1890 baseball, baseball history, bat design, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hand-spreading, metal bat use, Uncategorized, weight transfer

The Past Holds No Lessons Only If You Don’t Pause to Examine It

After four months of work, my second Edition of Metal Ropes: Deadball-Era Tactics for Stroking Line Drives With Today’s Alloy Bat, is available at Amazon, both as a Kindle download and as a paperback book.  I can honestly say that I’ve never so thoroughly overhauled a piece of writing in my life… which, if it sounds like praise for the new edition, doesn’t speak very well of the old one.  Understanding ways of hitting a baseball that are buried under more than a century’s worth of rubble isn’t easy.  Even the most basic descriptive terms in the earlier literature are sometimes radically different: “a sticker poles a bingle” more often than “a hitter cracks a single.’

I don’t intend in this very confined space to revisit all of the changes I made.  One generality that I can certainly float with confidence is that the book is now far better organized.  A gremlin that I chased ineffectively throughout the entire first edition was the late nineteenth-century set-up at the plate, commemorated on many a baseball card like John Reilly’s 1888 issue above. (Usually these were produced by tobacco manufacturers, you might be surprised to hear, and not chewing-gum companies).  You’d see Dan Brouthers or Sam Thompson or King Kelly or James O’Rourke standing completely upright, 42-inch stick gripped in a choke (and often with hands spread) just above the belt buckle, legs so close as to be almost touching, and the front foot inscrutably pointing out toward the pitcher.  It was the last of these characteristics that I could never fully account for: all the others made perfect sense if viewed from a certain angle.  Yet why would anyone ever want his lead foot flopping out toward the mound as he awaited the pitch?  Cody Bellinger stands upright with his feet very close together; so did Mickey Tettleton, not so very long ago.  Yet neither of them balanced the bat slackly over his belt buckle—and neither, most certainly, splayed his front foot out toward the mound!

As the subtitle declares, the book’s objective is to translate Deadball practices into something useful for our metal weapon.  Kelly and O’Rourke actually have no overlap with the Deadball Era as usually defined, having terminated their careers in the mid-Nineties.  (O’Rourke appeared in one game in 1904 at the instigation of his friend John McGraw as a kind of publicity stunt; he landed a hit, too.)  I perhaps dedicated too much time and effort to seeking after an explanation of the odd nineteenth-century stance, since it had been widely discarded by the time the century turned over.  I certainly wouldn’t recommend that any kid today strike up the same posture in a metal-bat league.  The lesson I delivered on that score was, “Don’t do this at home.”

Still… still, the practices of one generation are always rooted in those of the previous generation.  (Believe me, there were Beatniks long before there were Hippies.)  While the 1890 front-foot placement seemed a non-starter to me, I wanted to understand what technique it would have fed into—because surely other elements of that technique would have been passed along.  I found a satisfactory answer in the notorious hitch.  That is, you can quite smoothly swing a stiff front leg from the bucket in over the plate once you let those hands at your buckle drop until your elbows lock.  It’s a very good means, not exactly of maintaining balance, but of “kinetic looping”.  (Contrary to some popular theories, it is the object neither of effective hitting nor of effective pitching is to reach a balance point, but rather to cycle kinetic energy in fluid reserve until the instant of release.)  If you proceed to fall into the pitch with that stiff front leg while also loading your hands upward and outward (not so much backward) during the stride, you can actually get your long stick to descend straight—and at a slightly downward, productively backspinning angle—into the ball.

And make no mistake: some of these guys, handlebar mustaches and all, were no slouches at smacking baseballs.  The fluffy spheres were so worked-over and unresilient that, until the end of their reign in 1920, fielders would say that they would take crazy hops when springing from a bulge to a flattened side.  So just because nobody was stroking 30 home runs over these years doesn’t mean that everyone was bunting.  The Deadball game featured some pretty hard swings.

