The biggest offseason story in the NFL, perhaps the biggest in many years, is the heavy punishments leveled at the New Orleans Saints for maintaining a bounty system in which defensive players were rewarded for knocking opposing players out of the game.
One question that I have been asked by friends, colleagues, radio hosts and the little man with the cigar who lives in my head is: “Has such a thing ever taken place in baseball?”
The answer is yes, but for one exception—it has not happened systematically because it’s counterproductive for the same reason that the Saints' system would have been counterproductive had the rest of the league suspected it; once the other side knows it’s open warfare on them, there is nothing to prevent them from doing their best to injure you.
Mutual Assured Destruction may work as a nuclear deterrent strategy, but in sports, all it means is that both sides are going to end up with a lot of expensive contracts in the hospital.
Unlike in football, where players collide in groups at high speed, thus affording them the protection of crowds, baseball features isolated moments of confrontation between hitter and pitcher. Both are alone. Both carry deadly weapons. It doesn’t pay for either to incite violence.
That’s not to say that intentional or suspected intentional beanings have not long been part of the game, or that a manager has never told a pitcher to hit a player.
There have been spikes—high takeout slides intended to, if not injure, at least inflict pain, going back to the Deadball Era.
As a manager, Rogers Hornsby had one standing rule: on an 0-2 pitch, the batter got knocked down every time—but that’s not the same as saying that the batter was supposed to get hit. In fact, the intention was the opposite—to shake the batter up so he would back off the plate and be vulnerable to taking strike three on the outside corner.
When Ray Chapman died as the result of being hit in the head by a Carl Mays pitch, Mays was suspected of having thrown the pitch intentionally. This was more due to the fact Mays had the kind of personality that inspired that kind of thinking than any particular situation at work in the game. Nor did Mays’ manager, Miller Huggins, order the hit.
One of the most famous cases of an intentional beaning came in 1940. There was bad feeling between the Cardinals and the Dodgers, despite which the two clubs concluded a midseason trade that sent future Hall of Fame outfielder Joe Medwick to Brooklyn.
Six days after the trade, on June 18, the two teams met at Ebbets Field. It happened that Medwick and Dodgers manager Leo Durocher were staying at the same hotel as St. Louis’ starting pitcher for that day, Bob Bowman. The three happened to share an elevator. Durocher and Medwick taunted Bowman, who responded by screaming, “I’ll take care of you! I’ll take care of both of you!”
Medwick batted in the bottom of the first. There was no subtlety about what happened next; Bowman’s first pitch hit him in the head. Medwick collapsed.
The Dodgers' dugout emptied onto the field, all the players heading for Bowman. Some carried bats. Durocher led the way, shouting, “You said you’d get him!” Team owner Larry MacPhail, seeing his new best player unconscious in the dirt, raced onto the field and challenged the whole Cardinals team to fight him.
A melee, to put it lightly, ensued. It took a police escort to get Bowman out of Ebbets Field.
MacPhail subsequently demanded that National League president Ford Frick ban Bowman for life. He also took the case to Brooklyn District Attorney Bill O’Dwyer, the man who had brought down organized crime’s “Murder, Inc.” Now, MacPhail wanted the D.A. to go after “Beanball, Inc.” Nothing came of any of it.
In Game 2 of the 1972 American League Championship Series between the Tigers and the A’s, Detroit pitcher Lerrin LaGrow hit speedy Oakland shortstop Bert Campaneris in the legs—possibly because his manager, Billy Martin, wanted to prevent him from running the bases. Campaneris helicoptered his bat at the mound, resulting in his banishment from the remainder of the series, as well as the first seven games of the following season.
We could point to more recent incidents, like the various Roger Clemens-Mike Piazza encounters that supposedly reflected malice aforethought by Clemens, but even these do not equate to what the Saints had—a systematic, orchestrated campaign. No, there has been only one true example of that.
It happened in 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the color line. Phillies manager Ben Chapman, perhaps along with other racist managers, did his best to intimidate and even injure the newcomers by ordering their pitchers to throw at them.
Such a campaign might have worked for the Saints, but we can all rejoice in the fact that it didn’t work in baseball.