball. The pitch swoops across the plate untouched – the hitter still too confused to move his bat – and slaps awkwardly into the catcher’s rounded mitt; the crisp, pop of the glove serving as the customary slap on the rear of a newborn.

The beaming inventor receives the ball back from his puzzled teammate and quickly fashions his fingers to throw the freshly minted creation again – the next in what will eventually be thousands more thrown on a myriad of diamonds over the next century.

As for the founding fathers of the unusual new pitch, they led professional careers as varied as the shimmy of their co-creation.

Of the four, Cicotte lasted the longest, building a robust career that stretched 14 seasons and included over 200 wins. He threw the knuckleball so often and with such success that he was known around the league as “Knuckles.” He also fell the furthest.

After winning a league-high 29 games for the Chicago White Sox in 1919, he willingly played a central role in the biggest scandal in the history of professional sports. Cicotte demanded and received $10,000 from gamblers to lose the games he started in the World Series that year. After that, little else was ever remembered of the early knuckleballing star except for his tainted baseball soul.

Cicotte

Years later, when the edges of his betrayal had dulled in the public lexicon, Cicotte demurred taking credit for the knuckler. Instead, he insisted that Summers had refined the pitch while the two were minor league teammates in Indianapolis in 1906, and readied it for production in the big leagues.

Summers, a descendant of the Native American Kickapoo tribe, made a spectacular Major League debut in 1908, winning 24 games for the Detroit Tigers. A year later, he won another 19 games, all the while tossing his mischievous new pitch. And he may well have surpassed Cicotte – less the bartered dignity – as a successful moundsman if rheumatism hadn’t forced him from the field after just five years in the majors.

Summers

The third claimant in the knuckleball creation saga, Rucker, was also a minor league teammate of Cicotte. However, the two shared a clubhouse in Augusta in 1905 – a year before Cicotte ever met Summers. And Rucker reached the big leagues in 1907, also a year before Summers’ splashy debut in Detroit. Whether he threw a knuckleball from the very start or if he – not Summers – conjured up the devilish new pitch is hidden in the whispers of time.

Rucker

What is known is that in ten seasons with Brooklyn of the National League, Rucker won 134 games, threw a nasty knuckleball in many of them, and had a hand in introducing it to the big leagues – even if his old minor league teammate didn’t think so.

As for Moren, he toiled for six uneventful seasons in the majors, losing nine more games than he won during that span. His modest career record of 48-57 undoubtedly would have been lost to time, except for a New York Press article from 1908 proclaiming Moren as the originator of the knuckler – Moren’s lone tether to advent of the pitch.

No matter which of the quartet actually invented the thing, the knuckleball was, indeed, let loose on the world and snaked its way across the game’s history through a variety of interesting conduits.

Eddie Rommel won 27 games in 1922, became Connie Mack’s pitching ombudsman in Philadelphia – starting and relieving to suit his manager’s whims, and then umpired for 22 years after he retired from the mound. Jesse Haines and Fred Fitzsimmons each pitched for 19 seasons during the 1920’s and 30’s and notched over 200 career wins apiece. Haines was eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame. However, Fitzsimmons – who rarely pushed away from the dinner table until entirely sated earning the unfortunate nickname “Fat Freddie” – was not.

Hoyt Wilhelm spent ten years trying to get a chance in the majors. But once he did in 1952, he stayed there – for 21 seasons. He threw his maddening, dancing knuckleball in the big leagues until he was 49 years old – a skinny old man with a soothing Southern drawl who nearly single-handedly kept the game’s most curious pitch relevant for over two decades.

Wilhelm

Two brothers from Bridgeport, Ohio – Joe and Phil Niekro – pitched in the majors for 46 years between them, becoming synonymous with the knuckleball. More than that, the brothers became proud advocates for the pitch – a pair of knuckleball godfathers who counseled any young player who wanted advice on how to throw it. Collectively, their credibility was sterling – they combined to win 539 games in the big leagues from the 1960’s through the 80’s, with Phil earning 318 of them en route to the Hall of Fame.

Niekros

And it was Phil, ready with knuckleball wisdom even in retirement, who received a phone call in 2008 from a young pitcher in Seattle struggling to find his professional identity.

