In a Pinch
Four years before he gave up one of baseball’s most famous home runs, Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca surrendered another historic round-tripper.
In game three of the 1947 World Series, the Dodgers and Yankees were trading leads in a wild contest. In the top of the seventh, the Dodgers were ahead 9-7. Yankee manager Bucky Harris decided to pinch hit for the starting catcher, right-handed hitting Sherm Lollar. Even though Lollar was 2-3 with 2 runs scored and an RBI, Harris wanted a left-hander to face Branca, a right-hander.
Yogi Berra belted a round-tripper to cut the Dodger lead to 9-8, which was the game’s final score. It was nowhere near as significant as the home run Branca surrendered to Bobby Thompson four years later that gave the Giants the National League championship; but Berra’s blast was historic: it was the first pinch hit home run in World Series history. For more than 40 series, no one had batted for another player and hit one out.
Pinch hitting was one of the most debated strategies in baseball. Does a manager pinch hit for a pitcher who might be trailing but is still pitching well? I say it was one of the most debated strategies; but the adoption of the designated hitter (first in 1973 by the American League, and last season by the National League) has made that decision easier: it doesn’t have to be made, as the pitcher will never come to bat.
But it’s changed pinch hitting forever, as there will be fewer opportunities to consider using a substitute batter.
“For years in baseball, if you were talking to another fan about who the best hitters of a certain generation were, you both would probably come up with the same names pretty quickly,” said Paul Hagen, a longtime baseball writer, and member of the Hall of Fame media section. “If you said to even a baseball fanatic today who the best pinch hitters are, they’d be hard pressed for an answer. That wasn’t the case years ago.”
“Depending on the year it might have been Smokey Burgess or Manny Mota. When I lived in Texas, I believe Bill Stein had hits in seven straight pinch at bats and Randy Youngman from the (Dallas) Times Herald started referring to him as “The Incredible Bill Stein.” There was a stretch with the Phillies when Greg Dobbs was the go-to guy. It was an important role, one that guys took pride in doing well and developed routines for. The DH has taken a lot of that away because just about the only time pinch hitters are utilized anymore is to play left-right percentages,” said Hagen.
Accounts vary as to who was the first pinch hitter, but it is generally accepted that it first happened on July 25, 1891, in a game in which Chicago led Cleveland 11-10 at the start of the ninth inning. Cleveland was the home team but was batting first and had two runners on and one out when the pitcher’s turn came up:
“Then from the brain of [manager] Patsy Tebeau sprang a brilliant idea. Ralph Johnson had been on the bench and Tebeau resolved to send him to bat in place of [pitcher Lee] Viau, whose hitting ability has never yet threatened the world with a conflagration,” according to the Chicago Tribune.
“The idea as far as Johnson was concerned was good enough, but Pat seemed to forget that by sending Johnson to bat he put Viau out of the game entirely.” Cleveland scored four runs in its half to take a 14-11 lead. Unfortunately they “went out at last, and then Patsy Tebeau was confronted with a conundrum. He had no pitcher, and the best he could do was to send out [George] Davis, his center fielder.” (An account in Sporting Life three years later pinpointed this game as having originated the trick of sending a heavy batter to the plate.)
According to Baseball Reference: “Pinch hitters started to be used more often early in the 20th Century, with the appearance of specialized relief pitchers and the expansion of rosters.”
CIRCA 1895: captains of the twelve baseball teams in the National League, arranged around a scene showing a base-runner attempting to steal second base during a baseball game. Clockwise, from the top are: George Davis of New York, Michael J. Griffin of Brooklyn, William ``Buck`` Ewing of Cincinnati, John A. Boyle of Philadelphia, Oliver W. ``Patsy`` Tebeau of Cleveland, John Wesley Glasscock of Louisville, Edward C. Cartwright of Washington, Connie Mack of Pittsburg, George F. ``Doggie`` Miller of St. Louis, Billy Nash of Boston, Wilbert Robinson of Baltimore, and Adrian ``Cap`` Anson of Chicago. (Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images)
The top 10 players with the most pinch hits are (in ascending order):
10) Harold Baines
9) Dave Hansen
8) Merv Rettenmund
7) Willie McCovey
6) Matt Stairs
5) Jerry Lynch
4) Manny Mota
3) Smokey Burgess
2) Cliff Johnson
1) Lenny Harris, who had 204 hits in 812 pinch hit appearances
Now that both leagues employ the DH, it’s unlikely pinch hitting records will be broken.
