baseball history, Deadball Era, fathers and sons, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, pitching, umpires, Uncategorized

Four Random Comments About Lower-Echelon and Old-School Baseball

“push-hitting” a pitch (Red Schoendienst)

Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, Joe Morgan… so many unforgettable ballplayers have lately been called up to the highest league of all that commenting upon their loss–upon our loss of them–is simply beyond me. I’ve decided, instead, to go with a few stray ideas that have been swirling in my head for weeks. I think, just maybe, they would have preferred it this way.

I’ll get this one off my chest first.  Are you a dad of a relief pitcher who throws junk—“unbarrelable” junk that hitters put into play as bloopers and twelve-hoppers?  Then you know the anguish of watching your boy trying to shine in high school, on a summer travel team, or even in college.

I thought about this a lot during the years of torture when I’d watch my son’s successes at inducing weak contact be undermined, over and over, by shoddy fielding.  Relief pitchers tend to enter the game with runners on base.  One of these runners may well be on second.  Young shortstops have been coached since their first pair of cleats to bird-dog the runner on second as he takes his lead.  Owen was a righty, most hitters are righties, and most of my son’s wipe-out sliders were therefore going to be pulled to the left side… just where the shortstop is supposed to be playing.  But Studs Superstar is too busy yoyoing around the second sack to play his position… so bowling balls keep rolling to the outfield grass.

This is the coach’s fault.  It’s the fault of coaches even at college-level.  My son had a great inside pick-off move and, over the years, had compiled a formidable list of scalps when runners wandered too far from second.  He was so good at catching them off guard that the coach should actually have wanted them to get a big lead, as a spider wants a fly to check out its bright, shiny silk.  Instead… instead, Owen’s ERA would painfully inflate on a series of bleeders that reflected the very type of contact he was called in to induce.

Then, too, you have the inevitable but regrettable obsession of adolescents with offense.  Hitting becomes such a fixation that Jason over there at second is still brooding about his strikeout when an easy grounder comes his way, and Daz over at third is still replaying his homer in slo-mo as a ground ball almost chews off his shoelaces.  Of course, such butchery isn’t deficited to the pitcher’s ERA… but a loss or a blown save still shows up on his account if the miscues of others prove fatal; and, more importantly, the coach comes to feel that letting him pitch is a risk, though not due to the boy’s own ineptitude.

Over time, I believe this largely subconscious prejudice of coaches infects even the professional game.  Why do we have so many flamethrowers in the MLB who can’t put away a pivotal hitter in the inning?  Because, from Little League on up, gas was always the ticket.  Even in Double A, the change-up was something Mr. Potential could work on—but the heater was what got him that far up the ladder.  Junk-ballers whose fast one can’t break out of the mid-80’s won’t get a serious look.  All they do is get people out… but then, as I argued above, they are not perceived as getting outs “reliably” in the lower echelons.  In my humble opinion, this is one reason for the immensely boring quality of today’s Major League game.  Walks and strikeouts abound: the excitement of balls put in play thanks to hurlers who pitch to contact is a rarity.

Now, if you shun the junkster to favor the fireballer, you’re going to get a bunch of Mighty Caseys on the other side of the ball.  My next two comments have to do with how much the slugger mentality has contributed to making The Show a bore-fest.  The other night, I heard Buck Showalter and Jim Kaat (of all people… don’t they know better?) subscribing to the proposition that radical shifts be outlawed.  I have another idea.  How about we teach hitters how to hit?  During my recent stints of reviewing old ballgames as I sit in the sauna, I’ve made the following mental list of middle-of-the-order guys who dropped bunts during World Series play: in chronological order, Walker Cooper, Hank Greenberg, Ted Williams, and Steve Garvey.  All four were successful in some measure with their bunts.  Cooper got his sacrifice down, as did Hank (I think one of these was thrown away by panicky defenders); Teddy—those who have ears, let them hear!—was bunting against the shift for a hit, which he easily accomplished; and Steve actually misunderstood manager Dick Williams’ instructions, laying down a perfect sacrifice rather than bunting for a safety up the vacated third-base line.  What’s radiantly clear is that all of these bruisers were practiced, competent bunters.  So… geez, if Hank Greenberg can do it, guys, why can’t you?  You think your offensive contribution with the all-out swing is of a higher quality than Hank Greenberg’s?  Really?

