Hitting

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ESSENTIALS OF THE DEADBALL-ERA SWING

(Many images on this page have been reduced, cropped, mounted together, and otherwise prepared in ways that somewhat diminish their quality.  Our intent is only to  offer in crude outline certain stages of the archaic swing. Browse the Internet for clearer images or to seek access to matter that may be copyrighted.)

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Thompson, Brouthers, and Kelly

These great “strikers” of the 1890’s—Sam Thompson, Dan Brouthers, and King Kelly—display several significant points of commonality.  All are choked up modestly on a long bat; two have visibly spread their hands, as well.  All have their feet set so close that they have almost assumed a “stand erect” posture, and they have also turned the forward foot toward the mound.  The hands are lifted just slightly above the belt buckle and project a mere few inches from the chest, where they hold the bat relatively loose.  Its barrel projects over the plate—in two cases.  With knob thrust outward, Brouthers appears to be mimicking the first stage of a load, having done nothing yet to gather energy in his lower body.  (That’s understandable: standing on one foot while the cameraman struggles to capture the scene wouldn’t have been easy!)  Taking all three together, we can scarcely escape the conclusion that these batsmen intend to chop down into the pitch.

So… is their intent to try to beat out a Baltimore chop?  Hardly—not this threesome.  (Brouthers, for instance, drove at least a few of the era’s flexibly “dead” balls a good 500 feet.)  Rather, their downward cut will be leveled off (our research suggests) by a full shift of weight to the forward foot.  In other words, these ancient warriors were all front-foot hitters.  We label their swing the Fall Step in Metal Ropes, because they’re indeed falling down into the pitch.  With hands immediately following the plant of a surging front foot (no “get that foot down early” for this bunch!), the descent of the long barrel would describe a short, straight line.  No need to load the hands far back and cock the rear elbow: the outward-pointed front leg probably coiled a bit or swung in and out again with no pumping.  This would have sufficed to launch the hands straight into the pitch as all the body’s weight toppled forward.

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Fournier and Gibson
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Stovey and Griffin

Now let’s break down those highly artificial poses with some that seem a little more realistic.  Jacques Fournier and George Gibson (to the left) have assumed a position just preceding the load.  When the pitcher’s hands break, and only then, they will draw up the bat into the notably relaxed wait suggested—perhaps too casually—by the three sluggers above.  (Pitching was distinctly slower before the twentieth century began, so the “stickers” of the preceding generation may actually have featured a more leisurely, less dynamic load.)  From this posture of cycling energy (which would never reach a fatal “dead stop” balance in a good load), the striker can descend explosively upon the front foot with his more-or-less full transfer of weight.  In short, Fournier and Gibson, having rocked into their load rather than entered it from a calm wait, will have a little more juice in their surging attack than the previous century’s superstars did.

Harry Stovey and Michael Joseph Griffin (the right pair, whose careers were knocking at the twentieth century’s door) appear to be trying to model the swing’s most dynamic phase—the instant just before contact—for a nineteenth-century camera with an interminable shutter speed.  We’re back to the artificial again; yet notice how their bats are hinting at a mild but straight slope down into the hitting zone.  The downward chop is all about imparting lively backspin to the ball by cutting it through the center at a slightly descending angle.  No other stroke is so assured of creating a low line drive.  A high and far-rear load such as we see today would not only create a much longer swing; it would also tend to draw the barrel into a sweeping loop that would risk catching too much of the ball’s underside, producing a pop-up.  Dead balls didn’t sail over fences when popped up, even when struck with a 42-inch bat!

Notice, too, that both of these batsmen have separated their hands. (The talk of Ty Cobb being the only hitter to do this is complete folderol.)  With the bottom hand pulling in as the top hand drives down and through, the sticker doesn’t need a hefty leg kick or stride to create bat speed—and the spread in the hands maximizes this effect.  Add to manual quickness the happy—and vitally important—fact that riding up on the front leg allows the hands to carry their sloping cut forward without pulling up and out in a finishing dip… and you have a high-contact, line-drive blueprint.

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Lajoie and Peckinpaugh
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Snodgrass and Wagner

All four of these batsmen are a little farther along than Griffin and Stovey.  Napoleon Lajoie set up far away from the plate and took a huge stride from an upright position to shoot balls the opposite way.  He’s trying to indicate that move here without making the camera produce a blurry image.  At the far end, Honus Wagner is completing a very similar stroke.  Notice that his weight does not stay back (and Lajoie’s wouldn’t have, either ), but rather carries through entirely to the front leg at just about the instant of contact.

Some hitters, indeed, were already up on the front leg before contact, the better to take their barrel’s line straight down into the ball.  Roger Peckinpaugh is probably a little farther forward than he wants to be early in the swing: he’s likely going to reach for an outside pitch and chase it to right field (which front-foot hitters can do very well: Lajoie and Wagner logged .400 seasons using this technique).  Fred Snodgrass has plainly left his back foot just as his swing is beginning.  Hitting off a bent front knee, by the way, seems to be part of the technique’s signature: you find the front knee locked right after contact in old photos only if a slower pitch has allowed the striker’s weight to carry well forward.

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Jackson and Cravath

As you finish the linear, downward cut into the pitch, your bat typically rides up high over the front shoulder.  Gavy Cravath (he preferred his first name spelled with one “v”) has here achieved the era’s most beautifully photogenic (if rare) follow-through: he has come fully upright over his front foot.  Joe Jackson’s Blonde Betsy was so heavy that a high finish was almost impossible.  If he hadn’t held his weight back just a little, the old girl would have corkscrewed him into the ground!  Edd Roush of Cincinnati, who used the weightiest club in the National League, was also forced into such low finishes.  Yet both hitters—and Cravath, as well—never swung from their heels.  It was because of their bat’s ponderous size that they could simply let it fall into the ball.  Gavy often hit with slightly spread hands, too.  The carry-through of the barrel usually brought the top hand down on the bottom one in his and other strokes that employed this grip.

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swing3.jpgIf these methods seem promising to you (as an ambitious contact hitter), just start simple and then add your own tweaks and hacks.  Most of all, remember that the essential objective of the Old School stroke is to get the barrel into the ball’s center on a linear, faintly downward path.  Don’t let your front leg gyrate all over the place in loading: a mere straight lift, with a bit of coil, should suffice.  Don’t move the hands far up or back when loading: let the bottom hand cock the bat by pushing the knob more outward than rearward—your stride will “leave the hands behind” slightly without your thrusting them back.  Then level off the barrel’s downward line by shifting completely to the front leg.  This should keep the barrel moving linearly even if it has to reach to the knees.  The bat stays inside the ball so well that hitting up the middle with a slight “oppo” tendency is the default product of contact—and almost always in low line drives!

WHY THIS METHOD IS IDEAL FOR SHORTER FRAMES

  1. It doesn’t rely on long limbs to sling a short stick through the zone at high velocity.
  2. It puts stress on the kind of intricately coordinated motion that shorter, broader frames more easily achieve.
  3. It produces low liners; the steeply descending, hyperbolic swing of the lanky power hitter shoots up tall flies that become cans of corn off the short person’s bat.
  4. It rewards the activity of clever hands, which are seldom found in giants.
  5. It can shift into drag-bunt mode in a millisecond; again, good bunters are seldom of a tall, rangy, build.