baseball ethics, baseball history, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, Performance-Enhancing Drugs, pitching, umpires

Cheating: Creativity vs. Laziness

I believe I’ve already used in my blogging space the photo spread across two pages (62-63) of Donald Honig’s Shadows of Summer.  This incredible gymnastic on the part of Ty Cobb received a pretty extensive commentary in my second edition of Metal Ropes (now complete except for a new cover).  I won’t rehash the whole discussion.  I’ll simply draw your attention to the troublesome fact—ignored by Mr. Honig, who’s more spellbound by catcher Ed Sweeney’s distance from the play—that Cobb will be far outside the batter’s box if he makes contact.  His rear foot is already even with the plate’s front edge.  Whatever in the world he’s trying to do here, he has given himself about a yard’s headstart up the first-base line.

Cheating?  Well, yes… and every ballplayer would do it if he could get away with it.  Policing such things as staying in the batter’s box and running in the baseline is the umpire’s responsibility.  Now, when baserunners were cutting across the infield grass and missing second base by twenty feet because the one umpire on duty was following a Texas-leaguer into the outfield, the infractions became mockeries of the game.  They threatened its very survival.  That’s why multiple umpires were put on the field in the 1880s.  Likewise, tripping a runner as he rounded second or third—perhaps even tackling him, as John McGraw was known to have done in his playing days with Baltimore—was about as subtle as corralling a high drive in a ten-foot butterfly net.  The game has always addressed trespasses that so derided basic protocol as to make disgusted fans decide to keep their ticket money.

How might we define the difference between what Cobb did in the photo above and what would-be linebackers like McGraw were doing?  It isn’t that “admissible rule-stretching” jeopardizes no second party.  Tyrus had also perfected a kind of slide which would kick up so much dust that a baseman trying to grab a peg and tag him would go blind for crucial instants.  This actually isn’t illegal at all, to this day (as far as I know—though it’s a good way to start a brawl).  Some fouls are allowed to strain the rules along the edges… and then, there are some that trample the rule book and exit the game’s bounds in both letter and spirit.  The distinction isn’t personal risk: it’s the words of the rules themselves—whether they have any stretch in them, whether the fog of war handled in them is left deliberately foggy in places.

The balk rule is an excellent example familiar to any casual baseball fan.  Coaches teach young pitchers that a good move is so close to a balk move that you’re bound to get called once in a while.  The dividing line is thoroughly scuffed.  In certain eras of the game, the rule might as well not have existed, so over-stretched was the flexible boundary.  I happened lately to be watching Bill “Spaceman” Lee pitch the second game of the 1974 World Series against the Reds.  Lee balked at least ninety percent of the time when runners were on base.  There was simply no detectible pause whatever in his delivery.  Not many years down the road, the umpires put their heads together and decided that enough was enough.  (Now, why Louie Tiant was called for a balk in Game 1 of the same series is a puzzler to me.  Apparently, a National League ump ruled that El Tiante did not step off the rubber before he pivoted.  Replay did not vindicate the verdict)

Were the Astros way out of line for transmitting the catcher’s signals to the hitter via electronic technology?  Judging from the reaction of fans and players alike (e.g., the typically taciturn Nick Markakis), I’d have to answer “yes”.  Yet this case, too, somewhat puzzles me.  I recall Paul Reddick writing when the scandal first exploded that, first and foremost, the Astros had simply acted dumb.  According to Paul, every pitcher at every level tips his pitches, and every coach at the big-league level should know how to crack the code.  Now, I believe that Reddick was marketing a video at the time which claimed to teach the dark art of predicting the next pitch… but the point seems well taken, all the same.  Hitters are reared on The Guess: they’re guessing even before they take their first shave.  After a few years of refinement, a good hitter, you’d have to think, would have gotten pretty adept at anticipating pitches just on the basis of the situation and the particular hurler involved.  Add to that a touch of finesse in reading body language… and you’ve dispensed with any need for complex cipher and semaphore.