Now, there’s more than one way to beat a shift or advance base-runners.  Stroking a line drive to the opposite field works, too… but when is the last time you saw somebody do that today?  I’m talking about a drive that the runners can read quickly, so that they proceed to take an extra base with confidence: these are not bloopers squirreled off the end of the bat in lunging contact.  Time after time, relatively pedestrian players of over half a century ago would go the other way when a Bob Feller, a Spuds Chandler, or a Robin Roberts had shut them down earlier in the afternoon.  They processed failure and found a formula for success.  They learned: they adjusted.  Marty Marion, Alvin Dark, Jimmy Outlaw, Earl Torgeson, George McQuinn, Billy Cox… these fellows knew how to play the game.  Yes, they had longer bats.  I guess you have to be able to reach the outside corner before you can drive a pitch the other way from down there.  But don’t leave out the footwork.  Tommy Holmes would actually set up on top of the plate, stride open, and trail his barrel so as to make late contact: the opposite field seems to have been his preferred target for pitches in all quadrants.  And I’d swear that I saw Dark shuffle his feet as the delivery was in progress so as to angle his barrel the off-field.

Footwork: where do you see that now?  Guys spread out in the box and hardly take a stride… or else they heave up the front foot and then slam it down, not so much orienting the body to the pitch as starting a loop of energy for a fiercely descending barrel to follow.  I love to watch Nolan Arenado’s busy, jittery feet; but most of those widespread pairs of legs are doing nothing to extend the bat path farther into the pitch (also known as front-foot hitting).  Their feet are, as my cousin the Royal Navy commander once told me in defining a ship, a “platform for guns”.

A last stray observation that I must squeeze in: umpires.  Would you believe that the arbiters of 70 or 80 years ago just about never got riled?  I saw one runner get called out at second, jump up, and bump the umpire with his chest (no, I don’t have any names: note-taking isn’t easy in a sauna).  The man-in-blue’s response was… to pat the guy on the shoulder and calm him down.  Another irate competitor turned toward the umpire after a called third strike and beat his bat upon the ground within three feet of the man’s shoes.  Response: nothing.  Just look at him and watch him skulk back to the dugout.  And there were numerous scenes where a first- or third-baseman became very animated after a close play.  Even from cameras lodged several rows up in the stands, you could see neck muscles and veins working through the skin.  Cover the children’s ears!  But never was any of these human firecrackers tossed from the game.

Umpires, too, were different in the old days.  They knew that nobody had bought a ticket to see them, they knew they weren’t perfect, they knew the young men before them were at the highest pitch of competitive ardor, and they knew… well, a war had just ended.  Maybe they knew that it was good to be home playing ball again.  Call it perspective.  As one great referee of the period said when challenged, “Yeah, I probably missed the call.  So what do you want me to do?”

The show can go on after a bad call—but it can’t go on when no calls are firm and final.  Wow… when did we forget that in the broader context of life?  Is there any chance that we may soon rediscover its truth?

arm health, baseball history, Deadball Era, fathers and sons, low arm angle, pitchers of short stature, pitching, pitching velocity, strike zone, Uncategorized

Excavating Treasures From Forgotten Techniques: Pitching

Wee Willie” Sherdel

I began peering back into distant baseball history perhaps twenty years ago, when my son was becoming strong enough to lift a bat and I was discovering my own deficiencies as a hitting instructor.  Oh, I also boned up on the latest hitting pedagogy—which was part of why I fled to the ancients with increasing interest.  The “cutting edge” instruction about batsmanship was clearly meant for tall boys, and clearly producing a lot of poor contact even in them.  The notion that hitters once upon a time logged 600 at-bats and only two dozen strikeouts in a season intrigued me more and more.

