George Altman’s name came up in something I wrote recently, and maybe next week I’ll have more to say about him. There’s much I’d like to say. Bill James has labeled George a better human being than ballplayer… which at least places the emphasis on the more important factor. But make no mistake; Altman was a darn good ballplayer, too—or was before the MLB establishment fouled him up.
That’s really where I thought I’d go with this today: through the overgrown wood, that is, of missed chances and bad advice. A reader of my Hitting Secrets From Baseball’s Graveyard once posted a review on Amazon to the effect that the book’s author was indulging himself in the illusion that he could have been a great ballplayer. Inasmuch as I scarcely mention myself after the second chapter, I suppose my authorial failures have to take the blame for this casual browser’s not making it past the first few pages. But something in me wants to call him on that rebuke, faintly motivated though it was. Maybe I could have been a good ballplayer, or at least a good hitter. I know this: a helluva lot of guys (like George) could have ended up in Cooperstown who hardly got a cup of coffee, and a lot of other guys could have held their own in the Big Leagues who never earned a dime playing ball at any level.
How can I say that? Because the wonderful world of baseball just isn’t as much of a meritocracy as we’d like to imagine it. Raw talent is immensely important, yes—and hard, well-directed practice is even more so. The role of mere good or bad luck isn’t negligible at any stage, though. What could Herb Score have done if Gil McDougald’s line drive hadn’t struck him in the eye? What would McDougald have done if the Score incident hadn’t soured him on baseball? What would Roger Maris have done if the Yankee front office hadn’t instructed the medical staff to let him play through a broken hamate bone that, after 1965, would never heal properly? And those are only a few of the cases involving guys who had made it to the top.
Personally, I never made it off the bottom. Even so, those playgrounds in fifth and sixth grade, when my classmates would pack right field as far back as they could get and I’d still crank one over their heads, were certainly the gilding on my young existence. (Forgive me for including the faded testimony of Mr. Bronston, my sixth-grade teacher, at the top of this page; he was an amazing man, and I’m glad he saw me in one of my few moments of joyful play.) At ten or eleven, I’m sure I rode a few pitches more than three hundred feet. And then… I don’t know. I took a deep dive into my academic studies because sports provided insufficient cover for the social harassment I was submitted to. My mother hated all games of any sort, besides: they weren’t “intellectual” enough for her. There were strains in that household, I can tell you. Our family didn’t disintegrate, as so many were doing at a steep rate of acceleration… but it wasn’t a happy place to be. My school, furthermore, being in North Texas, had chosen to throw all its emphasis (i.e., the athletic department’s money) into football—a game I still loathe, mostly because it stole baseball from me. And then we adolescents had Vietnam staring us in the face every time we turned on the TV. We were pretty sure we weren’t going to live to see our mid-twenties, anyway… so why bother preparing for the future? What future?
That’s what I mean. A million and one things can intervene to keep a kid from developing a talent—a “passion”, as it’s loosely known these days. You might have been a great guitarist. He might have been a brilliant architect. She might have been a world-class swimmer. Anything from an ill-timed divorce to a sudden move from Nashville to Nome to a sibling with special needs… the factors that can pull our lives off the “best possible course” (and do we ever know what that is?) are innumerable.
There’s one factor, however, that really shouldn’t obtain at all—and I’m afraid it’s the most common influence in destroying baseball dreams. It destroyed George Altman to the extent that it brought him down from an All Star in 1961 and 1962 to a platoon player by 1965. That factor is bad coaching.
In my one microscopically brief stint in the hardball game, I tasted the extremes of “professional advice”. Since the game we’d played as fifth-graders was what is now called sandlot ball, I hadn’t actually seen much overhand pitching, and I had developed a deep hitch. Naturally, as soon as I stepped in the box against an over-the-top hurler, the ball was popping the mitt by the time my barrel reached the zone. I’ll never forget our “coach”—a middle-school football coach dragooned into captaining the remains of a baseball team—pacing the dugout and growling, “The Harrises can’t do anything but strike out.” Another kid named Harris had the misfortune of sitting beside me; neither one of us got the nod to pinch-hit. Not only had Captain Bligh never given us the least little tip about how to improve; he had now vocally told us we were losers in front of the rest of the team. Good job, Coach.
The next year—my final shot at playing the real game—another coach (another football coach, but a good man at heart) merely remarked in batting practice that I had a hitch. This was all the instruction I ever received… but I made enough of it to get into a few pitches pretty good before the season ended, including the hardest ball I ever hit (to dead center). The shame was that I really didn’t need to throw away the hitch—that I would have hit much better by preserving it and simply adjusting the timing of my load. Greenberg had a hitch, and Frank Howard (still playing in my adolescence) had one. Nobody ever clued me in about the timing thing. Just one little bit of helpful direction… but it never came.
