The end of the baseball season has passed. They are no games to watch today, nor will there be for many more days to come. We fill the time by “rosterbating,” fantasizing about what our favorite (or any) teams will do this offseason to make their squad better. There will be debates in bars, emails exchanged, and a slew of articles written on these subjects. We are forever looking forward, for that is the only place optimism lives. I however, find great joy in the past. I use the offseason to catch up on the mountain of baseball books I purchased during the offseason, but never got around to reading. I try to learn more about players and managers and teams and seasons that I was not around for, or was too young or careless to properly observe. I thought this would be a good thing to share (note: I also thought this would be a good excuse to start writing more). So I’m starting a little project called Lost Seasons. I’m not sure where it will lead, but I’m excited to find out.
Lost Seasons Pt. 1 – Ron Hunt 1971
ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian wrote a piece this past year about getting hit by a pitch. I encourage you to read the whole thing yourself. It gets a bit flowery (as Kurkjian is wont to do), but it’s full of great quotes from players regarding getting plunked. Here are a few:
“It's like getting hit with an uppercut but without boxing gloves on.” – Mark Reynolds
“I thought I had been shot with a gun.” – Eric Hinske
“That's the worst pain I've ever felt on a baseball field…” – Adam LaRoche
You get the idea. These are quotes from big, brawny, hulks of men explaining how a smack from a 5 oz. ball put them in terrible physical pain. NFL quarterbacks get to wear the equivalent of military-grade flak jackets because they get knocked to the ground. Baseball players do not have that luxury, though I would love to see Pujols try to pull a ball while wearing the same undershirt the President wears during public appearances. Baseball players need flexibility and dexterity, so they wear nothing to protect their bodies from 100 mph pitches other than a thin layer of freshly-pressed polyester. Out of all the times I envy a baseball player – and there are many – the times when they get plunked would rank somewhere between last and the spot after last. No gracias. Do not want.
But it’s not about what I want. It’s about what the batter and pitcher want. The batter wants to shrink the strike zone, the pitcher cares to expand it. It is a delicate push and pull, forever rocking until that delicacy blinks away for a moment and the batter gets dumptrucked in the ribs by some heat. It happens, and the batter takes his base, assuming he can move. And then, during his next at-bat, defying all logic and reason, he’ll crowd that plate again, as if tempting some terribly-painful and very-possible fate. The hit-by-pitch statistic is one laced with chance, grit, fearlessness, and determination. In this instance, no player may have been more determined that Ron Hunt was in 1971.
Ron Hunt played 12 seasons in the majors, between 1963 and 1974. The infielder would be elected to two All-Star teams in his career, and come in second in Rookie of the Year voting in ’63 (some so-and-so named Pete Rose beat him out). He got on base at a pretty good clip, but had almost no power and only a small amount of speed. But Ron Hunt stands tall with the greats – or at least the foolhardy – because he holds the modern-day record for most hits-by-pitch in a single season. In 1971, while playing for Montreal, Ron Hunt got plunked 50 times. 50. That was 38 more than any other player that year, and 15 more than any other player who played in a season after 1900. If you were to erase the HBP from Hunt’s on-base percentage, it would drop 52 points, from a very-good .402 to good-ish .350 (or from 7th in the NL to 50th). Hunt would have 12 more HBP than he would RBI that year. On the brighter side, he got struck nine times more than he struck out. He had a streak of three consecutive games with a HBP, and was plunked in two straight games eight separate times. His career HBP total is only good enough for 4th all-time in the modern era, but in 1971 nobody – NOBODY – took one for the team like Ron Hunt.
50. Think about that number. The bruises on this man’s body must have been legendary, and always present. Players talk about feeling plunks for weeks after. Hunt didn’t have that luxury, because he got hit three of every ten games he played that season. If a player gets hit 50 times in one year, one might be inclined to think that it was something he took pride in. That may be true, but apparently Hunt wasn’t thrilled every time he got nicked.
On August 17, Hunt got hit twice by Padres righty Steve Arlin. He did not take the second one lightly. Hunt turned to catcher Bob Barton, ripped off Barton’s mask, and then punched him right in the face. The benches cleared. Barton and Arlin stayed in the game. Hunt was ejected much to the chagrin of Expos manager Gene Mauch. Hunt returned to the lineup the following game, and (you guessed it) was hit by pitcher Fred Norman.
There’s a tough-guy mentality that goes along with being famous for getting plunked. Hunt walked the walk, but he seemingly talked the talk as well. In July that year, he was hit by a Bob Gibson pitch. When asked about it, Hunt told reporters “Nah, it didn’t hurt at all.” Gibson may have been 35 at the time, but I bet a heater in the solar plexus from Gibson would still hurt even if he were 55. But it didn’t bother Hunt. He was the original honey badger – he really didn’t give a shit.
Hunt played in 152 games in 1971, a career high for him. He would average only 121 the next four years, and just 12 in his final season. I could not find any article heralding him and his curious talent when he retired. No farewells, no unsung-hero fluff pieces. Players like Hunt don’t get sendoffs. They get forgotten. But Hunt shouldn’t be, for he was an original. He didn’t hit for power, he didn’t steal bags, but he got on base, damn it, one way or another. Before Craig Biggio and Jason Kendall, there was Ron Hunt; the OG of HBP.