Saturday, June 27, 2015
Ryne Duren and the Art of Getting Hit By a Pitch
The recent episode in which a player leaned into a curve ball in the ninth inning to break up a perfect game reminds me of the lost art of being hit by a pitch and a time when it almost helped the Reds win a pennant. The dastardly deed was perpetrated by one of my all-time favorite characters: Ryne Duren, he of the fabled fastball and even more fabled bad eyesight.
The year was 1964 and the Reds were a talented team, languishing behind the rampaging Phillies: six and a half games out with 13 left to play.
On September 20, 1964, the Reds were in the middle of an uninspired game against the Cardinals, trailing 6-0 by the fourth inning. Ryne Duren had come on in relief of a battered Cincinnati starter and, since the game appeared hopeless, he was left in to bat. Duren took exception to the fact that there seemed to be little life, or little hope, on the Reds bench.
I talked to the then-80-year-old Duren in 2009 and he gleefully recounted one of his favorite games:
"I looked around the dugout and everyone was really down; just sitting on their dead asses like it's over," he said. "I got mad and said to everyone on the bench, 'Why don't we just go in the damn clubhouse and take off our damn uniforms and concede the damn game. If you don't want to compete, let's just go home. But if you're out here, let's have a little life.' I balled everyone out for being deadasses on the bench. So they hollered back at me, 'Well why don't you go up there and do something. You think you're so damn good, go up and get a hit.'
But going up there and getting a hit was not an easy matter for Duren, who carried a career batting average of .061 at the time and had been to the plate only three times all year. Duren could hardly be blamed for his lack of hitting prowess; he came by his futility naturally. Duren had some of the worst eyes ever to appear on a baseball field. If modern stats had been in place, he would have been credited as having the lowest VAR (Vision Above Replacement) in the majors.
He wore Coke-bottle thick glasses, usually darkly tinted and stories of his vision-challenged ways are many. Reds catcher John Edwards swears that Duren couldn't even see the signs from sixty feet away: "I finally just told him to call the pitch by moving his glove and I just got ready for anything," he told me.
When Duren pitched for the Yankees, Yogi Berra used to tell opposing batters, "I wouldn't dig in. Neither one of us knows where this pitch will go." And he wasn't joking.
So getting a hit didn't seem to be an option for Duren at this particular moment. "I made up my mind I would take one for the team, which I did," he said.
As the pitch was on it's way to the plate, Duren stepped in front and the ball hit him on the thigh. Those on the Reds bench were amazed, both that he did it, and that he got away with it.
"I'll never forget that crazy damn Ryne Duren with those thick glasses taking one off the knee just to get on base," said Sammy Ellis. "He didn't even try to get out of the way. And there's no way he would have gotten a hit. He couldn't even see."
"Duren walked right into the pitch," said batboy Mike Holzinger. "The Cardinal bench was going crazy but the umpire ignored them."
The whole atmosphere suddenly changed on the Reds bench. Inspired by Duren's actions, his teammates began hitting and ended up with a 9-6 victory.
The game seemed to snap the Reds out of a slumber. The next day came the famous game against the Phillies in which Chico Ruiz stole home on his own with two outs in the sixth inning of a scoreless game. The Reds won nine in a row and cruised into the final weekend in a dead heat with the Cardinals and Phillies.
"Frank Robinson always gave me credit for waking the club up," Duren said proudly. "Coming from him that was a lot because, as you know, he was a bear-down son of a bitch."
Looking back, it's interesting that in Duren's telling of the game, the at bat came against Bob Gibson. I guess old fish stories and old baseball stories are alike--the fish always get bigger with time. The box score lists the pitcher as Gordie Richardson. Just as well for Duren. With Gibson's reputation, he probably would have picked the ball up and hit him with it again--and this time he would have made sure it hurt.