What I didn’t do at the same time was pry into the dusty annals of pitching.  That turns out to be a formidable challenge, as I try now to direct more attention toward the mound.  For one thing, most of us are more attracted to hitting in our youth.  Kids tend to dream of being Mike Trout (or Mickey Mantle, in my day) rather than Clayton Kershaw or Max Scherzer.  Christy Mathewson and Pete Alexander were not photographed as often in some stage of their delivery as Cobb and Ruth were in some stage of their swing.  And for that matter, a player may actually find it easier to freeze for a camera with a primitive shutter-speed as he swings a bat than as he slings a ball.  Certain classic “stills” of mound stars looked awfully bogus even on the baseball cards of my childhood (and I don’t date back to the days when cars had running boards).  For instance, the pitcher would be shot with both feet forward, toes squared to home plate, knees bent, and a ball-laden hand coming more or less at the lens as his eyes pretended to drill the catcher’s target.  Not many useful clues there: too much dynamism has been gutted and stuffed by the camera-wielding taxidermist.  In contrast, a hitter holding his coil into a load or his finish after contact will somewhat interrupt the flow of explosive energy, but not to the degree that the careful detective can’t draw some important conclusions from the film’s evidence.

(After writing all that, I realized that the Pitching tab at SmallBallSuccess.com actually presents the reader with some visual clues to reconstruct yesteryear’s dominant mound technique.  These are few and tendentious, but they do exist.  See also my video, Reconstructing the Pitching Technique of 90 Years Ago.)

Honestly, I didn’t get started down the path I intend to map for you in this discussion by looking at old baseball cards.  My labors at SmallBallSuccess.com have repeatedly brought me to the conclusion that players of shorter stature and broad body type can probably fire pitches in ways that wouldn’t be recommended for taller, thinner guys.  I know that I myself was always able to throw sidearm and submarine without any strain.  The motion was natural to me.  My son also seemed to take to odd arm angles like the proverbial duck to water.

That’s not to say that when elite contemporary pitching gurus like Paul Reddick share their teaching, I don’t listen with respect.  A lot of Reddick’s fundamental advice seems rock-solid to me, such as his rejecting the traditional lesson that the hurler reach and hold a “balance point” straight up-and-down over the rubber before delivering.  Ouch—I once taught kids that lesson myself!  But Paul is right.  Boys who try to go from 0 to 85 after a moment of complete stasis risk damaging their arms, and at the very least have trouble finding the zone.  Their hand comes back much too soon, their back arches as they deliver, and their lead foot falls out to the side.  Today’s revised coaching orthodoxy (and not just Paul’s teaching) urges us to “stay in a tunnel”.  Stride powerfully straight toward the plate, and let your leading shoulder rush into the glove elevated by your bent front arm.  Be Nolan Ryan or Roy Halliday, not Juan Marichal or Luis Tiant, Jr.

The trouble was that I myself could only stick with the program up to a certain point.  I think the Reddick “wall drill”, where you set up with a confining structure next to your rear shoulder and practice delivering pitches without striking that wall or fence as your hand rises, is brilliant.  I also agree that you don’t want your head to roll back or your spine to arch.  But… but the “stay in the tunnel” thing has always severely cramped me.  I’m just too broad-framed.  My stride is also too short to give me a fighting chance at equaling the acceleration of taller competitors, although I have very strong legs.  If I were to be judged (assuming that I were forty years younger and trying out for a spot in the bull pen) strictly according to the Reddick paradigm, I’d never make the cut.  Neither would practically any other short kid.  Guys who can master that model do throw very hard… but the model also filters out those of short-and-broad build, an exclusion which is always justified by pointing at the JUGS gun’s objective testimony.

