Brian Hoffman, Sports Editor
bhoffman@ourvalley.org

Fans continue to get hit by batted baseballs at an alarming rate at Major League stadiums. Cody Bellinger of the Dodgers hit a girl in the head with a foul ball Sunday, just the latest in a string of accidents that we’ve seen at big league games.

While all teams now have netting most of the way behind the dugouts, some are going either farther, preparing to put the netting up all the way to the foul poles. I certainly can understand why this must happen, but I’m personally not crazy about it.

I don’t like to look through the netting. I attend a couple big league games every season, usually in Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore or Cleveland, as I have friends or family in Pennsylvania and Ohio and the Nationals and Orioles are closest to where we live. This summer I’m also going to see a game in Pittsburgh, which is among my favorite stadiums.

In years past I tried to buy tickets, usually on Stubhub, as close to the dugout as I can afford. However, in the past few years when these stadiums started putting up netting I’ve changed my preference. Now, I try to get tickets as close to the field as I can on the opposite side from the big scoreboard, and just past where the netting ends. That usually puts me about halfway between first or third base and the foul pole, giving me a “clear” view of the field.

Like I said, I’m not against the netting. I see it as a necessity to keep people safe, especially the way the ball comes off the bat these days. I was watching a recent game where it was reported the finish on the balls used in the big leagues is different than in the past, and it makes the ball go faster with less friction. You don’t have to be a physicist to understand that’s why so many home runs are being hit this year. And, in addition, foul balls are going into the stands at a faster speed.

It’s been said that cellphones are contributing to the problem. People who are constantly on their phones aren’t watching the game as close as they should, giving them less time to react to a ball that is hit their way.

I see it all the time on TV. All big league games have a camera in centerfield that shows the batter with the same view as the pitcher. Look behind the plate, at what are usually the most expensive seats in the house. I often see people on their phones, not paying attention to the game. My question is, why pay all that money for a great seat when you can look at your phone just as easily in the outfield upper deck?

I’ve been watching baseball for a long time and I don’t ever remember as many people getting hit by balls as we’ve had the last few years. I’ve been going to Salem Carolina League games since Dave Parker was on the team in the early ’70s and I can’t recall a single incident where a local fan has been seriously injured by a foul ball. Nets were installed over the dugouts at Salem’s Haley Toyota Field beginning with the 2018 season, and I moved down a couple sections to take pictures of the game.

Tom Roth, the long-time track coach at Salem High School, was involved in one of the most famous incidents of a fan being hit by a foul ball when he was a little kid. He was attending a game at old Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia when his grandmother was hit not once, but twice, with a foul ball.

Tom’s grandmother, Alice Roth, was the wife of Earl Roth, who was the sports editor for The Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper. In August of 1957 Tom and his older brother Preston, who was 8, attended the game with their grandmother.

Richie Ashburn, a Hall of Famer and all-time Phillies great, was famous for hitting foul balls. He was skilled at fouling off a pitch he didn’t like, waiting to get the perfect pitch to hit. On this day, in a game against the Giants, the left-handed-hitting Ashburn fouled one to left and hit Tom’s grandmother in the nose.

“We were sitting on the third base side, under the overhang,” said Roth, referring to the area under the upper deck. “They were good seats, and I’m sure my grandfather was able to get good seats since he worked for the Bulletin.

“Richie Ashburn hit a ball our way and the guy in front of us reached up to catch the ball,” said Roth, who was “6 or 7” years old at the time. “It probably glanced off his hand and it hit my grandmother right in the side of her nose. That probably slowed it down some.”
Alice Roth’s nose was broken and there was blood everywhere, according to Roth.

“Someone showed up, the rescue squad or whatever they had back then, and they were carrying her out,” recalls Roth. “Then Ashburn fouled off the very next pitch and hit her again, while she was on the stretcher.”

History says the second ball broke a bone in Alice’s knee. She didn’t hang around for “strike three,” as she was whisked away before Ashburn could take another shot at her.

It sounds far-fetched, but I’ve seen this same account many times in stories about Ashburn. Richie was a colorful and extremely popular color man on Phillies’ radio broadcasts for years and I’d heard him tell this story many times. I’ve known Tom Roth since he coached football and track at Glenvar in the mid-70s, before Salem High was even built, and it was many years before I discovered it was his grandmother who was the one hit by Ashburn’s foul balls.

“My brother was older and he remembers more of it than I do,” said Roth. “Many years later he went to a baseball card signing and Richie Ashburn was there. My brother asked him if he remembered Alice Roth, and he stopped signing for five minutes and talked about it.”

Tom and Preston were treated to another game later in the season that year.

“Of course, we had to leave after she was hit, but I remember thinking it was pretty cool riding in the ambulance,” said Roth. “Richie visited my grandmother in the hospital, and we got to go to another game and sit in the dugout. My brother still has a baseball he signed for us.”

That’s a good thing, because they weren’t able to keep the ball that hit Grandma in the nose. A man in the row in front of them grabbed it and, according to an account from a book titled “Baseball Hall of Shame 3,” he refused to give it up.

In the book Preston recalled, “I asked him if I could have the ball. He just looked at me and said, ‘Go to hell, kid.’”

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