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, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Opposite-Field Doubles: The Reliable Generator of Offense

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Between constant sloppy weather and a nagging health problem, I haven’t had the leisure to create videos at last fall’s pace.  I greedily seized upon an occasion early last week, then, to make a record of the surprising success I was having right-handed with the rather complicated load I had mastered from the left side.  Though I’m a righty by nature (I throw and scribble manu dextra), I’ve been a much better hitter from the left box since early childhood.  When I call my Old School load “complicated”, therefore, I think it’s mostly so because, from the right box, I can’t readily get my feet and hands in sync.  My forward leg has to be very smooth in taking a little shuffle into the pitch (and, in fact, that forward leg is the right one from my smoother side).

Maybe I can make an indoor video (with the promise of another rainy week ahead) about the vital importance of coordinated foot and hand movement.  I don’t notice much discussion of that critical link.  The shuffling load, by the way, is a motion that we know to have been routine in Tris Speaker’s stroke—and I have seen filmed proof that it was used sometimes by Hall of Famers as diverse as Edd Roush and Babe Ruth.  It creates and channels momentum in a way that’s ideal for leading the hands on the straight, slightly downward attack into the ball that we promote everywhere on SmallBallSuccess.com as the essence of the line-drive swing.  To this day, it’s also not uncommon in cricket, a sport with which a nineteenth-century striker would have been far more familiar than are current sluggers.

Anyway… in smoothing out my right-side stroke more than I would have thought possible, I was obtaining so many sharp liners to the opposite field that I decided to start the camera rolling.  I captured a pretty good sequence.  The trouble was that I hadn’t quite thought out the theme of the video.  Me hitting right-handed?  Gee, what a thrill!  In my narration, I ended up stressing the importance of sticking with your repetitions in seeking to refine your game… and then, toward the end, I happened to babble for some reason that Napoleon Lajoie, Honus Wagner, and (a half-generation later) Rogers Hornsby all piled up huge tallies of doubles by doing what I’d just done.  (The first two immortals are #8 and #10 on the all-time list.)  That is, if you stand far from the plate as a righty and then shift emphatically forward into the pitch, so that you typically drive it on a low line up the middle or to the opposite field, you stand a good chance of placing a hit where the buffalo roam; not only that, but since your footwork sets you moving immediately toward first base, you get a headstart on rounding the bags and possibly going for third.  Wagner was also a triples machine, ranking Number Three all-time.  Even the not-so-speedy Hornsby and Lumbering Larry come in at #25 and #33 on the triples list.

I had stumbled upon a significant insight: righties who hit “oppo” tend to rack up lots of extra-base hits, though not necessarily home runs.  In fact, home-run hitters of the post-Deadball period typically do not add mountains of doubles and triples to their resume.  Mickey Mantle’s highest single-season total in doubles was an impressive 37, during his sophomore season; but his second-highest was 28—and this from a fellow who was among the game’s fleetest players in his early years.  Even Willie Mays, who admittedly sits among high royalty in career total bases, had one banner doubles year when he cracked the 40-ceiling (with 43, to be exact); otherwise, he reached 36 once and had four more tallies in the low thirties.  No, not bad… yet less than I’d expected.  Far less than the two-bagging success of Musial and Aaron, who weren’t as fast as Willie but perhaps used the whole park a little better.  (Musial logged nine seasons of over forty doubles; Henry’s career achievement in this regard owed something to his extreme longevity in the game.)

Ernie Banks topped thirty twice (34 and 32).  Home-run dynamo Rocky Colavito logged two seasons of 30 doubles and one of 31.  Roger Maris followed up his “61 in ’61” season with a career-high 34 two-baggers in 1962; except for that outing, he never surpassed 21.

What this says to me is that long-ball hitters, with their propensity to pull, are waving aside other extra-base hits to some extent and putting all their chips on Number Four.  Historically, the men who lead their league in doubles seldom have whopping totals in four-baggers; and indeed (to return to my main point), they tend to go with the pitch rather than pull it.  Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn leap to mind from fairly recent campaigns.  Back in Deadball days, diminutive Sam Rice had ten straight seasons of more than thirty doubles—and I certainly can’t swear that he hit to the opposite field, but he was no powerhouse.

Speaking of “wallbangers”, Harvey Kuenn brings us back to the right side, and I do happen to know that he was considered a front-foot hitter who took pitches to all fields.  Harvey tallied over thirty doubles in six of his first seven full seasons, leading his league three of those times.  (It remains a mystery to me why such a stellar career suddenly went into such a steep plunge; anyone would have tagged Kuenn for Cooperstown after his first six or seven campaigns.)