What if my type of build could keep from loading up too soon, keep from arching the back and rearing up with the head… but also throw the lead leg powerfully outward?  Not directly toward the plate, where our diminutive stride would produce little advantage, but to the side like a Ted Williams aficionado throwing his front hip in a swing?  Such “falling away” produces arm strain and inaccuracy only when the pitcher is trying to throw high-overhand—from as close to high noon as he can get.  What if, instead, this “fire plug” pitcher were to use his muscular core in a sidewise motion of unfolding that drew his throwing arm along the slanted plane blazed by the opening leg?  Now he would be delivering from ten o’clock, or even nine-thirty—and the sidewise thrust of the “fall away” step would trail both arms fluidly along its incline rather than depriving a high-overhand delivery of a stable base because lower and upper body weren’t traveling the same course.

Do you know what’s just occurred to me?  The “balance point” business also becomes much less sinister if you intend to open out while keeping your arm angle low.  That’s because the lift of the forward leg is no longer a direct entry into the surge toward home plate: it’s a preparation for surging in another direction.  No longer is the energy flow interrupted.  The lift’s objective might be considered potential rather than kinetic: i.e., your knee’s pump is storing up energy to unleash sidewise when you choose to “go”, not trying to harness the energy created immediately when you’re tilting with just one prop beneath you.  This could explain why Satchel Paige and other oldtimers (hello, Luis Tiant, Jr.!) were able to mix various degrees of hesitation so effectively into their delivery.

To be sure, if all variables were controlled, such “kinky” style would probably still fail to rival the Reddick model in pure velocity—but it would produce more velo than the short mound-aspirant would have been able to achieve through the new-mainstream model, and it would also confront the hitter with a perplexing release point and a pitch that never keeps to a rigidly flat line.  I know Paul Reddick understands the merits of “perceived velocity” (i.e., hitter’s reaction time) and movement.  When the hitter needs an extra split-second to find the ball, the pitch essentially travels five or ten mph faster; and when that ball is severely breaking east to west even as it descends north to south, getting a barrel to it becomes an immense challenge.

Last week I posted a two-part video detailing my latest excursion into the forbidden land of sidestepping, low-overhand pitching.  (Part One is a discussion that sets up the trial; Part Two shows me attempting to apply my principles from the left side, where my natural aptitude wouldn’t be able to cover up theoretical errors.)  I hope to explore this subject further when my health stabilizes.  Because of all the hormone-suppressants I’m on as my prostate cancer is chased into oblivion, my joints and muscles don’t repair themselves as fast as they used to after a day of vigorous exercise.  As any ballplayer knows, you have to stay open to making adjustments!  Well, I’m still seeking out the happy middle ground between denying fuel to cancer and denying my muscles the food they need for recovery.  Be patient with me.

Anyway… it was in this experimental theorist’s frame of mind that I happened to watch a terrific DVD from my collection titled 1913-1938: The Sports Album (Rare Sportsfilms, Inc.), a succession of very early newsreels apparently created as filler for use between feature movies.  I couldn’t help but notice how many more pitchers were throwing in the fashion explored by my experiments than in the Reddick way.  Long strides toward home were virtually unheard-of (though it looks like Dizzy Dean was in that category–and Lefty Grove was folding his front arm into his body just to keep it out of the way).  High-overhand arm angles were very rare.  While it’s true, furthermore (as so many of you keep telling me), that pitchers before World War II didn’t throw nearly as hard as they do today, it’s also true that they were far more durable.  Going nine innings every start was an implicit assumption; logging 300 innings for the season wasn’t at all unusual.  Four-man rotations were the norm.  Yes, many hurlers of great promise blew their arms out under this regimen… but how many of our young prospects do the same, and are redeemed from the junk heap only because of advances in medicine?