R.A. Dickey turned 33 that year and had just drifted through his sixth listless season in the majors. In fact, the Minnesota Twins and Seattle Mariners had engaged in a sort of reverse tug of war over him prior to the 2008 season. The two teams swapped him back and forth three times in the off season before he spent the year in Seattle, only to have a tepid stay there.

So, when Dickey turned to the godfather for help, Niekro was happy to pass the baton which had traveled from Kickapoo Ed Summers to Fat Freddie and then to him and his brother.

With Niekro’s guidance and encouragement, Dickey learned to refine his knuckler – the pitcher like the pitch, a work in progress. In 2009, the Twins signed him as a free agent, pulling him back yet again. After an utterly average season, mostly as a reliever, he became a free agent and signed with the New York Mets.

However, there were signs that Dickey was developing a genuine aptitude for the knuckler. His year with the Twins marked the third straight season his ERA dropped. In fact, it had fallen to a respectably pedestrian 4.62.

Even more encouraging was that Dickey had learned to throw his variation of the pitch at over 80 miles per hour – a hard, heavy thing, full of sharp elbows of movement. It was, in fact, such a big contrast to the traditional knuckler – a meandering cork that rarely broke the speed limit on most interstates – that it almost begged a new classification.

At its essence, though, it was still a knuckleball; and by 2010, Dickey had learned to throw it with an uncanny level of confidence and control. He earned a spot in New York’s starting rotation that year, won 11 games, and lowered his ERA to a stingy 2.84.

In 2012, the evolutionary tumblers finally fell into place. Dickey used his turbo-charged knuckler to dazzle the baseball world. He won 20 games, led the National League in strikeouts with 230, walked only 54 – unheard of for a knuckleballer – and won the Cy Young Award as the league’s best pitcher.

RA Dickey

He was so good, in fact, that during one particularly jaw dropping stretch he threw consecutive one-hitters with 25 strikeouts and just two walks spread across the two games.

And just like that, R.A. Dickey has become the perfect torchbearer of the knuckleball. What started as a whimsical germ of an idea on some lazy afternoon over a century ago has – thanks to Dickey – morphed into a legitimate weapon on the diamond. And the chain of caretakers often ridiculed for throwing what was perceived as a gimmick – a cheap gadget viewed by some as disingenuous to hard-nosed competition – can take a bow for guiding the pitch all the way to the point where a player desperate for professional salvation found it waiting for him.

Perhaps, it was inevitable. After all, the knuckleball has survived its own murky beginning and a century of dismissal and disrespect for a reason. When it’s right, it can do what few other pitches in the game can – frustrate hitters to the point of embarrassment. All the pitch needed was the steady hand of a player who could throw it with enough speed and stillness to chase away some of its capriciousness.

That it found the hand of Robert Allen Dickey, who just may have found a way to throw the best knuckleball in history, is an evolutionary marriage made from decades of trying, adapting, and waiting for the right combination of pluck and proficiency to come along.

Somewhere, even Knuckles Cicotte is smiling.

Sources:

Neyer, Rob and James, Bill, “The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers: An Historical Compendium of Pitching, Pitchers, and Pitches”, Simon & Schuster, New York, New York, 2004.

Asinof, Eliot, “Eight Men Out”, Holt, Reinhart, and Winston, New York, New York, 1963.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/m/morenle01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/s/summeed01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/r/ruckena01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/n/niekrph01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/d/dicker.01.shtml

http://newyork.mets.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20120613&content_id=33269906&vkey=news_mlb&c_id=mlb

Photos:

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Throwing Kryptonite Curveballs into the Abyss

When the situation called for Superman, he summoned Clark Kent.

As it turned out, the cape was highly overrated.

In 1929, the Philadelphia Athletics were baseball royalty. Their loaded roster included four eventual Hall of Famers – three in the heart of a fearsome batting order; the other, a formidable presence on the mound.  From the dugout, the team’s architect, conductor, and patriarch – manager Connie Mack – manipulated his supremely talented chess pieces for maximum effect.

Catcher Mickey Cochrane, outfielder Al Simmons, and first baseman Jimmie Foxx powered an offense with five players who hit .300 or better.  And it was Simmons who led them all with the rather impressive combination of a .365 batting average, 34 home runs, and 157 runs batted in.

