baseball history, bat design, hand use in hitting, low line drives, metal bat use, off-season preparation, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized

Get a Grip

I liked the Cubs before the major networks decided to adopt them as America’s team.  Hell, I would have liked the resuscitated Washington Senators if the cheerleading media had just left them alone instead of trying to make us all Nationals fans.  I don’t like feeling manipulated, and I also don’t like—purely from a baseball perspective—the profile of the big, burly hitter who crowds the plate and pulls everything he can reach.  Those crushers have their uses, but they’re the diametric opposite of everything we preach at smallballsuccess.com.

A Cub, a plate-crowder supreme, a pull hitter’s pull hitter… Anthony Rizzo should represent a big swathe of what I detest about today’s game.  But he’s also an invincibly amiable human being; and now that I myself am a cancer survivor (well, sort of: first I have to survive the drug overdoses to which I was submitted this fall), he’s one of my favorite men in uniform for another reason.  I forgive him his gripping the bat like a club, thumbs wrapped tightly round and pressing the wood deep into the palm.  Every hitting manual from the old days, from Johnny Mize’s to Ted Williams’ to Cal Ripken, Jr.’s (and that’s not so old, children), strongly recommended holding the handle as you would an axe’s, with wrists somewhat closed in a “v” and thumbs and forefingers actually floating free until the intricacies of attack create complex shifts in pressure point.  But you just don’t see the “lumberjack” grip any more.

And why would you?  The bats themselves fight against it.  The metal sticks that kids grow up swinging have handles about as thick as a large rope.  They cry out to be grasped and yanked.  The top hand heaves the barrel down from over the shoulder, then releases as the bottom hand clings for dear life to the whirlybirding weapon.  It’s a steep swing, relying heavily on severe backspin for long-ball success, and it doesn’t work well for boys who aren’t tall.  Yet bats have gotten shorter and their barrels thicker as handles have grown skinnier, so the tall boy with his great wingspan is the only one who might effectively wield this bludgeon, anyway.  A boy without as much reach needs a longer stick, which will also allow his stroke to level off and spray line drives around… but we no longer have that bat in the game, so we no longer have the short, scrappy contact hitter and the offensive antidote to shifts and strikeouts.  It all holds together.

It wasn’t always so, I promise you.  Nobody had bigger hands than Roberto Clemente (except perhaps Jackie Robinson), and nobody’s handle was more massive (except perhaps Jackie Robinson’s).  Yet despite having so much lumber to steer with their fingers, both Clemente and Robinson honored their day’s practice of “aligning the knuckles” in taking their grip and not cramming the handle deep into their palms.  Even after the entry of metal-cloned wooden bats into the game, along with now-indispensable batting gloves, maestros like Rod Carew cradled their handle in very loose fingers attached to very limber wrists. 

It’s not that neither hand ever clamped down on the bat at any point of the swing.  On the contrary, the loose-and-limber initial grasp was important precisely because it gave the hitter flexibility in rotating the hands through different stages of the stroke.  In a classic Williams or Mantle cut, the bottom hand would close a little (but still not lock its thumb) as it thrust the handle back and out during the load; the top hand, resisting this rearward thrust to create a “full cock” effect, would bend its wrist inward more than ever.  Then the bottom hand’s thumb would indeed close on the bat as the load’s backward roll leveled off into a forward attack; and the top hand, just a split second later, would punch down through the pitch, its wrist straightening just at contact and its thumb closing tightly.  (There was a lot of debate in coaching literature of the time about whether the back arm is fully extended and the elbow locked upon contact.  Answer: no.  The wrist straightens into a punch, but the elbow is faintly bent until follow-through.)

A martial arts master, you know, throws his punches from bent wrists: he doesn’t begin them with straight wrists and locked fingers, as in the so-called roundhouse punch.  The Rizzo type of hitter (and I’ll pick on Anthony only because he’s about the best there is at the style) throws those rounded punches, not the straight karate shots that drive linearly through the point of contact.  Again, he doesn’t really have much of a choice.  He will have grown up, this contemporary slugger, using metal that wants to be yanked on rather than caressed; and if he graduates to professional ball, his wooden sticks will naturally preserve the dimensions of his metal ones as closely as the bat-maker can engineer.

In Metal Ropes, I recommend wrapping the handle in two layers of insulating tape, just to thicken it up.  An incidental benefit of that adjustment, though, is that you really don’t need gloves with so much padding beneath your fingers.  Your fingers can now be a little closer to the action.  I would add yet a third layer of wrap—not for thickness, because electrician’s tape is ultra-thin; but I would apply a coating of that slick black adhesive precisely so that the hands would not firmly grip the bat.  As I tried to indicate a couple of paragraphs back, the stick needs to rotate subtly and smoothly in the fingers as it’s taken through a complex circle striving to become a straight line.  Everything in our skeletal structure is built to produce pivotal motions.  If we’re to get our barrel directly to the ball, therefore, our marvelous joints have to make loops and curves on either side of the straight vector—and it all has to happen in a split second.  Landing dead-center on a pitch to produce a line drive is really a little work of art, suitable for framing (if only your shutter could capture the protracted instant).

Flexibility.  That’s why, in those Paleolithic days before the alloy bat, we kids would emulate big-leaguers by rubbing our handles with dirt.  I never saw anyone using pine tar when I was a kid.  I know it was around by then, but I still associate heavy tarring of the handle with the “metal swing”.  (I think some hitters probably wanted one hand to stay relatively secure in its grasp: power hitters might want to glue a firm top hand to the bat, while spray hitters might want to be sure their bottom hand’s fingers always had a good grip.)  Now, I distinctly remember that we kids always said we performed the dirt-rubbing ritual in order to grip the bat better (if Mom asked us why we had to play in the dirt).  That’s what we believed.  But the truth is that sweat, like pure water, will make wood refuse to glide smoothly under the fingers.  We were really trying to neutralize the effects of nervous sweat on our war club that would have denied our hands a chance to work into different positions.

Isn’t this why today’s sluggers, having stepped out of the box to readjust their batting gloves, proceed to deposit a load of spittle into them just before resuming their grip?  (I can still see David Ortiz: oh, the life of a batting glove!)  You’ve already rubbed the handle with pine tar; you’ve already clothed your hands in a substance that catches on the tar tightly.  So now… now you need to lubricate that substance lest it be too “catchy” and not allow your fingers any rotational ability at all.  I have to wonder if we couldn’t strip away a few layers of counter-measure here and there.

If you really wanted to develop a Rod Carew-style stroke—a batting champ’s manual flexibility—my advice would be that you sit on a stool and have a teammate toss you pitches in the cage.  Take your lower half out of the equation until you learn to use your hands.  The coach shouldn’t be sitting on a bucket while you’re pirouetting from head to toe: you should be sitting on the bucket, and your hands should be getting to know their handle.

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.