baseball history, Hall of Fame, Uncategorized

Dodgers Win! Okay… and I Don’t Care

I became a baseball fan through being a Yankee fan.  You wouldn’t think a little boy in Fort Worth, Texas, would have a religious devotion to the Bronx Bombers; but after CBS became majority owner of the club in 1964, The Game of the Week naturally wasn’t going to cover the Cardinals or Cubs or Tigers on Saturday afternoon (unless Detroit was playing New York).  Dizzy Dean grew so livid over the monopoly that he couldn’t abstain from deprecating the whole arrangement over the air… which eventually cost him his job.  I can still hear Diz disclaiming, “It ain’t my fault, it ain’t Peewee’s fault, and it sure ain’t good ol’ Falstaff’s fault.”  (Is Falstaff Beer even brewed any more?)

So it came to pass, at any rate, that I knew the entire Yankee line-up by heart, and had photos of most of them yellowing away on my bedroom wall.  Mickey and Roger, Yogi and Whitey, Moose and Cletis and Bobby… Elston Howard, Tony Kubek, Hector Lopez, John Blanchard… tall Ralph Terry, diminutive Luis Arroyo, Bill Stafford and Hal Reniff and… well, I could have gone on and on.  My pride and joy was my Yankee cap.  I never forgave my parents for emptying my closet of a 1962 World Series program, given to me by my grandfather, when they moved from our old house as I was away at college.

Then the Sixties wore into the Seventies.  I lost track of baseball.  I lost track of childhood.  I got to worrying about being drafted into the Vietnam War; and, when that storm was weathered, I worried further about what I was going to do in life.  I didn’t seem to be very good at anything that would actually make a living wage.

About all I remember of baseball from the Seventies was a young Cesar Cedeño.  If my grandfather (the same one who had bought me the Yankee program) had the Astros going on TV as I wandered through his den, and if Cesar were at the plate, I stopped whatever I was doing.  It’s not every day that you see a future Hall of Famer just hitting his stride.  In retrospect, it wasn’t on any of those days, either.

In 1984, twenty years after the slimy Topping and Webb sold the Yankees, I was released from the University of Texas with a doctoral degree that would qualify me to teach any one of three or four dead languages to any one of the two or three colleges where they were taught.  Practically speaking, I could go back to teaching high school, or I could take a series of year’s-contract gigs teaching Collegiate Freshman Composition and mopping toilets.  I recall the 1981 Dodgers as a beam of light in my dismal grad-school years.  They had finally beaten the Yankees!  My grandparents now dead and gone, sitting in the lonely kitchen of an antebellum house that lingered quite a while on the market, I pumped my grandmother’s ancient rocker back and forth as the scrappy Lopes and Russell and the explosive Garvey and Cey redeemed themselves against—who else?—the Yankees!  Reggie and Willie Randolph and Bobby Murcer were, for once, not enough.  But… what had happened?  What had transformed me, a monastic misfit squirreled away under his papers in Austin, into a Yankee-hater?  Mickey, Yogi, Whitey… when had I abandoned you guys?

Of course, the answer was George Steinbrenner.  The team that the boy had once adored was now essentially the American League All-Star team bought by the fattest wallet in the game.  That was obscene, to my idealistic young mind.  Any player who was a difference-maker and on the market ended up on George’s squad; and if they didn’t win everything, then George wasn’t happy at all.  A turnstile of managers and scandals was always feeding the newspapers.  Nothing that might make that beloved old game resurface seemed to have survived.

I wanted so much for Steinbrenner‘s teams to lose!  I wanted them to lose every day—which, of course, they didn’t come close to doing.  They practically didn’t lose once a week.  I really wanted them to lose in the postseason.  It was a ethical issue now.

