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.

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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.

baseball history, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, low line drives, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Three Examples of the Old Hitting Paradigm’s Collapse

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There are a lot of good reasons why you shouldn’t lose your mind, but—alas—far fewer ways to keep it from actually happening in the young year of 2020.  They’ve even taken baseball from us!  Well… yes and no.  We can always dig into the video library, and serious players-in-becoming should certainly use these days of lull to refine their game.  As the old Stoic teacher Epictetus said, “No one is free who who cannot rule himself.”  Forget about circumstances: take control of your own life.

My personal library of ancient baseball videos is pretty substantial.  The trouble is that many are altogether too ancient: they feature a single camera sitting in one spot among the fans along the right-field line, and the “sound technicians” crack a wooden ball-on-a-string with a stick to simulate explosive contact.  Can’t tell a whole lot from that!

Worst of all, in those seventy-year-old edits, the creators of newsreels apparently judged that the hitter’s load as the pitcher started pumping would be a matter of utter uninterest… and so the cut was almost always made as the swing started forward, leaving students of the swing like me to make blind guesses about what went before.  Annoying.

Last week, I lurched in the opposite temporal direction.  I decided to view some of the games I didn’t have time to catch during Fall 2019.  The American League Wild Card Game, featuring Tampa Bay at Oakland, was a gem.  I’ll lay all of my cards on the table right now.  I intend to argue in this brief space, on the basis of what I saw in one playoff game, that the rather rigid coaching doctrine of the past three decades is loosening up.  Younger guys who are still very active in baseball have suggested as much to me lately.  Paul Reddick has also been busily peddling Mike Ryan’s revolutionary hitting videos online over the past month; and Coach Ryan appears to endorse such drills as the Dominican practice of hacking away at pitches that are bounced a couple of times up to the plate.  I suppose it’s all about tracking the ball while being aggressive.

(A sidebar here: may I point out that hitting a ball on a hop is routine in cricket, and that many Caribbean products like Josh Bell actually took their first cuts in that game rather than in baseball?  This already forges a link, not just to the Deadball Era, but all the way back to nineteenth-century baseball, when awareness of cricket in New England was fairly strong.  One of the Rays hitters I’m going to mention below reminds me more than a little of something from the panel of an 1880’s tobacco card when he sets up in the box.  The shuffle-step load that we like so much at SmallBallSuccess.com also has analogues in the history of cricket.  Charley Lau found the subtle skip being used very effectively when he visited Australian little leagues—a location where, of course, cricket is again the acknowledged older brother of baseball.)

Anyway… back to the playoff game.  The first hitter I’ll highlight was the first hitter of the contest: Yandy Diaz, who led off with an opposite-field, line-drive homer on an outside pitch delivered by lefty Sean Manaea.  This is right in our wheelhouse.  In fact, my previous post on this site was dedicated to right-handers who take pitches the other way.  Commentator Jessica Mendoza observed that the Rays had invested in Diaz because they believed they could teach him to elevate the ball… and this may be true.  It sounds, indeed, like that thirty-year-old hitting pedagogy that won’t relinquish its hold.  I thought Jessica was more on the mark earlier, however, when she voiced her personal opinion that Yandy had approached the at-bat intent upon driving the ball the other way.  She noted that he set up far away from the plate (in the fashion that we identified last week as belonging to Lajoie, Wagner, and Hornsby) and then hunted something outside.  His “circuit clout” actually didn’t get very elevated: it barely cleared the barrier.  It was a low liner that he struck by driving late into a high/outside pitch from a fairly level, slightly downward plane… and he did this by letting his weight shift decisively forward.

Now, I don’t know that anyone was teaching Diaz to do this.  Most hitters with a strong forward transfer do it naturally and in spite of what their coaches tell them.  Look at the photo opening this post.  Diaz is hitting off the stiff front leg that makes coaches swoon.  Beautiful, isn’t it?  But that stiff, rearward-inclined leg also induces shifting weight to channel up and back, so that the barrel sweeps under the pitch’s center rather than cutting straight through its heart.  That slight dip produces elevating backspin, all right—too much backspin, unless you’re a lot taller than Yandy and can expect your big flies to carry.  So how did Diaz stay on the outside pitch so well (and he hit the same pitch to the same destination his second time up) without bending his forward knee?

