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The big league batter with the built-in slump
Robert Creamer
June 10, 1963
Among weak-hitting pitchers the greatest is Bob Buhl, who not only can't hit his weight but once didn't hit his hat size
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June 10, 1963

The Big League Batter With The Built-in Slump

Among weak-hitting pitchers the greatest is Bob Buhl, who not only can't hit his weight but once didn't hit his hat size

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Your team is losing 2-0 in the sixth inning and there are two outs, but the eighth man in the batting order has just doubled and now you have the tying runs on second and third. Up to the plate steps Sting Ray Smith, the toughest, meanest left-handed pitcher in the league. He bats right-handed. On the mound he is all man—strong, imposing, confident, capable. But at the plate, holding the bat as though it were something he had always meant to take a good close look at some day, if he had time, he seems self-conscious and even embarrassed. He should be: his batting average is .087. You sit back. You know that he is pitching a good game and that it is too early to take him out for a pinch hitter. But why does he have to come up at a time like this?

You shout loyally, "Come on, Sting Ray, baby. Hang in there, kid." But your heart isn't in it, and neither is Sting Ray's. He backs away from an outside pitch and looks hurt when the umpire calls it a strike. He digs in, cocks his bat and feels his stomach turn over as a fast ball slams by an inch from his navel. The umpire calls it strike two, but this time there is no protest. Sting Ray is happy to be alive and well. The third pitch is a curve low and away. Sting Ray's mind suggests to his body that it move forward and hit the ball, but his navel remembers the fast ball and pushes everything the other way. Compromised, the toughest, meanest left-hander in the league rocks gently back on his heels, reaches forward with his bat and waves at strike three. The inning is over, the runners have died on base, and the score is still 2-0. It stays that way, and after the game Sting Ray mutters that the club sure hasn't been getting him very many runs lately.

All pitchers are not like Sting Ray. Some can hit—Warren Spahn, for instance, and Robin Roberts and Jim Bunning and Don Drysdale. But most can't. Last year 33 major league pitchers who were in 100 innings had batting averages beginning with a zero, like .062 and .053 and .044. This spring Bob Buhl of the Chicago Cubs extended his times at bat without a safe hit to 87 before busting out of his slump with a single. He followed with a rash of base hits (three, if you're counting) to lift his season's average, as of a few days ago, to a rich, ripe .137. Do not sneer at .137. When Buhl's average hovered at that memorable peak last week, the Cubs' 10-man pitching staff had a collective batting average of .128. The Cub pitchers had contributed a total of 15 hits to their team's batting attack. They had received five bases on balls and had batted in five runs. Statistics can be unfair, but never mind—these say that Cub pitchers pony up one base hit every three games and that they bat in one run every nine games, whether it's needed or not. And the Cub pitchers are nothing exceptional. They are just run-of-the-mill lousy hitters, except for Bob Buhl.

Buhl is a big, quiet, good-looking fellow (he resembles the movie actor Rory Calhoun) who has compiled one of the best won-and-lost records in baseball over the past 10 years without attracting much attention. Then, last season, fame, walking backward, came to Robert Buhl. He became the Babe Ruth, the Ty Cobb, the Honus Wagner of weak-hitting pitchers. The American League thought it had something in Hank Aguirre of the Detroit Tigers, who had only two hits in 75 at bats for an .027 average. Well, Buhl went to bat 70 times and had no hits, none at all, not one. He bettered Aguirre's average by 27 points. He batted .000.

Buhl's batting record, like an archeological find, is fascinating to sift through. He was not entirely unproductive at the plate in 1962. He scored two runs. He batted in one. He had seven sacrifice bunts and one sacrifice fly. He stole a base! He was caught trying to steal another. Most startling of all, he was walked six times and once was hit by a pitch. This fragment is a museum piece. Imagine giving six bases on balls to a man who would not get a hit all season! Not only can pitchers not hit, sometimes they can't pitch, either. It helps you to understand why some managers twitch and why others do TV commercials for stomach sedatives.

Why can't pitchers hit? "They don't know how," said a veteran major leaguer, a catcher by trade who has spent a good part of his adult life warming up pitchers in the bullpen. "They're freaks. They don't know how to do anything but pitch. They're not athletes. They can't field, they can't hit, they can't bunt, they can't run bases. Did you ever watch the pitchers running in the outfield before a game? They look like Mack trucks going up a hill. They're not athletes. That's why they can't hit."

Ernie Banks of the Cubs has another theory. "Pitching is very difficult," he says. "There are so many things pitchers have to think about—the fast ball, the curve, the change, where to throw the ball to different batters. Pitchers have to concentrate on all that and they don't have time to concentrate on hitting. And you have to concentrate to be a good hitter."

Hitting is for fun

The truth is, pitchers are not encouraged to be hitters. Ordinarily they are given batting practice only at their home park—and then early, before the crowd gets there. Oh, once in a while a manager will announce that his pitchers are going to get special batting practice and that a batting coach will work with them, but the experiments don't last long. Batting coaches discourage easily. Pitchers at batting practice are like kids playing around a swimming hole; they jump in and out of the batting cage and laugh at games like "base hit" and "home run." It's a time for fun, not learning. No self-respecting bad-hitting pitcher would dream of asking a batting-practice pitcher to throw him a curve ball. They like fast balls, slow fast balls.

In spite of everything, pitchers take great pride in their hitting. Fred Martin, now pitching coach of the Cubs, recalled the time he bet Vinegar Bend Mizell $10 that he would outhit him over the season. "Vinegar hit .071 and I hit .172," Martin said. "I called the bet off. I told Vinegar that any man who outhits another man by 100 points shouldn't take money from him."