Most Balks, Game NL – 6 – Milwaukee vs Chicago, May 4, 1963
The 1963 season could have gone down as "The Year of the Balk," but instead it represented one of the few times in baseball's long history when league officials realized that a rule interpretation needed to be changed and didn't wait until the end of the year to do it.
After Maury Wills of the Dodgers won the MVP, thanks mostly to his record-setting 104 steals, some in the National League office though that the umpires should crack down on balk calls. This was supposed to help the running game and, in theory, cut down on arguments by managers like Walter Alston of the Dodgers, who often though pitchers were balking to keep Wills from stealing. There were just 48 called all season in the National League in 1962 with Jim O'Toole of Cincinnati and Stan Williams of Los Angeles leading the league with 3 each.
But during spring training, NL umpires, under orders from league president Warren Giles, were going to enforce the balk rule strictly. In particular, pitchers were not just going to have to come to a complete stop before throwing home while in the stretch, pitchers were going to have to come to a stop for "one complete second." The call of "BALK!" rang throughout spring training games with alarming frequency. "One complete second" can be a surprisingly long time when you have been pitching one way for most of your professinal career. One pitcher mentioned in spring training articles in regard to possible balks was Joey Jay of Cincinnati, although he had never been called for a balk in his career to that point.
But now we skip ahead to a Saturday May 4, 1963 at Milwaukee's County Stadium. Bob Shaw of the Braves was facing Glen Hobbie of the Cubs. In the first game of the series, Claude Raymond of the Braves had been called for two balks by the umpiring crew of Al Barlick, Ed Vargo, Doug Harvey, and Lee Weyer. And they were out for more this day.
In the first inning, Cubs left fielder Billy Williams had a two out single and Shaw balked him to second (#1), but got out of the inning after walking Ron Santo and then striking out Ernie Banks.
There was a brief rain delay in the bottom of the first, but the Braves didn't score.
The Cubs scored a run in the second on an RBI groundout from right fielder Lou Brock. The Braves tied the game on an RBI force play from Shaw in the bottom of the second.
In the third, Williams drew a walk and Shaw balked him to second (#2). Not content with that, Shaw was called for another balk (#3). Santo flied out and Banks struck out, but shortstop Andre Rodgers walked. Then "BALK" (#4) and Williams came across with the second run of the game for the Cubs.
The game settled down briefly although there was another short rain delay in the top of the fourth. The Braves loaded the bases in the fourth against Hobbie and Paul Toth came in to relieve and he got Henry Aaron to foul out to end the inning.
The fifth inning took a while. Williams led off with an infield single to first. It was a close play and Braves first baseman Norm Larker argued it and was ejected by Vargo. Tommy Aaron replaced him. Santo hit into a force play and then Banks singled to left to send Santo to third. Then "BALK!" (#5) and Santo scored run #3 for the Cubs. Eddie Mathews walked and by this time Shaw had had enough with the umpires and argued about just everything that had gone wrong: the balks, the balls and strikes, the close play at first that went against him. Barlick obliged him by ejecting him from the game. Ron Piche (one of two Quebecois pitchers on the Braves along with Raymond) finished up the inning. Piche was not effective as threw a wild pitch to score one run, gave up an RBI single to catcher Merritt Ranew, saw another run score on a passed ball by Del Crandall, and finally gave up an RBI single to Brock. The Cubs were up 7-2.
The Braves managed to close the gap to 7-5 in the seventh and had the bases loaded with two outs with left fielder Don Dillard up. But reliever Lindy McDaniel came in to strike him out. In the eighth, Williams got a two-out walk, the fourth time he had reached during the game, against Denny Lemaster. And just to show that they were playing no favorites, the umpires again cried "BALK!" (#6). But Williams was left at second. And the game ended without further ado as a 7-5 win for the Cubs.
Five of the six balks came with Williams on base and it seems odd that Shaw would be so worried about him as he stole just seven bases all season in 1963. Shaw didn't balk when Brock was on base, although he was the only Cub who reached double figures in steals that year with 24.
The game, not counting the rain delays, took 3 hours and 56 minutes to play and the 8,475 fans who decided to sit through it probably wondered just what it was they saw. The game was one of the precipitating events for the National League to decide to reexamine its interpretation of the balk rule.
By May 13, NL umpires had called a staggering 102 balks. AL umpires had called 10. The NL originally said it was going to revisit the issue when the season was over, but the great disparity in balk calls and the numerous arguments that ensued spurred Giles, along with Commissioner Ford Frick and AL President Joe Cronin, to eliminate the "one second" pause from the balk rule. In the next 35 games in the NL after that decision, there were just six balks called and in the AL there were two balks called in the next 31 games.
Shaw would pitch five more seasons in the majors and he would commit just three balks the rest of his career. Shaw had just 12 balks in his major league career, which encompassed 430 games. Eight of the balks were in 1963 and none of them were after that May 4 game. Shaw was quoted in the Sporting News after the event and participating in an impromptu clinic that Braves manager Bobby Bragan held to teach his pitchers how not to balk, "I think I've got it licked. I actually never came to a dead stop while slowing up and checking the runner. Now I know you've got to bring your hands together quick, jam them against your body and then check the runner."
That helped Shaw, but one can assume that changing the way the balk rule was interpreted helped as well. In 1964, Gary Kroll led the NL in balks with 4 and Al Downing led the AL with 3. Ted Lilly led the majors in 2006 with 4 balks.
Another thing this one record shows is how, for a great majority of baseball's history, the two leagues had entirely separate umpiring staffs and would interpret rules differently. The umpires used to position themselves differently in each league when calling balls and strikes and it wasn't until 1963 that second base umpires in the NL positioned themselves in short centerfield with no runners on base. Prior to then, the second base umpire always stood in the infield.
Baseball would try another crackdown on balks in 1988. And that year, the Oakland Athletics set a major league record by committing 76 balks, 35 more than NL leader Montreal. Dave Stewart committed 16, which is still the single season record. In 1989 Stewart committed no balks and had just three more for the rest of his carer.