From my first year of umpiring when I was a teenager, I most remember Wilson, an unusual name for that day. Tall and thin, he was first baseman material, which is where he was stationed. He was a good player. He hit a line drive single to left his first time up — one of the two on his team to have gotten a bat on the ball against the opposing pitcher, Ray, who could really bring it. Ray threw one ball and then a second when Wilson was up again. His third pitch came at Wilson, came at Wilson’s head, came at Wilson’s face between his mouth and cheekbone. Wilson saw it and for the briefest of an instance he froze. He barely moved but enough so that the ball hit him hard in the face, but with a bit of a glancing blow. Wilson went down. I jumped over to him, and instinctively pulled his hands away from his face. (What good this could do, I have no idea.) Blood poured from his nose, a tooth through his lip, a tooth on the ground, more blood from the mouth. But his eye looked ok. There was an adult supervisor at the park for all the games, and I sent kids running off to him, and he came hurrying back. We got Wilson to his feet and to the supervisor’s car. Wilson was not screaming or crying, just emitting a moan barely above a whisper as he was taken off to the hospital.
I didn’t know what to do, but thinking I was upholding the sanctity of the sport (I guess), I got the boys to finish the game. Two days later when I umpired again, I asked the supervisor about Wilson. The supervisor said the doctor was amazed that nothing was broken. Wilson had only lost some teeth, but “was going to all right.”
Six weeks later, as the season was winding down and a new school year loomed, I was back behind the plate, and there was Wilson, his first time playing again. He was clearly terrified. He could barely step into the batter’s box much less stay in it as the ball was thrown. He almost dove out of it during the windup. I am not sure why he was there. These games were played on the mornings of workdays, and parents were seldom there. So there was not a crazed father yelling at Wilson not to be a fraidy-cat or to be a man. Perhaps he was concerned that at supper that night he would have to report that he had played again; perhaps his motivation to bat was all self-driven. Whatever the reason, he was trying to hit again, and he simply could not. I had seen him get hit, and I understood his fear, but he had more than fear. He was ashamed—not just embarrassed, but something deeper—that he could not do it. Three pitches, with his left foot well up the third baseline on each one. He waved at each of them. I wanted to go over to him and put my hand on his shoulder—in those days it never would have occurred to me to hug him—and say, “It’s all right.” I felt real sympathy for him, but the teenage manliness code prevented saying that.
This made me think about major league batters. All of them get hit by a pitched ball in their career. Derek Jeter, for example, was plunked 170 times in his career, partly because he stepped towards the ball when he batted making it hard for him to get out of the way of an inside pitch. A baseball is hard, and no matter where it hits you on the body it hurts. Jeter was injured and missed games a few times from getting hit. Even so, he did not change his hitting style. Surely he had a fear of the ball; it would be unnatural not to. Nevertheless, he was able to overcome it in a way that I knew I wouldn’t be able to. (Jeter is only seventeen on the all-time list of getting hit. In the modern era of baseball, Craig Biggio leads getting hit 285 times.)
Taking a ball on the forearm or the ribs or the backside is not the same, however, as getting hit in the head as Wilson had been. When I saw Wilson get beaned, I thought back to Joe Adcock, one of the players on my team, the Milwaukee Braves. A few years before I was umpiring, Adcock hit four home runs and a double in a game against the Brooklyn Dodgers. The next day at Ebbets Field, he led off with another homer. The next time up, he was hit in the head with a pitch that cracked his helmet at his temple, and he was carried off the field on a stretcher. I wondered how he could continue to be a feared hitter after that, but he was. (He was sensitive about getting hit, however. A few years later he was again hit with a pitch. He thought the pitcher—I think it was Ruben Gomez—was purposely throwing at him. He charged the mound. The pitcher did not wait for him to get there but hightailed it for the dugout. Adcock pursued him through the dugout into the runway at the back of the dugout leading to the clubhouse before Adcock was restrained by the opposition team. Adcock’s behavior seemed entirely understandable.) After seeing Wilson take one on the face, it seemed to me remarkable that a batter could ever still perform after getting beaned.
Ten years later, long after I was umpiring, the Wilson experience came back to me. I was in law school, and I often broke up classes and studying by playing basketball in a small on-campus gym. The players were almost all in graduate school or college administrators, and it was interesting meeting people from the business and theological schools or who were educational professionals. The university was on a quarter system with the fall term starting late in September and ending before Christmas and the winter term ending in March. This schedule was good for some professional athletes who wanted to attend the university in their off seasons. One played for the then Washington Redskins. He was a backup center. He told me that every team needed a backup center, and he was hoping to get five seasons in because that would qualify him for a pension, but he also was getting two-thirds of a year in business school from January to June each year.
Another of the pickup basketball players was a professional baseball player. An outfielder with solid statistics, he had worked his way up to the highest of the minor leagues. We were sitting on the floor off the court waiting for a game to end so that we could play. We exchanged the usual pleasantries after not having seen each other since the previous year, and soon I asked how his last baseball season had been. He got quiet and said not as good as he wished. His batting average had dropped quite a bit. I didn’t know what I should say, but soon he told me that he had been beaned. He was quiet again, but then said that he had “trouble” coming back from it. He said a few more things and his unspoken disappointment permeated the conversation. I could sense that he felt his baseball career was over. And it was. He played miserably for a month or two more the next season and then gave up the game. Being hit in the head had done him in.
I did not mention Hurricane Hazle to my friend, but I thought of him. The Milwaukee Braves were in a tight pennant race with the St. Louis Cardinals when the Braves starting center fielder had a season-ending injury. The Braves called up Bob Hazle, who went on a tear batting .403 in 41 games with many crucial hits. Hall-of-Famer Eddie Matthews credited Hazle, quickly nicknamed “Hurricane,” with winning the pennant for Milwaukee. (Hazle did not have a great world series, but he got two hits in the deciding seventh game that sparked the Braves to the championship.)
Next year, however, was different. He was beaned early in spring training, and he was beaned again a few weeks later, and it was over for him. The Braves soon sold him to Detroit where in his few plate appearances he batted a disappointing .241. Soon he was back in the minor leagues and then out of baseball. Hazle is one of those oddities—a lifetime .300 hitter (.310) who never hit .300 in a season.
I think of Hurricane Hazle and realize that sometimes life might throw you a curve ball but sometimes it throws a fastball at your head.