However, it was the pitching staff that truly separated the Athletics from the rest of the American League that season.  Southpaw ace Lefty Grove and fellow left-hander George Earnshaw had a combined 44-14 record in 1929, and Philadelphia allowed nearly 100 fewer runs than any other team in the league as well as besting them all in strikeouts.

And sitting at the head of the table was Mack, in his 29th season as the team’s manager.  He had brought six pennants and three World Series titles home in that span and had established a sterling reputation for leading with a firm but benevolent hand.  He also studied the game endlessly earning him the nickname, the Tall Tactician.

So when the brainy, brawny, strong-armed Philadelphians stormed out of the gate to a 39-11 record in 1929, the baseball world took notice.  And Connie Mack’s bunch never let up, finishing their trek with a 104-46 record, eighteen full strides ahead of everyone else.  Even more impressive, the red-hot Athletics had jostled the legendary New York Yankess of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig from the throne – a palace coup of commendable scale.

Advancing to their first World Series in fifteen seasons, Philadelphia was matched up against the National League champion Chicago Cubs.

The Cubs, who were a decade removed from their last championship appearance, had a similarly fearsome cluster of sluggers.  Barrel-chested – and barrel shaped – outfielder Hack Wilson hit the ball as hard as he lived.  And he lived very, very hard. 

In 1929, Wilson fulfilled the baseball part of the equation by hitting 39 home runs with 159 RBI’s.  His outfield mates, Kiki Cuyler and Riggs Stephenson, both hit .360 or better and drove in over 100 runs apiece.  Cuyler even stole 43 bases to add speed into the mix.

However, the jewel at the center of Chicago’s pennant-winning run was Rogers Hornsby, perhaps the greatest right-handed hitter who ever played the game.  And his pedigree was spectacular.  A seven-time batting champion, Hornsby hit better than .400 three times and led the league in home runs twice.  Although he was 33 years old in 1929 and entering the twilight of his brilliant career, he could still hit and was, therefore, exceptionally dangerous.  As proof, Hornsby finished the year with a .380 batting average, 39 home runs, and 149 RBI’s.

The Athletics were going to have their hands full trying to deal with that gaggle of noisy Chicago hitters, and Connie Mack knew it.  To further complicate matters, Philadelphia’s two best pitchers, Grove and Earnshaw, were lefties while nearly all of the Cubs’ best hitters were right-handed.  And in baseball, the general axiom holds that right-handed hitters see the ball better coming from left-handed pitchers and are more apt to be effective against them because of it.

So, what was Mack to do for Game One of the Series?  If he offered up one of his aces into the teeth of Chicago’s greatest strength and that ace got devoured, the tone for the entire championship could irreparably darken.  If Mack chose to try to neutralize all of that right-handed thump with a right-handed pitcher, he needed one he trusted enough to accept the challenge.

Enter Clark Kent.

In 14 big league seasons, Howard Ehmke won precisely one more game than he lost.  And the rest of his pitching numbers were similarly nondescript.  His ERA hovered near the league average as did his strikeout rate, and he allowed roughly one hit per inning.  When he threw a pitch, it neither baffled nor intimidated.  It mostly got hit.

Still, he was good enough to find gainful employment in the game for over a decade.  He just hadn’t been good enough to accumulate any discernible star quality.  And on Philadelphia’s star-studded roster, he was the perfect Clark Kent – a neutral face blended almost entirely into the background.

As if to underscore this transparency, he only appeared in 11 games for the Athletics in 1929, pitching a grand total of 54 2/3 innings all season long.  Though, when he was used, he did well.  Going 7-2 with a 3.29 ERA, it had been one of his better years, brevity or not.  And in those sporadic glimpses, Connie Mack must have seen something, because it gave Mack an idea – either utterly brilliant or foolish – addressing the question of Chicago’s heavy right-handed presence.

The answer, he decided, was Howard Ehmke.

Philadelphia’s invisible man took the game’s biggest stage – Game One of the World Series – with the entire sporting public wondering who he was and why one of baseball’s most respected managers selected him over the likes of Lefty Grove and George Earnshaw.  However, Mack didn’t have time to worry about such things, if he even cared at all, because the tactician was too busy doing what he did best – outflanking an opponent.

