My Favorite Deadball Swing

Over and over again during six-and-a-half decades on this earth, I’ve been amazed at how much learning takes place through what seems mere, tedious repetition.  As you tread along the same old path for the umpteenth time, you can discover intricacies about it that completely escaped you earlier.  They say familiarity breeds contempt… but maybe that’s just in shallow people.  I find, on the contrary, that familiarity breeds a deeper appreciation for the object under study by revealing the “hidden unfamiliar”.

Certainly my efforts to dig into hitting and pitching techniques have borne this lesson in upon me.  I’ve changed my tune too many times to announce today, “Here is the last word about how the Deadball stroke works!”  What I can offer you, instead, is my best guess right now about the most promising combination of techniques used over a century ago, based upon my constant tinkering with them.

The frames below are a little bit grainy in places as a result of being lifted from a live video in our library: How (and Why) Deadball Batsmen Swung Down on the Ball.  Though I was posing in the first three shots, the rest represent phases of an active swing.

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My hands are almost in the position of a boxer’s: snugged in toward the armpit with wrists flexibly curled.

Okay… let’s start with the grip.  Whether or not you spread your hands (and doing so seems to come less naturally when your strong hand is on top: I’m a righty thrower who prefers to bat left), get the handle in your knuckles.  Don’t lock your thumbs around it.  If you try to make a very acute V with your wrists, this end will be achieved.  (Even contemporary sluggers like Albert Pujols and Josh Donaldson are forcing the handle into the knuckles, I believe, when they thrust it away from them in loading, though most of today’s hitters throttle the bat in tight fists.)  Notice that I’m also not allowing the bat to ride above or back beyond my rear shoulder.  I want the handle low, close, and snug.  This frame actually shows me poising the bat just before I start a forward weight shift into the ball.

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The levering bottom hand: this operation is more dynamic when hands are spread.

Now, to be more precise, the bottom hand in the first frame is already preparing for the stage we see here to the right.  That is, we previously observe the hand thrusting the knob somewhat away from the body, and its fingers are almost wide-open in anticipation of closing to a sharp pull back down-and-in toward the body.  Now, in the photo to the side, see how my right hand’s fingers have tightened.  I call this maneuver “levering”, because the bottom hand is essentially working as if on a lever that it wants to pull down briskly.  The pull is throwing the barrel in a straight, slightly downward plane toward the ball.

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The amount of misinformation written about Ty Cobb’s swing is beyond calculation.  He finished with his hands together because the top hand slide down as the stroke carries through.  He was NOT closing his hands before the swing!

Next, of course–and almost simultaneously–the top hand comes punching through.  It travels in what I call a “parallel-reverse” motion with respect to the bottom hand: i.e., both hands are moving in the same plane, but one is drawing the handle in toward the body while the other is driving it outward.  Though I’m posing for the shot, my barrel would be at about the point of desired contact here.  My wrist should probably be a little straighter–but the elbow should still be slightly bent, as shown.  Notice also that the thumb hasn’t yet tightened around the handle; that will happen only on the follow-through, as the elbow fully locks and the swing abruptly enters the upper curve of its parabola.  Some hitters (like Napoleon Lajoie) routinely allowed the handle to fall out of the top hand as the stroke was completed.  Others would let it slip away if they had to reach for an outside pitch or were a little early.  (Prescribing a certain finish for the swing is actually a waste of time–everything that needs to happen has already happened by that point!)

I can’t stress enough the importance of having the hands collaborate flexibly in this linear, slightly downward cut into the pitch.   Even if my feet were set in concrete, I could still impart a crisp blow to the ball with slight backspin as long as I executed everything outlined above.  Again, you don’t have to spread your hands–but doing so was extremely common before Ruth’s time (we see the evidence in photos taken at least a generation before Ty Cobb).  The claim I hear that hand-spreading throws an awkward bump in the swing assumes that the thumbs are locked around the handle and that the hitter isn’t transferring weight emphatically forward.  Ah, yes… weight transfer.  Let’s look now at frames pulled from a live sequence and see how the rest of the body assists the hands in landing this ideal stroke–because, after all, you don’t want to be hitting as though your feet were set in concrete!

From Start to Finish: Weight Shift

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Notice that the top hand’s thumb isn’t locked around the handle. (Neither is the bottom hand’s.)

