Nobody has it
easier, from a physical point of view, than baseball's bit player, the pinch
hitter. In this rarefied, specialized, languid line of work, a man is obliged
to do little more than swing his bat a couple of times every other day or so.
Does this mean that pinch hitters are a contented class? Not at all. "I say
nobody has it tougher anywhere," said a ferocious New York Yankee type the
other day, "and anybody wanting to discuss it further, let him step right
up." Speaking is John ("I participate in little ways") Blanchard,
and he's the best pinch hitter in the American League (five pinch homers last
season—but only one measly single so far this one). And other pinch hitters
call their job the roughest, meanest, most exasperating in the whole game. They
can recite a list of occupational liabilities longer than a Sunday double
header in Philadelphia, too.
for example, are always thrown into the fray cold, stiff and emotionally
flat—and are expected to produce. The Lord only knows how pinch hitters stay
sharp. They seldom get to play out the balance of the game and they always get
hurry-up bullying around the batting cage by the starters. With so little
exercise, pinch hitters grow breathless, turgid and square-shaped if they don't
watch out. ("I enjoy a beer. I enjoy two beers. Or three beers. But I've
had lo cut it out," says Detroit's leading pinch hitter, Vic Wertz.)
Finally, when the cold pinch hitter is called in, chances are his team is in a
sorrowful bind. But the enemy pitcher is warmed up, probably a few runs ahead
and not about to act nice. No wonder the New York Mets' Richie Ashburn, a
now-and-then pinch hitter, says, "You can have it. I no more than get up
off the bench than I'm two strikes behind." Wertz can shrug it all off,
saying, "You don't have to do much, but you do have to do
Then why do pinch
hitters put up with the gaff? Because there is nothing that puts a song in a
man's heart quicker than getting a hit when his team needs it most. How would
you have felt, let's say, if you had been John Blanchard and had just hit a
pinch home run in the third and vital game of the 1961 World Series, with two
outs in the eighth, tying the score, pretty much winning the game and wowing
everybody there? Pretty smug is how. (On the other hand, you'd have felt
awfully low-down if you had popped out in the first game, as Cincinnati's Jerry
Lynch did. Lynch is the best pinch hitter in both leagues, which maybe proves
something about the occupation's ups and downs.)
Dreamy stuff is
fine, as far as it goes, but pinch-hitting offers rewards that go further. For
somebody like Jerry Lynch, a good year of pinches can get you more scratch. For
players like Boston's Dave Philley and Detroit's Wertz, a knack and a nerve for
pinch-hitting can keep you employed when old age and heavy feet have just about
ended your career. And for all pinch hitters there is the inner knowledge that
they, after all, can sometimes win the game the other nine guys have botched.
Last year Lynch won more games with pinch hits than the Reds won the pennant
by. It was Jerry (Jerry can claim) who put the team in the Series.
used to be an excuse to keep kindly old ballplayers playing, but nowadays there
are plenty of better reasons why teams carry and use these reservists. The
primary reasons, to be sure, arc to win nigh-lost games and to make opposing
pitchers feel rotten, as Brooklyn's Cookie Lavagetto so neatly did with a
ninth-inning two-out double in the 1947 World Series, breaking up Floyd Bevens'
Yankee no-hitter. Besides squeezing winning runs from tight situations,
ever-ready pinch hitters are also used when the bases are loaded, say, and the
upcoming batter is of the nervous, lump-in-the-throat variety.
"What I want
in a pinch," says Detroit Manager Bob Scheffing, "is someone who can
start a rally or keep one going. I plain don't care if they walk, hit or get
hit, as long as they get on base." He means somebody like Pittsburgh's
Smokey Burgess. "You can wake that Smokey up on Christmas morning,"
Birdie Tebbetts has said, "and he'll get you two for four."
Pinch hitters are
handy, too, if their speed afoot can shorten the odds on a double play, or if
the scheduled batter is notably inefficient against, for example, a sidearm
pitcher. Most commonly, pinch hitters are used when the pitcher is of opposite
handedness. Fearsome weapons indeed are the likes of Boston's Dave Philley and
St. Louis' Red Schoendienst, who not only can pinch-hit, but can do it from
either side of the plate.
"My idea of a
pinch hitter was Johnny Mize," says Casey Stengel. A sort of specialist's
specialist, Mize was one of the best right, left, forward and backward pinch
hitters baseball has ever known. Fat, fortyish and slow, Mize could come up for
the Yankees with a man on third and willfully, almost unerringly, drive him in
with a high fly. With a man on first, Mize simply went for the home run.
somebody's got to catalog the assorted mystiques of pinch-hitting. Jerry Lynch,
like Blanchard, is strung higher than the outfield lights, and follows the game
with an intense how-does-this-figure-to-affect-me curiosity. The palms of Vic
Wertz begin to sweat along about the fifth inning, while the Dodgers' Lee Walls
sits there imagining himself already at bat. (Walls, it's safe to assume,
sweats too; only all over. To keep himself loose he customarily wears long
Johns, turtleneck sweater, wind-breaker and gloves.)