arm health, baseball history, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, low arm angle, pitchers of short stature, pitching, pitching velocity, submarine pitching

More on Yesteryear’s Pitching: The Lower Arm Angle

At the moment, I can neither throw a ball nor swing a bat a full speed without risking re-aggravation of strained ligaments.  It’s frustrating, because I have a lot of experimental craft on the runway that I’d like to give a trial flight.  My problems began when I hit the weights too hard after returning from five weeks of very successful cancer therapy.  That pulled something in my right arm.  I wanted to do a pitching video, so… well, I decided simply to throw lefty and thereby put my ideas to a even better test (since natural coordination wouldn’t be able to come to the aid of bad theory).  The only trouble there was that the test involved throwing the stride-leg powerfully open while having the lead arm trail it a bit: the “stretch the rubber band” dynamic.  I appear to have stretched a rubber band high up in my right thigh rather too vigorously.

Some of you will recall reading about Dizzy Dean’s ill-advised effort to return too soon after the 1937 All Star Game where Earl Averill smacked his toe with a line drive.  Through favoring the sore foot, Diz placed inordinate strain on his throwing shoulder… and one of the great pitching careers of the pre-war generation came to an abrupt end.  We should all be mindful of that cautionary tale.  It happens over and over in the baseball world.  Injuries just pile up like cars in a train wreck because of trying to work around the initial tweak.

It’s probably just as well that I discuss pitching indoors now when I make videos.  My demonstrations on the subject aren’t particularly dazzling, anyway.  I did an indoor shoot this past weekend (well, it was actually filmed out in my driveway) which pursued further the topic of the low overhand angle.  As I try to apply to pitching the techniques I used in earlier years to research hitting (digging up old newsreels, isolating clues in old photos, etc.), I find myself more and more convinced that, before World War II, throwing from a low angle—almost sidearm—was the norm.  Commentators of yesteryear often don’t remark upon the degree of that angle.  Overhand is overhand.  Because the almost-sidearm slot was so common, in any case, I doubt that many who observed it would have considered it worthy of note.

Excuse me if the rest of this column repeats in places my comments of two weeks ago. The repetition isn’t intentional. I think I’m going a little loony in my confined-to-quarters state (which compounds our whole nation’s confined-to-quarters state, of course). I believe a good bit of new also nestles in the old. Eventually, I’d like to work this research into a book.

Here are some names you didn’t see before: Robin Roberts, Johnny Sain, Preacher Roe, Eddie, Lopat, Max Lanier… those are a few exemplars of the style whom I’ve identified from film footage taken after the war.  Even in still shots, such as those taken for baseball cards, I can amass reasonably reliable evidence by keying on four giveaways corresponding to the pitcher’s four limbs: 1) his front leg strides out to the side rather than straight toward home plate; 2) his trailing front arm also flops out to the side rather than folding into its driving shoulder; 3) his throwing arm obviously comes through at a low angle; and 4) his rear foot may be left dangling in the air and somewhat to the side rather than dragging the mound’s dirt, this because so much momentum is carrying him off to the opposite side.

Now, Items 1 and 2 above get almost universally flagged by today’s pitching coaches as bad form.  I agree, by the way, that stepping to the side can be bad news.  It can cause the pitcher to arch his back and follow through with over-emphasis on his throwing shoulder (and, yes, I discussed that extensively in the earlier post).  You might say that, in siphoning his thrust away from the plate, the hurler has to make up for that lost energy from the back side.  Eventually, this can lead to career-ending damage of the rotator cuff.  No, not good.

But… but if the front arm trails the striding leg in a low, broad sweep (i.e., what I was trying to do from the left side when I strained a ligament somewhere in my thigh), it keeps the head down.  With that arm extended and low, the back cannot arch; and with that arm continuing sidewise in a sweep, the energy flow is held in a channel that runs somewhat skewed to the rubber-to-plate line.  Everything is working together now: all movement is traveling roughly in the same plane.  You’re not drawing and quartering yourself as this leg goes here and that arm goes there.

I’m pretty sure I wrote all that two weeks ago, as well. What I didn’t add is that my infamous “lefty” video is a negative proof of the “dynamic front arm” theory. My left arm, in attempting to throw from a low angle, never got down nearly far enough: my limbs didn’t reach the same plane.  From one perspective, this could account for my injury. I believe the right arm—the front one—was straining both to resist the opening leg for a split second and to pull the pitching arm down into its path. The rubber band probably would have worked fine if I’d stretched it along a true line… but I wrapped its middle around a nail and then had the far end straining upward as well as backward. Ouch! That hurts just to put into words!

