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Posted: Tuesday August 18, 2009 11:10AM; Updated: Tuesday August 18, 2009 2:34PM
Joe Posnanski Joe Posnanski >
INSIDE BASEBALL

Beanballs on a historic rise

Story Highlights

Players may have been tougher long ago, but beanballs are way up this decade

In the past, intent of hitting someone was known and widely accepted

Nowadays you have to be Dr. Phil to figure out intent and it's become silly

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Alex Rodriguez
Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez has been hit 42 times since the beginning of 2007.
AP

We are back with the continuing evolution of an experiment that last appeared two weeks ago: a combination column with Boston Red Sox senior advisor and baseball writer extraordinaire Bill James...

Today's topic is a winding conversation about beanballs.

Joe: OK, let's start with a little multiple choice question so we can see where you stand on the subject of batters getting hit by pitches. The question is simply this: In what decade in the last, oh, 60 years, do you believe there were the most hit-by-pitches?

A. 1950s
B. 1960s
C. 1970s
D. 1980s
E. 1990s
F. 2000s

Before giving the answer, I'll give you my thought: I would have guessed the 1960s. I think about the pitchers from that era -- Drysdale, Gibson, Marichal, and so on -- they were famous for taking the inside part of the plate, famous for knocking down any hitter who even looked at them funny. "The trick against Drysdale," Orlando Cepeda famously said, "is to hit him before he hits you."

If it's not the 1960s, then I would certainly have guessed the 1950s -- you know, when men were men, and Sal Maglie was called the Barber, and Early Wynn conceded he would hit his own mother but "only if she was digging in."

So, yes, it comes as a huge surprise to me that there are BY FAR more batters getting hit by pitches in the decade we are in now than in any decade in the 20th Century. Pitchers are hitting batters at almost double the rate they did in those when-men-were-men 1950s.

Here are the per-game percentages of batters getting hit by pitch.

1950s: 19.4%
1960s: 21.8%
1970s: 19.4%
1980s: 17.9%
1990s: 27.6%
2000s: 36.0%

So you can see ... a huge upsurge in batters getting plunked. And yes, this is shocking to me because people always seem to talk about how much bigger a part the beanball played in the old days -- you know, how much tougher and meaner baseball players used to be.

Bill: Well ... I don't think it is a myth that ballplayers -- or PEOPLE -- were tougher in the old days. I think they WERE tougher. They were tougher because they believed in toughness, in ways that are almost unimaginable today. We were all disciplined, as children of the 1950s, in ways that went well, well, well beyond the limits of what would today be legal. We were taught that you don't complain about things; you just carry on. People WERE tougher. I'm not saying it was a good thing, and, lest that be an ambiguous remark, it WASN'T a good thing.

If you go back 100 years, men got into fistfights as a regular part of being a man. People weren't condemned for this, or asked to apologize for it. Joe Tinker once got off the team bus to fight some fans who were jeering at the team. Babe Ruth got into several on-field fights, and many well-documented off-field fights. Ty Cobb, of course, is now widely criticized for his constant fights, but guys like Eddie Collins, Tris Speaker, Rogers Hornsby and Al Simmons engaged regularly in knock-down, drag-out brawls with one another, with fans, with coaches and managers, and with small businessmen and salesmen. Casey Stengel had a long ugly scar off the side of his face from where one of his teammates, in a drunken battle, reached into his mouth ripped the side of his face open.

This didn't disappear suddenly. Bill Dickey was suspended once for ... I think it was 15 days, maybe 30 ... for breaking Carl Reynolds' jaw in an on-field fight. If it had happened 10 years earlier, he wouldn't have been suspended. In 1950s, 1960s, even 1970s, these things still happened, although with ever-diminishing frequency. Billy Martin was, in a sense, the last defender of the petty-punchout tradition. Martin got into constant fights -- which was not unusual in the late 1940s, when Martin entered baseball, but was quite unusual by the early 1980s, when he finally left the game.

Not entirely to confuse fighting with toughness; they were tough in positive ways as well. And in other ways that weren't positive.

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