MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Arizona Diamondbacks

“It has come to the notice of the National Commission that certain pitchers are being charged with using the ‘bean ball,’ which charges, if true, would not only be a great detriment to the game but would result in most severe injuries to players and would be unsportsmanlike in the highest degree.

The commission therefore serves notice that if a charge of this kind is presented to it at any time against any player, and after an examination the same is proved, it will result in the expulsion of the player or players so charged from the game.”

– National Commission of Baseball Chairman August Herrmann, May 24, 1917.


“If Goldy’s getting hit, somebody gets an eye for an eye, somebody’s going down, or somebody’s going to get jackknifed.”

– Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers, October 8, 2013.

Kevin Towers was angry on Tuesday. Angry about losing, surely, as those obnoxious, rebellious, and pool-violating Dodgers surged into the National League Championship Series. But he was mostly angry about his team’s failure to enact justice on the diamond, to take matters into their own hands. He was mad, as the Arizona Sports 620 AM host put it, about his club’s lack of “cojones.” And he made it clear: the Diamondbacks are an organization that will strike back.

“If not, if you have options there’s ways to get you outta here. You don’t follow suit, or you don’t feel comfortable doing it, you probably don’t belong in a Diamondbacks uniform.”

Baseball has come a long way in the last 96 years.

When they used the term “expulsion,” Herrman and the National Commission — the sport’s pre-commissioner governing body — were not referring to ejection. They meant expulsion from professional baseball for a period no shorter than five years, after which reinstatement could be applied for.

The National Commission was replaced in 1920 by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis and the official post of Commissioner of Baseball. As was typical for a man who constantly refused to confront the problems within baseball, Landis never truly addressed the bean ball. In 1932, the bean ball was “banned” according to an Associated Press report, but the penalty was severely reduced, to the point where a third offence warranted merely a month’s suspension.

Ford C. Frick revived talk of a crackdown in the National League, first in 1942 with a potential $200 fine to any manager plus an “appropriate penalty” including a fine for any pitcher throwing an intentional bean ball. Unsurprisingly, this was ineffective. As Dodgers owner Larry MacPhail put it: “If other pitchers throw at our players, we’ll give them two for one, and I don’t care whether it costs $20 or $400.”

In 1949, Frick insisted (per the AP) “the penalty for players guilty of using the bean ball would range from a season to life banishment from baseball.” But he also said “In my 15 years as head of the National League, I’ve never had to make such a decision.” This threat proved empty, as Frick never invoked the clause. Most often, beanings were considered unintentional and fines even smaller than the $200 proposed in 1942 were assessed.

The men in charge throughout baseball history seem to have had little memory of the game’s former attempts to eradicate the bean ball. Penalties for the offence have grown weaker and weaker over the years. Warren Giles, Frick’s successor in 1951, made little effort to curtail the practice. His suspensions and fines were minor at best. Leo Durocher was suspended two games and fined $100 for an incident in September of 1952, even though Giles conceded Durocher did not instruct his pitchers to throw at the Dodger batters. What more likely occurred — as we still see in today’s game — was Durocher instructed or at the very least encouraged the actions, but the league office was unable to produce any proof. And how could they?

But the suggestion the league merely lacked the proof to enforce stricter punishments is generous at best. In May 1958, Milwaukee and Cincinnati entered a vicious bean ball war. Giles’s response:

“I told the managers that what went on Saturday was not going to be tolerated. I told the managers I wasn’t accusing them, but that things got out of hand. I don’t plan any action. I’m just putting them on their guard. I probably will also say the same thing to the rest of the league’s managers.”

Giles’s strategy worked so poorly he was forced to finally set a fine for a pitcher intentionally attempting to hit a batter: $50. This fine was set for both the National League and Will Harridge’s American League. Ultimately, though, the penalty was at the umpire’s discretion. For the league offices? Out of sight and out of mind.

And so it has been, largely, for the past 50 years. Joe Cronin “ordered a crackdown on beanballs” in 1969, but it’s unclear what punishment offending parties faced. Bart Giamatti in 1987 said “Any act that in my opinion is intended to cause sever physical harm to an opposing player … will henceforth result in the most severe penalties, possibly including suspension” (emphasis mine). In today’s game, Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson has been accused by major league baseball not once but twice and never faced a multi-game suspension.

Now, I wouldn’t support a lifetime or five-year ban for headhunting — the lines between intentional and unintentional are indeed somewhat blurry, and even in intentional cases, such bans still might be excessive.