I’ll leave off today by conceding that not all of my sidestepping exemplars were short, broad fellows.  Wee Willie Sherdel wasn’t extraordinarily wee at 5’10”; neither was Fidgety Phil Collins at 5’11”.  Dickey Kerr, Dolf Luque, Bobby Shantz… yes, they would have been under average (at around 5’7”) even for position-players.  But Pete Alexander and Dazzy Vance also made my list; and Walter Johnson, though I didn’t observe him to fly open, certainly didn’t lunge lengthily toward the plate.  Ditto for the immortal Satchel.  I’d say that the low-overhand flip was simply the standard of the day—and that it was demonstrably healthier for the arm than the style we now prescribe.  That I’m holding it out as an option for shorter pitching prospects is somewhat dictated by the hard fact that those lads won’t be taken seriously no matter how well they emulate the Reddick model.  Paul once responded to a dad’s online query about submarine pitching (I’ve never forgotten the words), “It’s just a gimmick.”  No interest whatever in exploring that option.  Such is the cocksureness of Space Age science: “We have the formula for rocket fuel, so stop trying to mix in Tabasco sauce!”

Well, try lecturing the Tampa Bay Rays in that manner, or any other innovative organization that has very effectively deployed unusual release points on the mound.

baseball history, fathers and sons, footwork in the box, general health, hand use in hitting, low arm angle, off-season preparation, pitching, pitching velocity, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Using Baseball to Stay Sane in Lockdown

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I hadn’t really been thinking about “backyard baseball” as a distraction from the anxieties of a thoroughly miserable year, even though I’ve been using it that way for months. As I build myself back up from battling prostate cancer earlier this summer, swatting a few balls off the pitching machine has become a favorite diversion. Occasionally, I blunder upon what I think is a significant insight and create a video. Over the past two weeks, though, my camera has remained veiled. I haven’t been able to speak clearly, thanks to a round with something called Bell’s Palsy—a fairly benign debility that seems to ride in piggy-back on sinus infections and clears up without treatment after two or three months. Or sometimes as much as six months. Yikes! That’s a long haul between videos!

But I think I’ll be filming again in just a few days. The Plasma Emission Radiant Light machine that I purchased to help me chase cancer cells away (I discovered Rife technology first at the Immunity Therapy Center in Tijuana) turned out to have a program set for—of all things—Bell’s Palsy. I’ve run it each night for almost a week now, and I’m making very rapid progress.

Really, though… what a year! And it’s far from over. This past weekend, a person who sits right atop of my Most Important People in the World list phoned me to say that he had checked himself into the hospital with acute depression and thoughts of suicide. Thank God he had sense enough to seek assistance! Would you believe that in the 18-to-24-year-old demographic, death is twenty-six times more likely to occur from suicide than from COVID-19? Young people, with their active social lives, their heavy dependency on peers for the formation of an evolving ego, their struggles to get firm footing in the world of gainful employment, and so on have a heightened sensitivity to the effects of lockdown. Deny them the freedom to mingle with others, week after week after week, and some just give up on life.

It’s in the light of this sobering realization, especially, that I’ve been thinking explicitly about baseball as an escape valve. And I don’t mean watching the MLB on ESPN. What’s going on there is a brave try at entertainment… but it’s not the same without crowds, and—alas—it’s more of the same with regard to the quality of play we’ve witnessed in recent years. Hitters try to work counts, taking close pitches even when they have two strikes. Pitchers, all too often, don’t seem to have been prepared by “summer camp” to pound the zone. We see a lot of walks mixed in with a lot of strikeouts. So the spectacle is usually pretty boring… and then, of course, you’re not getting that all-important sunlight that helps you biochemically to sustain a good mood when you watch someone else play the game. Particularly if you had hopes of using Summer 2020 to shine before scouts or to hone your skills before the 2021 season, you have to be completely bummed out about how this year has gone.

