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.

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?