June 21, 1985, will be long remembered at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia as The Night of the Living Moths. The Phillies were leading the Pirates 1-0 in the fifth inning when the moths began arriving, filling the air around the light towers.
By the seventh inning, millions, perhaps billions, of the fluttering insects were in the stadium. "It couldn't have been worse," recalls then Phillies catcher Ozzie Virgil. "You'd go up to hit, and they were in your eyes and ears and mouth." To Phillies outfielder Von Hayes, the ballpark suddenly looked like one of those water-filled paperweights that you shake to make "snow" fall. "It was just like playing in a furry blizzard," he said. "From the outfield you couldn't see home plate."
The game went extra innings. In the bottom of the 15th, Pirates third baseman Bill Madlock was in the process of fielding a routine grounder when he inhaled a moth, gagged and threw wild to first for an error. The Pirates were able to survive that moth in the ointment, but finally, in the bottom of the 16th, Juan Samuel won the game for the Phils with a one-out double down the rightfield line. No bugs were involved.
Though eerie occasions like The Night of the Living Moths are unusual, they are by no means unprecedented. As everyone knows, God created the baseball season and the bug season to run pretty much concurrently. Thus baseball lore is every bit as richly populated with insect anecdotes as ballparks are populated with insects. Last summer, after hearing about Moth Night in Philadelphia, I decided that the time had come to pursue some solid facts about bugs and baseball.
One primary source of research was the players themselves. Be forewarned that when ballplayers talk bugs you will get very little science and a lot of tall tales. For example, Yankee reliever Dave Righetti says that he once saw a grasshopper in Kansas City trying to make off with the resin bag. Former big league in-fielder Duane Kuiper said of the cockroaches in the locker rooms at Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium: "I walked in and there was one wearing my uniform." And Phillies manager John Felske declared, "I've seen swarms of mosquitoes so big and thick over the outfield that balls that started off as tape-measure home runs fell straight down and landed at the centerfielder's feet."
Of course, few baseball people are trained entomologists, so some of these claims may be exaggerated. Most players remember catching fireflies as youngsters, but serious collectors of insects don't seem to make it past American Legion ball. "I think if any big league ballplayer collected bugs as a kid, he wouldn't admit it now," says former big league first baseman Jason Thompson.
But if baseball attracts few students of entomology, it does attract a number of researchers of the mad scientist sort—particularly in bullpens. "We conduct many scientific experiments on insects," says Kansas City Royals relief ace Dan Quisenberry. "Like the saliva test. Tobacco juice does strange things to bugs." When their interest in science wanes, relief pitchers sometimes use insects for target practice. "We kill a lot of time," says Quisenberry. "And a lot of bugs."
There are numerous stories about players who bit insects before insects could bite them. In Cincinnati, bullpen denizens affectionately remember relief pitcher Pedro Borbon, who often bit the heads off live grasshoppers to win bets as high as $25. Another Reds pitcher, Brad (the Animal) Lesley, is said to have gone Borbon one better: He bit the heads off live grasshoppers for nothing.
Andy Etchebarren, the Milwaukee Brewer coach, claims that former Oriole pitcher Dick Hall once bit the head off a locust in the Baltimore bullpen. "He went blind for three innings," Etchebarren says. Atlanta Braves advance scout Bobby Wine says that John Boozer, his teammate in Philadelphia, would eat "virtually any insect" and was also partial to worms.
One of the more bizarre—but original—ways of dealing with insects was thought up by former Braves pitcher Bob Walk, who now pitches for Hawaii in the Pacific Coast League. Walk would catch several moths and put them in his mouth. He would then stroll up to someone and open his mouth as if to sing. Instead of music, moths flew out.