I ended up breaking what I call the basic Fall Step—a simple lunge into the pitch without even the leg lift that I’ve just described—into several pieces.  If the barrel was dipped and then reared to energize the lifting of the forward leg, then I labeled the result the Upright Hitch.  I don’t know how many strikers would have used such a pump of the long barrel to create an energy loop and how many would have surged immediately into the ball, not wasting time on any cycling sort of load.  You’d think that hitters in 1890 would have had lots and lots of time.  Ironically, it seems to me that the forenamed Cody Bellinger is maybe one of the first ballplayers to feature a true, pure Fall Step.  I think Ronald Acuña, Jr., has an even better version.  Notice how easily, almost lazily, Ronald rests his hands over his jersey’s buttons before launching his attack.  That particular practice is remarkably similar to something that might have been lost over a hundred years ago after being all the rage.  Some of Carl Yastrzemski’s swings (Yaz tinkered with his stroke constantly) also fit this paradigm rather well.

Then we have the Hunching Hitch, where the hitter bends his torso to bring lowered hands and recoiling front knee into close proximity.  This, I believe, would not have been common in the Deadball Era.  It was closer to what Jimmie Foxx and Josh Gibson were doing, and was carried by Hank Greenberg into the generation than gave us Frank Howard.  By now, speaking historically, sluggers were no longer choking up on their massive bats: they were holding them down on the knob, from where they could hurl the barrel down into the pitch after looping it high aloft with a pump.

My recommended version of this species of swing for young hitters who want to give something new a test run would be the Lift-and-Land.  Differentiating between LL and the Upright Hitch proved a challenge.  I really didn’t make many adjustments beyond putting more emphasis on the hands and less on a back-swinging leg.  Throughout the book, in fact, I found that a major corrective we have to introduce into a Deadball swing is to substitute vigorous hand motion for lower-body activity.  Without the long bat to balance your gyrations, you simply can’t do as much with your legs as old strikers like Edd Roush did. (Edd could be said literally to run his bat into the ball.)  In our era, the hands need to be prominently involved in creating any sort of kinetic loop.

Of course, there were other types of swing besides the “hitch” family.  My personal favorite isn’t even included therein.  But the amount of complexity surrounding this one issue may suggest to you why it took so long to rewrite the book!

I wish you all a meaningful Thanksgiving.  I am thankful for having my life restored to me by the Immunity Therapy Center in Tijuana this year after the American medical establishment sentenced me to death by prostate cancer; I’m thankful for the caring people I came to know on my journey, and I’m thankful that I had “trivial” work like SmallBallSuccess.com to keep me occupied.  I’m thankful, too, that we have a game like baseball to help us learn about failure, objective self-criticism, acceptance of limitation, and eventual success through adjusting to hard realities.  It turns out that those are not trivial lessons at all.  Being able to assist young people in learning them is one of the greatest privileges bestowed upon me during my earthly passage.

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

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

I’ll confess that using baseball research as my refuge of sanity hasn’t always worked in recent days. We’re watching–we athletes, we former athletes, we boys and men who are being raised or were long ago raised to honor the rules of our game–we’re watching the rules upon which our society’s smooth, fair functioning depends turned to complete mockery. It’s rubbed in our faces. Imagine an umpire who collected greenbacks from the other team’s coach during half-innings, and then proceeded to call every pitch a strike on your guys and every pitch a ball for the other side’s guys. That’s what we’re living through.

Well, damn. I just can’t do any better today than to share some of the revisions to my book, Metal Ropes. The result is looking great. It ought to: I’ve honestly never engaged in half so much revising of anything ever to leave my pen.

So here’s a bit about the distinctive hitch used by Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg, and many of the more ancient Immortals. Only in overhauling the book did I realize that Mel Ott’s variety of hitching was fundamentally different. The point of all the historical analysis, furthermore, is to produce useful recommendations for innovating today’s hitting game. I graze that objective at the end of the following excerpt.

I suspect that right-handed immortals Honus Wagner, Napoleon Lajoie, and Rogers Hornsby all three had a hitch (of the upright variety typical of their day). We know that they set up well off the plate. They could push even the high/inside pitch to right field, apparently, because they stood so far back. Yet they could also cover the outside corner, and even go a bit beyond that corner. How did they do that? They must certainly have possessed the ability to surge outside after the pitch if they needed to; and I don’t see how they could have created the energy necessary to produce such a surge unless they fired out of a hand-pump and a rear knee-bend. Ted Williams’ swiveling hips won’t get you there: Ted usually wouldn’t even offer at outside pitches. The Dutchman and the Texan cleaned up on them.

