Friday, May 29, 2015

Don Newcombe Channels Babe Ruth

Strategy aside, opposite arguments in the debate about whether the National League should adopt the DH rule so there is uniformity across the major leagues have been very much in play in the first two months of the 2015 season. On the one side, the month of May saw Mets pitchers Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard both go 3-for-3 at the plate in a game, and Giants right-handed ace Madison Bumgarner hit a home run to help his own pitching cause in outdueling Clayton Kershaw. On the other side, the month of April saw Cardinals ace right-hander Adam Wainwright rupture his Achilles tendon trying to run out an infield popup, ending his season, just two days after Nationals ace righty Max Scherzer injured his thumb while batting. An angry Scherzer, a veteran of the DH American League, complained about NL pitchers having to bat for themselves, prompting Bumgarner to take issue with his comments that nobody really wants to see pitchers hita sentiment long popular with the "all-DH" crowd. Sixty years ago, in 1955, there was no such debate because there was no DH anywhere to be had. Had there been, Dodgers ace right-hander Don Newcombe would have been squarely on Madison Bumgarner's side, even if Bumgarner is ... a "Giant."

Don Newcombe Channels Babe Ruth

On May 30, 1955, in the second game of a doubleheader at Ebbets Field, Don Newcombe ran his record to 8-0 with a 2.86 ERA as he beat the Pittsburgh Pirates, 8-3. As satisfying as the pitching victory surely was, Newk might have been more proud of his excellent all-around day. Newcombe went 3-for-4 at the plate to raise his batting average to a robust .357. Who says pitchers can't hit? Two of his three hits were home runs. His two-run fourth-inning blast off Pirates starter Ron Kline with two outs and Gil Hodges on base vaulted the Dodgers ahead in the game, 3-2. He tagged Kline for another home run in the sixth to make the score 5-2.

Don Newcombe now had four home runs and seven runs batted in for the season. It was the second time in 1955 that Big Newk had hit two round-trippers in a game to help his own cause, the first time coming in his first start of the season against the defending-champion and arch-rival New York Giants. See the following article in my series on the 1955 season, sixty years ago:

Newcombe was one of the best-hitting pitchers in the game, and 1955 turned out to be his most productive at the plate (even if not his best on the mound, although he wound up the season with a 20-5 record to lead the league in winning percentage as he also did with his 1.1 walks and hits allowed per inning pitched). Big Newk batted .359 on the year with seven home runs and 23 runs batted in. His on-base plus slugging percentage was 1.028. So potent was his bat, manager Walt Alston used Newcombe as a pinch hitter 23 times during the season, in which role Newk was 8-for-21 for a .381 average and drove in four of his 23 runs. All seven of his long balls, however, were in support of his personal pitching efforts.

Over the course of his career, Newcombe batted .276 as a pitcher with 15 home runs and 98 runs batted in. He struck out in only 14 percent of his plate appearances and had a .308 batting average for the times he did not strike out. His hitting prowess was such that Newcombe appeared in 106 games as a pinch hitter, batting .227 without any home runs but with 10 RBIs. Don Newcombe is in the argument about the best-hitting pitchers of all time. 

Historical comparisons for pitchers as hitters must start with The Bambino, George Herman Ruth. From 1914 to 1917 when Ruth was exclusively a pitcher, but also got into games as a pinch hitter, Babe batted .299 with 9 home runs and 50 RBIs, striking out in 16 percent of his plate appearances. One of those home runs was as a pinch hitter. His season-high as a pitcher was 4 home runs in 1915. Of course, these were the "Dead Ball" days.

Ruth had five more home runs as a pitcher in 1918 and 1919, the years he began his conversion from the mound to become a day-to-day regular. Leading the majors in home runs both years with 11 and 29, Ruth was inaugurating both his legend and a revolution in how the game was played. Once he moved to New York and became a full-time outfielder, Ruth pitched only five more games in his career, during which he hit two more circuit-clouts, giving him a total of 16 home runs (out of his 714) in the games he pitched. The Babe's last home run as a pitcher came the last time he took the moundthe final game of the 1933 season, in the bottom of a three-run fifth inning that gave the Yankees a 6-0 lead, after which Ruth the pitcher gave back five runs to the Red Sox.

The players who hit the most home runs in major league careers exclusively as a pitcher, with the occasional pinch-hitting and rare fielding-position appearances, were Wes Ferrell (who surrendered four of the Babe's home runs) with 38, Bob Lemon with 37, Red Ruffing with 36, Warren Spahn with 35, and Earl Wilson with 33. Don Drysdale just missed 30 with 29. Lemon and Spahn were contemporaries of Newcombe's pitching generation. 

Wes Ferrell's most productive years with the bat were when he hit nine home runs in 1931, seven in 1933, and seven in 1935—probably his best year at the plate, since he also batted a career-high .347 and drove in a career-high 32 runs. One of his home runs in 1935 was as a pinch hitter. Ferrell, whose lifetime average was .280 with 208 RBIs, hit two home runs in a game five times. 

Red Ruffing, a direct contemporary of Ferrell's, hit .269 for his career with 273 runs batted in—the most by a pitcher since RBIs became an official statistic in 1920—and twice hit as many as four home runs in a season (4 in 1930 and 5 in 1936). Two of his career home runs were as a pinch hitter.

Bob Lemon, who failed to make the major league grade as a third baseman but had a Hall of Fame career as a pitcher, had a .232 lifetime average with 147 RBIs. He hit five home runs in 1948, seven in 1949, and six the following year. Lemon's only multi-homer game was in 1949. Two of his career home runs came as a pinch hitter.

The great southpaw (363 victories) Warren Spahn never hit more than four round-trippers in a single season (twice, in 1955 and 1961), did not hit much for average (a lifetime mark of .194), but does hold the mark for the most consecutive years with at least one home run by a pitcherseventeen, from 1948 to 1964. Unlike the other top pitchers who could hit with unaccustomed power for a twirler, Spahn was rarely used off the bench to pinch hit.

Like Spahn, Earl Wilson's lifetime average was below .200 at .195, but he hit seven home runs in both 1966 and 1968, six in 1965, and five in 1964. Two of his career home runs were as a pinch hitter, and he had only one game in which he went deep twice.

But back to 1955. Newcombe's offensive outburst and triumph on the mound on May 30 made it 42 games down and 112 to go for the Dodgers. Their 32-10 record was the best in all of major league baseball and had them comfortably in front of their prime would-be competitors for the NL pennantthe Giants, who were 10 games behind in third place, and the Milwaukee Braves, who were 11½ games out in fourth place with a losing record. The Chicago Cubs were second, six back of Brooklyn, but nobody took them seriously. Indeed, while the Dodgers would have the best record in the NL in games played after May 30, the Cubs would have the worst on their way to a 72-81 record and sixth place.

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