Botched HBP calls sour great Huskies season

John Gilbert

Huskies right fielder General McArthur IV twists to escape, but pitch hits him in back, glances away, but umpire didn't give him first base. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Huskies right fielder General McArthur IV twists to escape, but pitch hits him in back, glances away, but umpire didn't give him first base. Photo credit: John Gilbert
General McArthur IV twists farther the next time, but was hit again during the same at-bat in the league playoff final, and again he was not given first base. Photo credit: John Gilbert
General McArthur IV twists farther the next time, but was hit again during the same at-bat in the league playoff final, and again he was not given first base. Photo credit: John Gilbert

As a kid, I remember watching on a black-and-white television set when a colorful Chicago White Sox left-fielder named Minnie Minoso would come up. He used to make sure that his uniform top was properly bloused out at the waist, then he would step into the batter’s box and crowd the plate. When a pitcher sees a good hitter crowd the plate, he automatically fires a fastball inside to move him back. That’s what Minoso was waiting for, and he’d stand his ground to let the fastball nick his jersey, assuring him of a free trip to first base.

Getting hit by a pitch is not high on the priority list of any baseball player I’ve every come across, and five decades or so later, many batters cover their bodies with as much armor as possible to avoid the obvious sting of getting hit. Getting hit by a pitch certainly was not the favorite tactic of General McArthur IV, a young man from Chicago who played virtually any position for the Duluth Huskies this summer.

He also became the focal point of what surely is an all-time record for any player in the history of organized baseball. That’s an assumption, on my part, but I checked it with two of my favorite veteran baseball observers, and they assured me I was probably correct. McArthur was hit by a pitch twice, during a single at-bat, and still ended up grounding out. Being hit by a pitch twice in a game is rare, but twice in one at-bat? Outrageous.

An unfortunate twist to that record is that the incredibly odd umpiring call during that at-bat cost the Huskies the “collegiate world series” playoff championship, because it came in the last of the ninth inning in last Friday’s third game of the best-of-three Northwoods League playoffs. Fond du Lac, or more accurately the Fond du Lac Dock-Spiders, escaped with a stunning 4-3 victory at Wade Stadium, and General McArthur IV was the unintentional victim.

Not to stress any stereotypes, but McArthur is a slim, lanky ballplayer built for speed, one of very few black ballplayers playing for the Huskies in particular and in the Northwoods League in general. He went from being a part-time utility player to a full-time infielder-outfielder. McArthur volunteered to pitch in relief on the Huskies season-opening road trip, and he also played third base, second base, left field and predominately right field — anything to get into the lineup — and he never once playing his favorite position, which was shortstop.

Huskies and Northwoods League top hitter and MVP Augie Isaacson and everybody else's eyes were looking up on the game-ending pop-up. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Huskies and Northwoods League top hitter and MVP Augie Isaacson and everybody else's eyes were looking up on the game-ending pop-up. Photo credit: John Gilbert

I mostly enjoyed watching McArthur run. Get him on base and turn him loose, and coach Tyger Pederson didn’t have to repeat any steal signs to him. Even though he had far fewer at-bats, he ended up with over 30 stolen bases, second on the Huskies to only Augie Isaacson, who led the Northwest League with 41, while also leading the league in hitting at .380.

What I did not enjoy was watching McArthur get hit by opposing pitchers, throwing him in tight to back him away from the plate. But I did see him get hit an extraordinary number of times. He got hit three times in an early-season game, and pointed to an area about 4 inches around on his left shoulder and bicep where all three pitches hit him. On the third one, the plate umpire did not give him first base, but declared he had fouled the pitch off, which a photo I shot and printed in the Reader proved, because in his attempt to duck, he threw his right arm into the air, where it is shown, still holding the bat in that hand, while the pitch strikes him on the left shoulder.