Immediately, you’re in for a shock.  This is how I wait for the pitcher to come set: not with my bat on my rear shoulder or waving restlessly above that shoulder, but with the barrel dipping almost to the ground and my weight heavily resting on the front foot.  Why am I doing this?  The next couple of frames will clarify how smoothly it channels into the lower-body motion I desire.  Besides that, the drooping barrel also settles the handle into my knuckles, giving me the grip that’s essential for flexible, fluid wrist action.  Do I consider this a required position?  Well, no… but after many a probe in other directions, I can’t find any other that primes me nearly so well for the subsequent load.

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My top hand is tighter on the handle here because it’s involved in lifting the barrel.

So what just happened here?  As the pitcher’s hands broke, I lifted the barrel until my hands were about even with the back armpit (both in height and in rearward shift).  Something else is occurring, too, which freeze-frame representation can’t capture very well: my rear foot, from which I’d already displaced all my weight, is slipping forward until it rests right beside my forward foot.  Yeah, you read that correctly: my feet are moving in the box as I load!  The back foot’s step begins just after the barrel begins to rise.  I like to say that the one catalyzes the other.  Since the barrel’s recoil is transferring weight to the rear, the advanced back foot fights against that transfer somewhat by moving my balance forward.  This means that my momentum is still carrying forward–but that it’s traveling through a tiny loop.  I can extend that loop by working my forward leg if the crafty hurler delays his throw (a la Johnny Cueto or Marcus Stroman)… or I can break the loop abruptly if my adversary attempts to quick-pitch me.

I know how perfectly weird this foot-shuffling appears: nothing I do will strike you as more bizarre.  Yet once I started using the shuffle, I couldn’t get rid of it.  It’s that effective!  The adaptability it gives me to deceptive pitching motions, and even to deceptive pitches in flight, is scarcely believable.  And the shuffle, I stress, will not be a vision-disrupting hop after you practice it.  By integrating the back foot’s advance with the barrel’s rise, you can choreograph such a perfect shift that the button on top of your cap won’t move against the background when you look at film.

We know that Tris Speaker had a load very like this with every swing he took.  I’ve also seen newsreels where Edd Roush (taking BP during the “Black Sox” World Series), Phil Rizzuto, and even Babe Ruth execute it; and Willie Mays wrote that Bobby Richardson did it in preparation for hitting to the opposite field.  I’m sure Rizzuto and Ruth were sneaking up in the box to catch a breaking ball before it dipped… and, to be sure, you can take an extra-long shuffle (or two short ones) to accomplish that end.  But I recommend the “mobile back foot” merely as a means of storing significant energy in a manner that can release it in a microsecond, and also shoot it just where you need it to go.

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For the sake of fluidity, remember NOT to lift the forward leg as the barrel ascends, but only as the top hand is levering outward.

Here you see that my lifted front foot is indeed carrying through a kind of loop.  I don’t lift it very high–no higher than what’s portrayed in the photo; but i do like to coil the knee somewhat backward, precisely because that action creates more of a loop.  I could kick out with the foot if the pitcher were whirly-birding around on me in a bid to disrupt my timing, and I could also come virtually straight down with the foot if the delivery surprised me by its suddenness (which is why I don’t like a high leg lift: the foot never has very far to fall).  There’s one more reason for this forward-foot activity–and it’s a major one–that I’ll get to in the next frame.  But before we move on, just notice my hands.  The top one is curled in as snugly to the collarbone as it will get, poised to punch down through the pitch.  At this point of greatest torque in the load, the barrel is also not far above being parallel with the ground: the angle is well under forty-five degrees.  The bottom hand has that almost fully open position which I stressed when we analyzed this page’s first photo.  It’s ready to “lever” the handle down hard and straight into the pitch.  Many, many athletic movements contain such a lax instant just before an accelerating attack (e.g., the limp wrist that’s rising to fire a fastball).

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As the bottom fingers tighten to “pull the lever”, the top wrist prepares to fire a punch from its flexible curl: the “parallel-reverse” attack.

