Boar’d to Death: When Baseball and the Wild Boar Cross Paths

Early in the 2019 season, Yoenis Céspedes suffered a mysterious injury on his ranch. Described as a “violent fall,” there had been some discrepancy in exactly how the Mets outfielder suffered a fractured ankle (this while still rehabbing from surgery on both heels). According to fresh reports on the matter in the New York Post, he broke his ankle by stepping in a hole while trying to “sidestep a boar.” The story was confirmed by the Mets, as well as officials from MLB and MLBPA.

There have been many questions in response to this information, such as “Why?” and “How?” and “Again, I ask you… why?” But these put the wrong information in focus. Instead, we must look at the historical context of Céspedes’ misstep, and attempt to understand that the paths of men and boars do not easily cross; and yet, even in this niche of the natural world, baseball has a legacy.

We may not know what draws typical ballpark wildlife, the lost squirrels and panicking cats, to our infields and outfields. But we do know that their slashing claws and snapping mandibles have been on display in the realm of big league baseball for generations. With nature’s fury finding its way into man-made structures, it seems unwise to venture out into the domain that birthed it. Beyond our city limits and past the closest tree line, the creatures that spill into our stadiums are in their natural habitat, and that much more eager (and able) to kill or maim.

Boars have about the same reputation as dinosaurs: Their vision is based on movement. They are produced in formidable sizes (a male tusker can be 36 inches tall and weigh over 400 pounds). They can cause damage and be the bane of farmers. An August 23, 1911 report in the Oroville Daily Register warned that valley-dwelling boars are even more dangerous than those that live in the mountains and come equipped with “death-dealing tusks.”

A November 5, 1909 story in The Butte Miner tells us about a Serbian prisoner, who was sentenced to death, being transported through a wooded area when a boar attacked. The guards fled and let the bound prisoner take a vicious slashing from the furious animal; he could not flee or even protect himself. Everybody felt so bad about what had happened that they lifted the prisoner’s death sentence, presumably because he was still mostly eviscerated by the creature’s tusks and would also live forever with the memory of a devastating boar attack burned into his brain, so at that point, death would have, quite ironically, been a little overkill.

So we can ask ourselves: What is baseball doing this far out in the wilderness, where wild boars roam?

And the answer is: killing them.

The annals of baseball history are full of gamesmen who swing a bat all spring but carry a rifle come winter, trekking into the underbrush at home and abroad in search of adventure or conquest. Chipper Jones once shot an 11 point buck. Bo Jackson became a bow hunter, presumably for the play on words. Roy Halladay was hunting in Brazil when he discovered a naked local who’d just been attacked by an anaconda. Here’s a picture of Babe Ruth swinging a shotgun like a bat while duck hunting, courtesy of the San Diego History Center.

So long have baseball and the animal kingdom overlapped, Céspedes was not even the first boar-related incident to involve a Mets player, and if current trends continue, he will not be the last.

In 2008, Dodgers pitcher Tom Martin shot a wild boar northwest of Port St. Lucie in Florida, had it stuffed, and went back to pick it up the following spring as a member of the Mets. He hung the head in his locker, stuck a baseball in its mouth, and said that killing it was still easier than facing Albert Pujols. When asked by a Palm Beach Post reporter if maybe it should be at home in his game room, Martin announced, “This is my game room now.”

But as anyone will likely tell you, no one could drag a dead boar’s head into a locker room like Rex Hudler, who, in June 1991, brought the stuffed head of a boar he’d killed into the Cardinals’ clubhouse to the awe and disgust of those around him.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” Hudler asked his teammates, per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“Not really,” his teammate Bryn Smith replied.

Hudler was eager to point out the still intact lice eggs behind the boar’s ears. What this indicated, I do not know, and we must consider: Man has always pushed into the wilderness to launch unprovoked attacks on nature; at one point for survival, sure, but more recently, for bragging rights. Look at all the parasites on the head of this thing I killed, they’ll say. But are ball players who deal death to vicious boars in danger of inheriting their worst qualities of their quarry? At what point do they become like the very creatures that they hunt and stuff?

According to one Dispatch columnist, Bernie Miklasz, it was this point. Miklasz saw that hideous beast’s head on the floor of the Cardinals’ locker room and a light bulb went off. The 1991 Cardinals bench had an “untamed and dangerous” persona already, he wrote, they just needed a nickname. Why look any further than the open box Hudler had just brought into the clubhouse?

“These guys get down, they get dirty, they get big hits,” Miklasz wrote on June 23. “They’re Wild Boars. Perfect, I think.”

At the time of the article, the St. Louis bench was hitting .354 with 26 RBI in 65 games. That’s good enough to get a reputation. Of course, the animals you drag into the clubhouse will do that, too. Even so, what about a group of guys earns them the designation of the beast that tried to kill Yoenis Céspedes?

Milt Thompson clearly had the best season out of the St. Louis reserves; which is to say, he had the only good season out of all of them. In 115 games, he generated 3.2 WAR and 127 wRC+ while providing stellar defense in the outfield. Geronimo Pena was probably next, though he struck out a lot more than the others (21.2 percent K%). He was considered a base stealing weapon with 15 in 20 attempts, though Thompson wound up swiping one more bag than him by season’s end. Gerald Perry’s specialty was knocking other guys in, a stat that once used to hold a lot more weight until we figured out it kind of means nothing. Still, Perry really figured how to hit the ball, as long as he wasn’t asked to do so at Busch Stadium: he hit .304 with a .500 SLG in 51 games on the road, and .185 with a .277 SLG in 58 games at home.

The bespectacled Rich Gedman, nearing the end of his career though only 31, didn’t do a whole lot right, though he did hit a game-winning two-run home run right around the time of Miklasz’s column that let him be a part of the fun. Craig Wilson hit .297 as a pinch-hitter in 1991, good enough for a season “Clutch” score of 0.01. He too had knocked a key hit against the Giants a few days before that had kept the Cardinals in a game and allowed them to ultimately win it.

So basically, what happened here was that St. Louis had just played a thrilling, quite dramatic, series at Candlestick Park in which their bench had made themselves a factor, and everybody was still riding that high. Not long after, Hudler dragged a freshly taxidermied boar’s head into the room while a writer with a deadline was watching, and here we are: “Wild” by choice, but “boars” more by coincidence.

It was certainly the personality of the Cardinals bench that had served as Miklasz’s inspiration, and their output seems to have been merely good timing. When ball players are unkempt, outspoken, or loud, they are awarded a “personality” by those watching them, and sometimes we like to characterize these things with a catchy name. I do not believe the nickname “Wild Boars” caught on in a culturally significant way that year, but this moment in the early 90s appears to be a time when man and boar were at their closest, and for at least one afternoon in the Cardinals clubhouse, became one.

And so, we are left only to wonder how many more times ball players and wild boars will cross paths in the future: Will it be on the hunt? Fleeing in terror? Perhaps an awkward run-in on the street? A stuffed head, hanging in a locker?

All we know is, it will happen again. Baseball history shows us that even the most exact of circumstances are repeatable. And when it does, may the baseball gods keep the ankles of fleeing men safe, and the ears of boars ridden with lice.

Justin has contributed to FanGraphs and is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is known in his family for jamming free hot dogs in his pockets during an off-season tour of Veterans Stadium and eating them on the car ride home.

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2 years ago

Admit it: the only point of this article was so that you could get to write the words “Butte Miner”.