I’m not belittling the distinct villainy of what the Houston malefactors did: I’m just concurring with Reddick that the crime seems weakly motivated.  Are hitters just lazy these days?  But then, the New York Giants were also being tipped to pitches throughout an elaborate binoculars-and-telegraph system when they reeled off their miraculous win streak leading to the 1951 pennant.  (Bobby Thomson always swore, however, that he wasn’t tipped to Ralph Branca’s pitch.  Who knows?)  A very similar racket seems to have been run in the Deadball Era, though I can’t retrieve the details at the moment.  An electrical line, I believe, run under the third-base coaching box buzzed in the dope from a remote observation post.

For my money, none of these incidents, dastardly though they are, equals the turpitude of “Blowergate” in the Metrodome.  I don’t see how Kirby Puckett’s soaring fly off Charlie Leibrandt would have cleared the partition in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series if the home team hadn’t enjoyed the extra thrust of the stadium’s blowers.  I’m reminded of how the host teams on my son’s “away” games in high school would always wait to turn on the lights until after we’d completed a half-inning at the plate in heavy shadow.  Whatever technological conveniences are available for a given game should be extended to both sides.  If there are industrial-fan units on hand for games on sweltering afternoons, then one such fan should be rigged up in either dugout.

If there’s any moral to this ramble, maybe we should look for a distinction between “zealous cheating”—creative, ingenious, energetic, pushing-the-envelope strain against the wording of the rules in search of a victorious advantage—and “lazy cheating”.  Perhaps the most obvious and repellent quality of high-tech cheating is its shortcutting across clever forethought and vigorous execution.  The lazy cheater has a gizmo to deploy his advantage for him; or even if he donates a degree of bodily exertion to the enterprise, he does so passively, almost stupidly.  He treats his body as a cog in an impersonal machine.  It seems to me that when José Canseco tried to mount a defense of steroid use in Juiced, he produced an argument that would justify the eventual introduction of artificial intelligence into the game.  If a fake human generates more and longer home runs, then give us more fake humans on the field.  That’s what the fans want!

I won’t moralize about cheating beyond the game—not today.  Some of you were already incensed, apparently, at my having taken a step or two off the reservation last week.  I’m too old to care, my friends… but I do agree that a baseball blog should stay focused on baseball (just as I do not agree that the MLB should be emblazoning bases with “BLM”).  Keeping entirely within the foul lines, therefore, I close with these questions.  Why do so many professional ballplayers want a rule requiring two infielders on either side of second base before each pitch is delivered… yet none of them ever gives a thought to shifting position in the box as the pitcher winds up?  Why are most of them comfortable with a baserunner’s wearing an “oven mitt” that may extend his reach to a base by almost half a foot… yet they gripe when a pitcher launches into an accelerated delivery, or else throws an delaying kink or two into his pump?

My questions are not intended to express sympathy with pitchers or defenses rather than with hitters or offenses.  I’m an offense-friendly guy.  I just wonder if our human intelligence, in this game and elsewhere, is backsliding into a mechanistic mode that resents having to go off the blueprint and be spontaneous or creative.  Cheating used to cover mostly those who, perhaps, grew a little too inventive.  Isn’t it now, as a category, coming more and more to feel out a distinction between good and bad kinds of mechanization?  When fielders have little pads on their wrists or in their caps (give it another year or two) which integrate the very latest data on Freddie Freeman’s contact with back-foot sliders, that’ll be just fine.  Everybody will be doing it.  And when another pad worn behind the elbow guard tells the hitter what the probabilities are that Gerret Cole will change speeds in this count… oh, that’ll be unbelievably cool!  But bugging your opponent’s locker room will remain reinlich verboten.

Machines, you know, have their codes, too.  But where has the purely human joy—and the distinctly athletic joy—gone of pressing one’s skills and genius to the thin edge of a rigid box?

baseball ethics, baseball history, bat acceleration, bat design, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hand-spreading, metal bat use, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized, weight transfer

How Foxx and Greenberg Hit Bombs With Massive Bats Pumped to the Beltline

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.

baseball ethics, baseball history, coaches and trust, Hall of Fame, pitching, Uncategorized

R.I.P., Tom Seaver: Here’s Hoping Your Departure Doesn’t Become a Political Ad

I just happened to be running a disk of the 1969 World Series’ Game Four this past week as I did my twenty-minute sauna sessions.  That’s the match that Tom Seavers’ Mets won against Mike “Crazy Horse” Cuellar’s Orioles (love the nickname!) in the bottom of the tenth.  Like so many others, I was shocked to hear of Tom Terrific’s death at age 75.  No accident involved: the culprit was Lewy Body Dementia complicated by COVID-19.  Also like most people, I had never heard of Lewy Dementia… who’s Lewy?  (My know-it-all iPad keeps trying to correct the word to “Levy”.)  The disease seems to be very closely related to Parkinson’s, so Tom wasn’t facing any Double A call-up with a .198 average.  Looking at him and Gil Hodges conferring on the mound in the ninth of that great game, I had the strangest of feelings.  One of these great men would be dead in less than half a year of the original filming; the other had passed on as I watched 20-minute segments of the game’s video during the week.