Looking back, I realize that free agency was long overdue and that baseball players didn’t deserve to be slaves, any more than any other human being.  But the game that I returned to as a young man had lost something of its charm, its magic.  When I was a boy, really stand-out players remained with one team throughout most or all of their career.  Norm Cash and Al Kaline were Tigers.  Ernie Banks and Ron Santo were Cubs.  Willie and Juan were the Giants.  Stan Musial inked a hundred-thousand-dollar contract with the Cardinals before the 1958 season, even though Augie Busch and everyone else knew that The Man’s best years were behind him.  Where was the new Ernie Banks now?   The occasional George Brett won my devotion to small-market teams like the Royals… the Bretts were fewer and fewer; and, frankly, because of the owner’s skinny wallet, such teams seldom cracked the first division.

I remained a Dodger fan for a few years after the 1981 glory days.  Once I got settled into my new professional life, however (or settled, I should say, into a degree of perpetual unsettlement), I discovered the Atlanta Braves and the Chicago Cubs through TBS and WGN.  Just as CBS’s Game of the Week had done for the Yanks, familiarity bred fondness.  The team you see regularly is the team you get to know and like.  So now I was a follower of Murphy, Zane Smith, Chris Chambliss, Bob Horner, and Jeff Treadway.  Yet especially because the Cubs were starting to become pretty good about now, I became a more enthusiastic fan of Dawson and Sandburg, Leon Durham and Keith Moreland, Shawon Dunstan and Jody Davis, Rick Sutcliffe and Les Lancaster.  I could have named practically that whole team, just as I could my beloved Yankees of twenty-five years earlier.  They darn near went to the World Series, those Cubs.  They should have gone; but the Giants discovered that Sandberg couldn’t hit anything but a fastball when he tried to carry the offense on his shoulders, and Dawson came within a breath of driving a pitch out of Candlestick that would have changed everything.

All of this is the long way around to making the admission that I just couldn’t get into the World Series this year.  I, one-time Dodger fan, was now rooting for the Rays.  From the start of this truncated season, I decided that I hated the Dodgers.  I liked a lot of individual players: Kershaw, Turner, Bellinger… I liked them as ballplayers, and as human beings.  But then, I’d liked a lot of Steinbrenner’s Yankees, too: yet taking them as a team, I found them detestable.  So for LA in the Year of the Plague.  I really wanted the Dodgers to lose last week.  Their money paved the way to ultimate success: three cheers, hip-hip-hooray!  Now we’re back to the fattest pocket book winning it all.

Unless you just happen to be linked geographically to the location where the richest owners are writing the fattest checks, it’s hard to cheer any one of the three or four bullies in the MLB.  I know I’m not alone in registering that sentiment.  Someone remarked to me the other day that baseball desperately needs a salary cap.  Maybe.  I won’t pretend to have the answer.  My personal preference, though, would be to see the trade deadline moved much farther forward.  It used to precede the All Star Game.  What about fixing it on June 30… or even June 1?  Seeing a radically transformed team take the field in September because a 55-year-old spoiled brat sold China a few islands to buy Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, and Max Scherzer… well, it isn’t sporting.  It just isn’t.

There are a lot of things in our society that will never be the same again.  I wonder if baseball is among the very few that might be revived?

baseball history, Hall of Fame, hand use in hitting, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, umpires

They All Built Cooperstown, Though Only a Few Are Enshrined There

George McQuinn

I completely whiffed on Lou Brock’s passing, even when I began last week’s post by citing all the notable baseball departures from our world that I’d left uneulogized.  It’s not as though 2020 has lacked distraction, either at the public or the personal level; so I’m not going to tender an abject apology.  Yet I have to say that… well, Lou’s mortality shocked me in much the same way that my own did this past summer.  The evidence is pretty conclusive now that my prostate cancer is hereditary.  That explains why my always-fastidious diet and my quasi-religious commitment to regular exercise were no defense.  Still, Lou Brock… I haven’t researched his cause of death, but if ever anyone might have been predicted to live a century… sigh.  As old Seneca wrote, Nemo contigit impune nasci—which means, in liberal translation, that everybody has to die of something.