But to turn the situation on its ear, you might say that no time has ever been more apt for trying out outlandishly unique methods. I recall Walt Hriniak writing at the beginning of A Hitting Clinic that the hardest players to coach were those who were just good enough to stay in the line-up. They knew they weren’t all that good; in fact, they were painfully aware of their precarious position at the very edge of the tolerable. At .240 or .250 (what would it be today—.205?), they couldn’t afford to get any worse, and tinkering around might just sabotage what little proficiency they currently possessed with a bat. A similar mindset probably keeps any player in any league from breaking down his technique and rebuilding it just as the season is about to start. You’re not sure if trying such-and-such might improve your game or not… and as your game stands, you’ll probably make the team. Better play it safe and not mess with “good enough”.

I wonder how many ballplayers this timidity keeps from reaching their potential? My point in the present circumstances is that no one need be thus timid. Many of you may not even have another teammate to practice with. You’re on your own. So if your pitching or hitting is marginal, why not attempt a radical overhaul while nobody’s looking? Go play ball by yourself. Put a plate in front of the L-screen and pitch. Use a batting cage if you have access to one; or if you don’t, find a machine that challenges you but won’t produce breakage in nearby windows.

I wish I had a dime for every time I discovered an improvement while messing about with my Personal Pitcher, a gizmo that spews golf-sized Wiffle balls. I had such an experience just last week. I wouldn’t have believed that loading the bottom hand ever so slightly higher than the top hand would generate a swifter, more powerful linear attack into the pitch… but so it does. I’ll analyze more closely what I think goes on here at a later time; but in a nutshell, it seems that giving the bottom hand more of a “run” into the pitch yields a straighter, faster drive in the barrel. Think of a bullet traveling down a longer bore: its path to the target is more accurate thanks to the additional guidance it receives… or something like that.

(By the way… I found that my beloved, archaic shuffle into the pitch—the load from the mobile back foot whose shift is catalyzed by the lifting barrel—appeared briefly in a 2004 game between the Mets and Astros. Pedro Martinez was facing Pedro Astacio. Good game! Jose Reyes was the bad boy who attempted a move that I thought had been abandoned fifty years earlier; and, no, it didn’t produce a safety for him. But what a surprise, just to see that someone in the game so recently was bringing to it such a degree of resourcefulness! Times of confinement like these are also excellent occasions to dust off the old video library and look therein for new ideas.)

I’ve resumed messing about with pitching, as well. In fact, having most of my prostate removed has left me incredibly more agile in my throwing motion, so my problem was obviously affecting me physically for a long time in ways that I never suspected. I continue to operate on the assumption that having all the body’s members rotate in the same “wheel” generates speed while also greatly reducing risk to the throwing arm. In the process of trying to build on that assumption, I seem to be finding that thrusting the forward elbow within the “wheel of delivery” at just the right moment and with conscious vigor greatly improves accuracy as well as velocity. I’d like to test this theory much further, and especially to see if it produces good results for me from the left side, where my throwing motion isn’t at all natural. I’m excited by initial results.

I repeat that these are discoveries made almost haphazardly. They occur largely because I just happened to be outside with a bat or a ball messing around. Sometimes I conceive of a theory lying in bed at night and then give it a test flight the next day; but either way, I probably wouldn’t enjoy nearly the degree of serendipity that I do if I were working out with teammates and feared looking like a complete idiot! One test that I lately tried proved painful and may very possibly not be resumed: swinging cross-wristed. I know that a few Deadball players like Dave Bancroft (HOF) somehow employed this style successfully; even a young Henry Aaron favored it before a scout told him confidentially that the professional game would never take him seriously if he didn’t adopt the orthodox grip. So you know that cross-wristed hitting was paying off for a smattering of well-coordinated batsmen in some curious way or other. I wasn’t able to convince myself that I’d uncovered its secret. Maybe some other time.

Have fun with the game. Be daring. Maybe you won’t be able to integrate any little nuggets that wash up as you fool around into your advanced game. Foolery, though, is part of the game’s joy: being a kid, going a little crazy as the sun shines. Couldn’t we all do with a dose of that joy these days?

baseball history, Deadball Era, fathers and sons, footwork in the box, Hall of Fame, hand use in hitting, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Yogi Berra, Throwback Hitter

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The photo above was taken for Yogi Berra’s 1962 Topps Baseball Card.  (The stats on the flip side actually belong to the ‘61 season, but the card was of course published the following year: the dates can be kind of confusing at first.)  At this historical point, cameras were not yet accurately freezing players’ swings or throws in mid-flight.  You’d therefore see a fellow posing with bat or glove in some relatively neutral, waiting position, or at most crouching as if about to field a ground ball.

