When I stumbled upon the above photo of Ty Cobb in Donald Honig’s Shadows of Summer (pp. 62-63), I was shocked. So was Mr. Honig, apparently. In his caption, he observes that New York Giants catcher Ed Sweeney seems incredibly far away from Cobb. Honig speculates that this may be because Sweeney isn’t wearing those newfangled shin guards. He further notices that the Giants’ backstop is almost standing up, even though Cobb is striding but hasn’t yet committed to swinging at the pitch. In other words, it appears unlikely that the catcher could already have identified the delivery as coming in neck-high. Rather, Honig supposes that someone must be on base and threatening to steal.
Now, none of that shocks me, frankly. Catchers in 1912 were not infrequently in an almost erect posture: the strike zone was much higher. Furthermore, Sweeney isn’t really positioned distantly from the plate. I’m afraid Mr. Honig didn’t detect the thin white line that distinguishes the dish from the surrounding dust in this shot taken more-or-less from the on-deck circle. He’s disoriented by Cobb’s position. Ty is actually stepping out of the box’s forward line: his rear foot is parallel with the front of the plate!
But even this isn’t what truly amazed me—for I knew that Deadball hitters often charged out of the box to neutralize a good breaking ball (despite the move’s being illegal: apparently umpires either didn’t call it or didn’t notice it). No, the true puzzler to me was that Cobb was pushing off from the instep of his rear heel! I’ve never done this in my life, I’ve never tried to do it, and I can’t recall seeing anyone else ever do it. My son informed me when I put the matter before him that pitchers are increasingly launching off the rubber on their heel rather than their toes. Okay… but it still seems a very odd style of launch for a hitter.
Besides, photos of Ty Cobb beginning his swing are surprisingly common. (With shutter speeds so slow a century ago, most photographers would avoid such shuts due to the considerable risk of a blur.) In no other photo that I’ve ever seen does Ty stride forward off his heel rather than the ball of his foot. I find that immensely puzzling.
My initial conclusion was this—and it may be the correct one, for all I know. Cobb bluffed a rush forward to bunt: that would explain why Sweeney has risen from whatever previous crouch he’d assumed. Then, in a fully Cobb-like change of plans, the batsman lunged backward, essentially striding to the rear. Because his weight was already so far forward, only his heel was able to dig in behind him.
But other possibilities exist, as well. Perhaps the Georgia Peach had set up on top of the plate, as he often did, and was now bailing out so lustily that he was, yes, coming off his heel. Cobb would have called this “pulling to the opposite field”: that is, he would fly open but trail his barrel far behind, hitting the pitch very deep over the plate to send it where fielders would have a long throw to first. In the meantime, he would be flying toward the bag out of this ferocious forward launch.
Or did he have an almost ungovernable degree of forward momentum because he had shuffled forward in the box a step or two before taking his stride? Tris Speaker used such a load routinely. Edd Roush also had a peculiar back-foot advance into his load that virtually ran his massive 48-ounce club into the ball.
We won’t be sure what Deadball hitters were doing until we invent a time machine… but we can be sure of this much. They didn’t dig in—not the best of them—and just wait for the pitch to drift into a certain zone. They were aggressive and proactive. Their lower bodies were very vigorous in the load, and they would do anything up to and including throwing the bat at the ball in order to send it to a desired point. Try shifting that!
I hope to offer young hitters many tips for reviving yesteryear’s magnificent game in my forthcoming book, Metal Ropes. Hopefully I’ll have it available at Amazon by the end of this month (July).