The whole business of gliding up smoothly onto the back leg in a shuffle without ever letting the hands trail above or beyond the rear armpit, while also coiling the front knee so that the hip can throw itself into the pitch… can you see now what that was all about?  Well, probably not with freeze-frames–but you can sure feel it as you execute the stroke!  It’s about a strong forward weight shift.  That’s why the downward attack engineered by the levering bottom hand and the punching top hand cuts only a modestly descending plane into the pitch: i.e., because the weight shift levels out the swing almost completely.  Indeed, there is no more level swing–more linear at a given moment and more sustained in its line–in baseball history than this one.  It’s perfect for imparting mild backspin to a ball struck right through the center.  A sharp line drive is the result… and the emphatic forward weight transfer is what makes it all work.  If you were to rock back, as so many coaches still insist upon, your barrel would necessarily enter a dip.  Contacting the pitch directly over the plate, it would sweep beneath the ball with such backspinning effect that only the tallest hitters with the greatest bat speed could get the consequent pop-up to carry over a fence.  Or coming out of its dip a little too early, the barrel would backspin the ball into the ground and reward (with what ballplayers call “rolling over”) today’s radically shifted infield alignment.  With the strong forward shift, in contrast, we get a slicing “karate chop” kind of impact even when timing is a bit off.  The barrel stays on its line until the top elbow locks and enters the closing curve of a tight parabola.

Many of yesteryear’s greats–not only Ty Cobb, but Fred Clarke, Honus Wagner, and Edd Roush are among those whom I’ve read making the claim–insisted that they would step where they saw the pitch coming.  This seems absolutely impossible: there just wouldn’t have been enough time, even against the slower pitching of the Deadball Era (and reaction times, with terrible hitting backgrounds and scuffed up balls, weren’t all that generous).  The only way those “stickers” and “strikers” could have imagined, perhaps mistakenly, that they were doing this would be if their hands followed their forward foot very, very quickly into the pitch.  In other words, they did NOT get their foot down early–just the opposite!  The forward side was finely synchronized to pour itself, from foot to hip to core muscles to wrists and hands, into the ball virtually at the same instant.  That was one of my most significant break-throughs in trying to reverse-engineer the dynamic strokes of a century (and more) ago.

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Even at this point, notice that the bottom hand’s thumb isn’t locked around the handle.

This may be my favorite shot of the sequence.  It was extremely hard to freeze, since everything is happening so quickly now.  (And, by the way, that’s why we have practically no such shots from the Deadball Era: cameras lacked the shutter speeds necessary to isolate the attack’s most volatile moment.)  You can clearly see that my weight has shifted pretty nearly 100 percent onto the forward leg.  You’ll also notice that the hands are entering the pitch’s path immediately after the front foot is down in a completed shift.  Though one frame, of course, isn’t demonstrative proof, you can probably also foresee that the barrel’s drive into the ball is going to be remarkably level and just slightly downward.  If the hands had come tardily into the swing from far above the rear shoulder after the foot was “down early”, the resulting cut would be much too loopy to produce a crisp line drive.  (One of my favorite online hitting instructors speaks of “shining the knob’s flashlight” on the pitch, as I’m doing here.  Though he doesn’t come to his conclusions by delving through photos of Cobb, Speaker, and Clarke, he and I fully agree about productive hand movement.)

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Eyes are riveted upon the point of contact, in this swing and the one to the right…
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… because when you shift strongly forward rather than rock back, you just about can’t pull off the pitch!

Now I’m going to give you two distinct images of contact.  (Actually, contact has just taken place in both, as you can tell by the locked rear elbow: I couldn’t isolate the precise instant.)  To the left, you see that my hands are drawn in more and my figure somewhat more upright.  To the right, my hands are more extended, my torso more hunched, and my legs more separated (with the forward knee bent) as I pursue an outside pitch.  I wanted to display both results.  Sometimes I get the impression from hitting coaches that they want every single swing to be a carbon copy of all its predecessors.  Nothing could be less “Deadball”.  The name of the game in Cobb and Speaker’s day was to get the barrel into the pitch–any which way you can!  Of course, the load-up that I’ve recommended for launching the level, slightly downward attack into the ball’s heart should indeed be the same every time (always excluding some creative move with your shuffle if you want to “cheat” toward the plate or the pitcher).  Executing the actual stroke, however, will produce many different looks in response to the many different pitches you cut at.

