Birds have something of a mixed history when it comes to baseball. On the one hand, bird-nicknamed players—I constructed a whole team of in May of 2010—have a generally strong history with players like Goose Gossage in the Hall of Fame. Moreover, bird teams have won a combined 15 World Series titles, which is more than all other kinds of animals (Tigers and Cubs and Marlins! Oh my!) put together.
On the other hand, all that concerns birds in the abstract. When it comes to actual feathers-and-blood birds, the game has not always been so kind. At times, the relationship between birds and baseballs has, in fact, been downright antagonistic.
For example, on Aug. 12, 1952, a flock of seagulls landed in the outfield during a Texas League game between the Fort Worth Cats and the delightfully named Beaumont Roughnecks. Seagulls can be aggressive and relatively unpleasant birds, especially in big numbers.
In this case, they were aggressive indeed, as the birds swarmed the outfield and harassed players, causing a delay in play. You might think that a team with a name like Roughnecks—especially one featuring Whitey Herzog, later a notable manager of Cardinals—could defend themselves against a bunch of birds, but the seagulls were apparently in full control.
(Incidentally, this was about 10 years before the birds started chasing after Tippi Hedren, although the novel that inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s film was published the same year.)
|This column also provides a perfect excuse to run this ridiculous photo of Goose and goose.(Icon/SMI)|
At some point, seemingly tiring of their antics, the gulls gathered in deep center to watch the game and the play was able to resume.
Of course, if the birds could talk, they might have claimed that they were only acting in self-defense, since most bird-baseball interaction ends badly for the former. Such was the case a few years earlier on Aug. 11, 1935 when Eddie Rose—playing, in an odd coincidence, for the New Orleans Pelicans—hit a high fly ball which struck and killed a pigeon.
Rose reached base, and the ball was ruled a hit, since you cannot call an error on the pigeon. Perhaps because he had a reputation of recording bird-assisted hits, Rose never reached as high as Triple-A despite being a lifetime .311 minor league hitter.
Probably the most famous bird-baseball interaction, at least until Randy Johnson’s fastball met a dove as we’ll cover below, was Dave Winfield and a seagull in Toronto. After finishing his warm up throws during the fifth inning of a 1983 game, Winfield threw the ball back to the ball boy. At this point the story gets a little fuzzy—even contemporary reports aren’t clear—but what is beyond dispute is that the ball Winfield threw struck and killed a seagull that was on the field.
At this point, the story gets weird as Toronto police actually arrested Winfield and charged him with “causing unnecessary suffering to an animal.” Winfield was freed after posting $500 bail. The quotes from around the time don’t suggest the incident was ever taken with a great deal of seriousness, at least in the Yankee locker room.
Billy Martin famously, said that if anyone thought the act was deliberate “they should see the throws he’s made. This was the first time all year he’s hit the cutoff man.” That’s the quote that gets all the press, although I’m partial to Graig Nettles’ line that “not like he killed a Blue Jay. It was a gate-crashing sea gull.” I think it’s the gate-crashing part that really gets me.
A day later, everyone came to their senses—and perhaps realized that with the gull no longer with us, the Toronto police lacked a solid witness, Charges against Winfield were dropped when an Ontario magistrate ruled there was no criminal intent.
If video existed of Winfield’s seagull-killing throw, it would no doubt be even better-known. But owing to the wonders of the digital age, the most famous bird-baseball interaction, that of the unfortunate dove that met a Randy Johnson fastball, is preserved for all to see.
Throwing in spring training in 2001, Johnson was pitching to the Giants’ Calvin Murray. Though Johnson had already thrown seven innings that day—it was one of his last spring warm-ups before the regular season—he still had his good velocity, as we’re about to see.
As The Big Unit went into his windup, a dove flew through the area between home plate and the mound. The results, captured on video here, were predictable.
Now it is sad that this bird gave its life in service of baseball—especially spring training baseball. Nonetheless, I can’t help but laugh. It’s just such an improbable clip, like something out of the “National Lampoon Vacation” movies. The windup, the bird coming from the right and then boom! And the little burst of feathers. It’s all too much.
(For the record, the official ruling on that is a “no pitch,” one of the few instances in baseball where the umpires called a do-over.)
Not surprisingly, this led to many jokes on the theme that the bird should have wearing a batting helmet, and so on. For his part Johnson, who was famously something of a sourpuss (and perhaps a member of the Audubon Society as well) announced that he was not amused, saying he didn’t “think it was all that funny.”
Being that the age of the domed stadium is seemingly past, one can only expect that bird and baseball interactions will continue to take place. And given the history above, it seems likely that it will mostly be to the detriment of the birds. But no doubt the birds will sometimes get their day, perhaps drawing their inspiration from the Texas seagulls. For now, we will have to wait and see, and continue to watch the skies.