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The History — and Future — of Baseball Brawls

Steven Goldman discussed how feuds have and haven’t changed

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

The Orioles–Red Sox feud has been escalating for two weeks now, beginning with Manny Machado sliding into Dustin Pedroia on April 21, continuing with the racist insults hurled at Orioles outfielder Adam Jones, then with Chris Sale throwing behind Machado on Tuesday night, and culminating in Kevin Gausman’s ejection Wednesday. The teams play again tonight, so it may not be over. Of course, this kind of beef is not new to baseball, and in many ways it is as old as the game itself. Steven Goldman of Vice Sports and FanRag Sports joined Ben Lindbergh and Michael Baumann on The Ringer MLB Show to talk about historical precedents for the feud.

Baseball has always had feuds, but they’ve received more attention in recent years. No one took them as seriously as they do now.

"There were times, particularly in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, when things did break out into actual brawls and there were consequences for that," Goldman began. "[But] the problem was that baseball didn’t take it all that seriously, so guys didn’t get ejected for those things. They’d get fined, they might get suspended a couple of days, but these things simmered on and on."

Take, for example, the infamous Brooklyn Dodgers–New York Giants rivalry, which flared up when Leo Durocher went from managing the Dodgers to managing the Giants. It seemed that Durocher was ordering bean balls and takeout slides from the dugout, and the Dodgers quickly grew tired of it. Just listen to Goldman tell it:

"The Giants had Sal Maglie, who was known as ‘The Barber’ not because he liked to cut hair, but because he liked to cut heads with baseballs, and after Jackie Robinson and various other Dodgers were thrown at a number of times, [Robinson] came up with a brilliant plan. You drag a bunt up the first-base line, the first baseman comes into field, the pitcher has to cover, and when the pitcher goes across the bag to take the throw, you kill him. You spike him, you run into him, you knock him into foul territory.

"So Maglie is on the mound, he drags the bunt, and Maglie doesn’t cover. The second baseman, a kid named Davey Williams, covers, and because the rivalry is so bitter, Robinson says, ‘Eh, I might as well go through with it.’ After the game he made snide comment like, ‘Well, if I had tried to avoid him, I might have pulled a muscle.’ Well, he pulled all of the second baseman Davey Williams’s muscles. Although Davey Williams tried to play for the rest of that season, his career was just over. He had sustained back injuries and other problems that made him ineffective as a major leaguer from that time on.

"Sal Maglie used to say, if he buzzed a batter, ‘The ball slipped.’ And after Jackie killed Davey Williams, one of the Dodger coaches, the future Hall of Famer Billy Herman, came up to Jackie and said, ‘It’s funny how the ball stopped slipping after you killed that guy.’ It’s not a good look for anybody, but that’s what these teams had going on."

Most feuds wouldn’t even play out in public the way the Giants-Dodgers one did. Unlike today, teams would often travel on the same train or buses to the game, and brawls would happen there.

"One of the things that tended to happen was teams might share a train out of town, and if you had a brawl on the field you might conclude it in the dining car [or] the observation car. There are famous baseball brawls that no one saw. Billy Martin actually fought Jimmy Piersall under the stands. When Casey [Stengel] was still a manager and [Leo] Durocher was still a shortstop, they got into a famous fight again under the stands. ‘Just meet me after the game.’ And somewhere in one of those tunnels they fight it out."

Even if it happened in the ballpark, there wouldn’t be that many people there to see it.

"Nobody was at these games, especially [compared to] today. And I’ve written about this many times, that for all the glory that we accord guys in the Hall of Fame from those old days, the attendance was so much smaller. The country was smaller, obviously, but attendance was also so much smaller. They played only day games, people had to work for a living, so if Babe Ruth had a three-home-run day, maybe 4,000 people saw it. And then many more people picked it up in the newspaper, but nobody actually saw it happen. So when we talk about these fights and these brawls and everything in the pre-television era, even the pre-radio era, they were just distant rumors to you; they were things that you heard about."

Of course today, when players get into a brawl, we’re not talking about thousands of witnesses. We’re talking about millions.

"Now we have all this scrutiny, we have, thanks to MLB Advanced Media and the option to watch every single game — whether on cable or on the computer — you can see every instant of it. It goes on social media, it’s repeated endlessly, you can embed it in a tweet … but it doesn’t stop anybody. This is not like an Agatha Christie locked-room mystery where no one was in the room when the maid poisoned the Lord So-and-So. Everybody’s watching, and yet they do it anyway."

Even with the heightened scrutiny, baseball brawls may never really change.

"I don’t want to be grandiose about this, but kind of a lot of human history is reducible to very basic animal instincts about violence and reprisals, which is to say somebody bonks you over the head with a stick, so you bonk them over the head with a stick. … As long as people have these ideas about the way that they have to defend themselves and stand up for their honor and protect their integrity and so forth, we will always have that kind of tit-for-tat, eye-for-an-eye [phenomenon]."

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.