Brandon Belt’s 21-pitch at-bat Sunday against Jaime Barria was a fun little bit of MLB minutiae during what would probably be an otherwise unmemorable April game between the Giants and Angels. For a game-pace-destroying 12 minutes 45 seconds, Belt staged a battle of wills against Barria, fouling off 16 two-strike pitches before lining out to right field. It was the longest at-bat in MLB history … at least since 1988, when such records began to be kept.

Ever the keeper of baseball’s old-timey flame, Keith Olbermann made light of the hoopla over Belt’s at-bat Monday in response to a tweet from the main MLB account, which called it the longest plate outing “of the modern era!” (though Olbermann was off by 10 years):

Olbermann’s tweet got me thinking about ways to discover if anyone pre-1988 had topped Belt’s 21-pitch at-bat, which is how I came upon a 2006 St. Petersburg Times story that explained why the statistic was not officially kept until the late 1980s: According to a researcher at the National Baseball Hall of Fame library, it simply wasn’t a big deal until teams began more closely monitoring pitch counts. But the Times story also relayed the tale of White Sox shortstop Luke Appling’s 1940 at-bat against Yankees pitcher Red Ruffing, an alleged battle of future Hall of Famers that went on for an extraordinary amount of time not because of any sort of pitcher-hitter stalemate but simply because Appling wanted to mess with Ruffing.

As told in a 2003 Baseball Digest story, New York was beating Chicago 8-2 when Appling stepped to the plate. Twenty-four foul balls later, he was standing at first.

“I figured since we weren’t going to win anyway, I’d have me a little fun and see if I couldn’t wear out Red Ruffing,” Appling is quoted in the story as saying. (He died in 1991.) “So I started fouling off his pitches. I took a pitch every now and then. Pretty soon, after 24 fouls, old Red could hardly lift his arm, and I walked. That’s when they took him out of the game, and he cussed me all the way to the dugout.”

It’s a fun tale of 1940s-era trolling but, after checking Baseball Reference, perhaps a tall one. Ruffing faced the White Sox four times in 1940, but Appling never stepped to the plate against him with his team down 8-2. The closest this came to happening was in a Sept. 19, 1940, game at Comiskey Park, which was won, 10-1, by the Yankees. Appling went 2 for 4 against Ruffing on the day but did not reach base via walk.

And this doesn’t seem to be a case of “Old Aches and Pains” getting his games mixed up, either. Of the four times he squared off against Ruffing in 1940, Appling drew a walk only in a 4-0 Yankees win July 14. (He drew two of them in that game, actually.) But Ruffing remained in the game after each free pass, pitching a complete game.

A quick check of the seasons surrounding 1940 doesn’t find a match, either. Ruffing faced the White Sox three times in 1939, going the distance in all of them. Appling drew two walks in an 8-1 Yankees win in 1941, but only one of them came against Ruffing, who stayed in the game to face the next batter. And the score was tied at 0 when Appling drew his one walk against Ruffing.

Ted Lyons, Chicago’s ace during the Appling years, later recounted a tale featuring certain beats of the Ruffing at-bat saga, but one that doesn’t match up completely.

“I remember when Luke ran Charlie Ruffing of the Yankees right out of the game,” Lyons was quoted as saying in Appling’s 1991 New York Times obituary. “It was a steaming hot day and, when Appling was up in the first inning with two out and two on, Charlie got three balls and two strikes on him. Then Luke stood there and fouled off 14 pitches in a row. Finally he walked, and the next batter hit one for a homer. It wasn’t long before Ruffing was taken out.”

Appling did indeed have a particular affinity for fouling off pitches.

“Put it this way: When I saw a pitch I didn’t like, I just fouled it off. It was easy,” the career .310 hitter said, according to Shirley Povich’s column in The Washington Post marking Appling’s death in 1991.

So we’re stuck in this particular rabbit hole, along with Appling’s subsequent claim that he fouled off 14 straight pitches from the Tigers’ Dizzy Trout during a game in 1943, irritating Trout so much that he threw his glove — instead of the ball — at Appling on his next attempt.

“I fouled that one off, too,” Appling joked in the Baseball Digest story.

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