Niagara Gazette

July 7, 2013

SINGER: Flinging them like Sal 'The Barber'

By B.B. Singer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — The LA Dodgers-Arizona Diamondbacks dust-up earlier this season occurred over pitchers putatively throwing at hitters (and of course a significant difference between NL and AL is that in the former league, an opposing pitcher who buzzed your guys has to bat himself, rather than be replaced at the plate by a designated hitter). Which is what led to this brawl and the commissioner’s penalties.

Back in the day, hitters whining about tight pitches would have been considered crazy, and fair game for more mistreatment, because when I was growing up, this was part of the game. One noted fear-inducer on the mound hailed from and was well known in these parts, and is memorialized by the local stadium named after him. I’m obviously talking of Sal “the Barber” Maglie, called that of course because he shaved hitters with his pitches, not because he gave good haircuts.

After his fine year for Brooklyn in 1956, I was lucky to watch Maglie hook up in the World Series against the Yanks’ Don Larsen and pitch admirably, losing of course to Larsen’s famed perfect game. After which, Yogi leapt iconically into Larsen’s arms. This must have been a weekend game on TV, otherwise school would have intervened and prevented this kid from seeing that pitchers’ duel and ultimately, a perfect game few expected from a rather goofy, unsung Larsen. (I should explain for the young who may not know that all Series games were held in the day back then.)

The great “headhunter” who followed for the Dodgers was Don Drysdale, a huge, blond guy on the mound, and scary as heck to hitters due to his speed, sidearm motion, and propensity for sticking high-speed baseballs in batters’ ribs. Making them bail out next time, and his job easier? No question. Even the top hitters of his era, like Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, had to fight their fear, which Aaron courageously did, eventually getting quite a few homers off “Dandy Don.” But Aaron has also recalled that he’d rather go to the dentist than bat against Drysdale, and many other lesser hitters were defeated by Big D’s fear-inducing comportment on the mound.

Despite a blazing fastball, imposing physique, and resolute nature, Drysdale did not come to the Majors fully assured as a brushback pitcher. Rather, this callow Brooklyn rookie in ‘56 learned from one grizzled vet on the club named Maglie. “The Barber” helped Drysdale put the fear of God into hitters and also showed him how to use the right pitch (fastball, curve, etc.) at the right time.

Drysdale came to full fruition as a star in the ‘60s, and of course for the team which broke Brooklyn’s heart by moving out to sunny California--the LA Dodgers. He glittered alongside the great Koufax and with the incomparable Maury Wills at shortstop, who preferred Koufax to Drysdale; and the Dodgers again became a great club during the first half or so of the ‘60s, watched faithfully by Hollywood stars, including Sinatra (who had a seat near third base), Dean, and the rest.

Playing in a beautiful new ballpark, they were known for pitching, defense, speed (Wills the greatest base-stealer since Ty Cobb and one who made intentional spiking on base paths look accidental), rather than for hitting the long ball.

Now of course the current Dodgers have been struggling in the N.L. West division, and much has obviously changed–baseball no longer the central American sport it was in the ‘50s or ‘60s. There’s much competition not only from football, hockey, and the rest, but also computers or cellphones that claim much youthful time now.

And today, as noted, inside tosses at the Major League level now produce brawls, umpires’ warnings, and often commissioner’s penalties. The era of Sal “the Barber” has passed, but the most famous pitcher from Niagara Falls is still remembered as much as South Buffalo’s Hall of Fame hurler against whom he often pitched, Warren Spahn. More on Spahnie perhaps another time...

B. B. Singer has taught at several colleges in the area, including Niagara University.