Ehmke, who did not pitch at all over the last two weeks of the season, was certainly well rested.  More than that, he was handsomely cloaked in the fog of unfamiliarity.  Chicago scouts and hitters had little useful reconnaissance they could use to prepare a game plan, and it showed.

Perhaps, he’d waited his entire life for the opportunity or just sensed the rarity of the moment as it happened.  Whatever the motivation, Ehmke’s transformation – when it mattered most – was remarkable.  The fact that it happened on the road, no less, in front of a hostile crowd in Chicago made it even more amazing.

His assortment of off-speed pitches, which had been the source of league-wide yawns for such a long time, crackled.  Every pitch he threw caused confusion, and the Cubs powerful offense couldn’t touch him.  Strike after strike snaked its way from the mound with a relentless drumbeat.

Chicago fans watched in astonishment as Ehmke, the anonymous journeyman, struck out the side in the third – including Hack Wilson and Rogers Hornsby to end the inning. 

He did it again in the sixth, fanning Hornsby a second time on his way back to the dugout.

In the seventh, the Cubs put a pair of runners in scoring position – the biggest threat they had mounted all afternoon long – but Ehmke struck out future Hall of Fame catcher Gabby Hartnett to keep Chicago from scoring.  The outs and strikeouts just kept coming like a growing stack of split timber in a lumber yard.

In the bottom of the ninth, the Cubs finally scratched across a run, closing the score to 3-1.  However, Ehmke fittingly brought the curtain down by throwing one last pitch past a befuddled Chicago player, dispatching pinch-hitter Chick Tolson – his thirteenth strikeout of the game.

Ehmke not only made a devastating and soul-crushing impression on the Cubs and their fans, he made history.  His thirteen strikeouts set a World Series record, which stood for another twenty-four years.  He also vindicated his manager by pushing every last word of pre-game skepticism back into the mouths of the critics.

Philadelphia went on to take the World Series, four games to one.  And one of those games continues to live on in franchise lore, because an unlikely soul took the one chance he had to make a name for himself and wrote it into the record books.

However, Ehmke’s time in the spotlight was brief, as it is for most unexpected heroes.  The following season was disastrous for him.  He appeared in only three games for Philadelphia in 1930 – the last, a humiliating 10-1 loss to the Yankees, in which he lasted only two innings.  In fact, it was his last game in the majors.  At 36, he was finished as big league pitcher.

The Athletics defended their championship title in 1930 and had an opportunity to make it three in a row in 1931 but lost the World Series that season to St. Louis in seven games.  After that, the franchise chose the bottom line over a winning line and systematically started to pare the roster of its star players and their contracts.  Simmons, Foxx, Cochrane, and Grove were eventually scattered to the winds, and the team predictably fell out of contention, becoming a perennial American League doormat.

In 1950, Connie Mack finally stepped down as manager, ending a full half-century residency in the Philadelphia dugout.  No manager lived or breathed in the game more deeply than Mack, and none likely ever will.  Unfortunately, his final seasons with the Athletics were a cash-strapped misery.

However, his true legacy is firmly secured.  He is still regarded as one of the great figures in the game. His unmatched baseball life was filled with too many remarkable moments for it to be otherwise – perhaps, none more so than the day he sent Clark Kent out to do Superman’s work and looked all the more brilliant for doing so.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/AL/1929.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/PHA/1929.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/managers/mackco01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/CHC/1929.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/hornsro01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/e/ehmkeho01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/CHN/CHN192910080.shtml

http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/history/postseason/mlb_ws_recaps.jsp?feature=1929

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/PHA/PHA193005221.shtml

Photos:

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Head Games – The Tragic Consequences of Pitches that Got Away

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.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/gibsobo01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/d/drysddo01.shtml

Charlie Bevis (1998). Mickey Cochrane: The Life of a Baseball Hall of Fame Catcher. Macfarlane.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/cochrmi01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/c/conigto01.shtml

http://espn.go.com/classic/s/moment010818-conigliaro-beaned.html

http:www.nytimes.com/2005/08/22/sports/baseball/22adam.htm

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/chapmra01.shtml

Mike Sowell (1989). The Pitch That Killed. New York, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/MLB/1920.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYA/NYA192008160.shtml

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