Good grief… could it be that I actually manage to step where I see the pitch coming sometimes?  Is that Old School claim that Ted Williams and others scoffed at maybe just possible if the shuffle stores plenty of surging energy and if the hands follow the foot down like two spokes in a wheel?

Remember: adaptability is perhaps the most essential quality of the Deadball hitter’s cumulative techniques.  With the proper load, you’re prepared to chase any squirrelly delivery along any path around the plate and punish it.  I know the word “chase” implies lacking plate discipline, and it’s true that Deadball batsmen usually didn’t care to take walks.  They also rarely struck out (two or three dozen times in a full season was typical of the best).  I’m not exhorting you to get over-aggressive… but the mindset of, “I’ll wait for my pitch, and if I strike out, I’ll wait until next time”–that’s a power-hitter’s thought process.  You’re not that guy.

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Again, I will emphasize that my eyes naturally stay on the pitch in this style; my head hasn’t turned even slightly to the side.

I am confident that I’m looking at a hitter who used this stroke (or its rudiments) when I see an old photo showing a finish like mine here.  As I’ve already said, the follow-through is of no practical importance.  Eddie Collins, for example, was photographed in some of the craziest finishes I’ve ever seen: his hands and feet could end up all over the place.  He belongs to the elite 3,000 hit club, for all that.  As a research tool for identifying batsmen who carried their weight forward and swung down into the pitch, however, this distinctive finish–hands close to body, bat trailing far over front shoulder–is quite helpful.  And you see it everywhere before World War II: what I’ve told you, in several (if not all) of the particulars, is how most guys used to hit.  You might notice that my rear foot is dragging the ground as if it were about to take a running step up the first-base line–and so it would be, in a game.  This is yet another reason why yesteryear’s hitters embraced front-foot hitting: it gave them a head-start to the bag, if they batted left.  (A good many righties did train themselves to bat left; even switch-hitting was somewhat discouraged, since the distance to first from the right box was a few critical feet farther.)

As you’ve studied my grainy photos, you’ve probably remarked some of the evidence of low-tech farming in the background.  In retirement, I’ve dedicated myself to other things besides reconstructing the Deadball swing.  At the moment, I have almost fifty fruit and nut trees in the ground–and I do all my work by hand, except for a gas lawnmower (of the “push” variety) and a small electric saw on a short cord.  I bring this up because using tools like the swing-blade, the shovel, the mattock, the axe, and the hoe has given me a deep appreciation for the skill sets developed by farm boys who grew up in the late nineteenth century.  Yes, we have gyms and trainers.  We can target specific muscle groups in a highly sophisticated manner.  Yet I must wonder just how much synergy results from our micro-analytic approach.  In the days of hard manual labor, men had to throw their whole body into a task, and do so effectively.

Take chopping down a tree with an axe.  Ted Williams seemed to believe that this activity was a perfect paradigm for his hip-swinging attack upon the baseball… but it’s simply not.  The truth is that you bring the axe head down into your wooden target in a straight line by using a complete forward weight transfer.  If you were to rock back and emphasize swiveling the hips along with the “foot down early” and “stretched rubber band” orthodoxy of recent times, your blade would stray upward and your wrists and elbows would absorb some fierce vibration.  All your motion, rather, needs to be channeled into the blow in a concentrated punch, as if it were being poured down a funnel.

Likewise, the parallel-reverse motion of spread hands is extremely useful when you’re trying to launch precision assaults upon a thicket of wild blackberry with the side of your shovel’s blade.  You need every inch of the shovel’s haft, because those nasty briars will topple right into your eyes if you get too close!  Often, as well, you’re working with a tree trunk tight on either side, so you don’t have room for a long swing.

This is the world in which our great-grandfathers turned to baseball.  Believe me, they knew how to handle heavy manual instruments.  I’m not suggesting that we should abandon everything our hitting coaches tell us today and flip the calendar back to 1910… but I am suggesting that some of us who won’t be taken seriously at a try-out because of our size might consider thinking outside the box.  For us, that box is a coffin.  Everyone around us is assuming that yesteryear’s old geezers wouldn’t be able to start on a contemporary high-school girls’ softball team if they were brought back to life as eighteen-year-olds.  Good… let the scoffers sleep on.  No need to give them a peek into the treasure chest where we’re finding the secret of hitting .400!