Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Jack Hamilton, RIP: The Headhunter Who Wasn’t

By Jeff Kallman

"One of the dumb things I do sometimes," Jim Bouton wrote in Ball Four, his groundbreaking journal of his 1969 season, "is form judgments about people I don't really know. Case in point: Jack Hamilton, pitcher, Cleveland Indians."

"He was with the Angel organization last year and played with me in Seattle [minor leagues], which is where I got to know him. Before that I played against him in the minors and considered him stupid, a hard-throwing guy who didn't care whether or not he hit the batter. In the majors I figured him for a troublemaker because he used to get into fights with Phil Linz. Nobody fights with Phil Linz.

"Then, when Hamilton hit Tony Congiliaro in the eye a couple of years ago and put him out for the season, I thought, boy, this guy is some kind of super rat. But when I played with him in Seattle I found out he was just a guy like everybody else, honestly sorry he'd hit Conigliaro, a good team player, a friendly fellow who liked to come out early to the park and pitch batting practice to his kids. All of which made me feel like an ass."

The tragic pitch — thrown as Congiliaro was helping the 1967 Red Sox toward a miracle pennant — ruined Conigliaro's promising career and may, may, have contributed long-term to his premature death. He suffered a combined heart attack and stroke in 1982, seven years after he made one futile try at one more major league comeback. Leaving him mostly an invalid for the eight years until he died at 45 in 1990.

Now Jack Hamilton is gone, too, dying at 79 on February 22 at his Branson, Missouri home. Jim Bouton was far from the only one in baseball who thought Hamilton "was some kind of super rat" (and that may have been one of the more polite epithets thrown Hamilton's way) over the Conigliaro coning. But how many ultimately joined Bouton in realizing Hamilton — an Angels starter/reliever at the time — wasn't even close to the headhunting type?

"I couldn't take a baseball and throw it at somebody's head on purpose," Hamilton, normally reticent about the public eye since his modest pitching career ended after the 1969 season, told a reporter on the fortieth anniversary of the fateful pitch. "I don't have the guts. I really don't care what the public thinks about me. Accidents happen. If I thought about it all the time, it would bother me. I know in my heart, I didn't mean to throw it."

Before the pitch, the game was delayed when a fan threw a smoke bomb that landed near Angels left fielder Rick Reichardt. Conigliaro later wondered whether the delay stiffened Hamilton's arm, as well as remembering the pitch sailing in on him no matter that he jerked his head away from where he thought it would reach.

Hamilton barely moved off the mound after Conigliaro went down because he had no idea just how seriously the Red Sox outfielder was injured. But when he attempted to visit Tony C. in the hospital, he was blocked. "They were only letting family in," Hamilton remembered many years later. "I never had a chance to see him or say anything to him after that."

This may still shock those in Red Sox Nation who can actually stand to see Hamilton's name without breathing fire and succumbing to the temptation to try hunting him down, but the numbers actually bear him out. They'll tell you Hamilton wasn't anywhere close to the worst headhunter in baseball history. A man who hits only 13 batters in eight major league seasons — equal to (count 'em!) three per 162 games lifetime — is not a man who ought to be on anyone's enemies list. No matter how deeply a fan base loves the man he felled.

Thirteen in eight seasons? Mike Fiers and Charlie Morton of the world champion Astros hit 13 each last year. So did Hall of Famer Bob Gibson in 1963. Hamilton isn't even tied for 972nd place on the all-time hit list. But because Hamilton decked a Boston matinee idol, the obvious competitor to Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski as the Red Sox's team leader and star, Hamilton wore the scarlet P (for plunk).

There have been pitchers who should have struck far worse fear into the hearts of hitters and fans alike than Jack Hamilton — who became an Angel early in the 1967 season, after putting up a decent season with the 1966 Mets (13 saves, a hard-luck 6-13 record as a starter/reliever, and the second one-hitter in Mets history, plus hitting his only major league homer in his next start, and a grand slam in the bargain) — ever could. And, there have been men who did strike such fear but may not actually have been as dangerous as their reputations.

It only begins with Carl Mays. He's the man whose submarine spitter coned and killed Ray Chapman in 1920, inspiring a few rules changes such as clean balls in play at all times and the outlawing of the spitter. Not to mention one harrowing book, Mike Sowell's The Pitch that Killed. Well, now. In 15 major league seasons, Mays averaged six hit batsmen per 162 games and totaled 89 for his career.

Early Wynn was once famous for having said, reputedly, that he'd knock his own grandmother down if she dug in against him. Grandma would have been safer digging in against her grandson than crossing the street in midtown Chicago: Wynn averaged three hit batsmen per 162 games, exactly what Hamilton averaged. In a 24-season career, he hit 64. Go ahead, sonny, make Grandma's day.

