The King of Fouls

On Sunday, San Francisco's Brandon Belt had an at-bat for the ages against Los Angeles' Jaime Barria. First inning, Belt was the second batter of the game. He fouled off 16 pitches. Yes, Belt fouled off 16 pitches, including 11 in a row. He eventually flew out, but that 21 pitch at-bat is the longest at-bat since we started recording such things.

Naturally, instead of qualifying it like that -- longest since we started recording such things -- people started calling it the longest at-bat EVER, which brought out the history folks, including Keith Olbermann.

Sure, you may have heard this one before -- Hall of Famer Luke Appling supposedly fouled off 24 pitches in a single at-bat. Is that real? Did it happen?

Sounds like a rabbit hole to me.

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They called Luke Appling "Ol' Aches and Pains" because, as the stories go, he was a hypochondriac constantly griping about how lousy he felt. The image if of a guy in constant pain -- bad back, bad knees, couldn't see, arm was sore, etc. Like with most baseball things, there's some myth involved here. He probably was someone who complained a bit about his health, but nobody called him Old Aches and Pains until 1947, when he was 40 and probably WAS feeling all of those things.

"It's a lot of poppycock," Appling said in 1948 of the nickname and reputation. "I'm just a fellow who believes an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. When I get a bruise or a pain, I go to the trainer right away with it. That way I'm never out of the game for more than two or three days."

He must have kept himself in pretty good shape because Appling was one of the greatest old players in baseball history, putting up fine seasons as a shortstop (and occasional third baseman) every year from age 39 to age 42. His 5.0 WAR at age 42 is still a record.

While Appling was somewhat known for his health gripes, he was famous in his time for an uncanny ability to foul off pitches. There are so many amazing legends about Appling foul balls that it's hard to keep up.

For the most part, they are exactly that word: Legends. It is all but impossible to confirm any of them. As Rob Neyer found when he wrote about baseball myths, even the quote-unquote truest stories tend to have details mangled. When you are dealing with something as ephemeral as foul balls, it's even harder to nail down what is real and what is make-believe. I have scoured newspapers -- well, semi-scoured, I can't spend all day on this -- and while there are dozens of Luke Appling foul ball stories told, all of them are told well after the actual event.

Give you an example: You probably know that in 1940, Bob Feller threw the only Opening Day no-hitter in baseball history. Well, he did this against Appling's Chicago White Sox. And Appling had the most interesting at-bat in the game -- he came up in the ninth inning, two outs, and after a long at-bat, he drew a walk. Taffy Wright then grounded out to end the game.

How long was the at-bat?

"He fouled off 15 pitches the day Bob Feller pitched his no-hitter," a United Press writer named Steve Snider wrote a few days afterward. Amazing! Fifteen foul balls in one at bat!

But then I looked at the actual game story -- he only fouled off four pitches in that final time up against Feller. (though apparently all four were hit hard and were not foul by very much, bringing drama to the game). It was a 10-pitch plate appearance in total. So where did Snider get the 15 foul ball number?

Answer: He fouled off 15 pitches in the GAME. He had four plate appearances in the game and fouled off 15 pitches total. That's something but, no, it's not as cool.

"I can't help it," Appling said after the game, "I'm a late swinger."

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I can't quite decide my favorite Luke Appling foul-ball legend. It might be the Lefty Grove story. The story goes like this: Early in the game, runners were on first and second with two outs, and Grove worked up to a 3-2 count. And then Appling started the foul ball act. Foul ball. Foul ball. Foul ball. Neither one of them remembered exactly how many foul balls Appling hit, but it was so many that finally Grove turned to shortstop Joe Cronin (who was also the manager of the team) and called him over.

"Joe," Grove said, "it's hot out here and that little you know what is gonna foul me out of the game. He's wearing me down. I'm going to walk him. Don't worry, I'll get the next batter."

And so he intentionally walked Appling to load the bases ... and he got the next batter.

There's no EXACT match this situation, but there is a moment in 1935 when Grove walked Appling to load the bases in the first inning and then got Jimmy Dykes to ground out to end the inning. They weren't keeping track of intentional walks then, and none of the papers I can find say for sure that it happened that way.

Myth meter: Eh, what the heck, it probably happened.

Here's another good one that Appling and pitcher Dizzy Trout told -- be forewarned I haven't been able to pin it to an actual game. Trout was pitching, and yes it was another 3-2 count. Appling apparently LOVED hitting with two strikes. Then in Trout's words, "He starts fouling off them pitches. You know that no one ever had Appling's knack for hitting fouls. He fouled off 18 in a row off me, and some of them pitches had a great deal of spit on them."

