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Palm Desert Dispatch: The Hot Stove Luncheon

"Good hitters don't strike out," said Ron Fairly, the featured guest last Wednesday at the monthly Hot Stove Luncheon in Palm Desert, California.

Fairly should know. In 21 big league seasons, including 12 with the Dodgers, the most times he went down on strikes in a season was 72. He averaged 58 strikeouts per year. After his playing days, Fairly spent 27 years as a broadcaster for the Angels, Giants and Mariners. In parts of seven decades, he's either played in or broadcast more than 7,000 games.

Much of the lunch discussion dwelled on the stars of the '50s and '60s. Guys like Ted Williams, who averaged just 50 strikeouts a year. He fanned 64 times as a rookie in 1939, the most of his 19 big league seasons. Yet Teddy Ballgame hit 521 home runs to accompany a .344 lifetime average. No one today comes close in comparison.

Joe DiMaggio was famous for making contact. Like Williams, his highest strikeout total came as a rookie in 1936. Yet he struck out only 39 times that season while hitting .317 with 31 homers and a league-leading 145 RBI. Joe played only 13 seasons - he missed three while serving in World War II - and averaged just 34 strikeouts a year.

Because of the Steroids Era, many people feel that Hank Aaron remains the all-time home run king with 755. Fairly mentioned that Aaron never struck out 100 times in a season - his average was 68 over 23 campaigns - while closing with a batting average of .305.

Willie Mays played 22 years and hit 660 homers. When he was 40 years old in 1971, Willie fanned 123 times, the lone season he whiffed more than 100 times.

Stan Musial averaged just 37 strikeouts a season during his 22-year career. Yet he still bombed 475 homers to go with his .331 average.

These were the guys Fairly played with and against, so he witnessed hitters who could hit 30 or 40 home runs in a season and still make contact, hitting for a high average and making life miserable for pitchers.

Last season there were 110 major league hitters who struck out at least 100 times. In 1960, there were seven.

Predictably, one of the old guys having lunch asked Fairly how he could explain this huge discrepancy between today's game and baseball of his day. The answer was a complete surprise: pepper.

No, not what the octogenarians were shaking onto their potato salad last week, but the long-forgotten game that major leaguers used to play during batting practice and pre-game preparation.

Those of us who were around when ballparks were named Shibe, Forbes, Briggs, Crossley and Sportman's remember the neatly-painted lettering on the walls behind home plate which said, "No Pepper."

Pepper was a game when one guy wielded a bat while four or five others faced him in a line maybe 30 or 40 feet away. One would toss the ball and the hitter would take a short swing and chip the ball back toward his teammates. If someone booted the ball, he went to the end of the line. If someone caught the ball on the fly, he would change places with the hitter. The game was intended to move quickly, and it was a lot of fun.

Fairly claimed that ballplayers learned how to handle the bat through the playing of pepper. They learned how to react quickly and make contact. If the pepper hitter got an inside toss, he adapted by shifting his body, opening up and getting his hands out in front to deliver a ground ball to one of the fielders. Basically it was a game of bat control where players of all ages and abilities worked on making contact and putting the ball in play.

Why was there no pepper behind home plate? Because balls hitting the wall tended to chew it up, and the repeated use also was tough on the grass. Fairly said that the disappearance of pepper was due to a few factors, one being the wear and tear on the field as well as too many balls winding up in the stands. Infield and outfield pre-game practice belongs to by-gone eras, as well as batting practice - today a gloveless pitcher tosses lollipops from 45 or 50 feet - where someone threw from the mound and mixed in a few curveballs with a heater or two. Pepper has suffered the same fate.

The disappearance of pepper isn't the only factor affecting hitting today, according to Fairly. The home run hitters make the big bucks, so it's tempting to swing for the fences and the lucrative contract. Fairly talked about the upward path of the swing today where the hitting zone is extremely small compared to his day when hitters were taught to hit down on the ball.

That reminded me of my college days when a coach tried to get us to hit "the top half of the ball." This created line drives and ground balls rather than pop-ups. I was grateful simply to make any kind of contact - top, middle or lower half. Even nicking the seams was fine by me. But Fairly mentioned Wade Boggs, a notorious low strikeout Hall of Fame hitter with a .328 lifetime average over 18 seasons (1982-99). Never a big home run threat - Boggs hit 118 career homers - Boggs had that high-to-low swing while averaging just 49 whiffs a season.

Some observers might argue that the stars of long ago never faced a hard-throwing pitcher four or five times a game. Relief pitchers in those days were guys who weren't talented enough to be starters while today's specialists appear in the late innings with their high-90s heat.

Fairly countered that thesis by talking about the superstar starting pitchers that most teams possessed, fellows who didn't need a bullpen since they pitched primarily complete games.

"We had four starters with the Dodgers [in 1966], and three of them [Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, and Don Sutton] went to the Hall of Fame," recalled Fairly. "But the fourth guy, Calude Osteen, pitched 40 shutouts in his career."

A few stories followed about the pitching greats of the time, Juan Marichal, Drysdale, Koufax, Bob Gibson and others. While Fairly played in an era where hitters tended to make contact, Koufax was in a league of his own. Today a 200-strikeout season by a pitcher is a notable accomplishment. Just 13 pitchers reached that plateau in 2014.
However, Fairly pointed out that in 1965 Koufax struck out 311 more hitters than he walked with 382 strikeouts and only 71 bases on balls! Numbers like that aren't going to come along again anytime soon.

Like most luncheons, this one ended with a few stories from the old days. Koufax was famous not just for his pitching but also for observing Yom Kippur rather than playing in the World Series which in 1965 began on the Jewish holiday. While Sandy was preoccupied at his synagogue, Fairly recounted how manager Walter Alston handed the ball to Drysdale, who didn't get out of the third inning as the Twins exploded for a 7-0 lead en route to an 8-2 victory.

According to Fairly, who was playing right field, Alston came to the mound to relieve Double-D, who was standing there flipping the ball up and down in his glove. As his skipper reached for the ball, Drysdale said, "Bet you wish I was Jewish," and he walked off to the showers.

Eight days later, the Dodgers were champions, edging the Twins four games to three with Series MVP Koufax pitching complete-game shutouts in Games 5 and 7.

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Roger Wallenstein is our man on the hot stove league. He welcomes your comments.

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