In the latest issue of the SABR’s Baseball Research Journal, Jerry Nechal decides to finally investigate the conventional wisdom that pitchers deliberately threw at black batters after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947 for an extended period. In the film “42,” Pirates pitcher Fritz Ostermueller is shown verbally abusing and then deliberately throwing at Robinson.One of Ostermueller’s teammates confirmed the pitcher’s intentions years later in an interview, and there are other anecdotal accounts regarding other pitchers as well.
Like most research aimed at proving a particular thesis with social and political implications, Nachal’s effort was threatened by many forms of statistical pollution, prime among them being researcher bias. The task Nechal set out for himself was daunting; among other obstacles, standard baseball statistics don’t identify the races of players. Ultimately he relied on a previous study’s breakdown, and used a definition of “black” that excluded Hispanic and Native American players, which also meant that if those players were also thrown at more frequently than “whites,” it would distort the study results. Then there was the problem of accounting for deliberately close pitches that didn’t actually hit a batter. These were unrecorded and unmeasurable until very recently. The study had to be based entirely on batters who were hit by pitches and got a free trip to first base if not the hospital.
Another confounding factor is that the better a player is, the more likely he is to get beaned. Until the 1980s, throwing at a batter who had hit a home run the previous time up, or throwing at the batter who followed a hitter who had hit a particular damaging home run were standard practices, part of the traditional mind games of baseball. It is generally accepted that the black players who integrated baseball were, as a group, made up of a greater proportion of outstanding performers than their white counterparts, and this factor persisted for a long time. Mediocre black players for the most part never made it to the major leagues, because there were plenty of average white players to choose from. An earlier study tracked down by Nechal purported to find that a) yes, outstanding players were thrown at more often than players of average ability, and b) outstanding black players still were beaned more often than the best white players, at least from 1947 to 1956. That study and Nechal’s also had to wrestle with the problem of small sample sizes for black players in many seasons.
Ultimately, Nechal’s research showed a consistently higher hit-by-pitches per at-bat for black players than for their white peers over the entire 20 year period after integration, from 1947-1966. In the first decade, blacks were hit almost twice as often. Black players ranked first or second in either the American or National Leagues in the hit by pitch category 16 times from 1947 through 1956, and a disproportionate share of black players, were among the leaders in the category: although representing only slightly over 4% of the total player population,among the top 10% of players being hit by pitches, blacks made up over 16% of that group.The gap between the races narrowed considerably as time went by, but the data shows that blacks were hit more frequently than whites in every season covered by the study.
Naylor concludes by saying that more research is needed to determine when and if the phenomenon stopped after 1966.