One thing I recall reading about Lou that I’ve never forgotten was that he numbered among the three ballplayers ever to power a homerun over the center-field fence at the Polo Grounds.  Picture Willie Mays running off into that infinite real estate to grab Vic Wertz’s drive over his shoulder… and then picture Brock hitting one that cleared all that grass and then cleared the wall.  Lou had tremendous power.  He could have been a homerun king had he not identified his gifts properly and determined that he would be of more use to his team as a get-on-base, take-an-extra-base kind of player.  The deep hitch with which he loaded his barrel created momentum at the stick’s end which didn’t require Killebrew-esque muscles to impart pop; and a less-than-all-out lowering of barrel into ball would also allow split-second adjustments to pitches that would spray them hither and yon around the park.  In an era when homerun fever was already epidemic in the Majors (ruining the careers of a lot of young black players, by the way, who’d figured out that they needed to hit like Frank Robinson rather than Bob Boyd to stick around), Lou was a throwback.  His patented stroke, his running game, and his mental approach have all long struck me as belonging to the Twenties or the Thirties rather than the Sixties.  Coming from my keyboard, that is supreme adulation.

The one other footnote I feel compelled to add about Brock is that the ultimate base thief was himself robbed in the critical final game 1968 World Series.  Lou, I’m sure, had been planning it earlier during the seven-game face-off: he would take a ridiculously long lead that forced a throw-over, then beat first-baseman Norm Cash’s peg to second.  He did so in the late innings of Game Seven off Mickey Lolich… only the umpire missed the call.  The preserved TV broadcast of the game offers a slow-motion replay of the action around second base.  Brock clearly beats the throw.  Harry Caray and his partner in the booth let an awkward, suspicious silence surround the replay.  In those days, broadcasters would never have questioned an umpire’s call—not on national television, and seldom on a local broadcast.  Yet the replay’s evidence is unequivocal.  Lou had done something that the second-base arbiter had never seen before.  If the pitcher surprises you by throwing over just as you leave in a sprint, and if the first-sacker delivers his relay on target, you’re supposed to be out.  It’s unimaginable that you wouldn’t be out.  The umpire called the play he saw in his mind rather than the one he saw with his eyes.

Lou could do that to you: he could make you think you hadn’t seen what you just saw.

I’m going to devote the second half of this post to what may seem a complete shift of subject… but I think it could be taken as part of my farewell to Lou.  As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote about poets a few months before he went missing during the final month of the West’s great war against fascism, good poets need bad poets; for the unsuccessful struggle, undertaken by many, to create beautiful poetry generates an atmosphere in which the poetic genius of a few is appreciated.

George McQuinn was one of those many not-so-great poets.  He was an above-average poet-in-cleats, and sometimes a pretty darn good one.  I came to know of him while watching highlights of the 1944 World Series—the only fall classic in which the hapless St. Louis Browns ever competed (and which they lost, of course, to the Cardinals).  I grew curious about the lanky six-footer with the sweet inside-out swing who led all Series participants in hits.  That drew me into the pages of a story which turns out to be a wide-open mystery, and whose resolution nobody with my meager resources will ever figure out.

McQuinn’s curtailed rookie adventure in 1936 didn’t set the world on fire, but had interest.  Though batting only .201 in 146 plate appearances, George logged four doubles and three triples among his 27 safeties.  Then, for four years, he took off.  In 1938, he batted .324 and smacked 42 doubles.  (Henry Aaron topped 40 only once in his 23-year career.)  McQuinn followed up with .316, .279, and .297 seasons, with the total of two-baggers registering 37, 39, and 28.  His triples reached double digits in two of these three golden years; and his homeruns, by the way, rang up respectable numbers at 20, 16, and 18.  For three out of George’s first four full seasons—1938 through 1941—his On Base Percentage flirted with .400: .384, .383, .343, and .388.  He was an All Star for the two middle seasons, and again in 1942. After the 1939 campaign, he ranked thirteenth in the MVP balloting.