Now, I’ve tuned out the mainstream media to the extent that I can.  The sewage leaks into MLB broadcasts, especially ESPN’s, so I couldn’t insulate myself hermetically.  But having acknowledged the extreme circumscription of my exposure, I have to say that the media hacks appear to show—so far—a laudable reluctance to play Tom Seavers’ end into some idiot cautionary tale about the gravity of “the pandemic”.  The CDC admitted (also just this past week, I believe) that only about 6 percent of COVID deaths are caused by rather than accompanied by the disease: in other words, that in almost every instance, reduced resistance because of a grave previous condition allows the virus to nip in opportunistically and contribute to the body’s decline.  Tom was among the 94 percent.  He doesn’t deserve to be gathered up in the political haymaking as another talking point.

A few very recognizable names in baseball have spoken out against measures taken against COVID that have not only mutilated the Major League’s regular season, annihilated minor league and college/high school seasons, banned the spectator experience, and made mere practice problematic, but have also delayed critical diagnoses (like that of my prostate cancer) and plunged thousands of young people into suicidal depression (as in the case of someone very close to me who fortunately sought help).  In fact, it’s been sensibly estimated that over 40,000 more Americans have died of the lockdown’s collateral damage than have died of the disease.  If COVID is a killer, then our governmental policies to protect us from it have become a mass-murderer.

Aubrey Huff, I noticed, made a public protest… and then disappeared from social media.  Curt Schilling is far more difficult to airbrush from the public arena.  In a tweet I read this past Sunday morning, the Schillster wryly asks, “Over 11,000 college students have tested positive, 0 hospitalizations. Why is the nation shut down again?“  I know that a lot of active players have to share such sentiments.  You can almost guess who they are when the camera pans through the dugout: coaches masked up to the eyebrows, a few players following their lead (has Didi Gregorius even left enough room for his eyes?)… and then several guys just hanging out as they normally would.

Something in me (maybe the part that recalls having to rush to Mexico to get cancer treatment) becomes a little steamed when I see an outfielder kicking daisies in a mask or a baserunner taking his lead in a mask.  I’m not going to recycle Clint Eastwood’s comments… but I do have to wonder: if this bunch is so socially conscious that they can’t stand for the anthem, then where’s their protest against the skyrocketing suicide rate of 18-to-25-year-olds of all races and creeds?  Do they realize that they are actually collaborators in this holocaust?

Then I simmer down, and I begin to see the situation from their point of view.  Here are some of the factors that must make it tough to cry foul on the lockdown while wearing a Major League uniform:

1)      Many big-leaguers are still little more than kids.  Those who hail from the Dominican or Venezuela probably don’t know a bacterium from a backstop.  The state-run media (well, they are state-run in other countries, and the mainstream media here certainly have political objectives) tell them that the Plague is loose.  How are they to know any different?  They do as they’re instructed by their coaches and elders, and what they understand of the broader cultural envelope confirms the alarm.

2)      Our American boys, who must have absorbed at least a smattering of science from their D-1 schools—or even their JUCO vehicles to success—could stand to be more skeptical… but some of them have young children at home.  I don’t really blame Mike Trout for hesitating to play.  My own brother has two degrees in Biology, yet he believes everything he hears on CNN and NPR.  Juveniles, including and especially infants, are virtually impervious to the virus (thank God)… but if you’re a young father and you can strain no consistent message from the warring volleys that reach you through Twitter and FOX, wouldn’t you want to err on the side of caution?  If you end up making a bad call, make it where your bambinos come out safe and sound and the cost of your folly tallies in mere lost dollars and unadvancing stats.  Yes, I get that.

