THE SEASON OF THE ZERO HERO - Sports Illustrated Vault |
Publish date:


A hitting crisis has set in as big-league pitchers, led by the Dodgers' frugal Don Drysdale, have become veritable Ebenezer Scrooges. Even baseball owners fear that the game is in danger of becoming a bore

Baseball's vast, confusing and often hilarious new pitching problem—the nonspitball—broke wide open last Saturday night at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles as Don Drysdale chased history and caught it—and hell—in one of the zaniest and most controversial games played in the major leagues in many a season. Drysdale, the tall, handsome righthander who has averaged 40 games a season for the past 11 years, walked to the brick-red mound in Chavez Ravine needing only two and a third innings of shutout baseball to surpass the major league record for consecutive scoreless innings set by Walter Johnson back in 1913. Earlier in the week he had already set the record for scoreless games when he pitched his sixth straight shutout (see cover). When Drysdale surpassed Johnson, however, he was tested for nearly everything from Butazolidin to housemaid's knee.

It might have made more sense to test the batters, not because they were hopped up but because they were so depressed. Drysdale's fine performance brought special emphasis to the fact that pitching is dominating baseball as never before. Historians, in fact, will probably refer to 1968 as the season of the zero hero. With two-thirds of the year yet to be played, there already have been 123 shutouts thrown in the majors. Two years ago there were 246 shutouts during the entire season. Of all games played, 55% have resulted in one team or the other scoring a single run or less and at the end of last week only Frank Howard, Carl Yastrzemski and Rick Monday were hitting over .300 in the American League.

It was not the plight of the batters, of course, that concerned Donald Scott Drysdale as he faced Philadelphia in the cool of the evening Saturday. He had spent a good part of the week looking around his ranch in Hidden Hills for his lost, three-month-old boxer, Shutout. The citizens of Los Angeles had spent as much of the week listening to publicity about the goose-egg variety of shutout, and it was this that caused 55,000 of them to show up at Dodger Stadium. Long before the last car got close to the parking lots, word went out for people to stay away, but one of those who did not was a retired, left-handed pitcher named Sandy Koufax. He slid into a Dodger jacket and stationed himself in the runway leading to the team dugout so that he could both watch and cheer for the man he had overshadowed during many of the Dodgers' finer days.

Twelve minutes before game time Drysdale walked out of the dugout to start warming up. The sight of the big number 53 on his back brought the huge crowd to its feet. When he started his slow walk to the mound to begin the game the crowd rose again.

If Drysdale was going to get the record, however, the Philadelphia Phillies were not about to make it easy for him. Larry Jackson, Philadelphia's starting pitcher, had won only 10 fewer games in the National League than Drysdale, and nobody now active had beaten the Dodgers more times (27). Manager Gene Mauch pushed six left-handed hitters into his lineup, and he himself was going to coach third base. Mauch would never be mistaken for a quiet coach.

The thing that had marked Drysdale's previous 54 shutout innings was excellent control. During that period he had walked only nine men. But with the first batter that he faced, his control seemed poor. He threw two balls to Cookie Rojas before getting him out. His next four pitches walked Johnny Briggs, and Drysdale scratched his spikes over the pitching mound in disgust. It looked like he didn't have it. Tony Gonzalez, Philadelphia's third batter, lashed a ground ball that appeared certain to scoot through the hard infield, but suddenly Shortstop Zoilo Versalles made a spectacular pickup and spun in midair to force Briggs at second base. Drysdale got Johnny Callison on a fly to center to end the inning and once again the crowd applauded—only this time there were a lot of sighs mixed with the cheers. In the next inning, his 56th, Drysdale got a tremendous break when a sure double dropped foul by inches in left field, but nothing else happened.

The first man Drysdale faced in the third inning was Roberto Pena, a small shortstop. Pena tried to bunt and fouled the pitch off but eventually Drysdale induced him to hit an easy ground ball to third base. The big crowd exploded and Drysdale turned his back, folded his arms across his chest and looked out toward center field for 20 seconds. The record was now his. He turned to work to Jackson, and Jackson raised his hand in a virtually unseen wave of salute to Drysdale, who acknowledged it by holding his palm open toward Jackson. Two pitches later Jackson singled, but Drysdale struck out the next two hitters and the crowd was wild. Only this time Drysdale's triumphant march was halted by Plate Umpire Augie Donatelli. Off came Drysdale's cap after a brief exchange of words. Donatelli rubbed his hand through Drysdale's hair, then over his forehead, then into the cap. Mauch, an off-season golfing partner of Drysdale's, had insisted that he was putting grease or Vaseline on the ball—a charge that Giant Manager Herman Franks also had made recently.