But it is indisputable that the fines and penalties as they currently exist and have existed since the beginning of baseball as a competitive professional sport do not stop the bean ball war. In 2013, 96 years after the National Commission threatened expulsion for intentional headhunting, a general manager can go on the radio and say he not only thinks his players have a duty to take “an eye for an eye,” but that their jobs would be in jeopardy if they don’t share this belief.

There can be no other answer: the powers that be don’t care about bean ball wars. The threat of an errant ball is obvious to anybody who has been around the game. From Ray Chapman, the shortstop killed by a Carl Mays pitch in 1920, to Kirby Puckett to Mickey Cochrane to Ducky Medwick. And from the more minor injuries taken from hit-by-pitches constantly over the course of every season, it’s obvious that a baseball hurled from the arm of a major league pitcher is a weapon.

Managers and those within the game, like Kevin Towers — himself a former pitcher, who it seems must have waged his own bean ball wars when he played — remain convinced nothing bad can happen, that there will be no dire consequences for these bean balls.

Here’s what Towers told 620 AM in Phoenix:

“Back probably when Gibby (Kirk Gibson) and Tram (Alan Trammell) and (Don) Baylor and everybody played, I — I wouldn’t say the game’s always been the same, but those were things that were taught to you very early in your professional career, you know, eye for an eye — you know, not that you’re out to end somebody’s career or hurt somebody, you know, you read enough Tony La Russa books, who’s old school — even Dusty Baker — that doesn’t happen, it’s not gonna happen.”

Towers stumbles for a moral justification for his actions and then says, feigning authority, that not only do injuries not occur, but they won’t. His inability to form a coherent justification is even more stark when you listen to the audio:

Even from intellectual conservative sports fans, bean ball wars (and other violent traditions, like fighting in hockey) don’t draw the ire more calculated moral infractions (particularly steroids, but also other forms of cheating like the spitball) do. Just ask the Ubermensch himself, George Will, who wrote the following in 1988 as the steroids problem first began to rear its head:

“Giamatti noted that most disciplinary cases involve impulsive violence, which is less morally grave than cheating. Such acts of violence, although intolerable, spring from the nature of physical contests between aggressive competitors. Such violence is a reprehensible extension of the physical exertion that is integral to the contest. Rules try to contain, not expunge, violent effort.”

Far more important than Will’s declaration of the acts as “reprehensible” and “intolerable” is its status as “integral” to the contest. We don’t have baseball without the bean ball, Will suggests (and Towers and surely many other baseball lifers surely agree). The baseball Will grew up with — and this is always key to the conservative thought — contained bean balls, and therefore we must live with them.

However, there is no analysis of the purpose the bean ball serves. Does the baseball grudge ever end with a hit-by-pitch? Or does it merely fester until a fight or until everybody decides to get over it? And there is no reflection on its history, such as the National Commission’s harsh rebuke of the practice. Nor is there any consideration of the rulebook’s ability to “contain,” the practice, as Will suggests the rule is supposed to do. How can we say the practice has been contained when, again, a leading man in a front office can say “it is an eye for an eye” and that his players will face consequences if they do not follow this philosophy?

What’s the solution? I honestly don’t know. It’s true, intent is murky. But sometimes it truly is obvious – as it was when Towers’s Diamondbacks entered in a bean ball war and later a brawl with the Dodgers earlier this year. And other times, people just come out and say it, like Kevin Towers.

And what happens? Slaps on the wrist. Or in the case of Towers, the only acknowledgment from the league has been this report on MLB.com in which Towers backtracks on what “eye for an eye” and “jackknifing” means, even though anybody who knows the language of baseball’s bean wars knows exactly what he was talking about in the interview.

Again:

“If Goldy’s getting hit, somebody gets an eye for an eye, somebody’s going down, or somebody’s going to get jackknifed.”

Clear as day. Just as clear: MLB does not care. “That’s how baseball’s worked for 120 years,” Tim Kurkjian said. And as far as Towers and the rest of the powers that be are concerned, that’s how it’ll work for the next 120.

So for now, we wait. We wait for the next horrible injury caused by an intentional hit-by-pitch, or the next Jason LaRue or Zack Greinke injured in the resulting brawl. As long as the bean ball is out of sight and out of mind for those at the top, those with the authority to institute real change, this negligent history can only repeat itself.