3)      Nobody wants to be the guy who costs his team the pennant.  Just think of it.  You spoke out against the lockdown… and then you test positive.  By the way, tests show a high rate of false positives: as much as 90 percent of positive tests may be in error (according to the New York Times, no less).  But that won’t matter: the tag will already be hanging around your neck.  You’re a “COVID-denier”.  ESPN’s gaggle of gossips will assist at your crucifixion if more members of the team turn up positive and active play is suspended for a week or so.  Momentum is gone; the season’s ruined.  And it was probably because Phil Robertson over there couldn’t process Anthony Fauci’s decrees.  Something like this (I confess I haven’t excavated the whole saga) seems to have happened with Mike Clevenger.  What did he do… wander out of the hotel during a road trip?  It sounded more like he’d roared his way through the Copacabana Club with a bottle of bubbly in one hand and a Glock in the other.  Clevenger has been exiled to a better place, and I’m happy for him—but a lesser player could well have found his career damaged ever after.  No one wants to be that player.

4)      Managers and coaches, whose mugs are always masked, will make you feel it if you expose them to public attack by challenging COVID orthodoxy.  Few jobs on this earth are less secure than a Major League manager’s.  If the media narrative insists that COVID is the bubonic plague, then, by golly, that’s how we’ll play it before the cameras.  Don’t make me look bad.  Who would tell his skipper to go take a hike?  Only a superstar of Brian Harper’s caliber might get away with doing so—but why would he do so?  The old man needs his job; what sociopath would want to send him to the unemployment line in this economy?  So… yeah, we’ll all just play along.

I’m sure there are more reasons why reasonable, decent young men might collaborate in banning fandom from their sport and ginning up a national panic.  We know, for instance, that players of non-European and non-Asiatic origin are more susceptible to infection.  (Europeans may be benefited by a dose of Neanderthal DNA, which turns out to be a real microbe-fighter; Asians have been so saturated by corona viruses for centuries that most likely have a degree of immunity.)  I’m aware that Freddie Freeman fell horribly ill with CV-19.  If I were a medical professional, I’d be really eager to find out why his experience was such an outlier within his demographic.  Of course, the takeaway for the broadcast-grackles was, “He almost died!  This could be you if you don’t follow instructions!”

Will Tom Seaver end up being a mere poster child for the movement to lock down our society?  I hope not.  I haven’t observed that tendency… but, as noted earlier, I deliberately haven’t been sticking my nose in the smellier places.  Even if the media hounds incredibly display a bit of taste, though, it’s a sad way to send off one of the great ballplayers of the latter twentieth century.  There should be moments of silence in ballparks around the nation.  Well, we have that… and nothing but that, all the time.  Will the MLB pipe in a minute of pre-recorded absolute stillness between bursts of pre-recorded cheers?

Be at peace, good man, in those green fields that never fade.  May the eternal sun fall lightly on your high hard one.

baseball ethics, baseball history, coaches and trust, general health, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized

How to Ruin an All-Star Hitter

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It’s been a rough week.  Among other things, I’ve spent altogether too much time trying to upload to Amazon the paperback version of Landing Safeties, Second Edition.  After a long series of tests, I figured out that my local Internet connection couldn’t handle the job and managed to send the PDF to another terminal for transfer.  This edition has a great many new photos, even though I haven’t raised its price a penny over Edition One.

The present occasion, at any rate, seems like the perfect time to deliver on my promise about giving out some details on George Altman.  This standout performer of the early Sixties seemed destined for greatness–a five-tool player who could and should have taken his place among the game’s new stars of African descent.  Instead, he disappeared into a galaxy of competing talents.  He became one of my most intriguing cases when I wrote Key to a Cold City.  I have decided simply to paste in below the section of that book where I offered my discoveries about George’s all-too-common (as it turned out) case.  Incredibly, he vanished into the night because front-office fools had urged him to change his swing!

The mystery of George Altman became less opaque to me (though it did not disappear) after a discovery. First the mystery, then the discovery. George spent his first four Major League seasons with the Cubs, and his batting average improved with each year, climaxing in a sixth-place finish for the batting crown after the 1962 campaign at .318. His power numbers observed almost the same glorious ascent, peaking a year earlier with 27 home runs and 96 RBIs—and, by the way, a league-leading 12 triples. Not that ’62 witnessed a sudden power-outage: Altman’s 22 home runs and 74 RBIs were easily the second-best marks of his career, and his 27 doubles fell just one shy of the previous year’s mark.