Granted, you would tap more energy if you pointed your plane of movement directly at the plate.  This is what our speed-adoring contemporary coaches emphasize to their pupils.  Yet what if your body type just doesn’t have the slender, svelte, supple cut that allows it to “drive through a tunnel” at the target?  What if you’re wide in the hips and shoulders, as a lot of shorter people are?  Might your maximum of energy not be tapped in a more sidewise motion that utilizes your powerful core muscles?  Even if the straight-to-the-plate delivery shows up on the drawing board as more dynamic, another delivery may best harness the horses that happen to be in your personal stable.  Those horses can pull you to pieces, yes, if you ignore physics… but your own physical profile profile needs to be a factor in the formula.

Ah, but then there’s the question of accuracy, protests today’s coach.  It’s much harder to hit a target falling off to the side than striding straight toward the bull’s eye.  I’ve heard this explained as a physical certainty: i.e., that a sidestepping delivery cannot possibly steer balls through the strike zone with consistency.  Yet I find it no less improbable, considered abstractly, that a human arm—which is built to rotate at the shoulder’s side rather than directly over it—should be able to guide the ball exactly where the foot steps.  Face it: hitting the target from any angle requires practice.

And the low-overhand or sidearm angle has this benefit not to be found in “high noon” deliveries: its pitches show prominent east/west as well as north-south motion.  That’s precisely why accuracy can be a problem—but lively movement along two axes can also be a huge advantage.  It’s something more for the hitter to worry about.  I wouldn’t hesitate to say (and I say this from my much broader experience as a hitter) that, if a little velocity has to be traded for livelier movement, then the trade is well worthwhile.  Good hitters will eventually time the best fastball in the world, and sooner rather than later.  It’s the pitch that darts around in two planes which gives them fits.

I know I mentioned before that, because of my personal body type, I was always a natural sidewinder.  So was my son. By the way (warning: “proud papa” moment)… you can see this diminutive submarine slinger finishing off a D-2 rival here if you run the clock up to about 3:30 (that is, three hours and thirty minutes).  The bases are loaded with only one out.  I have a hard time imagining that a flame-throwing reliever could have handled the two bruisers at the plate as well in that situation.  They’re so cranked up to attack the next pitch that they’ve practically unbuttoned their jerseys.  Do you really want to try to beat those fellows with your best fastball as the game teeters on the line… or would you rather let them get themselves out trying to swat a moth?

I would add to this example of practical success the comment that, in a decade of throwing from down under, Owen never had significant arm trouble.  Neither have I, as a sexagenarian messing around with low angles.  Muscle tears, yes, and even ligament damage from the left side… but never in the arm.  As often as people ask me, “But doesn’t that hurt your arm?”, I can only answer, “Not if you do it right.  If you get your whole body in sync, it’s probably much safer than throwing high-overhand.”

When you take stock of how many guys used to pile up innings from the nine-thirty angle and then look at how many elite pitchers are breaking down today, you have to wonder if the lower angle isn’t actually more healthy.  Once again, apologies for recycling the point… but let me add a brilliant example I didn’t use before. Robin Roberts was often given just two or three days rest and almost never relieved: he logged over 300 innings from 1951 through 1955, leading his league in that category every year.  Eventually, later in the decade, something popped in his shoulder (as he reveals in his autobiography), and he had to learn how to retire hitters with pure control and guile.  What sabotaged his arm’s health, however, was the idiotic abuse of his talents so prevalent among managers of the time, and not the angle of his delivery.

As I stress in my videos on this subject, not all of yesteryear’s low-angle pitchers were short… far from it.  Roberts was a six-footer. Even in the Teens of the previous century, a pitcher under six feet in height was fairly rare.  But if you’re short by today’s standards yet are determined to pitch, a lower angle may be your ticket to making the team.  Tall, lanky guys like to drop down, too (look no farther than Randy Johnson).  That’s why I’d suggest the opening of the front leg, which can transfer stress to places where you’re built to bear it—in your broad, powerful core—if you you do it right.  I’m not talking about slinging pitches over your body from the on-deck circle with your Kraken-like reach: I’m talking about being compact and synchronized.  Learn to harmonize everything, and you will both pick hitters apart at the plate and keep your health for decades to come.

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.

baseball history, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Front-Foot Hitting: Stigma vs. Success

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My most recently posted video is a bit “inside baseball” in its subject matter.  It discusses how to shift weight to the front foot—something that mature hitters occasionally ask me about on the sly, and that their coaches universally discourage or condemn, it seems.  As near as I can make out, practically everyone was a front-foot hitter throughout the Deadball Era… or, at least, the transition to what I call “lean back and hack” was very gradual.  Certainly by the home-run crazy Fifties, every kid was advised to keep his weight back; because front-foot shifting is, after all, a way to stroke line drives (which is why we teach it at SmallBallSuccess.com), and Fifties brain trusts all wanted balls leaving the yard.

