This is the fourth in a series of examinations of baseball-related legends and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of all the previous baseball legends.
Today is sort of a theme day – each legend is about the events of one particular game played by that player.
BASEBALL LEGEND: Bill Lange broke through the outfield fence to make a brilliant catch.
In the film, the Natural, the character of Bump Bailey dies after crashing through a wall to make a dramatic catch in the outfield.
There are a few notable examples in baseball history that likely inspired this tale.
One was Yankee centerfielder Earle Combs, whose career basically ended upon an outfield collision he had in 1934 where he fractured his skull, broke his shoulder and seriously injured his knee – he was in the hospital for two months.
The next season, he attempted a comeback, but suffered another injury. As he was 36 years old and the Yankees were planning on bringing their prized centerfield prospect up the next season (a kid by the name of Joe DiMaggio – whatever happened to that guy?), Combs decided to retire.
So that likely had some influence upon Bump Bailey, but even more likely of an influence would probably be Bill Lange.
Bill Lange was a Chicago Colts centerfielder (he originally broke in as a second baseman) who was known as being a good fielder (he was also a good hitter, too!).
As the story goes, in a scoreless game in the tenth inning against the Washington Senators, with a runner on third base and two outs, Lange made a running catch in left-center field that caused him to crash through the wooden fence in left field, but still holding on to the ball.
It’s a great story, and it likely had some influence upon Bump Bailey’s similar crash in The Natural.
It’s also as fictional as The Natural.
Don’t get me wrong, the story has a lot of truthiness to it, in that Lange DID make a dramatic tenth-inning catch with two outs and a runner on third to preserve a scoreless tie. However, he did not crash through a fence to do it.
You see, earlier in the tenth inning, on a ground ball, the Colts pitcher made an errant throw to the first baseman George Decker, seriously injuring Decker’s hand (some say he broke Decker’s wrist, which could be true, but I couldn’t verify that). That likely is the runner who was later on third base with two outs.
There was a hospital near the stadium in left field.
So Decker’s teammates got him on to a stretcher and then, using a ladder, knocked slats out of the wooden fence in left field and carried Decker through the hole in the wall to the hospital.
Over the years, the stories became conflated, and instead of Lange making a wonderful catch later in the inning with a hole in the fence, it became Lange made a wonderful catch in the inning by MAKING a hole in the fence!
Lange, to his credit, never claimed otherwise, even when the story became very popular in the early 1900s. He did not remember the details always himself (getting the date and score wrong on different occasions), but he always made sure never to claim that he actually crashed through the wall.
BASEBALL LEGEND: Lou Piniella was the first major league baseball player to be thrown out at every base/plate in a single game!
Lou Piniella was originally drafted in 1962 when he was just 18 years old (he turned 19 a couple of months later).
He spent a good long time in the minor leagues for a few different clubs. Piniella has the interesting distinction of being drafted by two different teams in the Major League Expansion Draft.
The Los Angeles Angels took him in the 1962 Expansion Draft and the Seattle Pilots took him in the 1969 Expansion Draft.
In both cases, the teams then traded him to another team.
The Pilots traded him to the Kansas City Royals and finally, in 1969, Piniella became a regular major league player. He went on to win the 1969 Rookie of the Year Award.
Piniella was noted in how aggressive he played the game, but at times, that aggressiveness did not always pay off, noted by an early game in the 1970 season (April 16, 1970 to be precise) in Milwaukee that the Royals played the Brewers.
With two outs and two men on in the first, Piniella (batting fifth, natch) reached on a error by Brewers shortstop Ted Kubiak.
The next batter, Luis Alcaraz, smacked a double to left field that scored the lead runners, but Piniella was nailed at home plate trying to score.
In the third inning, Piniella hit a three-run home run, putting the Royals up 6-1.
In the fifth inning, Piniella hit a single to right field but was forced out at second base on a ground ball by Alcarez.
In the seventh inning, Piniella hit a single to right field. Alcarez followed with a single that sent Piniella to third base. Then, inexplicably, Piniella was picked off third base by a snap throw by Brewers catcher Jerry McNertney!
Finally, in the ninth inning, with a man on first base, Piniella hit a ground ball and was thrown out at first.
