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Beanball Wars : Throwing at an opposing player is considered an accepted practice in baseball. Only sometimes, the results are not so acceptable. : Baseball's Been Lucky--Only One Has Died

March 18, 1985|TRACY DODDS | Times Staff Writer

Few remember Ray Chapman, the Cleveland shortstop who was killed by a beanball in New York in 1920. Chapman is the only on-field fatality in the history of major league baseball. But that fact is a distant recollection.

Most of us remember, too vividly, cringing at color pictures of Tony Conigliaro's grotesquely swollen left eye. It taught us a shuddering fear of a pitched baseball.

When Conigliaro was hit by Jack Hamilton's fastball Aug. 18, 1967, it nearly cost him his eyesight. A couple of inches higher and it most likely would have cost him his life. He didn't play the rest of that season and all of the next. He made a couple of comeback tries, but he was never the same. His vision was never quite right.

The tragedy of Conigliaro would have been all the more tragic if that ball had been aimed at his head. It wasn't. The pitch was high and tight and running in. Conigliaro was guessing fastball. He stepped into the pitch.

In fact, the worst beanings have not been intentional, from the fastball that killed Chapman; to the inside curveball in 1953 that left Don Zimmer with a fractured skull, a blood clot on the side of his brain and, eventually, a steel plate in his head; to the 94 m.p.h. fastball that dropped Ron Cey during the 1981 World Series; to the high slider that struck Dickie Thon last April.

So far, no pitcher has had to live with the knowledge that he maimed or killed a player with malice.

Injuries from beanballs are seldom as severe as the injuries from the resulting brawls.

In Atlanta last summer, the Braves' Pascual Perez hit the Padres' Alan Wiggins with the first pitch of the day. So when Perez went to the plate in the second inning, Ed Whitson threw a pitch behind Perez.

Throwing behind the batter is considered especially insidious because the batter is likely to move into it. The ball thrown behind Perez's head was meant to get his attention. It did. Both benches cleared.

But Whitson didn't hit Perez in that at-bat. In the fourth, Whitson was ejected for throwing three straight inside pitches to Perez. The second San Diego pitcher, Greg Booker, was ejected for throwing his first pitch at Perez in the sixth. And the third San Diego pitcher, Craig Lefferts, was ejected for hitting Perez in the eighth.

The brawl that resulted even included fans. It also included Brave third baseman Bob Horner, who was on the disabled list with a broken right wrist. Horner, who had been watching the game from the press box until the sixth inning, went down and changed into his uniform because, as he said, "you could see what was going to happen."

San Diego Manager Dick Williams had been ejected in the fourth inning, along with Whitson, in accordance with the rule that says the manager is responsible for the beanballs. Coach Ozzie Virgil, who took over for Williams, was ejected along with Booker. Padre replacement manager Jack Krol was kicked out, along with Lefferts.

In the ninth inning, Atlanta pitcher Donnie Moore hit Graig Nettles, starting another brawl. Moore and Atlanta Manager Joe Torre were ejected then.

In all, 16 players were ejected.

Umpire John McSherry said: "It's the worst thing I've ever seen in my life. It was pathetic, absolutely pathetic. It took baseball back 50 years."

Indeed, 50 years ago, beanball wars were quite common. But back then, it was unnecessary to brawl after every encounter.

Brewer Manager George Bamberger, who has been in professional baseball since 1946 as a pitcher, pitching coach and manager, said: "Years ago, it was an accepted part of the game. Every game, four or five guys would be knocked down. If a guy got hit, he accepted that. He'd be right back hitting again, as soon as his dizzy spells ended. I sometimes wonder how some of today's players would have been able to hit then at all. If a pitch even comes close, they're crying. They cry about every inside pitch.

"Today it's accepted that you're not going to throw at anybody. The intentional stuff these days is very, very minor. The whole beanball thing is dying out.

"You hear more about it now because the hitter is crying on every inside pitch. When a pitcher misses outside, nobody says a thing.

"It used to be that if you had to knock a hitter down, it was a purpose pitch. Do that today, they say you're throwing at them."

A pitcher can be ejected from the game for throwing at a batter, but that doesn't happen until after someone has already been used as a target. Then the umpire issues a warning that the next pitcher who throws at a batter will be ejected. It could be the pitcher who started it, or it could be the pitcher who is obliged to retaliate.

National League umpire Dutch Rennert said: "A guy hits somebody, you've got to go over and warn the other manager and the pitcher who hasn't even done anything wrong. It's a bad rule, the opposite of what it should be. If a guy throws at somebody, he should be ejected, but, instead, the second pitcher is thrown out and the pitcher who started it is still in the game.

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