And the numbers for All Star season of 1942, just before which I’ve drawn my dividing line, remained… well, okay.  Maybe the fans didn’t have much to choose from, since so many regulars were in uniform—in Uncle Sam’s uniform—by that time.  Yet the great mystery about George McQuinn strikes me as precisely that he fell off so steeply during those war years when the competition was light.  In 1943, he batted a mere .243 and struck only 33 extra-base hits of any kind; while in 1944, with a handful more of AB’s, those figures were .250 and 40.  The OBP lingered in the mid-300’s, because he had learned to draw more walks (or was being walked more by weaker pitching), with a career-high in free passes (85) occurring in 1944.  Still, there were no Brian Kenneys alerting the public that a walk’s as good as a hit during the Forties.

With the Yankees rather than the St. Louis Browns in 1947, McQuinn staged an impressive comeback: .304, a mere 40 extra-base hits again, but a career-best .395 OBP.  The following season, his at-bats almost cut in half, George nevertheless came within two of his previous year’s homerun total (11 and 13) but fell off over fifty points in both average and OBP.  Thus ends the career of one George McQuinn.

When I scribbled a book titled Key to a Cold City several years ago—a somewhat whimsical study of black ballplayers of the Fifties, undertaken on the suspicion that Jackie R. hadn’t really exploded the color barrier—I got used to looking at careers like George’s.  Of course, McQuinn was Caucasian… and therein lies the rub.  You think you see evidence of great promise being cheated by reduced playing time or undue pressure off the field—but maybe you don’t.  Maybe, like the umpire who wrongly called Lou out at second, you’re only seeing figments of the imagination.  What makes a career like McQuinn’s go south?  Injury?  Divorce?  Dissension with management or ownership?  Mere overreach—trying to be what you’re not?  Vada Pinson and Curt Flood, for instance, were two speed-merchants who declined to take Brock’s path and chased after power numbers instead of stolen bases… to the detriment of their overall offensive productivity.  But then, as I noted above, there was a lot of pressure on young black stars of that day to secure their place by whacking round-trippers.

What was George’s excuse?  Can anyone like me—anyone without a press pass or other golden bough that would win him admittance to locker rooms—ever know?  What ever happened to Jim Gentile after a couple of phenomenal seasons?  I only lately learned that Tom Tresh, like Tommy Davis, fell off the track to superstardom thanks to injury.

Lou Brock made it big in a profession where lots and lots of guys almost make it big, or make it big for a couple of years… maybe five or six.  And the reason that Pinson or Flood or Davis—or, for that matter, George McQuinn—is not Lou Brock may not really have much to do with Lou’s inherent superiority.  Baseball isn’t necessarily the ultimate meritocracy, as it has been called.  It’s also a poetic riddle whose imponderable answers are gathered together, in a kind of surrender, under the word “luck”.  A few very gifted and hard-working boys grow up to be Sweet Lou.  Many others grow up to be Pete Reeser, and wear themselves out running into walls.

Part of the glory of guys like Lou is that the sun shone fondly upon them throughout their day.  They knew that, too.  It inspired that speechless humility that you saw in them when they stood up to deliver a few words in Cooperstown.  The rest of us may try to make them irresistible demigods, always in full control of their own fate… but I think they all must know that something very special happened in their lives—something unresponsive to their personal direction.  Such is the grand mystery of success and failure, all bound up into human reality. And because many have failed—because most fail somewhere along the journey—a very few are left standing for all of us to admire.