To revisit the dynamics of the Old School Upright Hitch, let’s consider Jimmie Foxx. Double X didn’t move his front foot until after pumping his massive barrel. As the barrel rebounded from its descent, the momentum thus created carried the front foot faintly aloft—nothing as airborne as Mel Ott’s lead foot: just a few inches off the ground. The leg was almost stiff-kneed. There was no particular curl of the knee to the rear. Such rigidity, as has been said of footwork in the Hunching Hitch [my term for the Ott variety], forced the subsequent weight transfer forward to be firm and committed. There was no rotating outward of the ankle to channel energy off to the side.

Now, Jimmie’s lumber supplied a lot of his swing’s pop.  He wasn’t a believer in swinging out of his shoes.  The lift of the barrel would have occurred much later than when a hitter today would imagine executing such a move.  The pitcher might have started his drive home before the hefty weight was flung above the rear shoulder.  This would permit the barrel to tap its “what goes up must come down” energy in looping back upon the pitch (with much fine adjustment from the hands, naturally).  Its punch would be delivered without its weight having to be put in motion from a dead standstill.  Foxx’s fingers were indeed likely so loose on the handle during the split second that the barrel reached the apex of its ascent that they would hardly have been holding on.  They would be about to resettle themselves for the great yank into the pitch.

Willie Stargel’s technique of whirling the barrel around until the very instant when he wanted it to descend had much in common with these ancient dynamics.  But “Pops” wasn’t using a particularly light wooden bat in the Seventies, let alone a metal one.  Even in players who were yet alive when many of us were born, we see few clues about how to employ a “lower the boom” method from the age of big bats in our present game.  How can we translate all of this, or indeed any of it, to a tool made of alloy?

Strangely enough, I suspect that our solution may lie in what batsmen did in the days before we had any filmic record of the full swing.  If the generation of doughty strikers that featured Ed Delahanty and King Kelly had differed in any significant detail from the Foxx/Greenberg paradigm, I think the action of the front leg would have been that detail.   I wouldn’t expect many hitters of any era to have elevated the leg like Mel Ott, or even Harold Baines (our own time’s version of Mighty Melvin).  Yet I’m a little surprised that what Upright Hitchers I can pass in review—Foxx, Greenberg, Walker Cooper, Rudy York—scarcely lifted their lead foot more than an inch.  My surprise may well come from the fact that the wooden bats in my possession, some over half a century old, are nevertheless not nearly as massive as Jimmie Foxx’s.  When I tried to do an Upright Hitch, I found that I wanted my raised leg more involved… and this must surely have been just because of my bat’s relative lightness.  I was discovering a formula for fitting the lighter bat to the ancient paradigm—and I wasn’t even trying to do so!

Okay, so the Delahanty/Brouthers crew used bats even longer (and often heavier) than Foxx’s and Greenberg’s… but all of those turn-of-the-century strikers were choked up, many of them even gripping with spread hands.  Foxx, Greenberg, Cooper—they were all down on the knob.  The amount of weight extending beyond Sam Thompson’s top hand would have corresponded more closely to what we hold today, whether in wood or metal, than to what Foxx was balancing as he hefted his telephone pole.

I submit that this is why the oldtimers in the tobacco cards have that forever-puzzling splay of the front foot out toward the pitcher.  That is, I think they were placing the foot in a somewhat compromising position so that it would be forced to lift and close stiffly after they pumped their barrel down and then heaved it aloft.  They were stepping down into the pitch along roughly the same vector that their hands would follow; they weren’t simply catching a heavy weight shift as a tree came toppling off their rear shoulder.

We speculated at the outset of Part Two that metal-bat strokes would have more up-and-down in them and less laterality.  That’s exactly the essential adjustment I’m suggesting now for the Upright Hitch: shoot the hands up with more vigor when lifting the barrel and let the front foot ride up on the same wave.  In fact, I find this swing to be so stunningly simple, so easy to control, and so ready to direct just where you want it that I believe it’s where any youngster should start with “modernized Deadball” at the plate.

