I absorb a certain amount of contempt and derision for meddling in the “science” of baseball. What are my credentials? Where is my bubblegum card? (As Lucy tells Linus–in reference to Beethoven–nobody deserves much respect who doesn’t appear on a bubblegum card!) I understand. Sometimes, frankly, I even ask myself, “Can I really have anything helpful to say about hitting? Wouldn’t the guys who have coached in the field for thirty years already know this stuff if it were valid?”
Apparently not. Sometimes we respect authority too little… and sometimes too much. When I was an adolescent, I was troubled that the brilliant John Maynard Keynes’s theory about spending money even when you’re in debt made no sense to me. Turned out that the stupid teenager was right and the brilliant scholar was living in Cloudcuckooland.
Now, most baseball coaches don’t have the cerebral equipment of John Maynard Keynes… so should we be surprised that they mock any suggestion concerning the hitter’s spreading his hands on the handle?
Now that I’ve lived for two months of retirement on a farm in North Georgia that needs daily “rugged loving care”, I’ve found that hand-spreading on the haft of implements like picks and swing-blades is unquestionably, indisputably advantageous. You get instant acceleration out of your tool in tight places, especially if you use the “parallel-reverse” technique that I describe in my books about Deadball Era hitting. (That is, the top hand drives forward and down as the bottom hand pulls back and in.) We know that a great many of those legendary strikers, from Wahoo Sam Crawford to the Waner brothers, were farm boys. They grew up with such thick, sturdy handles in their grip. I hope to make a video shortly that will illustrate how many of yesteryear’s techniques flow naturally from doing hard labor around the barn and in the field.
How would a player, or even most coaches, in twenty-first century America know anything about these techniques? They can find their way around a gym, all right–but show me the workout in the gym that builds up hand strength and hand-eye coordination by having you swing a weight quickly in a narrow space at a small target!
To top it all off, yesterday I just happened to be watching video highlights of the 1968 World Series (dominated by the pitching of Gibson and Lolich). In just these few fragmentary shots that seldom featured close-ups, I caught both Al Kaline and Dick McAuliffe spreading their hands modestly. This wasn’t the age of cardboard collars and penknives to cut the pages of magazines, brothers and sisters: it was the time of Vietnam and the Hippies. Those who played the game best at its highest level still knew about hand-spreading. Why are today’s “experts” in the dark? That’s not for me to say. Why do you think?
I just know this: if I had to pick out one technique from Landing Safeties (just out this week) to pass along to a struggling youngster, I’d choose hand-spreading. It works, if you know what you’re doing (and read the book if you don’t, please; I’ll send you a copy free if you can’t afford it). The single great obstacle to the technique’s success might be the proportions of our New Age bats, with their toothpick handles and their frustratingly cramped length. But there are possible ways around that roadblock. Just don’t allow the ultimate wall across your path to success to be a know-it-all coach who condemns and sneers at methods he hasn’t ever so much as tried.
(Photo at top shows Tim Jordan, c. 1905: courtesy of Wikipedia.)