So I mustn’t make too much of Yogi’s position on this card.  Nevertheless, it’s suggestive.  Notice that his top hand is secured somewhat more firmly on the handle, while his bottom one shows rather loose middle and index fingers.  Yog was a natural right-hander; it couldn’t have been that he just didn’t want to use that bottom hand as much in the swing.  Indeed, I think we may infer that he intended to use it more smartly, if not more explosively.  The fingers are loose because he needs his wrist flexible in order to pull the knob in and down, tight to the body.  The top hand has the “dumber” job of simply punching straight down into the pitch (and Yogi, by the way, was a pretty good amateur boxer as a kid.)  Both hands are somewhat projected from the torso, which frees them to deliver this collaborative “pull-push” attack on the ball.

If all of this sounds like a page from one of my books about Deadball hitters… well, that association of ideas struck me squarely between the eyes as I was reading Allen Barra’s (no relation) excellent biography, Yogi Berra: The Eternal Yankee.  I’d always heard that Yogi was a notorious bad-ball hitter, but Barra offered details that made me sit up: how Yog could drive the ball to all fields, how he could pull outside pitches, how he could tomahawk balls coming in at head-level.  How does one do such things with a bat?  Joe DiMaggio didn’t know.  Ted Williams didn’t know.  All the uppercutting power-hitters of the Fifties were mystified.  It seemed to me, however—based upon all the research that I’d done into the Deadball Era—that I was reading about a Joe Jackson or a Sam Crawford: someone who walked seldom and struck out yet more seldom, who aggressively attacked pitches that his barrel could reach rather than pinning himself within the legal strike zone… who really loved to swing the bat.

Okay… so what evidence could I find that Berra was a throwback hitter whose “swing down on the ball” style had begun looking alien after World War II?  Online footage wasn’t helpful in reconstructing where Yogi’s hands rested before the load, or even where they went during the load.  I’ve seen extensive outtakes of the televised 1952 World Series (Game 6), however, that establish that Berra definitely didn’t rock back in a far-rear load, hugging his hands into the armpit as his teammates Mickey Mantle and Johnny Mize (and his frequent October adversary Duke Snider) did, and then spin his hips open and roll his shoulders back to generate that Fifties uppercut.  The camera was very far away from the action, and I wasn’t quite sure exactly what Yog was doing… but I knew it wasn’t this.

Unfortunately, the convention in editing highlight reels was to focus on the pitcher’s delivery until the ball was released, then switch to the hitter’s swing; and at that point, naturally, you’ve already cut out a lot of preparatory activity in the batter’s box.  As weak and tendentious a prop as it is, I again recur to the 1961 baseball card.  As I’ve just stressed, the hands are held somewhat away from the torso, not tucked in tight in the Mantle/Mize fashion characteristic of the times; nor are they far aloft, like Roger Maris’s high cock that almost anticipated our boppers of the Nineties.  In my experience of trying to squeeze every clue from dubious hints, it’s rare for a guy to strike a position like Yogi’s in the card just to freeze for the camera—rare, unless it approximates what he truly does in action.  If the hitter is just offering the photographer his mug, he’ll simply rest the bat on his shoulder in a patient kind of “on deck” mode.

I’m inclined to conclude that Yogi never actually drew his hands very far above or back from his rear armpit.  That would imply that the hands followed the front foot’s touchdown closely into the pitch… which would further imply, all but irresistibly, that this was a front-foot hitter—a guy who didn’t stay back after his stride to elevate, but rather shifted his weight forward virtually 100 percent.  Again, that’s what I’ve been seeing for years as I researched hitters before the wars.  There would have been many an exemplar, either on the Cardinals or the Browns, that Larry Berra could have seen practicing the Old School stroke when he was growing up in St. Louis.