Nevertheless, the Cubs decided to unload their All-Star outfielder to the Cardinals after the 1962 season. In return, they essentially received pitchers Larry Jackson and Lindy McDaniel. These two starters were a fine acquisition for a team perennially troubled by weak pitching—and, of course, the starting-rotation omelet could only be fried up by breaking a fat egg, such as a potential batting champ. That’s how trades work: teams cripple one aspect of their game to fortify another (often, alas, with a zero-sum result). In retrospect, this particular trade was about as fruitless as most—but it was more defensible than a great many.

Too bad for George Altman that he got packed off to a pitcher’s paradise (which had probably made Jackson and McDaniel look a little better than they were). His average and power figures both took a beating in 1963 (though .274 is not to be scoffed at in any ballpark). The Cardinals had apparently expected Wrigley Field numbers out of their new star, so George was again shipped out in the winter of ’63—this time in a two-for-one deal to the New York Mets, with Roger Craig being the one worth two. Craig had posted 15 wins and 46 losses during his two previous seasons with the Mets: August Busch must have taken George’s 9 homers pretty hard. It probably hadn’t helped Altman’s concentration, either, that he had been trying to fill Stan Musial’s shoes, or that Stan had announced his impending retirement in plenty of time for fans to ride George.

In any case, the bad luck didn’t wear off in New York. Though Altman saw over 400 at-bats in 1964, he batted an anemic .230, and his home runs and RBIs were ironically identical to the previous year’s tallies—which, of course, was a slight upswing if pegged to the reduced at-bats. Yet the statistics show that Altman was pressing by this point. He had always managed to draw about half as many walks as he logged strike-outs: in ’64, the ratio plummeted to 18/70. The Cubs, surely remembering his glory days with them, re-acquired him in a trade after the ’64 season, and for three miserable years George struggled to catch fire again (now, however, spending well over half his time on the bench). There was no combustion left. In 1967 he was released after appearing in only fifteen games.

In the light of my research, the mystery is not why the Cubs traded Altman, to begin with, but why some players rebound so much better than others to having the rug pulled out from under them. On paper, George’s case anticipates that of Leon Durham, another black slugger from the left side whom the Cubs rendered thunderstruck when they traded him to Cincinnati for reliever Pat Perry. Durham—would you believe it?—shortly ended up in St. Louis, where his hot bat turned to ice. He, too, never recovered from the gaping wound of being unloaded after a six year stint over which he hit 20 or more home runs five times. There was nothing ostensibly race-indexed about either of these deals, to be sure (though one may observe that neither Ron Santo nor, in 1988, Ryne Sandberg was made the sacrificial lamb to the Cubs’ ever-deficient pitching staff). Once the Cubs had recovered Altman at a discount, however, why didn’t they at least give him something like a full season to locate his missing confidence? Why obtain the former All-Star a mere two years later just to put him out to pasture?

I could muse, once again, upon the many sub-.250 seasons that Detroit tolerated from Norm Cash and Dick McAuliffe en route to letting them fulfill splendid careers. On the other hand, I could meditate a little further on the resilience that allowed a Frank Robinson or a Tommy Davis to keep floating to the top after every trade. Race was not unconnected to the enormous pressures placed upon young athletes at this time, but neither, I think, was it the primary source of pressure. The mystery of what George Altman might have been had Chicago not disrupted his productive rhythm in his prime, like all mysteries of squandered potential, is at last insoluble.

In Altman’s case, though, a surprising epilogue seems to reinforce the notion that the Cubs wasted a rare opportunity. I recently discovered that George went on to have a very fine career playing ball in Japan. From 1969-1975, he hit 205 home runs for his new employers and batted a combined .309. Though insider’s wisdom has it that Japanese baseball presented less of a challenge to American-bred hitters than what they encountered in the States, one might adjust for inflation and still suppose that Altman could have posted 20 annual homers and an average around .280 in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field for quite some time if he had been handled with greater care. The Cub’s loss was Japan’s gain and, for once, a happy ending in those chronicles of neglect where the careers of so many black ballplayers may be found.

