My name is John Harris. I hold a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin… but it’s not in Kinesiology or Sports Medicine. No, I’m afraid my gift was in learning long-forgotten languages and literature. I studied, taught, and wrote about such things as Virgil’s Aeneid, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and the Middle Irish tales of Cu Chulainn for thirty years, more or less. There wasn’t a great demand for my abilities, but I enjoyed what I did and was able to grind out a professorial career (usually by teaching English Composition) at various institutions throughout the Southeast.
Did I even leave a distinguished record of playing college ball behind me? “No” to that, as well. This may be hard for a lot of today’s kids to understand… but as much I adored baseball when growing up and lived only to swing a bat and chase flies, the adults around me–not just my parents, but also the administrators at my high school–saw no future in the game and no purpose to it. There were financial pressures within our family at the time, as well, not to mention the long shadow of Vietnam falling over the adolescents of my generation. We boys didn’t think much about where we’d be in ten years; we just wondered if we’d be alive.
Baseball, to be sure, was in my blood. My mother’s father had played semi-professionally in the Austin area. I often wish I’d known enough to ask him if he had ever met Ross Youngs–and I truly wish I’d questioned him about Tris Speaker, who was raised just up the road from the Perkins ranch and looked exactly like photos of my grandfather in his youth. My paternal grandad, too, was once known as a fine ballplayer. The photo opening these paragraphs and another one bannering all this site’s pages were taken by him at Clemson (which he attended) in 1914 or thereabouts, as near as I can figure. Grandaddy may or may not have played for the Clemson team as a student. Anybody who ever knew is now long gone.
When my son Owen was born in 1995, I naturally dreamed of his enjoying the opportunities in baseball that I had been denied. Well, I wanted to teach him Latin, too… but the hitting lessons went better, even though I knew far more about Latin grammar. In fact, as we quickly advanced from simple games of hitting in the back yard, I realized that I needed to go back to school. I pored over books about the fine art of batsmanship, but I found that they tended to say the same thing and that none of them really went very deep (“get a bat that feels comfortable”… “get a good pitch”). I found my interest gathering more and more around the techniques of “strikers” who routinely logged 600+ at-bats in the 1890’s and first two decades of the twentieth century while fanning perhaps a couple of dozen times and flirting with a .400 batting average. This was typically done with a piece of timber at least a yard long and weighing three and a half pounds!
How did they do that? As far as I could tell, no one had ever seriously researched the subject. I started digging through older and older books, looking at newsreel footage wherever I could find it, analyzing faded photos, and–at last–staging experiments based on emerging hypotheses. As an academic, I was in my element doing research and running theories through a kind of testing laboratory. A professional ballplayer would have been challenged to make as much headway as I did, just because he would already have met with so much success practicing his own particular methods. He not only wouldn’t want to risk confusing those methods with hypothetical techniques; he probably wouldn’t even be fully aware of what his methods were. Elite hitters often “just do it” without submitting their habits to close scrutiny.
There was a kind of urgency to my explorations, in that my son was rather short for a ballplayer and likely to get benched or cut from the team if he didn’t shine bright. Big, tall kids always seemed to get a second and a third chance: small kids were virtually beat before they started in their bid to impress the coach.
I’m afraid I was too slow in teasing out my most useful discoveries to help Owen along as a hitter. (It wouldn’t have mattered, anyway: his “my way or the highway” coach in high school was utterly sold on the trendy roller-coaster, squish-the-bug stroke.) But when the dust settled and I found myself having failed my own son, I was left with a keen desire to pass along my ideas to others. Smaller boys seem condemned to compete in the “home run derby” variety of baseball that characterizes our metal bat era. Dan Brouthers, Napoleon Lajoie, and Ty Cobb were not short specimens, even by today’s standard; yet their highly skilled manner of shifting the long, heavy bat with clever hands and very mobile lower body action had suggested a training regimen to me that–if rehearsed attentively–could put smaller players right back at the top of the line-up today.
When I wrote my first book, Hitting Secrets from Baseball’s Graveyard, I was already probably too eager to advocate Old School techniques before a contemporary audience. I should have adhered a little more closely to the book’s declared mission of chronicling those techniques without preaching their virtues. I straightened things out a little with Landing Safeties, which doesn’t suffer from the split personality of being both a historical exploration and a hitting manual. It’s purely the latter. I have very lately brought out a second edition of this work which, in my opinion, is at least twice as good as the first one. There’s some terrific stuff in it.
Metal Ropes (published in the summer of 2019) applied the lessons of Landing Safeties to the alloy bat used in high school, college, and tournament play. A surprising number of small adjustments are required when you move from yesteryear’s smoothly tapered yard of lumber to today’s short, top-heavy metal bludgeon. On the whole, however, I concluded that the style of Speaker and Collins could be successfully adapted to the era of Pujolz and Beltran. Approximately one hundred illustrative photos are included both in this volume and in the second edition of Landing Safeties. Everything from bat selection and the spread-handed grip to micro-managing the weight shift and how to avoid a brush-back is covered in these books.
My son Owen went on to carve out a very nice D-2 college career for himself as a submarine reliever. This website strives to impart some of the insights he has provided me into that fine art, and adds to them some speculations of my own about how players of shorter body type might best use their physique on the mound. Owen doesn’t necessarily endorse what I do; in fact, he’s often my keenest critic. The blunders and follies of this website, I should stress, are mine alone. But remember: that’s how scientific method works. You arrange experiments in order to detect weaknesses and failures in your ideas. By making mistakes, we correct ourselves and improve. I’m no Dalai Lama of the diamond: I can’t reveal the truths of baseball to you from some higher dimension. I’m just a devotee of research and experimentation who has had all too many encounters (both and a kid and, later, as a father) with “professionals” who claimed to know everything… and God forbid that I should present myself as one of those! I have some ideas that may help. I offer them to you free of charge on these web pages, and at minimal cost through my books.