Could I confirm some of these further assumptions, at least, from the video record available to me?  See for yourself.  These shots are frozen from a home-run stroke that Yogi uncorked in the 1956 World Series (the second of two homers, in fact, that he clubbed in the same game).  You can find the short video from which I culled them on YouTube here.   They’re grainy and blurry, as I warned you to expect of the time’s technology; but I still think we see a lot of confirmatory evidence.

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I’ve made a video recently about the error of expecting a front-foot hitter to shoot erectly up on his forward leg.  This might happen if the batsman arrived a little early: I’ve seen shots of a tall, lean Stan Musial finishing very erectly.  But Stan (a possible model for the young Berra) would more often catapult himself onto a bent forward knee—as would Tris Speaker, to name only one great Deadballer.  I’d say that Yogi is in the process of doing that in these two frames as he launches into the pitch.  Notice that his hands are not particularly trailing in the stride: they’re already following the weight transfer forward.  The bent back leg isn’t bearing any weight: it’s dragging as the front knee catches all of the rear-to-fore thrust.

Contact is about to be made/has just been made in the next two blurry shots.  I can only keep stressing the same points.  The front knee isn’t locked as the opened hip cycles weight up and back in an uppercut: it’s bending more than ever.  Some observers would call the attack a “lunge”.  (Comments from coaches of the day about how Yogi “did everything wrong” to get the right results are too numerous to count.)  The barrel, never carried very far back, appears now to descend straight into the pitch like a club on a hunter’s quarry.  I have discussed dozens of times in videos and publications how the “parallel-reverse” motion of the hands—bottom one levering the handle down and in, top one punching the barrel down and out—can drive through the heart of the ball with just the right touch of backspin.  The forward weight shift allows that driving plane to be very straight and long.  My theory is that this accounts for how Yogi could smack so many pitches so hard in such diverse locations around the zone—and, specifically, how he might have pulled an outside pitch if he arrived early, just by staying on it.  That appears to be what has happened here.

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The high finish tight over the front shoulder—not high as in the whirlybirding one-handed finish so common today, but two-handed and tight—seals the deal for me.  You can find the same profile in photos of hitters pretty much until the eve of World War II.  The weight has carried far forward instead of rocking back, so the torso scoots under the barrel’s abrupt, parabolic about-face rather than drawing it into the huge backward wrap that we see in classic shots of Mantle and Ted Williams. There’s more than a bit of Babe Ruth in this follow-through.

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I’d like to study Yogi Berra further, though I don’t have the resources to do much beyond what is offered here.  My considered opinion is that, when Berra stepped to the plate, fans of the Fifties were peering through a window in time and seeing what a Rogers Hornsby or a Chuck Klein might have been doing before the war… but most wouldn’t have known what they were seeing.  The war had snapped a lot of threads.  Few men who were in their prime in 1941 returned to the game in 1945 with much gas in the tank; and, perhaps even more importantly, few boys who grew up in the Forties had any word-of-mouth or “heritage of wisdom” contact with the game of the Thirties.  I was a kid in the Fifties and Sixties: I know I never suspected that there was any other way to swing a bat than the way Mickey did (and Ted: but I was too young to have seen Ted).

I’m glad that I appear to have unearthed in Yogi an ambassador for many of our SmallBallSuccess lessons.  He’s always been one of my favorite players, because he’s always been one of my favorite human beings.  Faithful to his wife and family, meeting constant derision with good humor, accepting caricature with the philosophical shrug of a man who knows that true adversity goes far beyond bad jokes and caustic comments, Yogi Berra was a Hall of Fame person.  Whether or not he is a surprise model for front-foot hitting, I am grateful for his example in other things.  May he rest in eternal peace and glory.

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.