Some of this long-ball obsession was probably (or possibly… how can we know?) a response to the clear availability of talented black players and the mounting pressure to sign them.  In the Negro Leagues, the standard hitting style remained very similar to what you would have seen in the MLB before Ruth (and the Babe himself, by the way, was a pronounced front-for hitter).  Most of the rising stars from that quarter were thin fellows who could slap the ball everywhere and run like the wind.  If GM’s and owners wanted to seal off Major League access to their darker-skinned brethren without raising a ruckus, they couldn’t have found a more subtle way of doing so than demanding that rookies show home-run power.  A conspiracy?  Or did the game’s magnates really believe that pinging bingles was a thing of the past?  They seemed okay with Nellie Fox and Richie Ashburn choking up and punching hits through the infield.

But they also gave a lot of grief to young white players who fought the new “elevation orthodoxy”—what we currently call “launch angle”.  I vividly recall Coot Veal’s lamentations in the classic anthology, We Played the Game, about being variously ordered to swing down, swing level, and swing up during one spring training.  He complained that he had always been a front-foot hitter—that Harvey Kuenn was a front-foot hitter, and nobody harassed him about it.  For that matter, the young Henry Aaron also transferred his weight heavily forward, as did Roberto Clemente.  So the emerging “stay back” orthodoxy couldn’t simply have been a snare laid by closet racists, in the final analysis.

Ironically, I recall Joe Morgan bitterly opining in print about the racism of Houston manager Harry “the Hat” Walker, who molded Bob Watson into a line-drive hitter rather than leaving him to be the homering machine that Mother Nature had made him.  The “racist” charge appears to have worked full circle in Joe’s comments.  Bob, a career .294 hitter who topped .300 eight times, could scarcely have done much to combat the Astrodome’s reputation for being Death Valley… yet Walker was a racist for not letting Watson air it out!

Whatever.  I wasn’t there.  Maybe it wasn’t what Harry said, but how he said it.  More common, though, was the attitude, “I can give a utility job to a white kid if he’s only going to spank a few singles.  If I have to take blacks on board, then give me a Mays, an Aaron, a Robinson, or a Banks.”  At least the first three of those four did a pretty poor job of “staying back”, by the way; so one moral of this story—and it holds good today—is that you can break with the orthodoxy if you can walk onto a tryout field and immediately start smoking pitches.  The coaches will shake their heads and mumble to each other, “I don’t know how he hits that way—must be a freak of nature!”… but they won’t mess with success.  They like wins better than racial purity or philosophical rigidity or whatever other objective is elevated by their prejudice.  Winning is always first.

Now, the debate about whether you win more games by letting Mighty Casey strike out twice, pop up once, and then drive one into the bleachers or, alternatively, letting Wee Willie draw two walks and beat out two infield hits in five trips is a legitimate discussion.  I also think it’s more than a little reductive.  Line-drive hitting isn’t Punch and Judy hitting.  Cobb and Speaker, for instance, continue to rank among the top twenty in all-time total bases: their totals in doubles and triples are staggering.  I don’t think a lot of consideration goes into evaluating this middle ground.  In 1961, youngster of African descent named Jake Wood led the American League in triples (with 14)… but also struck out 141 times.  Jake’s career as a starter was essentially over at that point; he had to move over so that Dick McAuliffe, whose decade-and-a-half of averages hovering around Wood’s rookie .258 mark of mediocrity, could smack 15-20 homers a year.  Both second-sackers averaged almost exactly one base advanced per every three plate appearances, after careers of very different lengths—but Wood swiped an additional 79 bases in his brief stint, and McAuliffe only 63 in sixteen seasons.  Dick also logged three years of 100+ strikeouts, so… so the difference remains the home runs.

In such contrasts, the distinction between driving the ball into the gaps and pulling it over the fence is brought into a somewhat more realistic focus.  Was Dick really such a clear upgrade over Jake?

For that matter (to get back to the original matter of this discussion), was Jake perhaps whiffing so often because coaches were nagging him to stay back, as they did George Altman and Mack Jones—two brilliant young black players ruined by big-league pedagogy?  Maybe these three would all be in Cooperstown, Joe, if they’d had a Harry Walker.

Shifting strongly forward allows your barrel to stay on the ball longer.  It removes much of the swing’s dip.  If you’re swinging down, as an oldtimer would have told you to do, it draws the descent into a remarkably level cut.  It also keeps your momentum headed into the pitch and makes pulling off the ball almost impossible.

Oh, but… but the power!  What happens to the power?  Doubles?  Who wants a double when you can have a home run?

And who wants a homer, two k’s, and a pop-up when you can have a single, two doubles, and a long sac fly?

There are ways to shift your weight forward that don’t cost you valuable micro-seconds.  It’s not just a strategy for an era when pitches were slower: lots of guys are doing it today.  Watch the video, if you’re intrigued.