In 1986 I had the privilege of sitting next to the great Scottish sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney during the NFL’s first American Bowl at Wembley Stadium. One of the topics we discussed was the fascination that British fans have with baseball brawls, highlights of which seemed to occupy an unusual amount of time on British television – more, it seemed to me, than on American TV.
“It’s just refreshing to us,” McIlvanney explained, “to see most of the violence happening on the field instead of in the stands.”
The late Bert Randolph Sugar, a historian of both boxing and baseball, thought that fighting in baseball is “one of the dumbest things that happens in sports … No player should ever throw a punch in a baseball game unless he puts a pair of boxing gloves first. He’s risking his livelihood.”
But they do, constantly. The impetus of this year’s much-publicized clash Memorial Day clash between Washington Nationals slugger Bryce Harper and San Francisco Giants pitcher Hunter Strickland seems clear enough, though a bit silly – Strickland plunked Harper in the back with a 98mph fastball in retaliation for something that happened three years ago.
MLB quickly handed down suspensions to both players but the baseball world seemed to love it. Cubs pitcher Jake Arietta, the 2015 Cy Young winner, texted to a former team-mate now on the Nationals: “Man, that was awesome!”
Most melees in baseball are set off by one of two incidents: pitchers throwing balls too close to hitters or runners colliding into infielders at second base. From those two points of conflict spring an infinite variety of havoc and some famous fights.
Before the third game of the 1973 National League Championship Series, New York Mets second baseman Bud Harrelson, whose lifetime BA was an anemic .234, quipped that “The [Cincinnati] Reds [in the first two games of the series] have been hitting like me.” Cincinnati took offense, and on an attempted double play, the pugnacious Pete Rose slammed into Harrelson at second base. Harrelson threw a punch at Rose, everyone rushed to second base, and before order was restored there were nine split lips or bloody noses.
The longest brawl in major league history came in a 1984 game between the San Diego Padres and Atlanta Braves. The first shot was fired by Braves pitcher Pasqual Perez who, on the first pitch of the game, for reasons never known, hit Padres second baseman Alan Wiggins with a 95 mph fastball. After that, Perez was a target every time he came to bat. In the fourth inning, the Padres pitcher and manager were ejected but the mission for revenge continued until finally, in the eighth, Craig Lefferts succeeded in hitting him.
That did it. The ensuing fight was so nasty that fans jumped out of the stands to join in. It was nearly an hour before play resumed, and the hostilities weren’t over. In the ninth, a Braves relief pitcher Donnie Moore hit another Padres batter, Graig Nettles. This produced a slightly tamer fight than the earlier one. As one Braves player said: “We were all too tired anyway.”’ A total of 13 players, managers, and coaches were ejected and five fans were cuffed and taken to jail. The final toll was 13 players and coaches ejected and five fans cuffed and arrested.
But enough of the how: what is it about baseball that makes those grand, rolling brawls relatively common in a non-contact sport?
Former player and manager and current MLB chief baseball officer Joe Torre, who has seen a few fights, has his own thoughts. “In basketball you’re running all the time, in football you’re colliding at high speed, but baseball tightens the emotional screws without much chance to let off steam.”
This may seem un-complex, but sports psychologists agree.
Professor Ken Ravizza, professor at California State University Fullerton and a sports psychology consultant, has worked with major league teams for more than two decades. “These guys go through a lot together,” he says. “They’re team-mates from February to the end of October, playing almost every day – sometimes 13 games in 14 days. They form a bond in a way that, say, basketball players, who might play once every three days, or football players, who play once a week, don’t.
“Baseball players have more of a concern for each other, a brotherhood that’s stronger than in other sports. And a little fisticuffs can serve to pull a team together.”
Maybe getting mad is not bad. Dr Jack Llewellyn of the Center for Winning Performance in Kennesaw, Georgia, has worked with professional athletes in baseball, football, golf and auto racing. He explains: “I’ve never had much of a problem occasionally getting mad. If they don’t get mad, it means they don’t care. The issue is how long they stay mad. Great players are the ones who recover from extreme emotions quicker than others.”
The Strickland-Harper confrontation, where Strickland held a grudge for more than three years, is, Llewellyn thinks “ridiculous in a sport where you really have to learn to get past the anger before the next game.”
In fact, he says “baseball fights are less prevalent than in other sports. In basketball or football, you mostly see two guys squaring off to throw punches. In baseball, everybody fights. It makes it look worse than it is.” Or, at least, “It looks like everyone’s fighting. I think a lot of the guys might pile on, figuring ‘Someone’s going to pull me off.’”
In fact, the aesthetics of baseball brawls – rather than the severity of the violence itself – may be what makes them stand out. Fans going to a ball park don’t expect to see trouble, which isn’t the case in hockey (“I went to the fights the other night,” goes the old gag, “and it got so bad a hockey game broke out”) so the shock of a fight in baseball is memorable.
And unlike football and hockey, baseball– except for the catcher – doesn’t offer the players much protection from punches and head butts. A fight looks a lot worse when there isn’t padding and grilled helmets involved. “We discourage brawling because that’s not the kind of image we want to create,” said an MLB executive who asked not to be named, “and it puts off the family crowds we want to attract. But to be honest, there’s another reason: nothing makes owners and executives angrier than losing a starter to an injury from a fight.”
Ultimately, Llewellyn says, baseball dust-ups are the results of “playing every day at a high emotional level. That creates tension and doesn’t give you much of a way to relieve it.” And in baseball there are a lot of days to build up that tension – the MLB regular season is 162 games long. As Torre says: “Baseball creates maximum tension while allowing only minimum opportunities for its release.”
In some baseball brawls, though, not every player feels he has to let off steam. Former big league pitcher and Ball Four author Jim Bouton once related how during one game, a fight started on the mound, and as the players rushed out of both dugouts the pitchers in the outfield bullpens dutifully started trotting toward the infield. Bouton looked over to his counterparts coming out of the opponent’s bullpen and said: “It’s a long way back to the infield. Can’t we just fight here?” This, he told me, defused the moment: “It’s hard to fight when you’re laughing.”