Be well, my friends, stay safe… and play by the rules! No one would respect your home-run record if the left field fence were moved in 100 feet every time you came to the plate. You’d get tired of all the mockery, in fact; but worst of all, you’d lose your self-respect.

arm health, baseball history, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, general health, hand use in hitting, hand-spreading, low line drives, mental approach, metal bat use, opposite-field hitting, productive outs, Uncategorized

Mea Culpa… But Error Is Science’s Plumbline

There’s a lot of talk these days about “good science”, “scientific consensus”, and so forth—most of it on the part of people who are trying to get other people to shut up: an oddly un-scientific objective for the self-styled “pro-science” crowd. Real science, you know, doesn’t turn up its nose at anything before the eyes have a close look. Sure, science may quickly turn down its thumb at an hypothesis openly defiant of the evidence… but the verdict is more against a defiance that ignores evidence-collection.  The fact that most of us possess no eye-witness evidence of Bigfoot, for instance, is no proof that the creature doesn’t exist.  None of us has ever directly seen a quark, an isotope, or a genetic marker on a DNA strand, either.  We “know” of such things by inference—by their effect upon the surrounding, more observable environment.  The difficulty about Bigfoot isn’t that he doesn’t stand up and show himself; for, if he exists, he would by definition be an extremely intelligent hominid with a highly evolved ability to remain hidden.  No, the greater problem is that “Bigfoot researchers” seem to practice a method of collecting one-time, sui generis curiosities: nothing systematic, no repeatable results.  Even Sasquatch footprints may just be the indentations left by displaced rocks.  Like T.S. Eliot’s Macavity the Mystery Cat, one may say of the Squatch and his seekers, “For when they reach the scene of crime—Macavity’s not there!”

Well… this is taking the long way around to confessing that I made a mistake.  Several months ago, I conceived the notion—based on some encouraging initial experiments—that a pitch might be effectively pulled with our typical Deadball grip at SmallBallSuccess.com (i.e., hands spread, handle in knocker-knuckles, wrists pressed into a “v”) if only the bat were lifted higher than usual and the hands kept close to the shoulders.  I must have had this notion in my head for well over a year, in fact.  I was surprised to see it pop up in my book Metal Ropes, which I’m currently giving a complete overhaul.  (The second edition will be out by the end of November, I hope.)  I finally got around to testing the technique more thoroughly in a video published a little more than a month ago.  I was very excited in that “shoot” by how balls were flying off my barrel.  The video’s title is “Pull-Hitting the Deadball Way”.

Okay, fine.  But then I developed some right-arm problems that inhibited me from further experiments.  When I finally thought myself fit enough to have another go at it, I added two components to the script: 1) I used a metal bat, since I was now deep into my revision of Metal Ropes; and 2) I mixed in sequences of going the other way with those of my pulling pitches as described.  I called this video “Spreading Hits Around With the Tris Speaker Shuffle”, since I was loading out of a shuffle-step for all my swings.

One thing that the second video taught me was that my swings in the first video were the culprit behind my arm pain.  It returned with a vengeance.  I’m typing this blog left-handed, thanks mostly to the severe compression of shoulder and elbow joints that occurs when you hold a bat’s handle right before your chin and power the barrel straight down.  Umm… don’t try that at home, please.  I’m somewhat reassured that I haven’t set an injury-trap for the general public only because I happen to be on hormone-suppressants, and I’m sure these have far reduced my ability to recover from stress below the average ballplayer’s (and below my personal level before I started cancer therapy).

Now, my pain is a big problem to me personally… but the bigger problem to my faithful viewers is that they’ve been misled.  My first video gave them some “bad dope” (as Jake Daubert would have called it).  Well, not entirely bad: I mean, my solid contact and line drives were real enough.  Significantly, though, both the reliability of contact and the airborne trajectory of the drives tended to fizzle when I switched to metal.  In the second video, I’m forced to conclude that I haven’t solved the problem of how to pull with authority from a Speaker swing, after all, even though that stroke continues to shoot drives very reliably the other way.

