Knockdown pitches have a rich, rough history

May 14, 2000|By JOHN STEADMAN

Knockdown pitches are born of varied circumstances. Early Wynn, a notorious headhunter, once tried to hit George Kell, who was taking a lead off first base, after he hit a line drive through the pitcher's box. Wynn took umbrage and wanted payback - then and there.

Al Rosen, playing first base for the Cleveland Indians on a temporary basis, told Kell to stay loose. "You're a friend of mine," Rosen said, "but Wynn is going to try to throw over here and hit you."

It might have been one of the few times Wynn never turned his target upside-down. His reputation was to bore batters, not base runners, with fastballs as a method of intimidation.

Now to the bizarre. In 1923, Nick Cullop, one of those ponderous minor-league home run hitters, began his career as a pitcher. Away from his St. Louis home for the first time and pitching for Omaha in an exhibition in Muskogee, Okla., Cullop was told by his manager, Art Griggs, to knock down Alabama Jones when he next came to the plate.

Cullop struck him out, but Griggs was unhappy. "I told you to knock him down," said Griggs. "Are you gutless? I want him knocked down."

So Cullop took him literally. When Jones came up the next time, Nick charged off the mound and started punching him as hard as he could. "I was just a dumb kid back then," Cullop told us during a memorable visit in 1959 when he was concluding a long career managing in the minors.

As an aside, Cullop was the only man we ever knew who bought a newspaper, tore out the sports section and threw the rest away. Oh, for the good old days when ballplayers didn't try to be something they weren't: sophisticated.

The knockdown pitch has always been a part of the game. Once, Leo Durocher, ordered Stan Musial walked intentionally - but only after all four pitches put him in the dirt. Little wonder Stan had such low regard for Durocher.

Sometimes throwing at a batter is a possible personal matter. In a midseason 1934 exhibition between the New York Yankees and their farm club, the Norfolk Tars, Lou Gehrig was hit in the head by pitcher Ray White, a fellow Columbia University alumnus.

Gehrig had met White numerous times. They were introduced by their college coach, Andy Coakley. But Gehrig remained aloof. In training camp, Gehrig ignored White. He hit two home runs off him in an exhibition, facing the Newark Bears, the Yanks' top farm club. The third time up, a fastball grazed his head.

Now it was a game in Norfolk. Gehrig homered again off White. But when he came up for the second time, a pitch hit him in the head and the ball bounced to the press box. Gehrig dropped and was unconscious for five minutes before being taken to a hospital.

A fractured skull was feared, but doctors ruled a concussion. Gehrig's head swelled to the size of a cantaloupe. But the next day, he checked himself out of the hospital and made it to Washington to face the Senators.

In order to get a cap to fit him, one of Babe Ruth's had to be slit along the seam and pushed onto Gehrig's head. That was the day he hit three straight triples, headache and all, but the game was rained out before it could be completed and a likely record went down the drain.

In 1956, the Orioles felt Dick Donovan of the White Sox was throwing at them without reason. Manager Paul Richards brought in George Zuverink to relieve and told coach Luman Harris to tell Zuverink to "hit that -- right between the eyes." Zuverink low-bridged him, but not between the eyes.

That was the way the game was played. Lou Sleater, with the Milwaukee Braves in 1956, was a witness to Ruben Gomez hitting Joe Adcock and then, when Adcock went after him, Gomez ran into the locker room to get an ice pick for a weapon. A police guard disarmed Gomez.

On a subsequent visit to New York, Adcock was asked if he would shake hands with Gomez and forget the incident. But Gomez wouldn't agree. Meanwhile, Gomez's friends sent letters to Adcock threatening his life, which meant Adcock and roommate Del Rice had 24-hour police protection.

Tommy Byrne, like Sleater a left-handed Baltimorean, once threw at Ted Williams before he even got into the batter's box. "As I remember, Ted called up Mickey Vernon, who was hitting after him," said Byrne, "and they were about 10 feet from the on-deck circle, toward home plate.`They weren't timing me, but I think they were trying to catch the velocity on the ball or what kind of movement it had when I was taking my warm-ups. So I threw one between them to make them back off. Williams then hit a one-hop ground ball off my shin and it bounced towards third base, but I threw him out and the game was over."Later, I was in the clubhouse with an ice pack on my leg. Ted sent the clubhouse man over to see how I was. I told him to go back and tell Ted I never even felt it."

Lou Grasmick, another pitcher from Baltimore, said, "If you didn't throw a knockdown, you were going to have a problem with your teammates. You were expected to protect them. If the other pitcher threw at one of your players, then you had to square the account. It was the way the game was played. A different era now. And players then didn't have protective helmets."

Don Drysdale used to say if one of the Dodgers went down, that meant he had to get two of theirs. Dick Smith, a onetime Philadelphia Phillies bonus boy, said, "You did it as a way of asserting your manhood."

It was in 1920 that Ray Chapman was killed by a pitch from Carl Mays, and in 1936 Mickey Cochrane came close to dying after being struck by Irving "Bump" Hadley. Accidents or knockdowns? No accusations were ever made, but pitches thrown around the head, called "chin music" or purpose pitches, always portrayed the dangerous side of baseball. Almost as precarious as Russian roulette.

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