At the bottom right of every page on SmallBallSuccess.com now sits a link to My Favorite Deadball Swing. I put this discussion’s elements together while being physically incapacitated by a problem that may need a simple surgery (if surgery is ever simple). The greatest distress I’ve had since emerging from the ER has been thanks to the medication I was prescribed. The complaint is very manageable, if only I survive the cure!
Anyway, being sidelined is a good thing when it forces you to complete several neglected tasks. Now that the site is drawing quite a bit of attention, I really do need to spruce it up… and this page condensing my decade of research into a very usable stroke was the obvious place to begin. I don’t mind admitting that I’m quite proud of the composite picture I’ve put together.
Yet I should issue a warning that I didn’t squeeze into the page’s discussion. I’m not sure that such a small warning label fully “on topic”, or that my readers will even need it: what follows is more of a comment about human nature than about the mechanics of the swing.
Whatever they say politically, most people are very conservative when it comes to their foundational notions about life, or about their special corner of life. In that regard, Marxist revolutionaries are conservative. They don’t like to talk things over: their way is the right way—admit it or hit the road! Any ballplayer will recognize the attitude at work here. In fact, when I began collecting material about twenty years ago for a book titled Key to a Cold City, I noticed early and often that young black players breaking into the big leagues soon after Jackie Robinson encountered an almost belligerent degree of “correctional coaching”. Were the Establishment’s white coaches trying to set up their young pupils for failure—was it all a covert racist plot? But, you know, that made no sense, for at least a couple of reasons. One was that no-name, dimly promising Caucasian recruits were being forced into the same cookie-cutter. The other was that coaches don’t keep their jobs by producing disciples who fail. You’d have to be one heck-of-a rabid racist to sacrifice a big-league gig just for the satisfaction of fouling up a few dark-skinned kids!
I’m not just rambling here from the hallucinatory effects of Flavoxate. It so happens that the style of hitting commonly practiced in the Negro Leagues after World War II was as close as you could come to time-machine transport back to the Deadball Era. (No surprise there: strapped for cash, the Negro Leagues would use baseballs until the seams split open, just as was done in the MLB half a century earlier.) This put young black players on a collision course with the new orthodoxy; for if Fifties hitting instruction was about anything, it was about jacking long balls out of the park. An analogy with our present “launch angle” romance would be very apt. I call the standard technique of that decade “lean back and hack”. Hitters were to stay back on a bent thigh, swivel their forward hip, and send the barrel immediately through an upward loop. Ted Williams writes as though he invented the system in The Science of Hitting, but… no, he was just preaching to the choir by that point. If anything, ironically, the Splendid Splinter’s stroke was far more level and forward-shifting than Duke Snider’s or Eddie Mathews’.
Young black players who ascended through the Giants organization seemed to get a heavy dose of this pedagogy. Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson show its more positive results. A kid named Willie Kirkland didn’t pan out so well; his impressive home run totals didn’t compensate for his dismal batting averages (or not until he was able to straighten himself out in Japan). Other Negro League graduates like Bob Boyd and Sam Jethroe, who could have contended for big-league batting titles, were never really given much of an audition. They refused to pull and elevate, logging mere singles at a .300+ clip. And if there were real bigotry in Major League front offices, it was here: a black kid had better club homers like Mays and Banks if he wanted to stick around—any puny white kid could be turned into a hunt-and-peck hitter.
Well, I’m afraid that the kid who walks on to a try-out field and unveils my recommended techniques will get a similar reception today. At least one of these techniques has been explicitly derided by the coaching brain trust for generations: hand-spreading. At least one other—the shuffle step in the load—will be something that none of the batting-cage Merlins has ever seen before, and that most will say they never want to see again. The only way to combat such derision and contempt is through instant success. The wizened veteran of many a Little League or high school campaign will keep that cry of indignation in his throat if your shuffle into the pitch and heavy forward weight-transfer are followed by a cracking line drive into the power alley. And then you send another up the middle, and another. By the end of your session, he’ll be muttering to his confederates, “I don’t know how the hell he hits that way… but it seems to work for him.” He’ll keep his hands off of you, because coaches love—above all else—success. Wins. V’s.
They left Stan Musial alone, too, although radio and TV announcers hatched many a jibe at his expense. Wes Covington, who was the Negro League version of the Musial contortion, might have become a household name if his knees hadn’t given out. They left Wes’s teammate Henry Aaron alone for the most part, after convincing him to uncross his wrists in semi-professional ball. The Hammer remained a front-foot hitter until relatively late in his career, when he decided to go all out for the Ruth record rather than for 4,000 hits.
The photo of Cool Papa Bell at the top of this post doesn’t show anything radically different from what I recommend in my composite of Deadball techniques. I might almost have called the whole bundle “Negro League secrets”… but it’s too easy to step on a PC land mine when you venture into such territory these days. Just remember that, if you dare to use these methods because the big-boy, Home Run Derby style isn’t working for you, you’re actually honoring some of the game’s most reverend traditions—forgotten traditions, true, but traditions that produced unforgettable players.
And remember, too, that you’ll need to get really good at this style before you put it on public display. You need to prepare a nice, fat cork that will keep the coach’s contempt bottled up in his throat.