I suspect that “hugging the hands in” and swinging down doesn’t work so well with metal because it works too well.  The lifted hands, that is, are actually riding high—whereas, with the heavier wood, I was deceived into thinking them shifted up high.  It’s not the first time a hitting theorist hasn’t properly read his own body’s motions.  The other day, I was laughing over Ted Williams’ insistence in his 1966 instructional video (titled—what else?—Batting With Ted Williams) that any trace of a hitch should be eliminated in the interest of hastening the swing.  As a YouTube viewer correctly commented on one of my uploads about hitching, the Thumper did indeed stir a little roll of the hands into every game-time swing he ever took!

I think the almost battle-hatchet hack from the chin has a high probability of pulling the ball simply because it rushes the barrel out in front of the plate so quickly.  It is good for that!  However, the barrel is now entering the pitch at too severe a downward angle to create line-drive backspin—and its angle is also skewed toward the vertical.  In other words, the ball’s upper/inner quadrant is being struck, not its rear/lower quadrant; and while the early contact is driving it to the pull side, the vertically angled contact is driving it into the ground.  The metal-bat demo illustrates this to perfection.  About the only pitches I could get to fly were those I struck one-handed: that is, I got to them so early that my top hand relinquished the handle and the barrel therefore leveled off.  Otherwise… well, I had discovered a good “butcher boy” technique for getting the ball on the ground to the right side (I typically bat left) and advancing runners.  I certainly hadn’t achieved our operational objective of smacking low line drives.

The wooden-bat experiment had given me false hope because, once again, the barrel’s weight was leveling off my swing more than I’d realized.  The bat’s handle and its head need to be fairly equidistant from the ground for straight, low shots to fly off the barrel—yet the barrel’s entry into the ball also needs to be slightly downward to kiss the globe with backspin.  That’s the problem I have to solve, newly rephrased: how do you catch a pitch in front of the plate while keeping you stick in a level, slightly descending plane?

The best way might actually be to shuffle up on the plate and then stride away with a good lunge, taking care to keep your hands from straying far above or beyond the rear shoulder.  Just let the barrel fall into the ball—but open up so that the bat can flatten out as it leaves the shoulder.  A “lunge into the bucket” wouldn’t cover the outside corner very well… but it allow the barrel to be relatively level even as it reached back for that corner, and a “push” hit to the off-field would be possible.  Anyway, that’s an hypothesis for a day when the old man has two functional arms again.

I have a feeling that Ty Cobb almost obsessed over being able to pull.  He had no doubt mastered the art of going the other way early on; but pulling is actually harder than pushing (except in our era, when every man uses a kid’s bat), and Ty liked to give out that he was a “place-hitter”—that he could hit ’em anywhere he pleased.  The two photos above were culled from an online video.  The first shows a very promising drive into the pitch.  Then the unthinkable happens: Ty Cobb’s mechanics utterly break down.  He’s early, so all he needs to do is keep his head down and release the handle with his top hand.  The barrel will then stay squared to the ball and travel a bit further along the same slightly downward vector—with reduced power; but that’s okay, because square contact should pop the pitch right into center field.  Instead… instead, the game’s greatest hitting wizard refuses to get off the gas with his top hand and even rears his head back in a bid to keep the barrel circling in “pull” mood.  What in hell’s he doing?

You can tell from the surroundings that this isn’t a live game.  The Georgia Peach is devoting valuable BP to figuring out how to pull a pitch any time he feels like it.  I don’t think he found the answer on this day.

I can sympathize.  But I’ll leave you with this thought: in science, progress is made through failure.  You’re trying to find a passage through uncharted waters, and all you can do is crawl ahead under one jib while throwing the plumbline again and again.  You hope you can read a sudden rise in the bottom before your feel it through the hull.  My body took some hits thanks to my miscalculations… but now I know.  If I live to fight another day, I’ll edge right back into the same shoal waters and then steer a different course.  I never seem to pencil anything new onto the chart, though, without the help of mistakes and erasures.

Come to think of it, what most puts me off about Ted’s Science of Hitting is that it reads more like a man’s lecture on why his way is right, with plenty of after-the-fact rationalizations shoring up the shakier planks, than like a scientific treatise.  Science makes errors.  It thrives on them.  I’m sure I’ll keep finding smoother paths by bruising my shins on rocky ones; and every time I take a fall, I’ll let you know about it.

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 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?