Professional baseball players are in pretty good shape. They can swing hard. They can run fast. A few years ago, Aroldis Chapman threw a record-setting 105.1 mph fastball. My 10-year-old car can’t even get up to that speed.
It seems kind of funny, then, that for several decades, relief pitchers were brought from the bullpen to the pitching mound—a distance of maybe a hundred yards or so—by a motor vehicle. The details of who came up with the idea of the bullpen car and why aren’t quite clear, but the Cleveland Indians were one of the first teams, if not the first, to use one to bring their relievers on to the field.
The impetus for the car might have been the size of the old Cleveland Stadium. Because it was built for mixed use by both baseball and football teams, the stadium’s original baseball field wound up being far larger than many other ball parks and an inner fence eventually had to be put up to cut down the size of the outfield. The car might have been a valuable time-saver when pitchers came out in the middle of a game.
Over the years, other teams, regardless of their stadium size, began introducing their own versions of the bullpen car—from golf carts topped with gigantic baseballs or caps, to the Yankees’ pinstriped Datsun and the Mariners’ tugboat-on-wheels (pictured above). The trend was in full swing through the 1970s, and then began a slow decline during the next decade as teams gradually did away with their cars. By the mid-1990s, the only bullpen vehicle still in use was the Milwaukee Brewers’ sidecar-equipped Harley-Davidson motorcycle. It was retired at the end of the 1995 season.
Baseball’s bullpen cars had disappeared as quietly as they’d come in, and the reasons, again, aren’t exactly clear. Once one was gone, others teams may have simply followed the trend again. Or maybe it was, as ESPN suggests, increasing liability insurance rates that did them in. In their book Moments in the Sun: Baseball’s Briefly Famous, Mark McGuire and Michael Sean Gormley suggest that they were just a fad whose time had come when “relief pitchers, as a way of loosening up and appearing menacing, began stalking their way in from the pen instead of riding in relative luxury.”
The bullpen car isn’t entirely gone, though. While they fell out of favor with the MLB teams, some Japanese teams have hung on to them, and the Sugarland Skeeters, a team in the independent Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, unveiled one last year.