I saw a version of the same cycle replayed, like a recurrent nightmare, during my son’s transit through high-school baseball. I’m probably too hard on his coach, in retrospect. The man was only teaching the wisdom du jour: lift the rear elbow aloft, pump the forward leg steeply, get front foot down early, squish the bug with rear foot, unload on the pitch as it passes over the plate… I was modeling that swing the other day for a video, and I ended up with a back ache that still hasn’t quite left me! But, as I say, it was all the rage under the influence of the featherweight metal bat.
In any case, my own tutelage didn’t fare much better. I had tried to rear my boy as a Charley Lau hitter, because… well, who was more sensible and stay-within-yourself than Charley? Tim Raines, in my opinion, was the quintessence of everything good about this stroke. In my mind’s eye, I could see Tim as I tried to advise my son. With one hand, bat point bat at pitcher; then guide it slowly to the rear until it perches in the back hand; use the strong rear leg of a widespread stance to dip into a crouch; let the hands trail that dip, so that they’re descending even as the back knee begins to thrust up and forward into the pitch; tap the “wave effect” of this fluid load to slice straight through the ball, taking it smoothly up the middle or the other way. Beautiful. As I describe this linear, slightly descending contact, I now recognize a lot of the phrases that I use in praise of the old Deadball swing.
So… was my confidence in the Lau method misplaced? Or was I simply too ignorant at the time to convey its fine points to a young pupil? The metal bat that had pulled other peripheries of Charley’s stroke so out of proportion probably also messed with my son’s hands: he probably locked his thumbs around the handle rather than keeping his wrists in a Rod Carew kind of “v”. In Metal Ropes, I advise young hitters forced to use alloy bats to wrap that handle in at least two layers of tape. You need something more than a string to grasp if you’re going to keep the stick in your knuckles and out of your palms.
But… I didn’t know that at the time. I just didn’t know. It was my frustration with my own child and other boys on his team—my frustration over not being able to give them transformative advice—that plunged me into hitting research, though I had never lost my casual interest in hitting and, indeed, always used a bat in my daily workout. I’d developed a certain amount of “feel” for bats and grips over all those years when I never saw anything like active play; active players, in contrast, sometimes have no leisure to experiment and speculate. Yet explaining a “feel” is no mean feat. I couldn’t do it, obviously, in my first attempts.
Maybe I’m changing my tune as I wind up this discussion. Just a bit. Coaching is hard. Like Hippocrates, you want to do no harm, even if you can do no good… but when a terminal patient comes to you begging for a controversial drug, he doesn’t really care if it kills him. He’s going to die, anyway. So for a kid who’s clearly not going to make the team if he doesn’t magically catch fire. He doesn’t want you to play it safe with him.
So what do you say to him? We all hate the “my way or the highway” attitude—but if your pupil is just looking for any way, then he’ll have to observe certain stop signs and take certain turns if he goes your way. You’ll have to correct him. You’ll have to say sometimes, “No, that’s not it. Let’s try again.”
George Altman didn’t need redirection. He was already an All Star ballplayer when he cracked the big team’s line-up… and then was told that the front office wanted him to pull for power. That was downright stupid. Younger players may need a nudge, however. As a kid, I could have done with a clue here and there about how to handle timing. My son’s generation was ambushed by “experts” who knew “the latest” in hitting and held everything else in open contempt.
I think that’s the lesson for today: back off the contempt. If you’re a hitting instructor, learn at least two ways of hitting. Two isn’t twice as good as one: it’s ten times better. Give your understudies at least one option. Don’t just leave them free to swing any-which-way that Mother Nature inclines them… but try to see where nature is taking them, and then help them get farther. I don’t object to Ted Williams’ teaching one bit. (A commentator on one of my videos insisted that Ted had a hitch. I think the dip in his load was too modest for that appellation—but, yes, that’s the sort of thing I was doing as a boy.) Charley Lau would be preferable for someone who can manage a Raines-like crouch… and, of course, I love the front-foot emphasis that I’ve discovered in Old School hitting. I’d never tell a kid to stay back if he wanted to shift strongly into the pitch.
But then, I wouldn’t tell him to shift forward, either, if he didn’t want to.
My friends, if you can corral Mother Nature, over-coaching, under-coaching, and funky trends in bats so that your horses are all running in the same direction, then you’ve done a masterful job. But you’ve also been very lucky. And luck is probably the dominant element here.