According to his manager, Steve Yeager went down “like he’d been felled by a bullet.”
Fans near the on-deck circle who had a view of the incident were stunned and silent. Some turned away and a few were brought to tears.
“It was sickening,” teammate Steve Garvey said.
Randy Jones, who was on the mound when the play occurred, thought Yeager had been shot too. He was so shocked he couldn’t move.
What had happened? Blood was squirting out of Yeager’s neck and he was on his back in the on-deck circle. Only quick action by medical staff in the ballpark saved his life. Only a lucky angle that sealed his wound saved him from becoming the second man to die during a major league baseball game.
The game played at San Diego Stadium on September 6, 1976, was pretty ordinary, the Dodgers defeating the San Diego Padres 4-1 behind the pitching of Don Sutton and a three-run outburst in the middle innings. The two teams were playing out the string, the Dodgers hopelessly far back in second place behind Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine and the Padres playing like, well…the Padres.
But none of that really mattered when Yeager was nearly killed. In the seventh inning he was kneeling in the on-deck circle near the visiting dugout on the third base side of the field. Teammate Bill Russell, the #7 batter in Walt Alston’s lineup, was at the plate facing Jones, a curly-haired left-hander having his best season. Jones flipped a fastball to the plate and Russell sliced his bat through the zone, making contact and sending the baseball bounding into the infield where Padre third baseman Doug Rader reflexively made the play to record the out. But nearly everyone else in the ballpark was watching Yeager struggle to survive.
Yeager was only 50 feet from home plate when Russell made contact with the pitch, his Louisville Slugger shattering, splintering into several pieces. One of those pieces of white ash, a large, jagged spear-like piece, struck Yeager in his neck, puncturing his throat. Within seconds the front of his uniform was bloodied as Yeager fell to the grass. Fortunately, something he didn’t do probably saved his life.
Yeager didn’t try to pull the largest piece of wood from his neck. As a result, the jagged piece of lumber stayed secure in his neck, lessening the flow of blood from his neck. Fortunately, the bat had missed his jugular, otherwise tragedy could have come quickly and in a grisly fashion right there on the field.
Dusty Baker was one of the first to get to Yeager’s side and he has never forgotten the image of his teammate lying on the field with a large piece of a bat sticking out of his neck.
“It was a shock,” Baker said later, “I didn’t know what to do, I tried to help him and then the trainer had a towel around his neck.”
Treatment was administered by Dodger trainers and a doctor who came out of the stands to stem the bleeding. For what seemed like a long time, Yeager sat on the ground, a scary sight with a splinter of a bat sticking out from his throat. Many fans retreated to the concourse so they wouldn’t have to see what was unfolding.
Yeager underwent an hour-and-a-half surgery to remove the pieces of wood from his neck. The most serious wound was less than an inch from his jugular. His esophagus had been pierced. All of that sounds terrible, and it is. But how tough was Yeager? He was back on the field 19 days later and he played seven games for the Dodgers as the season wound down. The man his teammates called “Boomer” didn’t want to sit on the sidelines for long. Throughout his 15-year career Yeager was known for his toughness. He played 14 of those years for the Dodgers and the highlight of his career came in the 1981 World Series when he hit two home runs off Yankee ace Ron Guidry, one in Game One and the other in Game Six. Yeager was known more for his defense, grit, and sense of humor than he was for his hitting, but that unlikely show of power on a big stage earned him MVP honors in the ’81 Fall Classic.
After the nearly-tragic injury, Yeager was told by doctors that he could never have another blow to his neck. As a result, he and Dodger trainer Bill Buhler invented a piece of equipment that protected him. The “neck flap” was a piece of reinforced plastic that hung from the catchers’ mask to protect Yeager’s neck. Soon, most big league catchers were using the device.
The only time a player died on the field during a major league game came in 1920 when Cleveland’s Ray Chapman was struck in the head by a pitch. Chapman, an immensely popular man among fans, died the next day. Amazingly, despite the inherent dangers that a flying baseball (or bat) can pose to players, no other fatality has occurred since, though there have been close calls. Yeager’s brush with danger in ’76 was one of the scariest moments in baseball history.