According to Donatelli, "Mauch started to complain and said, 'He's putting grease on the ball.' I asked him where he was getting it from and Mauch said, 'The back of his head.' I went to Drysdale and said, 'Don, do you have Vaseline on the back of your head?' He said, 'What do you mean?' I said, 'You know the rule, and if you touch the back of your head again I'm going to have to fine you.' Don said, 'Augie, I'm sweating like hell out here. That isn't Vaseline; that's sweat. Just tell me what the hell I can't do.' When Drysdale first came up to the majors he was no bargain, but he changed and we umpires appreciate that. He could have punched me in the mouth when I started to inspect him."

When Drysdale went out to pitch the top of the fourth inning Donatelli walked to the mound and tugged at the bill of Drysdale's cap, obviously looking for something besides the first signs of dandruff. Unruffled, Drysdale pitched his best inning in the fourth. It was the fifth that was his undoing and the end of the shutout string at 58‚Öî innings. He gave up two singles with nobody out to put runners at first and third. Pinch hitter Howie Bedell, called up only the week before from Reading where he was serving as player-coach, worked the count to 3 and 2 and then fouled a pitch off to the left. Len Gabrielson, the Los Angeles leftfielder, moved over closer to the left-field line, and on the next pitch Bedell hit a fly ball to medium left center. Gabrielson made an excellent catch, but he was running away from the play. He threw home with all the force he could get on the ball and tumbled head over heels on the grass. The throw came in high and not at full strength, and Tony Taylor slid over the plate with the run that finally was marked against Drysdale.

Two innings later Drysdale was knocked out, and he came up the ramp from the dugout an exhausted man. "Everybody has been great to me," he said while standing by his dressing cubicle. "The guys made impossible plays behind me, and the fans were great to me. All good things have to come to an end and I knew it. I guess when I got by the record I looked out toward center field and said to myself, 'Thank God I got it.' If anybody breaks the streak, what the hell—it's mine he will be bucking. No, Mauch didn't bother me. I just ran out. It may take me five years to realize what I've done—when I can sit down alone and think about it somewhere."

For all the brilliance of Drysdale's performance, his dominance and that of numerous other pitchers have baseball people seriously worried, as well they should be. Of the 545 games played so far this year, 264 of them have resulted in five-hitters or less, and that is not much action. There is not a baseball man worth his weight in clichés who does not try to explain this trend away by saying, "These things tend to run in cycles." The hitting cycle, however, seems to have been out to lunch for too many years and an endless string of shutouts and low-hit games can get to be terribly boring. It is, in fact, terribly boring right now.

Everyone has read all the reasons or demurrers: 1) the hitters will hit when the weather gets warmer; 2) the big new ball parks are made for the pitchers; 3) the equipment is better today and what used to be hits are now stuffed into gloves about the size of one calf's hide; 4) the grass is too deep in every park save at the Astrodome, where very few people not named Rusty Staub or Jim Wynn seem to hit at all; 5) parents are intimidating their Little League children; and 6) pitchers are intimidating the batters with beanballs.

The truth is that virtually every organization in baseball has concentrated on pitching and defense more than any other aspect of the game. Today a team with excellent pitching almost seems able to be in every game without ever coming to bat. There is no stronger example of that than this year's Cleveland Indians, a second-place club with a team batting average of .246. The Indians, with Sam McDowell, Luis Tiant, Sonny Siebert, Steve Hargan, Stan Williams and some guys named Jose, are proving again what the Los Angeles Dodgers proved for years—the game is now almost all defense. And, unless baseball takes some legislative action, this trend is almost certain to continue.

Rod Dedeau, for 22 years the head baseball coach at the University of Southern California and a man who has seen nearly 100 of his players make it to the majors, has examined the situation carefully. "Pitching today," he says, "is the easiest thing of all to coach. Although there are more kids playing baseball than ever before, the ones you see with greatness written on them are pitchers. In the Los Angeles metropolitan area, for instance, I don't think in the last several years you could name over three or four hitters in all the 600-odd high schools around here, but you could probably name two dozen pitchers. The big new ball parks in the majors are also a factor. When a player hits a ball a long way for big outs the psychological effect is devastating. On the other hand, it bolsters the pitcher."

