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 history, bat acceleration, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, mental approach, metal bat use, Uncategorized, weight transfer

The Hitch: Something Great Hitters Never Do (Except for the Really Great Ones)

The following paragraphs are excerpting from my forthcoming book, Metal Ropes, which is still very much a work in progress.

I’ll admit that my affection for the shuffle step wavers whenever I try to hit right-handed. With my stronger hand on top, I appear much more inclined to drive from the back side than to throw down (with uncoiling leg and levering hand) from the front side—and this, after all, makes perfect sense. It’s surely part of the reason why classic “stickers” who shifted around more in the box and sprayed pitches to all fields were often natural righties batting left. Such a profile fits Tris Speaker as well as Ty Cobb, in a strict sense; for Speaker threw left only because his right arm was badly broken during his boyhood years of learning the game. Fred Clarke belongs to the same fraternity: so do Eddie Collins, Jake Daubert, Elmer Flick, and Joe Sewell. Except perhaps for Daubert, everyone on that list may be identified in photos, furthermore, with hands spread—and Jake choked up rather fiercely. A lot of batting titles found a home among the era’s left-hitting righties.

With the stronger hand on top, the “levering” action essential to hand spreading presents more of a challenge. The bottom hand may not be “smart” enough to do its job well. At least in my own experience, the top hand becomes something of a tyrant, and the bottom hand just tries to stay out of the way. Certainly Honus Wagner spread his hands on occasion—but less often than the left-hitting righties and with less of a gap. Napoleon Lajoie was more typical of top-hand-dominant hitters in that, while he indeed choked up, his hands remained together. (The “Emperor” briefly tried to market a bat that possessed two knobs: an ordinary one and a higher one for choking!) To be sure, Lajoie and Wagner won a truckload of batting titles in their own right. In them, however, we see the rare phenomenon of the power-hitter who likes to drive the ball the opposite way: someone who has to be played deep and who crosses up defenders. Add Rogers Hornsby to this pair, a man who hit .400 for three out of four years in a decade when fairy-tale averages had started to pass out of style.

So why am I pursuing this discussion of top-hand versus bottom-hand dominance in a section dedicated to hitching? For a couple of reasons. The more obvious is that batsmen generally hitch when their stronger hand is on top. This was true of all the worthies named previously: Ruth, Gibson, Foxx, Greenberg, and Mel Ott. (If the right-throwing Joe Jackson were the hitcher that Ruth implied him to be, then he breaks the mold… but Shoeless Joe never learned to write, so right-dominance quite possibly never developed in him as it would have in others.) The top hand is the “punch” hand, and we know that you load for a powerful move by relaxing your limb (hand or foot) in the reverse direction; so if the top hand wants to drive hard from above into the pitch, it’s tempted to prepare for that drive by pumping downward. The rear leg also has to balance the hitter’s weight for a rather long time in a hitch—and most of us balance better on our strong-side leg. (I don’t… but my scrambled brain has some very peculiar left/right preferences.)

Did those right/right immortals, Lajoie and Wagner and Hornsby, exhibit a hitch? I can’t see much evidence that the first of them did; but I believe Hans and the Rajah may very well have pumped their hands deeply. Let’s get the set-up in the box out of the way by citing these two as an example. When I wrote earlier of how the nineteenth-century stickers might have pumped as their front foot pointed toward the pitcher, I was guessing. By the time we get to Wagner and, still later, Hornsby, we’re looking at two hitters whose initial position is much more familiar to us. Their feet were much more squared to the plate, and their hands were basically resting on the rear shoulder. The emphasis, in other words, has shifted to the rear. That’s where we would expect it to be in a hitch—because, again, a hitch is very popular with hitters whose stronger side is the back one.

Now, here’s a second point that makes me suspect Wagner and Hornsby of hitching—and it’s also a quality of their stroke that we want to emulate. Both set up well off the plate. They could hit even the 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 (since they didn’t shuffle-step) unless they fired out of a hand-pump and a crouch. 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.

That’s the kind of hitch I would like to replicate: the kind that can either drive us powerfully forward or carry us all the way to the outside corner, in a pinch. If Wagner and Hornsby had the kind of load that I believe they did, this opposite-field capacity would have distinguished them from Ruth, Gibson, Foxx, et al., who were ferocious pull-hitters. They were also big, strong men for their day, these later sluggers—taller than average, to be sure, but also incredibly muscled-up. This book is dedicated to the player of smaller body type, and such a body type usually doesn’t lend itself to the dead-pull power-hitter mold.