If Appling really fouled off 18 pitches with a 3-2 count, then THAT would be the longest at-bat ever.

But that's not even the main part of story.

It was the NEXT TIME that Appling came up: He fouled off 12 pitches in a row. Trout lost his cool. "I get mad," he said, "and on the next pitch I throw my glove instead of the ball."

In Appling's version of the story, Trout got thrown out of the game for throwing his glove. In Trout's version, the umpire Eddie Rommel fined him $75 for throwing the glove. Trout them reminded Rommel of the time when Rommel was a big league pitcher and lost to Cleveland 25-7 after giving up 29 hits. Rommel then said, "If you forget that game, I'll forget the fine."

Myth meter: Nah, never happened. For one thing, Trout didn't get the Eddie Rommel reference right; Rommel only pitched 2/3 of an inning in that game. Anyway, you would think the whole "throwing of the glove" story would have made a newspaper somewhere and I can't find it anywhere. Maybe it happened in a spring training.

Here's a fun one: In 1944, with the war going on, the American League ordered several hundred fewer baseballs. When the league publicity man Earl Hilligan was asked why he said:

"Well, you saw that Luke Appling is in the army, didn't you? All we did was subtract the number of foul balls he knocked in the stands last year."

Myth meter: This is true.

There are numerous versions of this story, but the best one seems to be that Appling had a couple of buddies in town, and he asked the team secretary for a couple of extra tickets. It's unclear why the secretary didn't deliver -- maybe he forgot -- but for whatever reason Appling had to buy the tickets himself.

"I'll tell you what," a grumpy Appling said to his teammates during batting practice, "SOMEBODY is going to pay for those tickets."

And that day, Luke Appling fouled 24 pitches into the stands -- a not insubstantial $30 outlay for the club.

Myth meter: Probably something like this happened. One of the constant themes of the foul ball stories in those days* was that the balls themselves were expensive; at least a buck a ball. Appling's career was lfilled with stories about White Sox owner Lou Comiskey begging Appling to please stop fouling so many balls into the stands; he was going to make the team go broke. One story from 1940 suggests that he fouled off $2,310 worth of foul balls per year (roughly 15 fouls a day) -- that's $38,773 in today's dollars.*

*In August 1938, Appling's White Sox played Hank Greenberg's Detroit Tigers. Greenberg was challenging Babe Ruth's home run record -- he already had 38 homers -- but he had been hitting sluggishly of late, just one homer in his previous nine games. In the fourth inning, facing Monty Stratton, he dug in and fouled off 13 pitches before flying out. When asked about it after the game, one Tigers official said: "It cost us $13 to get that guy out."

The key to that ticket story is the number -- 24 foul pitches into the stands. You will note: That's the exact number of foul balls that, as Olbermann says, Appling was rumored to have hit in a single at-bat. I don't think that's a coincidence. I think that's where the 24-foul ball at-bat myth began.

There are many, many, many versions of the 24-foul ball at-bat; it probably happened against Red Ruffing at-bat. The most famous version comes from Appling's teammate Ted Lyons: It was a terribly hot day, Lyons said, and Ruffing was struggling with the heat. Appling loved fouling off pitches on hot days. "A lot of times I did it to aggravate the pitcher," Appling said. "You gotta have some fun in this game."

So, Appling just kept fouling off Ruffing's pitches when the count went to 3-2. In his first telling of the story, Lyons had Appling foul off 10 pitches in a row. Later, it was 12. I can't find any reference to 24 foul balls for that at-bat; like I say I think the number came from the ticket story. Anyway, eventually Ruffing walked Appling and then, as the story goes, Mike Kreevich followed with a two-run double, at which point Ruffing began screaming at Appling: "YOU DID THAT! YOU DROVE ME SO CRAZY THAT ... YOU DID THAT."

And when one of his teammates asked what happened in the dugout between inning, Ruffing grumbled, "That $(%*%$#* Appling wore me out."

Myth meter: It's tricky. The Kreevich story never happened; when you scan the Ruffing-Appling plate appearances there is nothing that matches up with the story. In the end, I doubt that Appling ever fouled off 24 pitches in a single at-bat. But I have no doubt that he fouled off A LOT of pitches and, well, nobody was counting.

Longtime White Sox announcer Bob Elson said he did count 17 foul balls in one Appling at-bat. Others have thrown other numbers out there. If I had to guess, I would say that Luke Appling probably did have the longest at-bat in baseball history, but the details are lost to history.

This part isn't lost to history: When Luke Appling was elected to the Hall of Fame, he was asked to speak at a dinner. He came up a line he would use many times throughout his life, at every old-time's game, at every Hall of Fame function.

He said: "It's amazing what a few foul balls can do."