Pitcher Ron Herbel Leaves the Game

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:51

    As the play unfolded, Giants catcher Tom Haller, who roomed with Herbel for five years, was hooting from the bench. "He was out by at least 45 feet," Haller remembers, speaking from his home in Indian Wells, CA, not far from Palm Springs. "You could have taken a 10-minute nap. He had this sheepish look on his face, a little smile, as he came back to the dugout, helmet in hand." Herbel lost his bearings, after a fashion, in uncharted territory. "I didn't know to look [for Lowrey's sign], because I hadn't been that far before," he confessed in a 1996 interview. "I was committed to go to third base." Still, while he blew his chance for a stand-up double, the play concluded with a certain measure of impish satisfaction. "I was out by a country mile," Herbel conceded, "but Aspromonte hated to get dirty. That's why they called him Mr. Clean. If he got dirty, he'd change his uniform between innings. Sure enough, he came out the next inning with a new one."

    Ultimately, the Giants won that game in 10 innings, and the team?which included Willie Mays, Gaylord Perry and Juan Marichal?went on to finish second in the National League, 10-and-a-half games behind the St. Louis Cardinals. For his part, Herbel completed the season with a 4-5 win-loss record, plus three hits in 28 at-bats?a .107 average, easily his best during his nine years in the majors. Effective, if not overwhelming, on the mound, with a four-pitch repertoire?fastball, curveball, slider, change-up?the right-handed Herbel compiled a major league win-loss record of 42-37 in 331 games from 1963 to 1971, sometimes as a starter, but mostly as a long reliever, with the Giants ('63 to '69), San Diego Padres and New York Mets ('70) and Atlanta Braves ('71).

    "He was the kind of guy who could throw every day," notes Haller. "That was his greatest asset?never came up with a sore arm, and he could pitch in any situation." That rubber-armedness resulted in his appearing in nine consecutive games for the Padres in 1970, when he led the NL in games pitched with 76. In his best season, 1965, Herbel?6 feet, 1 inch, 195 pounds, wore glasses?won 12 (lost 9), including the infamous Aug. 22 Giants-Dodgers game in which San Francisco starting pitcher Juan Marichal whanged Los Angeles catcher Johnny Roseboro in the head with a bat, opening a 2-inch gash and precipitating a 14-minute melee between the teams in front of nearly 43,000 fans at San Francisco's Candlestick Park. Herbel took over after Marichal was ejected from the game, holding the Dodgers scoreless on three singles over five-and-a-third innings.

    This relative success as a pitcher notwithstanding, it is as a hitter that Herbel backpedaled his way into baseball's aggressively comprehensive record books. In 206 career at-bats, Herbel collected a mere six hits?a lifetime .029 average, the worst ever for a player with a minimum of 100 plate appearances, the sport's benchmark. He went 0-for-47 in '64, 1-for-49 in '65 (a single in Houston on May 21, his first major league hit), 1-for-38 in '66, 3-for-28 in '67, a combined 0-for-33 from '68-'70 and 1-for-11 in '71. "At least it keeps my name in front of people," Herbel pointed out in the Scripps Howard story. "If anything, it made me become a pretty good bunter. And while it was the worst batting average in major league history, I must have been doing something right because I had enough at-bats to get there."

    That kind of bemused attitude characterized Herbel, says Bob Barton, like Haller a catcher for the Giants in the 60s. "He was the player most infringed upon with friendly verbal abuse from his teammates," contends Barton, reached by phone in San Marcos, CA. "And he handled the kidding and joking so well?he seemed to thrive on it, very resilient," applying a "mock-choke" to his tormentors when they'd taunt him.

    That epic razzing was inspired by his hitting exploits, such as the following incident, related by both Haller and Barton, which transpired at Wrigley Field in Chicago on Sept. 4, 1965: "Billy Williams, the great right fielder for the Cubs, threw him out at first base on a line drive," Haller recalls with a chuckle. Adds Barton, "Williams was playing him so short in right field, it was almost like playing deep second base."

    On their bench, the Giants whooped. Earlier that year Gaylord Perry had bet Willie Mays a steak dinner that, following Herbel's first-ever hit in May, he wouldn't get another the entire season. So when Herbel stroked what looked to be a clean single to right, "Mays was jumping up and down in the dugout," Perry told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1991. But Herbel spun wheels leaving the batter's box, allowing Williams to throw him out. Perry won the bet: "Mays had a heart attack."

    Born in Denver in 1938, Herbel ascended through the minors, pitching with Tacoma in the Pacific Coast League from 1961 to 1963, and again in 1972; he retired from baseball after that season, settling in the Tacoma area, where he worked as a realtor. He died there too, of a heart attack, on Jan. 20, four days after he turned 62. Despite his seemingly insuperable hitting deficiencies, Herbel never relented. "I even tried hitting left-handed," he once admitted. "But I didn't do a whole lot better than I did right-handed. You know you're bad when you're at the plate with men on first and second and nobody out, and you look at the third-base box with a 2-and-2 count, and the coach gives you a take sign. That happened to me."

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