Everybody knows about Ray Chapman, the shortstop for the 1920 Indians who was killed by an errant (or intentional, depending on who you believe) Carl Mays fastball that hit him in the temple. Chapman remains the only Major League player killed on the ballfield, and his name gets trotted out every time some idiot pitcher decides he needs to “send a message” to the opposing team.
But that was more than 90 years ago now. That was before batting helmets, before lights, and before baseballs were regularly swapped out by the umpires though. So it’s entirely possible that the cautionary tale of Ray Chapman isn’t relevant today.
But do you know who is still relevant today? Dickie Thon.
Thon was a 25 year old All Star shortstop for the Astros in 1983, when he hit .286/.341/.457 with 20 homers and 34 steals. He also was a damn good defensive player. He looked like he was on the verge of superstardom. Five games into 1984, Dickie Thon (hitting .353/.389/.471) stepped in against Mike Torrez with Terry Puhl on first base in the third inning.
Torrez told the Associated Press that he had struck out Thon previously with stuff outside, “so I wanted to start him inside.” Thon froze. “He started out over the plate thinking I was going outside again and my fastball just took off. He didn’t have time to get out of the way.” The pitch ricocheted off of the earflap of Thon’s helmet and cracked off his forehead. It broke his orbital bone, and left him partially blind in one eye.
He tried to come back in the Arizona Fall League, but couldn’t follow pitches. Ditto in the winter league in Puerto Rico. Thon told reporters “I have no depth perception. Glasses won’t help right now. It’s not even to that point. I’ve tried batting practice, but the ball is a blur.” According to Sports Illustrated, Thon began doing eye exercises and opened his batting stance so that he could use both eyes to track the ball.
He came back, eventually. But he was never the same. He didn’t hit well in part-time duty in 1985 and 1986, and “found that if he played too often, his eyes grew tired.” He was sent to Tuscon to start 1987, played 32 games for the Astros, and then walked off the team in July. He had a brief resurgence in 1989 for the Phillies, but it didn’t hold up.
From 1981-1984, Thon hit .282/.336/.424 with a 118 OPS+. For the rest of his career, Thon hit .256/.310/.359, an 88 OPS+. An errant (and completely unintentional) fastball robbed Thon of much of his abilities, his happiness, and almost his career. And it robbed fans of a chance to see whether Thon could sustain his incredible level of play from 1983.
None of this was on Mike Torrez. Mike Torrez never meant to hit Dickie Thon. He meant to throw inside, which he has every right to do. Torrez couldn’t have predicted that his fastball would slip, nor that Thon would freeze in its path. But the point is that sometimes pitchers miss their spots. And sometimes batters do what you don’t expect them to do. And sometimes the results of that are absolutely devastating. And there’s no denying that intentionally trying to hit a batter raises the odds that someone is going to get hurt.
So when Cole Hamels throws at Bryce Harper (note: not inside to Bryce Harper, but AT him), he’s willfully and criminally increasing the likelihood that Bryce Harper will get hurt by the baseball. Not bruised ribs hurt, but broken bone hurt…broken face hurt. That’s not toughness. That’s not “prestigious.” That’s thuggery (and that goes for Jordan Zimmermann, who plunked Hamels in retaliation, too).
And if Bryce Harper gets hurt by a Cole Hamels fastball that slams into his wrist or his orbital bone, Harper is the one who has the most to lose. But do you know who else loses? We do. All the fans that have enjoyed watching this supposedly brash rookie bust his ass on every single play, hit the ball with authority, control the strike zone, unleash a cannon for an arm, and generally out-hustle every other player on the field. We don’t get to see what Bryce Harper would have been. Just like we missed out on Dickie Thon, or Tony Conigliaro. And that, in and of itself, should be reason enough for us to condemn Hamels.
Look, what Hamels did may have been “old school” in the grand tradition of Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale. But let’s be clear; in addition to being great pitchers, those two were Major League assholes when they were on the mound (and I say this as a great admirer of Mr. Gibson, in particular). Just because they played a long time ago, doesn’t mean they were right. It doesn’t mean should have any sway over how the game is played today.
The annals of baseball history are filled with plays and practices that were horrible ideas at the time, and that teams and players did anyway, and practices that are horribly outdated. And if a stupid beanball war takes out one of baseball’s brightest stars before he even gets a chance to shine, everybody who coddled and empowered this juvenile, asinine, and dangerous behavior is going to be as much to blame as the jackass who throws the pitch.