August 31, 2010
Hitting Pitchers and Some Who Couldn't
On July 3, 1966, in San Francisco, history was made as a member of the Atlanta Braves hit not one, but two grand slam home runs in the same game.
That, of course, by itself would have made it something of a memorable afternoon, considering only 13 players in the history of the game have hit two grand slams in the same game. But this was not Henry Aaron, Joe Torre, or Rico Carty --sluggers all-- who hit them. It wasn’t even Felipe Alou, who actually went hitless in this 17-3 game, perhaps thinking about the birth of son, Moises, that memorable day.
No, this man was a barrel-chested North Carolinian named Tony Cloninger. He was a pitcher.
Indeed, he is the only pitcher to hit two grand slam home runs in the same game; his nine RBI still stand as a pitcher’s record. And it could have been better.
As Cloninger once remembered it, he hit another long fly ball that drove Len Gabrielson to the left-field wall before he could bring it in and then was sitting on deck in the fifth inning, two grand slams already on his resume, when third baseman Denis Menke came to the plate with two men on base. The home crowd began to chant, “Put him on” in hopes of seeing Cloninger get that shot at a third grand slam and actually booed when Ray Sadecki got Menke to ground out to end the inning.
You might gather from this that Cloninger, whose career ended in 1972, was a pretty fair hitter and you would be right. In fact, his first major-league at-bat, facing San Francisco, went, well, let’s let him tell it.
“Ed Bailey was catching and he said, ‘Kid, here comes a fastball. Are you a good hitter?’ I said 'no.' ‘Well,’ he said, ‘here comes the fastball.’ So I cut down on the fastball and Willie Mays robbed me of a home run by going up over the fence to catch it," Cloninger said.
For his career Cloninger hit .192, which is respectable, and clubbed 11 home runs. As good as he was, he was not baseball's best hitting pitcher. Indeed, there are always arguments about who might qualify, the most recent candidate being Micah Owings, who possesses a .293 lifetime average with nine home runs in 198 plate appearances.
Over the years there have been countless challenges to the title. Most recently such pitchers as Mike Hampton, who had a career average of .246 with 16 homers, comes to mind while in the 1970s and 1980s the Pittsburgh Pirates had a run of good hitting pitchers including Rick Rhoden, who finished his career at .238 with nine homers; Don Robinson, known as “The Caveman," who batted .231 while hitting 12 homers; and Ken Brett, a .262 hitter with 10 homers. Before that there were some other notables like Carl Scheib, who had a .250 career average.
The discussion, however, normally comes down to Don Newcombe of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who really put some big numbers up with a .271 career average with 15 homers and 78 RBI, and Red Ruffing, who averaged .269 with 36 homers and 273 RBI.
Wes Ferrell was the all-time leading home-run hitter among pitchers, clubbing 38 in his career and in 1931 had a Rick Wise-like game, throwing a no-hitter against the St. Louis Browns—I know, I know, but it still counts—while driving in four runs with a double and home run. Wise, of course, threw a no-hitter at Cincinnati in 1971 and hit two home runs in that game.
Yet here’s the one that gets you most of all, for it comes out of left field, so to speak. In 1925 there was a pitcher who batted .433 with 42 hits in 97 at-bats, hitting 12 doubles, six triples, two home runs, and driving in 20 runs. There is a reason this was a lot easier for him than anyone else, considering that his name was Walter Johnson and he didn’t have to face himself. Johnson was nearing the end of his career, being 37 at the time, and would have his final 20-win season that year but there is no pitcher that has pitched full-time in a season who has come close to matching that batting average. Johnson’s career average was .235 with 24 homers and 255 RBI.
By now, of course, you are wondering who might be the worst-hitting pitcher of all-time. The normal knee-jerk reaction is to name Bob Buhl of the Braves, who certainly made a case for himself when he did the Walter Johnson thing in reverse in 1962, going 0-for-70, which is a record we hope is never broken. Coincidentally, that same season Hank Aguirre went 2-for-75 and Roger Craig 4-for-76.
Buhl certainly was dismal, batting .089 in his career, but there were worse.
Hoyt Wilhelm, who somehow hit a home run in his first major-league at-bat, never hit another in a career that lasted 21 years, batting .088. In the 1970s, Cincinnati had a pitcher named Wayne Simpson who was nothing more than a shooting star across the sky when his career was cut short by arm trouble, but he hit .078 with 90 strikeouts in 153 at-bats. Kent Tekulve, the Pirates’ reliever, had a .083 career average.
However, second place would have to go to Dean Chance, who batted .066 with 44 hits in 662 at-bats.
But when it comes to crowning a king, you must settle upon San Francisco’s Ron Herbal, who batted .026 over his career with just six hits while striking out 125 times in 206 at-bats.