Cooperstown is for everyone who ever tried.  I think Lou would like us to understand that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

baseball history, Deadball Era, Hall of Fame, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized

And the Greatest Ballplayer Ever Is…

raw

I enjoyed Allan Barra’s Yogi Berra: The Eternal Yankee so much when I happened upon it recently that I looked around for other books by the same author. I was amazed to discover that one of these had long been sitting on my bookshelf: Brushbacks and Knockdowns, a collection of essays. Then, as I started browsing, it all came back. I really didn’t fancy the essays because so many of them… well, they address subjects that the typical sports fan would bite on, but they just don’t draw me in. The discussion of “the greatest ballplayer of all time” is one of these. Odd, isn’t it? Why does that kind of debate irritate me so much?

It isn’t the barrages of stats that get heaved back and forth, or not just those. I could say—and I do say—of McGwire and Sosa and Bonds that their surpassing Roger Maris’s 61 home runs is a phenomenon of the steroids era and has little value after adjustment for cheating. That’s my opinion; others have another. So we argue back and forth about just what percentage of homer output steroid usage might have accounted for as the millennium turned over; and we also bandy about that Roger played in Ruth’s Yankee Stadium of the friendly right-field porch, and that pitchers weren’t throwing that hard in the Sixties or that well in the expansion year of 1961. Back and forth, back and forth… a never-ending dispute, and also one which really doesn’t get at what needles me.

This might get us closer. McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds were all represented as superheroes in the popular media to a degree that Maris—or even Mays or Mantle—couldn’t approach. The sluggers of our time have agents, advisors, brokers… and probably personal trainers and private chefs. They harvest fabulously lucrative contracts and are veritable commodities: nobody would dare undermine their health as they go about courting “immortality”. Maris lived at time when owners could ship a fielder who made one hapless play in a World Series to deepest, darkest Kansas (as happened to Norm Siebern), when obtaining a good salary required putting your entire career on the line, when endorsements amounted to a few hundred bucks for slapping Aqua Velva on your face, and when pressure could drive a man almost to suicide without the public’s ever catching a hint of it.

The late Nineties were not the early Sixties: no, not in terms of pitching prowess and field design… but also not socially or culturally. The sabermetricians may be able to adjust for the former—but how does anyone adjust for the latter? How do you compare an era when a man’s wife might take the kids and leave him if he gets traded one more time to an era when the gossip columns celebrate how many girls a guy has on the sidelines? How do you adjust for psychological impact when society at one stage considers the journeyman shortstop a ne’er-do-well husband and at another considers the wife who skips as deserting the ideal provider? How would you factor in stress related to racial prejudice in the Fifties? How about the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that must have messed with many a World War II veteran (e.g., the chain-smoking Gil Hodges), but which hadn’t even been given a name in the Forties?

Okay, so forget about the “mental”… though you can’t and shouldn’t, but say that you could. Say (as many have said to me) that the greatest player ever simply has to be drawn from our era, because our guys are in so much better shape physically. But doesn’t that just beg the question? Is a Pujols or a Trout the greatest player because he’s the best fed and best conditioned? What kind of player would either have been in an era of poorer diet and no science of weight training whatever? If distance to the home park’s pull-side porch calls for an adjustment, then why doesn’t the “unfair” advantage of superior dietary and kinesiological guidance call for one?

How good would Cody Bellinger or Max Scherzer be if he had to ride a train all night to reach the next series? How would such supermen make out if they had to sleep in a downtown hotel with paper-thin walls and no air conditioning?

At some point, you’re simply left with what you see on the field. You have to start and end there when adjustments and corrections always open the door to more adjustments and corrections. And if the “eye test” is the ultimate test… well, how do we apply it to performers we’ve never seen and can now never see? Those who saw him in the midst of all his peers claimed that Oscar Charleston was the greatest thing ever to emerge from the Negro Leagues. How can we say here and now that he wasn’t the greatest ballplayer ever?