One of the best seasons ever for a pinch hitter Jerry Lynch’s performance with the Cincinnati Reds in 1961. He put together several good seasons as a pinch hitter, but that year he helped lead the Reds to a National League Championship. In 59 plate appearances, he batted .404/.525/.851 with 12 walks, four doubles, a triple, five home runs, and a record 25 RBI.
Matt Stairs has the record for most pinch hit home runs, 23, but 15 of them were hit when he was between the ages of 38-42. The Phillies acquired him on August 30 in 2008, so he would be eligible for postseason play, which turned out to be a good idea.
If it’s no picnic for a pinch hitter to come off the bench and face a closer with his best stuff, it’s also difficult for a closer in a tense situation to face an experienced pinch hitter who has a plan when he goes to the plate.
“Those guys are tough, and I will say that the best teams I was ever part of always had phenomenal pinch hitters, whether it was Mike Lamb in Houston, who was a fantastic pinch hitter, a lefty, Greg Dobbs, and Matt Stairs (in Philadelphia),” said retired closer Brad Lidge. “Nobody wanted to face Matt Stairs at the ends of games, that’s for sure, those guys can be game wreckers for the other team.”
In game four of the 2008 National League Championship Series against Los Angeles, with the game tied 5-5, Stairs pinch hit for pitcher Ryan Madson with a runner on base, facing the Dodgers’ Jonathan Broxton. He crushed a pitch, and broadcaster Chip Carey said, “Stairs rips one into the night, deep into right, way out of here,” and the Phils won 7-5 and went on to win the 2008 pennant.
Matt Stairs #12 of the Philadelphia Phillies hits a two-run pinch hit home run in the eighth inning off Jonathan Broxton #51 of the Los Angeles Dodgers to take a two-run lead in game Game Four of the 2008 NLCS on October 13, 2008 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
When it comes to pinch hitting during the regular season and the World Series, the Dodgers seem to have a monopoly on key and historic blasts.
According to Mark Langhill, team historian of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Tom Daly of the Brooklyn Bridegrooms was the first Major League pinch hitter to hit a home run. Daly’s feat on May 14, 1892, against the Boston Beaneaters at the Sound End Grounds in Boston, occurred in an era when substituting players wasn’t yet part of the sport’s strategy.
“In 1891, one year after Brooklyn joined the National League, a rule was adopted that allowed for substitute players in games. Previously, a substitute could only be used for an injured player – or, in rare cases, the opposing team would agree to a new player in the lineup without an injury. Despite the home run, Daly had only one more pinch hitting appearance in a career that spanned from 1884 to 1903,” wrote Langhill.
The most famous Dodgers pinch hit was by Kirk Gibson in the 1988 World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Oakland Athletics. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth and a runner on first, Gibson, suffering several leg injuries, belted a home run over the right field fence. The A’s were one of the dominant teams of that era, and Eckersley was a top closer later inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The A’s were favored to win the series, but Gibson’s blast shifted the momentum towards the Dodgers, who won the championship in five games. Another famous pinch hitting appearance in Brooklyn lore also happened in the 1947 World Series, when the Yankees’ Bill Bevens flirted with a no-hitter in Game 4 at Ebbets Field. Bevens walked 10 batters, yet had a no-hitter going with a 2-1 lead in the ninth inning. With two outs and two runners on base, Cookie Lavagetto pinch hit for Eddie Stanky, and his walk-off double gave the Dodgers a 3–2 victory.
When the Dodgers beat the Chicago White Sox in the 1959 World Series, Los Angeles’ Chuck Essegian became the first player to hit two home runs as a pinch hitter in a Fall Classic. The reserve outfielder homered in the second and sixth games at Chicago’s Comiskey Park.
The Dodger who famously extended his career as a pinch hitter was Manny Mota, acquired from the expansion Montreal Expos along with shortstop Maury Wills on June 11, 1969, in exchange for infielders Ron Fairly and Paul Popovich. Mota was an All-Star outfielder in 1973, but he made only eight starts during his final seven seasons with Los Angeles. He set an MLB record with 150 career pinch hits and even came out of retirement at age 44 in 1982 for one at-bat.
Manny Mota #11 of the Los Angeles Dodgers takes batting practice prior to the start of an Major League Baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals circa 1978 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Misssouri. Mota played for the Dodgers from 1969-80 and in 1982. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Mota’s record was later broken by Lenny Harris, who spent five of his 18 seasons with the Dodgers from 1989 to 1993. Harris compiled a lifetime .264 batting average as a pinch hitter, with five home runs and 90 RBI.