Two things.  It’s possible to shift fully onto the front leg and, paradoxically, be leaning back on it as you make contact.  That calls for pretty violent activity around the hips, and I would worry about how well the hitter could maintain a steady view of the ball… but some guys manage it. I first noticed a full forward transfer onto a severely backward-inclined leg in Lou Gehrig’s swing, and I have noticed it since in Bryce Harper’s.  Those are two really big, muscular guys!  I have to wonder if Yandy really wants to join the club… or if, instead, his natural shift is competing with the “stay back” dictum that coaches tried to pound into their young Negro League stars who had graduated to the Bigs back in the Fifties.  Budding superstars like George Altman were ruined by the “uppercut gospel”.

Perhaps Diaz (and this is my second point) has struck a truce with the contradiction by releasing the handle early with his top hand.  Lajoie always did this, by the way, as he chased pitches.  Honus Wagner appears to have done it on outside offerings while preserving a two-handed follow-through on inside pitches—and that’s the Diaz strategy, I believe, based upon the dozens of images I’ve studied on Google.  (The photo above has to be displaying his cut at an inner-half pitch.) The straight front leg forces the top hand to pull up short and start its backward transit… but the top hand can beat the rap and keep the barrel headed straight into the ball if it simply relinquishes its hold.

Yandy was able to muster enough backspin on a Jesus Luzardo slider during his final AB to drop an offering into center field that had mystified previous Rays hitters.  Contact was off the end of the bat, which was likely cracked—but the stick died a good death.  Heading down into the pitch rather than pulling out of its dive early, the heroic barrel produced our lead-off man’s third hit of the night.

Mike Brosseau is a second Rays batsman who intrigues me.  He’s the one I find vaguely reminiscent of an 1888 tobacco card, with his low hands in waiting that then follow the forward leg’s pump immediately into the pitch.  Hitting coaches will probably tell Mike to “get that foot down early”… and then we’ll hear no more of him, because he’ll be rocking back instead of staying down through the pitch, and everything will be ineffectually topped.  He’s extremely quick with his coordinated foot-and-hands descent into the ball—quite quick enough to stand back from the plate more than he does now, use another inch or two of wood in his stick, and take an up-the-middle approach.  I recall seeing him crack one offering very soundly… and I think it rocketed right into the glove of the left fielder.  A guy who pulls that naturally doesn’t need to have pulling on his mind.  He’s not going to get beat very often by anyone’s fastball.

Finally, a brief shout-out to Matt Olson, who is no longer a secret in the game.  I love his hand position.  Of course, he loads up and to the rear from a Carew-like starting point—but the top hand preserves the curl in its wrist, and this allows him a very level and protracted descent into the pitch as that hand straightens out its punch.  Locking thumbs tightly around the handle, as most contemporary hitters do, removes such flexibility from the wrists.  It forces that excessively steep descent into the pitch that sweeps under it and produces clean misses, pop-ups, roll-overs (if the swing is early), and—oh, yes—soaring home runs.  But seldom enough of the last to compensate for an abundance of the other three.

Aren’t we being sent a message by the number of rising stars who don’t follow rigid hitting orthodoxy?  Shouldn’t it be telling us something that kids who grow up in the Dominican or Curaçao playing the game with a broom handle are today’s most dynamic offensive performers?

baseball history, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hand-spreading, low line drives, Uncategorized, weight transfer

My Favorite Deadball Swing

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At the bottom right of every page on SmallBallSuccess.com now sits a link to My Favorite Deadball Swing.  I put this discussion’s elements together while being physically incapacitated by a problem that may need a simple surgery (if surgery is ever simple).  The greatest distress I’ve had since emerging from the ER has been thanks to the medication I was prescribed.  The complaint is very manageable, if only I survive the cure!

Anyway, being sidelined is a good thing when it forces you to complete several neglected tasks.  Now that the site is drawing quite a bit of attention, I really do need to spruce it up… and this page condensing my decade of research into a very usable stroke was the obvious place to begin.  I don’t mind admitting that I’m quite proud of the composite picture I’ve put together.

Yet I should issue a warning that I didn’t squeeze into the page’s discussion.  I’m not sure that such a small warning label fully “on topic”, or that my readers will even need it: what follows is more of a comment about human nature than about the mechanics of the swing.