***

Postscript: Mr. Altman very kindly responded after I had sent him a copy of my remarks above. Below I reproduce this response in its entirety:

Your pressure theory concerning power was partly right in my St. Louis experience. I was batting over .350 three weeks into the 1963 season. Busch Stadium in St. Louis had a short porch [in right field]. Someone from the front office came to me saying Mr. Rickey, the GM or VP, wanted me (a straight-away hitter) to pull the ball to take advantage of the short porch. I mistakenly tried to heed this advice and started “stepping in the bucket” and pulling off the ball. I was pulling the ball a lot but wasn’t getting the loft needed to clear the high stands in right. I started to drop my hands and upper-cut. I also was fouling a lot of balls off my right foot. This caused me to have to wear a shin guard. This led to groin problems in trying to beat out grounders. As my average declined I developed pressure in the back of my eyes causing blurred vision. I tried glasses for a while. Finally, after my average dropped to .230, I abandoned the pull-hitter experiment and got back into the line-up on a regular basis. I was a part of the team surge in late August when we won 18 out of 19 games. I played against left-handers and righties. I had a 19-game hitting streak going when the Dodgers came to St. Louis and pitched four left-handers in the series to beat us four straight. I was benched for that series and used only sparingly as a pinch-hitter.

In 1964 I was traded to the New York Mets. I dove for a ball on the last day of spring training and dislocated my shoulder. I should have been out a month or more. Casey Stengel came to me a week later on opening day and asked me to play. It was too early and the shoulder bothered me all year.

In 1965 I returned to Chicago. I started well, batting .300. Then my groin muscle separated from the bone while I was beating out a bunt. Again I was pressured to return to the line-up too soon and had groin trouble all year.

In 1966 Leo Durocher signed to manage the Cubs. We opened in San Francisco. I hit well in that series, including a home run. I was benched for the next series in Los Angeles. Leo was officially on a youth movement. Regardless of how well I played, I was relegated to part-time duty.

In 1967, I went to the Pacific Coast League and did very well there, playing full time. When I was recalled to the Cubs, I sat for two weeks before getting a chance to play. After one or two games, back on the bench. I knew I could still play, so when the Japan offer came I took it.

I found out in Japan that I wasn’t ever in tip-top shape while playing in the Major Leagues. Even though I worked harder than most players, it wasn’t enough for me. 1961 was probably the only year that I was injury-free in the Major Leagues. I was able to play virtually injury-free in Japan due to their hard training methods.

Obviously, there must be many such cases as George’s in this section’s following thumb-nail sketches where a player’s somewhat irregular career was impacted by injuries far more than I could ever know. Ballplayers would not have thought it wise in this era to complain about an injury or to refuse the manager’s request that they start. [Stengel, by the way, was notorious for badgering injured players to get back on the field.]   In the case of black players, especially, who were routinely cut during a “youth movement” or were instantly assumed to have their best years behind them as soon as they hit a slump, the pressure to play in mangled condition must have been considerable.

I continue to believe that the identification of home runs with job security altered a great many swings besides George’s in 1963, and that theme shall recur throughout this and subsequent chapters. Branch Rickey was actually employed by the Cardinals as a senior advisor at this time (he would be carried away by a stroke within a couple of years). Rickey had always liked the pulling, slightly upper-cutting swing, and he had directed his scouts to look for it in previous years. Anyone can understand why the young George, trying hard to please his new bosses and slipped a word of advice from a living legend, would want to oblige… but the DiMaggio/Williams swing was not his style, and it certainly contributed to short-circuiting his Major League career.

An even broader theme, however, is simply that lurking sense of not being likely to receive the benefit of any doubt—a sense which might, for instance, have made George dive for a ball in a spring-training game. The hunger to silence one’s critics utterly can be almost suicidal when those critics are not susceptible to reasonable proof. Is there another case in baseball history, I wonder, of a player’s being benched after a 19-game hitting streak? I, at least, have never heard of such a thing. Any remotely thoughtful person would be bound to grow a little paranoid in such circumstances.

baseball ethics, coaches and trust, fathers and sons, hand use in hitting, metal bat use, Uncategorized

Kids and Hitting Coaches: Baseball’s Russian Roulette

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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.