The Dodgers are one of three teams to use a record nine pinch hitters during a nine-inning game. In addition to Los Angeles (versus the St. Louis Cardinals on September 22, 1959), the other record-setting teams are the Montreal Expos (versus the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 5, 1975), and the Atlanta Braves (versus Montreal on September 21, 1993).
Stan Musial has the record for most pinch hits in an all-star game, with three; two singles and one home run.
In his first major league at-bat, St. Louis Cardinal Eddie Morgan hit a pinch hit home run on April 14, 1936. This was the first time a batter hit a pinch hit home run in his initial at-bat. Since then, 18 other players have accomplished this, including Chuck Tanner and Gates Brown.
Sometimes a regular player will be called upon to pinch hit. A player who had the day off might be tabbed to get a needed hit. Or a player who is hurt but not on the injured list can be called upon, such as in Kirk Gibson’s historic blast. On October 2, 1981, the Phillies’ Mike Schmidt did not start the game against the Chicago Cubs. Suffering from a pulled groin, he pinch hit for Larry Bowa in the bottom of the 9th inning. He came to bat with two outs and two runners on base, with the Phillies trailing 7-6. Facing reliever Dick Tidrow, he hit a 3-1 pitch over the left field fence to give the Phils a 9-7 victory. It was Schmidt’s fourth home run off Tidrow and the first – and only – pinch hit home run of his career.
As the Hall of Fame third baseman pointed out, “fewer pinch hits mean more games played.”
Pinch hitting has prolonged careers. Johnny Mize was a power-hitting first baseman for the Cardinals, New York Giants, and Yankees, but was one of the league’s best pinch hitters in his final years.
In game three of the 1949 series, he pinch hit for outfielder Cliff Mapes in the ninth inning with the Yankees trailing. Mize singled in two runs in a game the Yankees eventually won 4-3 against the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Mize played a part-time role in 1950; but he put up full-time numbers, with 72 RBIs and 25 homers in only 274 at-bats. He was among the leaders in the American League in pinch hits each of the next three seasons and earned the Most Valuable Player Award in the 1952 World Series, as he hit three home runs (and just missed a fourth), batted .400, and led the Yankees to defeat Brooklyn in seven games. During his final season in 1953, he hit .298 as a pinch hitter and led the league with 17 pinch hits. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1981.
Johnny Mize of the New York Yankees bats circa 1949. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images)
Another player who as a pinch hitter prolonged his career was Dave Philley. One year for the Detroit Tigers, he batted .400 in a pinch hitting role. In 1958, with the Phillies, he had 18 hits as a pinch hitter, with eight coming consecutively at the end of the season.
Philley extended his streak to nine in a row, then a National League record, when he connected in his first appearance of 1959. He elaborated on his approach to pinch hitting in a 1959 interview with Ed Wilks of the Associated Press: “I walk to the plate with all the confidence in the world. I figure I’ve got only one shot at it. I relax as much as possible, yet manage to bear down. Of course, it helps to know the opposing pitchers. I study them as much as I can,” he said.
Another Phillies pinch hitter, Del Unser, also set a major league record.
In 1979, Unser hit home runs in three straight at-bats as a pinch hitter, breaking a record formerly held by 22 players. The last of them, a three-run blow off Rollie Fingers of the San Diego Padres, capped a five-run, ninth-inning rally that gave the Phillies a 6-5 win.
Cleveland’s Bob Lemon started out as an outfielder and was converted into a pitcher, but he remembered how to hit. Managers used him frequently to bat for others: in his career, Lemon went 31-109. Don Drysdale was one of the best hitters on the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Walter Alston used him to bat for other pitchers.
Justin Turner of the Boston Red Sox is the leader of active players with the most pinch hits, with 48. Earlier in his career, before he became an everyday player, he was a busy pinch hitting.
“I loved it,” said Turner, who is Boston’s primary DH. “It was how I contributed to the game, otherwise if I’m not pinch hitting I’m not doing anything to help my team win.”
Turner made his major league debut as a pinch hitter in a game at Fenway Park on September 8, 2009. The Baltimore Orioles manager sent the recent call-up to bat for Melvin Mora and to face Red Sox starter, Clay Bucholtz.