Don Drysdale was a case of the inside-pitching pupil out-shining his teacher. And wait until you remember that teacher's name: Sal Maglie, with whom Drysdale spent one season as a Dodgers teammate. Sal the Barber (he didn't get his nickname because he was a dark Italian who looked like the guy giving you your monthly haircut) averaged half the hit batsmen per 162 games (five) that Drysdale averaged (10). Maglie also retired with 44 drilled in 10 major league seasons.

Gibson took no quarter from any batter and has the stats to prove it, even if Drysdale he ain't in the marksmanship department. He retired with 102 drills lifetime, averaging six per 162. His next-best trophy seasons beyond 1963 are eleven in 1965 and 10 each in 1962 and 1969.

And Hoot, the Barber, the Submariner, and Grandma's Little Headhunter weren't even close to the worst of the lot. Only Drysdale among those mentioned thus far turns up in the top 20 of all-time. Here come the top twenty, with their lifetime plunks (their averages per 162 games are in parentheses), and if you line up the lengths of their careers you may see some who weren't quite as deadly as their numbers suggest and some who were deadlier. I'll even guarantee a name or two whom you might have seen in the top-10 all-time, but didn't quite get there, not to mention a couple who might give you heart failure and a stroke at once when you see them on the list at all ... at first:

1. Gus Weyhing: 277 (18)
2. Chick Fraser: 219 (18)
3. Pink Hawley: 210 (19)
4. Walter Johnson: 205 (9)
5. Randy Johnson: 190 (11)
6. Eddie Plunk — er, Plank: 196 (11)
7. Tim Wakefield: 186 (12)
8. Tony Mullane: 195 (12)
9. Iron Man Joe McGinnity: 179 (14)
10. Charlie Hough: 174 (9); Clark Griffith: 174 (14)
11. Cy Young: 161 (6)
12. Jim Bunning: 160 (10)
13. Roger Clemens: 159 (8)
14. Nolan Ryan: 158 (7)
15. Vic Willis: 156 (11)
16. Bert Blyleven: 155 (7); Jamey Wright: 155 (11)
17. Don Drysdale: 154 (10)
18. Bert Cunningham: 148 (15); Adonis Terry: 148 (12)
19. Silver King: 146 (13); Jamie Moyer: 146 (7)
20. Win Mercer: 144 (15)

Read the foregoing very carefully. Then tell me how a man who pitched eight major league seasons and hit only 13 in his career becomes the most evil human being who ever stepped onto a major league mound, while a man nearly forgotten but who hit 144 men in nine major league seasons averaging 15 victims per 162 games gets a comparative pass. Likewise, a man also nearly forgotten, but who hit 210 in 10 major league seasons averaging 19 victims per 162.

I submit further that, based on the foregoing numbers, two knuckleball pitchers who averaged nine and eleven drills per 162 seasons could be considered a little more dangerous than the hapless fellow who coned Tony C. Never mind, for now, that the knuckleball by its very nature might tend to sail in a bit and kiss a hitter softly, depending on the day's atmospheric conditions.

Just in case your curiosity still has the better of you, Bob Gibson doesn't even place in the top 50. He's tied at this writing for 82nd place — with Chief Bender, Tom Hughes, and Carlos Zambrano. Carl Mays, that murderer, has been pushed to number 122 on the hit parade — tied with the aforesaid Charlie Morton with 89. (Morton has drilled 16 per 162. Makes you wonder how some Dodgers lived to tell about their heartbreak of a World Series loss.) Neither the Demon Barber of Coogan's Bluff nor Grandma's Little Headhunter cracked the top 150, either.

But for throwing one that ran in on a plate-crowding matinee idol (even his most loyal fans remember Tony C. crowding the plate at every opportunity) and caught him on the cranium in the heat of a pennant race, Hamilton was considered Carl Mays's successor as a baseball murderer. It's long past time to put that one to rest, says the evidence.

What happened to Tony Conigliaro — whose beaning inspired baseball to mandate ear flaps on batting helmets (he'd been hit below his helmet, on the cheek), and whose name now graces the award given each year to a player who makes the most impressive return from adversity (as Conigliaro himself did, for a short time) — was a sickening tragedy and an unintended, accidental one at that.

It does Conigliaro's memory and Red Sox Nation no favor to suggest or believe otherwise. No matter how much they want to believe Jack Hamilton was everything except that friendly fellow who was honestly sorry he'd hit Tony C. The future Branson restauranteur who liked to get to the ballpark early and pitch batting practice to his kids.

Contents copyright © Sports Central 1998-2017