The Northwoods League is an outstanding summer development league for college players, who live with local residents and play through two different divisions before their playoff champions meet in a hasty best-of-three playoff. It is also a development league for umpires, some fresh out of umpiring school and having never spent much time even working Little League or American Legion games. There were six umpires working the final game, one for each base and two more for the left and right field foul lines.

There were some errors, and some mistakes. But the Huskies led 3-2 in the top of the seventh when the leadoff batter walked. The next batter, swinging left-handed, squared around and tried to bunt. It was a breaking pitch, heading down and in, and though he appeared to offer at it, he missed. The umpire signalled him to go to first base, and declared that the pitch had hit him on his back foot. If he had tried to bunt, of course, it would have been a strike, but when short-hopped and got him on the foot, Fond du Lac had runners on first and second. The Dock Spiders then did execute a sacrifice, advancing the runners to second and third, and a key single scored both runs, vaulting the visitors from a 3-2 deficit to a 4-3 lead.

McArthur, after beating out a routine grounder to short in the last of the seventh inning, tried to go from first to third on a wild pitch. He made it, too, but his speed caused him to overslide the bag and he belatedly was called out.

It stayed 4-3 until the last of the ninth. The crowd of 1,464 was on its feet, chanting and cheering for a Huskies rally. General McArthur IV led off, and  —  as the photo shows  —  he has both feet in the batters box as the ball hits him in the back and glances across the plate. McArthur heads for first base, but the umpire calls him back, and seemed to be angry as he gestured for him to get back in the batter’s box. Apparently, the verdict was he reached out to hit that fastball over the plate. Not according to the photo. 

He came back and swung and missed, and the count got up before another inside fastball plunked him on the back as he twisted his upper body to get out of its path  —  with the second photo showing his feet in the batter’s box. Again, arguing did nothing and McArthur stepped in, finally hitting a grounder to third on a 3-and-2 pitch, and being thrown out as he dived for first.

The rule says a batter can’t reach out and make the arriving pitch hit him, but it also says nothing about the usual fans’ gripe that a player has to try to get out of the way of a pitch. Not true. My most trusted baseball umpiring source said that his personal philosophy is that if a pitch hits a batter while the batter is in the batter’s box, he gets his base, because that’s his territory, and the pitch is invading it. You don’t teach players to bail out, because it might be a late-breaking slider and you could bail out on a strike.

Next up, third baseman Tom Monroy bounced a single to center field. One out, one on. Julian Escobedo next hit a high chop between first and second, and the first and second basemen converged on it, with the second baseman making the catch and tossing to relief pitcher Michael Hope covering first. Two out, Monroy at second, and all I could think about was that there should be one out, Monroy at second and McArthur at third, unless he had sped from first to third on Monroy’s hit and scored on the chop.

The tension was palpable. The crowd still standing. Augie Isaacson was up to bat, the league’s top hitter and MVP. First pitch, and Isaacson popped it up. Shortstop Jacob Adams, who had dropped a casual one-handed pop up that helped the Huskies take a 3-2 lead earlier, made sure of this one, and the Dock Spiders poured out of their dugout to celebrate.

Of course, even with cautious base-running, the Huskies should have had runners at second and third with only two out after Isaacson’s popup, and Sogard, the team RBI leader who already had two hits in the game, would have been up. As it was, the game, and the fantastic Huskies season, came to an anticlimactic sudden ending. I hope a lot of those Huskies return to play for Tyger Pederson next season. I especially hope that General McArthur IV comes back, because he offers maximum entertainment for the price of a ticket, even when he gets hit by a pitch. Or two.

My umpiring buddy says the players are young and developing and the umpires are young and developing, too, in the Northwoods League. My cynicism steps in and says: Every player in the Northwoods League wants to someday reach the Major Leagues; apparently not every umpire shares the same aspiration.

The Fond du Lac Dock Spiders celebrated their 4-3 championship victory at Wade Stadium. Photo credit: John Gilbert
The Fond du Lac Dock Spiders celebrated their 4-3 championship victory at Wade Stadium. Photo credit: John Gilbert