“I remember standing on deck, I was so nervous and my heart was beating so fast, I could barely hold the bat up. I stepped into the box. Victor Martinez (Red Sox catcher) asks me if this is my first at-bat, and I say yeah, and he says good luck, have a great career, and Clay shakes him off twice and throws me a 0-0 curve ball in an 8-0 game in the eighth inning with no one on base and one out. So I end up getting in a 2-2 count. I made up my mind before he even came set (to) swing and swing as hard as I could, and I think I fouled a ball off, and he threw me a 2-2 changeup which I didn’t know he had thrown to righties. I swung and missed,” he recalled.
Justin Turner #2 of the Boston Red Sox takes batting practice before a game against the St. Louis Cardinals on May 12, 2023 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
This season, Turner has had one at-bat as a pinch hitter, in which he flew out to the wall in center field.
If a pinch hitter has to figure out how to deal with a pitcher, pitchers have to figure out how to deal with good pinch hitters.
“I don’t think people realize just how difficult those guys could be, pesky isn’t even the right word, I just think sometimes those guys are flat-out great hitters,” said Lidge, who closed for the Houston Astros and Philadelphia Phillies. ”They’re a vital part of any team and have been.”
“I’m facing the bottom part of the order, you’re never truly facing the bottom part of the order late in the game because the pitcher or a weaker hitting position player might get pinch hit towards the end of the game,“ said Lidge. “So you’re facing a guy who’s basically prepped to face you the entire game, knows everything you throw. The matchup is tailored just right to match up for the pinch hitter. You know he’s going to work the count, this is his one at-bat for the day, and he’s probably not going to go up there and swing at the first pitch and harmlessly ground out, he’s going to work the at-bat, and so navigating pinch hitters is a real thing for relief pitchers. It’s a really tough task, and we have to be conscious of those guys and their patterns as well.”
One of the most controversial decisions to use a pinch hitter was made by San Diego Padres manager Preston Gomez on July 21, 1970, in a game against the New York Mets.
Padres starter Clay Kirby allowed a run in the first inning on a walk, two steals, and a groundout, and was trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the eighth inning. But he had not allowed a hit. With two out in the eighth and the Mets still leading 1-0, Kirby was in the on-deck circle while Bob Barton was at bat against Jim McAndrew. Gomez called Kirby back to the dugout and replaced him with Cito Gaston, usually a starter but who had sat out with a strained leg muscle.
“The Mets bench just gasped in disbelief,” Tom Seaver said. “I personally would have let him hit. If the pennant race was involved, no. But in this situation, yes.”
Gomez’s decision was met with boos and the reaction got worse when Gaston, pinch hitting for the first time all year, struck out swinging. Against reliever, Jack Baldschun, the Mets scored two more runs in the ninth inning and won the game 3-0.
According to one writer, Gomez’s decision to remove Kirby was met with mixed postgame reactions from both organizations and around baseball. Padres President Buzzie Bavasi wanted Kirby to stay in the game. He said: “I want to win more than anybody and I don’t second-guess him. But it’s once in a lifetime for the kid.”
Gomez stood by his decision.
“It would have been the easy way for me to let the kid go up and hit,” Gomez said. “I don’t play for the fans. I play to win. In fact, if Ed Spiezio had led off the eighth with a hit, I would have bunted him over to second and then pinch hit for the pitcher.”
In The Sporting News, Paul Cour wrote that “at first, Kirby was visibly disturbed at being denied the chance to make the record book; but, by the time he met the press, he was calm and gracious.”
“I was a little surprised,” Kirby said, “but he’s the manager and he has to make a decision. I’m only 22 and I’ll have plenty of time to pitch a no-hitter.” Kirby added: “Everyone wants to pitch a no-hitter and I was so close.”
Jerome Holtzman wrote in The Sporting News that Gomez had “revealed that he received a letter from Al Lopez, the former White Sox pilot. Lopez congratulated Gomez on his decision to lift Clay Kirby, even though Kirby had a no-hitter going. Al wrote: ‘What you did shows courage and besides, it was the best thing to do.’”
According to Cour, “Within seconds of Gomez’s decision, the Padres and newspaper switchboards were swamped with calls. Most of the callers were yelling for Gomez’s scalp.”
“I would never second-guess myself,” Gomez said. “And I can always go home after a game and sleep, figuring I did what I thought was right.”
Now, managers will never have to agonize about making a decision like Gomez’s. If the pitcher never has to bat, there’s no need to pinch hit for him.