Baseball Brawls

Because of the big brawl yesterday between the Padres and the Dodgers in which Zack Greinke broke his collar bone, apparently when he and Carlos Quentin traded shoulder blocks, Sports Illustrated is running an on-line article it advertizes as “the most notorious brawls in baseball history”.  It then lists 13 relatively recent brawls, only three of which occurred before 1993 and none before 1965.

At least the article included Juan Marichal hitting catcher John Roseboro over the head with his bat after Marichal claimed that Roseboro buzzed his head with a throw back to pitcher Sandy Koufax, because Koufax wouldn’t throw at Marichal after Marichal had plunked at least one Dodger (Koufax reputedly refused to throw at hitters because he was afraid his 98 mph fast ball, the fastest of his day, might kill someone).

You see, before 1965 baseball was a game of peace and love where no one ever mixed it up.

What a load of BS.  Baseball was a rough, rough game in its early professional days and has gotten more and more tame as players have become better paid and MLB has worked to make the games family entertainment.

In the 1880’s and 1890’s the game was hard fought in a literal sense.  Umpires were routinely threatened by players and fans, and it was not uncommon for both to back up their tough talk with physical violence.  The best teams of the era, the St. Louis Browns of the 1880’s American Association and the Baltimore Orioles of the 1890’s National League regularly abused umpires and opposing players forcing/inspiring other teams to follow suit.

During this era, there was generally only one umpire monitoring the action, and when his eyes were following the ball, fielders tried to impede base runners by getting in the way, tripping them, throwing knees or elbows and even body blocks, or grabbing their belts.  Baserunners responded in kind, and one base runner famously defeated the belt-grabbing strategy by unhooking his belt so that when an opposing fielder grabbed it, the fielder was left holding the belt as the runner continued round the bases.

Fans threw glass bottles and rotten eggs at opposing players and umpires, and on-field fist fights were common.  Most professional baseball players came from poor or working class backgrounds, life was hard for working class men in the late 19th century when the national economy was notoriously boom or bust, and a major league ball player’s salary was something worth fighting for.

The game got so rough that baseball and ballplayers got unsavory reputations, which kept many potential fans away from the ballparks.  This only changed when the American League announced itself as a major league before the 1901 season and quickly began moving teams into the biggest cities.

The AL’s driving force and strong man Ban Johnson felt the “rowdyism” of the 1890’s was bad for the game, and he wouldn’t allow it in his league.  The NL eventually followed suit.

Further, as major league revenues and salaries, more former college players entered the game and brought with them the ethics of elite and more upper class amateurism.  Most notable of these players was New York Giants ace Christy Mathewson, probably the player most mythologized during his own day of any player in baseball history.  [Matthewson had attended Bucknell University, was exceptionally handsome and was far and away the best player on the dominant club of his day — there is a certain irony in the fact this All-American icon died prematurely as a long-term result of being gassed by his own government in a training exercise during World War I.]

However, the cleaning up of major league baseball wasn’t something that happened over night.  It was a long and slow process, and with the exception of the famous Marichal/Roseboro bat incident, the game has gotten more and more tame as high salaries and professionalism have reduced the incentives for violence.

Here is a post from which at least goes back beyond 1965 in referencing famous baseball brawls/fights.  I particularly like the quote from Yankees’ catcher and Hall of Famer Bill Dickey after he famously broke Washington Senators’ outfielder Carl Reynolds’ jaw with a single punch following a home plate collision on July 4. 1932: “It was hot, and the games had been close, and I had been banged around for days,” Dickey said. “When Reynolds came at me high, I just had to hit somebody.”  [Dickey received a month-long suspension and was fined $1,000, probably a sixth of his 1932 salary.]

Even if Sports Illustrated’s memory doesn’t extend back any further than incidents for which it can provide pretty pictures, don’t for a minute think that human nature has changed much since the American pastime turned pro in the late 1860’s.

Explore posts in the same categories: Baltimore Orioles, Baseball History, Los Angeles Dodgers, Minnesota Twins, New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals, Washington Nationals

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