I’ll confess that using baseball research as my refuge of sanity hasn’t always worked in recent days. We’re watching–we athletes, we former athletes, we boys and men who are being raised or were long ago raised to honor the rules of our game–we’re watching the rules upon which our society’s smooth, fair functioning depends turned to complete mockery. It’s rubbed in our faces. Imagine an umpire who collected greenbacks from the other team’s coach during half-innings, and then proceeded to call every pitch a strike on your guys and every pitch a ball for the other side’s guys. That’s what we’re living through.
Well, damn. I just can’t do any better today than to share some of the revisions to my book, Metal Ropes. The result is looking great. It ought to: I’ve honestly never engaged in half so much revising of anything ever to leave my pen.
So here’s a bit about the distinctive hitch used by Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg, and many of the more ancient Immortals. Only in overhauling the book did I realize that Mel Ott’s variety of hitching was fundamentally different. The point of all the historical analysis, furthermore, is to produce useful recommendations for innovating today’s hitting game. I graze that objective at the end of the following excerpt.
I suspect that right-handed immortals Honus Wagner, Napoleon Lajoie, and Rogers Hornsby all three had a hitch (of the upright variety typical of their day). We know that they set up well off the plate. They could push even the high/inside pitch to right field, apparently, because they stood so far back. Yet they could also cover the outside corner, and even go a bit beyond that corner. How did they do that? They must certainly have possessed the ability to surge outside after the pitch if they needed to; and I don’t see how they could have created the energy necessary to produce such a surge unless they fired out of a hand-pump and a rear knee-bend. Ted Williams’ swiveling hips won’t get you there: Ted usually wouldn’t even offer at outside pitches. The Dutchman and the Texan cleaned up on them.
To revisit the dynamics of the Old School Upright Hitch, let’s consider Jimmie Foxx. Double X didn’t move his front foot until after pumping his massive barrel. As the barrel rebounded from its descent, the momentum thus created carried the front foot faintly aloft—nothing as airborne as Mel Ott’s lead foot: just a few inches off the ground. The leg was almost stiff-kneed. There was no particular curl of the knee to the rear. Such rigidity, as has been said of footwork in the Hunching Hitch [my term for the Ott variety], forced the subsequent weight transfer forward to be firm and committed. There was no rotating outward of the ankle to channel energy off to the side.
Now, Jimmie’s lumber supplied a lot of his swing’s pop. He wasn’t a believer in swinging out of his shoes. The lift of the barrel would have occurred much later than when a hitter today would imagine executing such a move. The pitcher might have started his drive home before the hefty weight was flung above the rear shoulder. This would permit the barrel to tap its “what goes up must come down” energy in looping back upon the pitch (with much fine adjustment from the hands, naturally). Its punch would be delivered without its weight having to be put in motion from a dead standstill. Foxx’s fingers were indeed likely so loose on the handle during the split second that the barrel reached the apex of its ascent that they would hardly have been holding on. They would be about to resettle themselves for the great yank into the pitch.
Willie Stargel’s technique of whirling the barrel around until the very instant when he wanted it to descend had much in common with these ancient dynamics. But “Pops” wasn’t using a particularly light wooden bat in the Seventies, let alone a metal one. Even in players who were yet alive when many of us were born, we see few clues about how to employ a “lower the boom” method from the age of big bats in our present game. How can we translate all of this, or indeed any of it, to a tool made of alloy?
Strangely enough, I suspect that our solution may lie in what batsmen did in the days before we had any filmic record of the full swing. If the generation of doughty strikers that featured Ed Delahanty and King Kelly had differed in any significant detail from the Foxx/Greenberg paradigm, I think the action of the front leg would have been that detail. I wouldn’t expect many hitters of any era to have elevated the leg like Mel Ott, or even Harold Baines (our own time’s version of Mighty Melvin). Yet I’m a little surprised that what Upright Hitchers I can pass in review—Foxx, Greenberg, Walker Cooper, Rudy York—scarcely lifted their lead foot more than an inch. My surprise may well come from the fact that the wooden bats in my possession, some over half a century old, are nevertheless not nearly as massive as Jimmie Foxx’s. When I tried to do an Upright Hitch, I found that I wanted my raised leg more involved… and this must surely have been just because of my bat’s relative lightness. I was discovering a formula for fitting the lighter bat to the ancient paradigm—and I wasn’t even trying to do so!
Okay, so the Delahanty/Brouthers crew used bats even longer (and often heavier) than Foxx’s and Greenberg’s… but all of those turn-of-the-century strikers were choked up, many of them even gripping with spread hands. Foxx, Greenberg, Cooper—they were all down on the knob. The amount of weight extending beyond Sam Thompson’s top hand would have corresponded more closely to what we hold today, whether in wood or metal, than to what Foxx was balancing as he hefted his telephone pole.
I submit that this is why the oldtimers in the tobacco cards have that forever-puzzling splay of the front foot out toward the pitcher. That is, I think they were placing the foot in a somewhat compromising position so that it would be forced to lift and close stiffly after they pumped their barrel down and then heaved it aloft. They were stepping down into the pitch along roughly the same vector that their hands would follow; they weren’t simply catching a heavy weight shift as a tree came toppling off their rear shoulder.
We speculated at the outset of Part Two that metal-bat strokes would have more up-and-down in them and less laterality. That’s exactly the essential adjustment I’m suggesting now for the Upright Hitch: shoot the hands up with more vigor when lifting the barrel and let the front foot ride up on the same wave. In fact, I find this swing to be so stunningly simple, so easy to control, and so ready to direct just where you want it that I believe it’s where any youngster should start with “modernized Deadball” at the plate.
Be well, my friends, stay safe… and play by the rules! No one would respect your home-run record if the left field fence were moved in 100 feet every time you came to the plate. You’d get tired of all the mockery, in fact; but worst of all, you’d lose your self-respect.