As I begin the home stretch of this ramble, I wish take it in still another direction. Since we’ve been reduced to such subjectivity in our judgments, then… well, why not admit that I personally may admire a kind of play that you value less? Maybe my “great” isn’t yours. I risk sacrilege when I write that Mike Trout impresses me primarily as a really, really big human being. I don’t particularly like his hitting style, which seems to me to leave a couple of holes almost as huge as he is—yet which doesn’t hurt him because, as Tom Verducci (without detectable irony) observed shortly before another Trout homer in Arlington a few days ago, umpires won’t call high-inside strikes on him. So we’re left with a Titan carrying a kid’s bat who has his own little zone around the knees….

More sacrilege: I’m not even a devoted adorer of Ted Williams. Any hitter whose reaction to being radically shifted is to drive the ball through or over the shift doesn’t seem to me to be using all the resources that a Ty Cobb or an Eddie Collins deployed. So the WAR geeks prove that Teddy’s bat won more ballgames than Ty’s… yeah, okay. I won’t cycle back to the “attendant circumstances” species of argument which could explain so much of that (the Pesky Pole, the absence of sharp pitching after World War II, etc). Indeed, I could just double down on my Mike Trout response; for Williams (so the anecdotes run) seems to have been conceded a shrunken strike zone by many veteran umpires.

And Babe Ruth, probably much the most popular candidate in the “best ever” sweepstakes? Why, he was the greatest home-run hitter for generations and a superior left-handed pitcher! Okay… but he wasn’t both at once: he didn’t pitch and slug concurrently throughout his career. Maybe Ichiro would have been a star closer as well as a batting champ if he’d been allowed to indulge his mound ambitions as Shohei Ohtani has been. Mickey Mantle, we hear from those who warmed up with him, had a killer knuckleball.

And the Bambino’s mighty blasts? It’s been said that Cy Williams (another, and an earlier, Williams who was radically shifted) could have equaled them if he had flourished in the days on the lively ball. Cobb hit three homers in a single game one afternoon just to show that he could.

I guess where I’m going with this is here: the best ballplayers ever to me are those who play the brand of baseball I most admire. Yes, that’s subjective—but what have I been demonstrating about other measures if not that their objectivity is illusory? Why cannot our answer to “greatest ballplayer ever” be the best who played what we happen to consider great ball? I’ve already betrayed my preference for a guy who can hit to all fields—and I’d like him to concentrate on doing this all the time, winning every battle that he possibly can against every pitcher in any situation. He’s always bearing down, even when his team is suffering an eight-run deficit. I once read a remark of Henry Aaron’s where the Hammer admitted to guessing—to guessing all afternoon, perhaps: looking at two called third strikes before finally getting his pitch halfway through the game. That remark disappointed me. Why would you be hunting a certain pitch with two strikes? I know it’s Hank Aaron, but… but why wouldn’t you just be making contact? That’s what my kind of player would be doing: Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker… Roberto Clemente, Tony Oliva… Tim Raines, Tony Gwynn. Speaker had the advantage over Cobb of having revolutionized his defensive position: he would even creep in from his shallow center-field spot and pick runners off second base on occasion. Clemente likewise staked his claim to being one of the greatest right fielders ever. And Tim Raines on the base paths… well, you could make it Rickey Henderson and I wouldn’t object, but I had a special fondness for Timmy because he was a switch hitter.

Maybe, in fact, I bear a grudge against the Hendersons and the Bondses and the Harpers for being showboats. I want my all-time best player to hate losing, to be in the game at every moment… but also to hate vainglorious or humiliating displays. That may very well be why I have to dig into baseball’s past for my superman. The showboating in today’s game repels me.

So… the greatest player ever? Don’t know, don’t care: not if you expect an “objective” answer out of me. My favorite players are my nominees for best player. I love them because of all they brought to the field, and not what they bring to a spread-sheet.

As for Willie and Mickey, Mr. Barra—no, I didn’t forget about them. I scarcely felt the need to mention their names. I was trying to be a bit original. But yes, definitely Willie and Mickey. And Yogi, too. All of them were the best.

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.