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Baseball suspensions often miss the point, like someone saying, "The way to man's heart is through his stomach," and then adding, "and the quickest way to his stomach is to use a suppository." Looked at over time, suspensions have lacked both coherence and consistency. They don't even meet the Biblical standard of an eye for an eye or the Mikado's "sublime" goal of letting the punishment fit the crime. Keep in mind, Juan Marichal once hit an opposing player over the head with his bat during a game, and received only an eight-game benching and a $1,750 fine.
That was assault with a deadly weapon, if not attempted murder, but boys will be boys. Contrast that with Jenrry Mejia's recent lifetime suspension for overdoing it on the Flintstone Chewables and it looks even stranger. Mejia's lawyer contends the suspension process is corrupt, but it's really just that even today, in an era of collectively-bargained penalties, Major League Baseball is just making it up as it goes along when it comes to discipline. You can see that by playing "Name That Suspension" across time and seeing how far off you are; it's like they roll up the punishments with a 20-sided die.
This week in 1939 an unusual pair of suspensions were handed out by NL president Ford Frick. Both a player and an umpire were dinged 10 days and $150 for the same offense, one of the few occasions where an umpire has been held to be just as culpable as his conflict partner and his penalty was publicized. This probably should have set a precedent for overly-aggressive arbiters, but, because of the random nature of baseball punishments, it became just another bit of mostly-forgotten trivia.
The combatants were shortstop Billy Jurges of the New York Giants, a 31-year-old veteran than in the middle of a major league career that would last 17 years, and 50-year-old umpire George Magerkurth, also about halfway through a career that kept him in blue from 1929 through 1947. Jurges, an excellent defender who remains one of the relatively few players in baseball history who could boast that he went to three World Series with the Chicago Cubs, was born in the Bronx and raised in Brooklyn—insert every cliché about tough New York street kids of the ragtime years here—and, during his second season, had survived being shot twice by a showgirl. Maybe those clichés are appropriate.
Magerkurth, popularly "Mage," well, you have to love him. You have to appreciate Jurges for taking him on in the first place, because whereas the shortstop was officially 5'11" and 175 pounds, Mage was 6'3," built like Charlie-27, and had the face of a dyspeptic bulldog. Before becoming an umpire he had been a minor league ballplayer, a boxer, and a guard in football. His motto was, "I won't take anything on the field that I wouldn't take off of it." In the minors, a fan threw a bottle at him. He threw it back and nailed the guy. When the league president wanted to fine him, he argued, "They're not supposed to throw things, either, and if they can get away with it, so can I." He wasn't fined.
In the American Association, he ejected a first baseman named Ivy Griffin, who challenged him to fight off the field. That night they brawled and Mage dislocated Griffin's shoulder. He once ejected 11 Pirates at once, then topped himself by booting 15 Dodgers in one blow. In 1945 in Cincinnati, he walked up to a fan in a box seat who had been heckling him and punched him in the face. He hit the wrong guy, but still. It must have been a painful irony for him that if he's remembered today it's for a strange incident at Brooklyn in 1940 when a fan ran out of the stands and jumped him.
The incident with Griffin got Magerkurth fired—he was immediately hired by the Pacific Coast League and worked his way up from there—and the scrap with Jurges might have gotten him chased out of the majors too, but he was honest about it all the same. At this late date it's hard to know if he was a good umpire or not, but he was definitely righteous.
Jurges and Magerkurth were initially bystanders to the play that landed them in the soup. Or, less metaphorically, landed them in the bodily fluids. It was July 15, 1939. With the Giants leading the Reds 4-3 in the top of the eighth inning, Cincinnati center fielder Harry Craft, later remembered as a minor league manager who was a mentor to Whitey Herzog and Mickey Mantle, hit a low line drive down the left-field line that went over the fence right at the pole. Screens on foul poles weren't a thing yet, and of course instant replays were as yet undreamed of, so the fair-foul call was just an opinion. Home plate umpire Lee Ballafant called the ball fair.
The Giants surrounded Ballafant. Magerkurth got involved when catcher Harry Danning shoved Ballafant and refused to leave the field despite being ejected. Suddenly he and Jurges were exchanging punches—and expectorant.
"Don't you spit in my face," Jurges said.
"Don't get your face so near mine and it won't get spit on."
"I'll spit in yours," was Jurges' clever comeback.
"I'd like to see you do that," Magerkurth replied. "And so help me," he said later, "he did."
Reds pitcher Johnny Vander Meer later admitted, "Jurges was right. The ball was foul by 15 feet." By then, the home run was beside the point. When Ford Frick came calling, Magerkurth did the right thing. Frick recalled the moment in his memoirs:
Mage delivered his report in person… At the end of the report was a line underscored in red ink. It said, "When he swung at me, I spit in his face. I know I was wrong, but I did it." The result: Jurges was fined and suspended for ten days. So was Magerkurth. The first and only time, I guess, when player and umpire were adjudged equally guilty and given equal penalties.
Frick wrote those words in 1973, and although there have been occasional umpire suspensions since then, they mostly go under the radar. Again, baseball punishments are not so much teaching moments as embarrassing events to be gotten out of the way as quickly as possible. The first attempt to codify a schedule of violations and punishments, contained in the 1881 National League rules, was a complete failure:
Okay, it wasn't that bad, but it was close. Try finding the rhyme or reason among:
- Albert Belle hitting heckling fan with a thrown ball in 1991: Seven games and a fine ("I regret that I lost my spirituality for an instance," Belle said.) Rob Dibble threw a ball into the stands that same year and hit a first-grade teacher. He got four games and a fine.
- Dizzy Dean allegedly called Frick "a crook:" Suspended "Indefinitely" for "conduct detrimental to baseball," later reduced to three games when the charge—that Dean said those words, not that Frick was a crook—couldn't be proved.
- Leo Durocher penalized for headhunting when his pitcher, Larry Jansen, hit Dodgers third baseman Billy Cox in the buttocks, 1952. "What kind of a bean ball is that," Durocher asked, "when it hits him there?" Two games, $100. Compare to: Tigers second baseman Dick McAuliffe charging the mound, tackling Tommy John, and tearing ligaments in the pitcher's shoulder (McAuliffe "drove his knee deep into my pitching shoulder," John recalled) that put him out for the rest of the 1968 season. John's general manager called it an unprovoked attack. "Nobody throws at a batter on a 3-2 count and the pitch in question went a foot over McAuliffe's head clear to the backstop." McAuliffe got five games, $250 fine.
- Kicking dirt on umpire (Lou Piniella, 2007): four games. "My mentor, Billy Martin, did it. And Earl Weaver did it," Piniella said. "I've kicked dirt more out of dissatisfaction than anything else. When I was informed that kicking dirt on somebody can be termed as degrading—you know, I never thought of it that way." Charlie Hayes "directing inappropriate comments toward the umpires, refusing to leave the field after being ejected and throwing equipment onto the playing field" in 2001: two games and a fine.
- Chili Davis reaching into the stands to fight a heckler: 0 games, $5,000; fined $267 by Milwaukee Police for disorderly conduct. Reggie Sanders charging Pedro Martinez after being hit by pitch during a perfect game (1994); Pedro: ''What in the heck could you be thinking when you charge the mound in a perfect game in the eighth inning? The ball just barely ticked him in the elbow and the guy charged the mound.'' Five games. Launching flying kick at John Doherty after being thrown at (Sandy Alomar, Jr., 1993): three games.
We could go on. There are hundreds of these punishments and if you can tell what anyone was supposed to get out of it except an object lesson in the arbitrary application of authority, you'd be the first.
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