“If the old-fashioned Headhunter wanted you hit on the thigh, he’d hit you on the thigh. If he felt like buzzing one near your ear (but not actually hitting you), then your ear would be buzzed.”
Don Drysdale is dead – literally and figuratively.
Drysdale died in the literal form in July, 1993, suffering a fatal heart attack in a Montreal hotel room. Right smack in the middle of yet another baseball season that he was broadcasting.
But Drysdale, I submit, is now dead in a more abstract way.
Big D was among the last of the Headhunters. His was a breed of pitcher who exacted vengeance and was just crazy enough to make sure a cloud of fear hovered over the batter’s box.
Orlando Cepeda may have said it best about Drysdale.
“The key to going against Drysdale,” the man known as The Baby Bull once said of his National League nemesis, “is to hit him before he hits you.”
And there’s this, from Mike Shannon, another fellow NLer back in the 1960s: “Drysdale looked at the intentional walk as a waste of three pitches. If he wanted to put you on base, he’d just hit you, using one pitch instead of four.”
Pitchers like Drysdale, and fellow Dodger Stan Williams, and a lefty named Ray Sadecki, and right-hander Dick Radatz, whose nickname was, oh-so-appropriately, “The Monster”, didn’t just take the mound – they claimed it. And, while they were at it, they annexed some of the batter’s box, too.
There were a bunch of these Headhunters back in the day. They were like the enforcers in hockey; just about every club had one on its roster. Their job was to keep the hitters honest. If one of their teammates got brushed back or knocked down, the Headhunters were expected to swing into action. And everyone knew it. In Drysdale’s case, he wasn’t shy to advertise his intentions. Those intentions resulted in 154 hit batsmen – the most in big league history.
The Dodgers and Giants have always been fierce rivals, but perhaps never more so than in the fabulous sixties, when Drysdale, Williams, and Johnny Podres wore Dodger Blue, and Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, and Sadecki toiled for the Giants.
“My rule is ‘Two for One’,” Drysdale made sure to say when everyone was listening. “For every Dodgers teammate of mine that goes down, two Giants are going down. And they won’t be .220 hitters, either.”
These were the Giants that Drysdale was talking about, and these were Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and Cepeda, The Baby Bull. Not a .220 hitter in that lot. And it was they – the Giants’ biggest stars – to which Big D ominously referred.
There wasn’t much being said from the Giants’ hitters about Drysdale’s Two For One Special.
That’s because it was accepted. Some men hunt deer. Drysdale hunted hitters.
The Yankees, in the early-1960s, employed a relief pitcher named Ryne Duren. Duren was half-blind, and a drunk. He’d amble in from the bullpen, with his Coke bottle glasses, and it was anyone’s guess if he was still tipsy from the night before – or from between games, if this was the second contest of a doubleheader.
Duren, at the urging of his teammates, would sometimes throw his first warm-up pitch as fast as he could – about 15 feet over the catcher’s head. The inference was clear and deliberate: “I have no idea where the ball might be going today, my friend.”
Drysdale: batter, look out!
The Headhunter – the anointed one in charge of metering out justice, frontier style – is no longer. Today’s beanballers are raw, inexperienced, rogue versions of the kind who deftly determined when and where and how hard a hitter should be plunked. So precise was their motives, so well-timed, that the ball they hurled that was destined for the brim of the helmet or the hip or the knee was called “the purpose pitch.”
There is no Drysdale anymore. No Early Wynn, who bragged that he’d knock down his own grandmother if she was crowding the plate. No Dizzy Dean, who was once so incensed by a hitter’s determination in digging his spikes in the batter’s box that Dizzy yelled to him, “Dig yourself a nice hole, son – cuz ole Diz is gonna BURY you in it!”
There isn’t any pitcher today who truly has a reputation of being his team’s policeman when it comes to “purpose pitches.” The Tigers, who have a roster filled with about as many nice guys as you’ll ever see assembled in the big leagues, don’t have anyone even remotely in the vicinity of Headhunter. Randy Johnson, the behemoth lefty, was once feared – but that was as much for his involuntary wildness, if not more so, than because of some sort of planned madness.
Something else that made the Headhunter a breed apart was that those types were rarely, if ever, charged at by an enraged hitter. If someone like Stan Williams, who was as mean of a son of a bitch as anyone who ever stood atop a pitcher’s mound, pasted a baseball on your flexor, well then that was just tough. Stan had himself a reason – a “purpose” – for such aggressive behavior, and the hitter pretty much just trotted to first base, bruised but with his on-base percentage increased.
So long ago was the heyday of the baseball Headhunter that gone are even those who taught that skill at the low minor league level. By the time the pitchers of today reach the bigs, some fancy themselves as self-taught Headhunters, when they are merely rank amateurs instead. If the old-fashioned Headhunter wanted you hit on the thigh, he’d hit you on the thigh. If he felt like buzzing one near your ear (but not actually hitting you), then your ear would be buzzed. I wouldn’t place such trust into the hands of today’s wannabes, for they are like Ryne Duren, sans the shtick: they truly have no idea where the ball is going.
“Facing Don Drysdale,” Pirates infielder Dick Groat once said, “is like making an appointment with a dentist.”
The analogy is apt. For dentists and Headhunters both drill you.