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RIP the game of pepper

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Pepper was considered to be a great warm-up exercise because, in addition to loosening up the players, it sharpened their reflexes and fielding skills, and it improved contact skills with the bat, especially in the lost art of bunting. The constant chatter led to greater camaraderie.

Dick
Flavin

When was the last time you saw big-league players engaged in a game of pepper?

It wasn't lately, that's for sure.

In fact, there are probably a lot of players who don't even know what the game of pepper is. For the uninitiated, pepper is, or was, a warm-up game in which a batter faces a line of two, three, or more teammates who are stationed about 20 feet away; using a short, chopping bunt-like swing, he hits ground balls to the others who quickly toss them back to be batted again. The fielder farthest to the right is next in line to hit if the batter fouls off a toss or hits one that is caught in the air; then, he must take his place at the end of the fielders' line.

The game could become quite fast paced, and it led to a lot of chatter among participants. It was fun, pure, and simple. Some players became adroit at catching the ball behind their back or making trick tosses between their legs. They turned pepper into a game of wizardry, much the way that the Harlem Globetrotters do when tossing a basketball around in their pregame warm ups. They were before my time, but I've seen films of the St. Louis Cardinals "Gashouse Gang" of the 1930s playing pepper. They were veritable magicians at it. It was wondrous to behold.

Some fans used to arrive early just to watch the pepper games along with the good-natured trash talking that took place with them. Friends from different teams occasionally joined together for games, but that was discouraged by the baseball powers-that-be. Any fraternization between opposing sides in those days was frowned upon. The age of free agency and the resulting constant turn-over of rosters have made anti-fraternization rules impossible to enforce.

Pepper was considered to be a great warm-up exercise because, in addition to loosening up the players, it sharpened their reflexes and fielding skills, and it improved contact skills with the bat, especially in the lost art of bunting. The constant chatter led to greater comradery. Usually played behind home plate or slightly to the side of it, it didn't interfere with other pregame activities, such as batting practice.

Yet pepper was banned in most big-league parks years ago. Why?

The stated reason was a concern over the safety of early arriving game patrons in case a toss got fouled back into the stands, yet those same fans were on their own once the games began and 95-mile-an-hour fast balls might, more likely, be fouled off. In the past few years, all big-league parks have erected screening to protect fans, so the stated reason for outlawing pepper no longer exists. There was a much more compelling reason to outlaw it.

It wasn't good for the lawn.

It seems that a line of two, three, or more players all fielding ground balls had a tendency to chew up the grass, especially if they lined up in the same place for 20 minutes or so every day. The solution was to make pepper against the law, rather than repair the grass. We had entered into an age when the grass in big-league parks was and is finely manicured, even the grass in foul territory. Something had to give -- and it was pepper. The game is now pretty near as extinct as the dodo bird.

The demise of pepper seems to be like if the game of golf banned chips shots because they leave divots in the fairways. The cure would cause more harm than the disease. I'm not sure if that's the case in this instance, but there is no doubt that the passing of pepper has been a loss for baseball.

Gone with pepper is the lost art of bunting. Make no mistake about it, bunting was an art, and a high art, at that.

There are even those among us, though we are dwindling in number as the years go by, who can remember when the bunt was used as an offensive weapon, not just as a sacrifice. We can remember clearly how Phil Rizzuto of the Yankees used to wait until the last instant before tucking the handle of his bat under his arm and laying down a perfect bunt for a hit. To be able to do so took years of practice and Lord knows how many games of pepper, but Rizzuto could do it -- and with regularity -- as could others.

Johnny Pesky and Dom DiMaggio worked a play for years to great effect. When Dom was on first base and Johnny at the plate, Pesky sometimes noticed that the third baseman was playing deep, aware that Johnny would never sacrifice. That would leave first base open with Ted Williams coming up and lead to an intentional walk, thus taking the bat out of Williams's hands. Pesky would step out of the box and rub his nose. Seeing the signal, DiMaggio would take off on the next pitch and Pesky would drop a bunt down the third base line, forcing the third baseman to charge in to field it. Pesky would invariably beat it out for a hit, and DiMaggio would keep running from second safely to third base, which was left unattended. The play was dependent upon Pesky making the third baseman charge in to field the bunt, and Johnny was an expert bunter. They don't make bunters like that anymore, especially with the demise of pepper.

The play worked for years until one day a New York sportswriter asked them about it. They made the mistake of telling him how it worked, and the reporter wrote a story about it. The next time they tried it against the Yankees, as Dom slid into third there was catcher Bill Dickey with the ball in his mitt. As he slapped the tag on Dom, Dickey casually said, "We read the papers, too, you know."

I suppose it's too much to hope for the reincarnation of the game of pepper -- but it's not too late to lament its passing.

- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.



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