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

Yogi Berra, Throwback Hitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

baseball history, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Front-Foot Hitting: Stigma vs. Success

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My most recently posted video is a bit “inside baseball” in its subject matter.  It discusses how to shift weight to the front foot—something that mature hitters occasionally ask me about on the sly, and that their coaches universally discourage or condemn, it seems.  As near as I can make out, practically everyone was a front-foot hitter throughout the Deadball Era… or, at least, the transition to what I call “lean back and hack” was very gradual.  Certainly by the home-run crazy Fifties, every kid was advised to keep his weight back; because front-foot shifting is, after all, a way to stroke line drives (which is why we teach it at SmallBallSuccess.com), and Fifties brain trusts all wanted balls leaving the yard.

Some of this long-ball obsession was probably (or possibly… how can we know?) a response to the clear availability of talented black players and the mounting pressure to sign them.  In the Negro Leagues, the standard hitting style remained very similar to what you would have seen in the MLB before Ruth (and the Babe himself, by the way, was a pronounced front-for hitter).  Most of the rising stars from that quarter were thin fellows who could slap the ball everywhere and run like the wind.  If GM’s and owners wanted to seal off Major League access to their darker-skinned brethren without raising a ruckus, they couldn’t have found a more subtle way of doing so than demanding that rookies show home-run power.  A conspiracy?  Or did the game’s magnates really believe that pinging bingles was a thing of the past?  They seemed okay with Nellie Fox and Richie Ashburn choking up and punching hits through the infield.

But they also gave a lot of grief to young white players who fought the new “elevation orthodoxy”—what we currently call “launch angle”.  I vividly recall Coot Veal’s lamentations in the classic anthology, We Played the Game, about being variously ordered to swing down, swing level, and swing up during one spring training.  He complained that he had always been a front-foot hitter—that Harvey Kuenn was a front-foot hitter, and nobody harassed him about it.  For that matter, the young Henry Aaron also transferred his weight heavily forward, as did Roberto Clemente.  So the emerging “stay back” orthodoxy couldn’t simply have been a snare laid by closet racists, in the final analysis.

Ironically, I recall Joe Morgan bitterly opining in print about the racism of Houston manager Harry “the Hat” Walker, who molded Bob Watson into a line-drive hitter rather than leaving him to be the homering machine that Mother Nature had made him.  The “racist” charge appears to have worked full circle in Joe’s comments.  Bob, a career .294 hitter who topped .300 eight times, could scarcely have done much to combat the Astrodome’s reputation for being Death Valley… yet Walker was a racist for not letting Watson air it out!

Whatever.  I wasn’t there.  Maybe it wasn’t what Harry said, but how he said it.  More common, though, was the attitude, “I can give a utility job to a white kid if he’s only going to spank a few singles.  If I have to take blacks on board, then give me a Mays, an Aaron, a Robinson, or a Banks.”  At least the first three of those four did a pretty poor job of “staying back”, by the way; so one moral of this story—and it holds good today—is that you can break with the orthodoxy if you can walk onto a tryout field and immediately start smoking pitches.  The coaches will shake their heads and mumble to each other, “I don’t know how he hits that way—must be a freak of nature!”… but they won’t mess with success.  They like wins better than racial purity or philosophical rigidity or whatever other objective is elevated by their prejudice.  Winning is always first.

Now, the debate about whether you win more games by letting Mighty Casey strike out twice, pop up once, and then drive one into the bleachers or, alternatively, letting Wee Willie draw two walks and beat out two infield hits in five trips is a legitimate discussion.  I also think it’s more than a little reductive.  Line-drive hitting isn’t Punch and Judy hitting.  Cobb and Speaker, for instance, continue to rank among the top twenty in all-time total bases: their totals in doubles and triples are staggering.  I don’t think a lot of consideration goes into evaluating this middle ground.  In 1961, youngster of African descent named Jake Wood led the American League in triples (with 14)… but also struck out 141 times.  Jake’s career as a starter was essentially over at that point; he had to move over so that Dick McAuliffe, whose decade-and-a-half of averages hovering around Wood’s rookie .258 mark of mediocrity, could smack 15-20 homers a year.  Both second-sackers averaged almost exactly one base advanced per every three plate appearances, after careers of very different lengths—but Wood swiped an additional 79 bases in his brief stint, and McAuliffe only 63 in sixteen seasons.  Dick also logged three years of 100+ strikeouts, so… so the difference remains the home runs.

In such contrasts, the distinction between driving the ball into the gaps and pulling it over the fence is brought into a somewhat more realistic focus.  Was Dick really such a clear upgrade over Jake?

For that matter (to get back to the original matter of this discussion), was Jake perhaps whiffing so often because coaches were nagging him to stay back, as they did George Altman and Mack Jones—two brilliant young black players ruined by big-league pedagogy?  Maybe these three would all be in Cooperstown, Joe, if they’d had a Harry Walker.

Shifting strongly forward allows your barrel to stay on the ball longer.  It removes much of the swing’s dip.  If you’re swinging down, as an oldtimer would have told you to do, it draws the descent into a remarkably level cut.  It also keeps your momentum headed into the pitch and makes pulling off the ball almost impossible.

Oh, but… but the power!  What happens to the power?  Doubles?  Who wants a double when you can have a home run?

And who wants a homer, two k’s, and a pop-up when you can have a single, two doubles, and a long sac fly?

There are ways to shift your weight forward that don’t cost you valuable micro-seconds.  It’s not just a strategy for an era when pitches were slower: lots of guys are doing it today.  Watch the video, if you’re intrigued.