Whatever they say politically, most people are very conservative when it comes to their foundational notions about life, or about their special corner of life.  In that regard, Marxist revolutionaries are conservative.  They don’t like to talk things over: their way is the right way—admit it or hit the road!  Any ballplayer will recognize the attitude at work here.  In fact, when I began collecting material about twenty years ago for a book titled Key to a Cold City, I noticed early and often that young black players breaking into the big leagues soon after Jackie Robinson encountered an almost belligerent degree of “correctional coaching”.  Were the Establishment’s white coaches trying to set up their young pupils for failure—was it all a covert racist plot?  But, you know, that made no sense, for at least a couple of reasons.  One was that no-name, dimly promising Caucasian recruits were being forced into the same cookie-cutter.  The other was that coaches don’t keep their jobs by producing disciples who fail.  You’d have to be one heck-of-a rabid racist to sacrifice a big-league gig just for the satisfaction of fouling up a few dark-skinned kids!

I’m not just rambling here from the hallucinatory effects of Flavoxate.  It so happens that the style of hitting commonly practiced in the Negro Leagues after World War II was as close as you could come to time-machine transport back to the Deadball Era.  (No surprise there: strapped for cash, the Negro Leagues would use baseballs until the seams split open, just as was done in the MLB half a century earlier.)  This put young black players on a collision course with the new orthodoxy; for if Fifties hitting instruction was about anything, it was about jacking long balls out of the park.  An analogy with our present “launch angle” romance would be very apt.  I call the standard technique of that decade “lean back and hack”.  Hitters were to stay back on a bent thigh, swivel their forward hip, and send the barrel immediately through an upward loop.  Ted Williams writes as though he invented the system in The Science of Hitting, but… no, he was just preaching to the choir by that point.  If anything, ironically, the Splendid Splinter’s stroke was far more level and forward-shifting than Duke Snider’s or Eddie Mathews’.

Young black players who ascended through the Giants organization seemed to get a heavy dose of this pedagogy.  Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson show its more positive results.  A kid named Willie Kirkland didn’t pan out so well; his impressive home run totals didn’t compensate for his dismal batting averages (or not until he was able to straighten himself out in Japan).  Other Negro League graduates like Bob Boyd and Sam Jethroe, who could have contended for big-league batting titles, were never really given much of an audition.  They refused to pull and elevate, logging mere singles at a .300+ clip.  And if there were real bigotry in Major League front offices, it was here: a black kid had better club homers like Mays and Banks if he wanted to stick around—any puny white kid could be turned into a hunt-and-peck hitter.

Well, I’m afraid that the kid who walks on to a try-out field and unveils my recommended techniques will get a similar reception today.  At least one of these techniques has been explicitly derided by the coaching brain trust for generations: hand-spreading.  At least one other—the shuffle step in the load—will be something that none of the batting-cage Merlins has ever seen before, and that most will say they never want to see again.  The only way to combat such derision and contempt is through instant success.  The wizened veteran of many a Little League or high school campaign will keep that cry of indignation in his throat if your shuffle into the pitch and heavy forward weight-transfer are followed by a cracking line drive into the power alley.  And then you send another up the middle, and another.  By the end of your session, he’ll be muttering to his confederates, “I don’t know how the hell he hits that way… but it seems to work for him.”  He’ll keep his hands off of you, because coaches love—above all else—success.  Wins.  V’s.

They left Stan Musial alone, too, although radio and TV announcers hatched many a jibe at his expense.  Wes Covington, who was the Negro League version of the Musial contortion, might have become a household name if his knees hadn’t given out.  They left Wes’s teammate Henry Aaron alone for the most part, after convincing him to uncross his wrists in semi-professional ball.  The Hammer remained a front-foot hitter until relatively late in his career, when he decided to go all out for the Ruth record rather than for 4,000 hits.

The photo of Cool Papa Bell at the top of this post doesn’t show anything radically different from what I recommend in my composite of Deadball techniques.  I might almost have called the whole bundle “Negro League secrets”… but it’s too easy to step on a PC land mine when you venture into such territory these days.  Just remember that, if you dare to use these methods because the big-boy, Home Run Derby style isn’t working for you, you’re actually honoring some of the game’s most reverend traditions—forgotten traditions, true, but traditions that produced unforgettable players.

And remember, too, that you’ll need to get really good at this style before you put it on public display.  You need to prepare a nice, fat cork that will keep the coach’s contempt bottled up in his throat.