In today's age of specialization the hitter is at a disadvantage because relief pitchers pour in and out of games so that he never really gets a chance to look at one pitcher long enough to get his timing down. George Sisler, the very astute president of the International League, says, "I believe the lack of hitting in the majors is the result of a combination of factors. One, athletes grow up in highly organized Little Leagues where they don't get to play enough. They play only in organized games and in practices. They don't get to bat often enough. They don't bat enough on their own to develop properly. Two, the way baseball is set up today, with the increased bonuses and all, the emphasis is on getting to the major leagues too quickly. The result is a lack of time to develop talent in the minor leagues. Any time a player shows anything in the minors, he's brought up immediately. No time to develop his batting. A player is constantly in leagues over his head as far as hitting is concerned."

Dick Groat, who retired last year after a fine career as a hitter, sees the subject in a different light. "When I came up," Groat says, "you looked at two good pitchers and two so-so's you could pick your batting average up on. You can't do this today. Look at the New York Mets. They may be down in the standings but they have four good young arms that make it tough on everybody."

Currently baseball is looking into several ideas that are being proposed to return hitting to the game. One is pushing the mound back, another is lowering the height of the mound. (Jim Fregosi of the California Angels has suggested that pitchers be made to pitch up out of holes in the ground.) Some people advocate the use of the wild-card pinch hitter who can be used two or three times during the game, but there are not many pinch hitters these days who seem to bat over .200.

With all the talk of a hitting famine this season, an umpire's sudden passion for search and destroy missions comes as a fascinating diversion. But even if a little frisking can be fun, it is no substitute for base hits and the fielding plays that go with them. Mr. Augie Donatelli—or somebody—is going to have to find another way to liven things up. Maybe Fregosi has a point.



Baseball is rife with specious explanations of the hitting famine, namely (from left), the grass is longer, parents dominate the Little Leaguers, the newest parks are more spacious, the gloves are bigger, the pitchers are meaner. One plausible reason (right): pitchers are paying attention.


Big Frank Howard is having the year of his life at bat.


Carl Yastrzemski studied his '67 form.


Curt Flood sprays his hits. outruns his outs.


Pete Rose has been the most consistent hitter.


While pitching dominated play in both leagues, four men were still batting with the sort of thinking man's aggressiveness that made a .400 hitter of Ted Williams (page 30). The best of these in all-round production and—by past performance—the most unlikely is Frank Howard of Washington. The massive 6'7", 260-pound slugger, who has always been strong enough to belt the longest of homers but only this year learned enough bat control to hit the pitchers' best tosses, got 15 homers in May and now has a total of 22 to go with the 47 runs he has batted in and a .342 average. The Oakland Athletics, who have seven pitchers with earned run averages under 2.97, say that Howard no longer bites at bad balls and, in an emergency, will even wait for a walk. Should he remain as abstemious through the rest of the season, Howard could take the triple crown.

But beginning to crowd Howard in the American League is Boston's Carl Yastrzemski, last year's triple crown winner who this season got off to a miserable start before he stopped trying to pull the ball for homers and settled for base hits up the middle. A student of hitting, who often in the past went to Williams for help when he was in a deep slump, Yaz jumped his average 168 points over the last month after carefully studying video tapes of his '67 form and taking hours of postgame hitting practice.

For pure consistency, there is no one in the major leagues right now to rival Cincinnati's Pete Rose (SI, May 27). Though no long-ball hitter, the Reds' hustling outfielder has displayed a remarkable flair for getting at least one hit in almost every game he plays. He uses a tightly controlled swing to chop, line, bloop and occasionally clout his hits to all fields. This year he has had consecutive game-hitting streaks of 22 and 14 and has failed to hit safely in only five of the Reds' 52 games. He leads the majors in average (.356), hits (80) and runs (41).

For some time now Curt Flood has ranked as one of baseball's very best hitters but has gone almost unnoticed as more famous Cardinals won the headlines. Yet, by a simple combination of unpretentious, line-drive spray hitting and exceptional speed that stretches outs into singles, he has quietly batted over .300 in five of the past seven seasons. His disciplined style so far this year has resulted in a .333 average, 78 hits and 35 runs.