So somehow, Piniella managed to get thrown out at every base on the field, plus home plate!
Luckily, though, the Royals won the game by two runs (8-6) and Piniella DID hit a three-run home run, so he shouldn’t feel too bad about it.
Amazingly enough, the next season, Piniella almost topped this feat in a game in August of 1971 against the Oakland Athletics in Kansas City!
In that game (a K.C. loss, 7-5), Piniella was thrown out trying to stretch a double into a triple TWICE!!! And he ALSO thrown out at home trying to score from second base on a single! THREE base-running outs!! That’s amazing.
Piniella was traded by the Royals in 1973 to the New York Yankees, where Piniella played the rest of his career, eventually managing the team, as well (Piniella has been an acclaimed Major League manager ever since, still known for his aggressiveness!).
BASEBALL LEGEND: Ron Wright had an extremely memorable (not in a good way) performance in his first, and only, major league game.
Lou Piniella was managing the Seattle Mariners when Ron Wright played his first, and only, game for the Mariners.
Wright was a top hitting prospect for the Atlanta Braves as a slugging first baseman when he was traded along with top Atlanta pitching prospect Jason Schmidt to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Pirates’ ace Denny Neagle.
Wright automatically became one of Pittsburgh’s top hitting prospects.
Wright was actually called up to the big league club at the end of 1997, but he had a sore wrist, so the Pirates just kept him on the bench (as why risk an injury when this guy was surely going to get to the Majors eventually anyways, right?).
The next year, though, Wright’s career was basically ruined by a back injury. He missed most of the 1998 season, and the worst thing about it was that the surgery to FIX his back actually ended up hurting his sciatic nerve. Wright was now basically done as a top prospect, but he was still a good enough player to stick in the minor leagues for a few more years and finally, now in the Seattle Mariner organization, he got called up to the big league club in 2002 when Edgar Martinez went down with an injury.
He stayed on the bench, but then an injury to third baseman Jeff Cirillo in batting practice required a change to the lineup and Piniella inserted Wright as the Designated Hitter, batting seventh.
The game was in Arlington against the Texas Rangers (who had former Seattle Mariner star player Alex Rodriguez on the team).
Wright first came up in the top of the second, with the Mariners up 1-0 and two men on base with no outs. Facing Kenny Rogers, Wright struck out looking on three pitches.
His next appearance came in the top of the fourth, with the Mariners still leading 1-0. Once again, the two men ahead of him (Ruben Sierra and John Olerud) reached base in front of him with no outs, Sierra was on third and Olerud was on first.
Wright hit a ground ball to Rogers, who flipped the ball to Alex Rodriguez at second base, getting Olerud on the force out. Sierra had waited until the throw went to second to try for home and he was thrown out – while the ball was going to home, Wright attempted to advance to second and he was nailed at second base for the third out of the inning. Yes, in his second at-bat in the Major Leagues, Wright had hit into a triple play!
After a Rodriguez two-run homer, Wright’s next at-bat against Rogers came in the top of the sixth inning, with the Mariners now down 2-1. And ONCE AGAIN, Wright came up with no outs and Sierra and Olerud on base (Sierra on second, Olerud on first).
Wright then hit the ball the hardest he had all day, but it was a hard grounder right to Rodriguez, who fed the ball to second base for the force and on to first base for the double play!!
Yes, in his first three at-bats, Wright had struck out, hit into a triple play and now a double play!!!
After a three-run homer by Rodriguez, the Mariners came into the seventh inning now trailing 5-1.
After creeping within 5-4, Wright’s spot came up with two men on and one out. Piniella felt that Wright had had enough, so he pinch-hit Mark McLemore for Wright (for Wright’s sake, at least McLemore also promptly struck out in both plate appearances).
As bad as it was, you’d think he would at least get another chance, right?
Well, as it turned out, the Mariners needed some bullpen help, so he was sent down to be replaced by a relief pitcher.
Wright would never make it to the Majors again.
Now a pharmacist and baseball instructor in his home state of Idaho (married with four kids), Wright told the New York Times his thoughts about that day – “Best day of my professional life.”
Thanks to Lee Jenkins of the New York Times for the great quote.
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org