On a whim, I looked up Julio Franco’s totals in this department.  At 407, he ties Ernie Banks—a surprising result, in that Ernie’s power was so superior to Franco’s.  And yet, I’m not surprised at all in the light of the foregoing discussion.  Banks was schooled in pull-hitting (by Ralph Kiner, among others) as soon as he arrived at Wrigley Field.  Julio was inevitably an oppo-hitter, with the bat cranked up far over his head like a scorpion’s tail (not the style, let me note, that we recommend at SmallBallSuccess).  I’ll always remember an All Star game when Tim McCarver, reacting in horror to Franco’s posture, remarked disparagingly that nobody could possibly get around on a fastball from such a starting line—and within seconds, as if on cue, Julio bounces a double off the right-field wall!  It never occurred to Tim that some hitters might want to be late.

Doubles win games.  They often clear bases, at least if the runner on first gets a good read and the hit is a genuine liner rather than a dying quail that leaves three fielders staring at each other.  Of course, they also put an additional runner in scoring position.  Superior to home runs?  Well, obviously not, from a purely arithmetic point of view.  But homers are generally pulled, good pitchers generally get the better of pull-hitters, and smaller players generally begin at a disadvantage in the long-ball game of hard pulling.  The oppo-hitter can wait on the ball, thus acquiring a better chance of putting good wood on it, and can also steer it deep into an alley where two fielders have to sort out handling it.  In contrast, the hard-pulled shot is likely to career off a near wall and straight to an eager throwing arm.  How many Mighty Caseys have we lately seen hanging out at first after their rocket careens straight to a corner outfielder off the 315” mark?

And don’t forget: the good oppo-hitter also has a headstart out of the box.  A lefty like Boggs (or our shuffling friend Speaker, the all-time doubles leader and also sixth in triples) plainly gets that jump-start; but it’s a rare thing from the right-side box, and those few who learned how to do it elevated their percentages quite a bit for making second… or third.

My video is posted here: Oppo-Hitting From the Right Side.  I listed it under “approach” in the video archive because, ultimately, that seems to me to be the most important lesson of the exercise: i.e., step into the box thinking “other way”.  I wish my thoughts before the camera had been just a little more orderly; but as the classic old baseball movie It Happens Every Spring conveys, you can make terrific discoveries from a messy soup in the laboratory.

baseball ethics, fathers and sons, Uncategorized

Respect for the Game Is Its Highest Lesson

When we moved out into the country, I thought I would have space and leisure to do my baseball experiments… and so I do, compared to our previous cramped suburban circumstances.  But Internet connection—or the lack thereof—was an obstacle I hadn’t reckoned on.  The online shifts and short-cuts I’m having to make do not always work, and at their best they still leave my connection running like cold molasses.

I’ll partially blame that situation for my having struggled unsuccessfully (until just last week) to create two YouTube channels for my two separate ventures: one about Deadball Era hitting and one about reasons to have faith in a higher power.  I apologize to anyone who may have subscribed to view videos in the former vein and has lately been receiving notice of ones in the latter.  I think I have finally sorted out the problem—but with slow-running Internet, I seldom saw displays coming up on my screen as described to me by “experts” or loading links in the promised fashion.  Even my filming devices have been badly confused, apparently, by the i-Cloud’s insistence on sharing every photo with every device at every instant.

Since I have stumbled and staggered into the subject of metaphysics, however, I’ll say this about baseball—and it relates to why I’m so uninterested in the play-offs.  To me, the game will always be as static as a beautiful picture in a frame.  You can look at that picture every time you pass through the room and find something new… yet it’s always the same old scene.  That’s a quality shared by all great art, even the kind that overtly consumes time in unfolding.  A piece of music obviously needs time to run from start to finish—yet it can stay with you all day, replaying and re-replaying; or it can put you in a mood that lingers like the power of a blossoming sunrise far into the morning.

One of my earliest baseball memories is seeing Mickey Mantle stroke an upper-deck home run off of Hoyt Wilhelm after fouling pitch after pitch weakly into the dirt.  It was very late September, I think: the game was important.  Very important.  It may have gone into extra innings.  I’m sure the contest ended as soon as Mick connected—what we call a walk-off today (a phrase coined by Dennis Eckersley after he had to walk off the field as Kirk Gibson circled the bases).  I was at a friend’s house in the boondocks, and the friend wanted us to go ride his horses… but I wouldn’t leave the room while Mickey was at the plate.  And then… crack!

I don’t even remember if the Yanks went on to play in or win the Series (although I was a devoted Yankee fan until George Steinbrenner arrived and permanently fouled the air).  What I recall, and will recall on my deathbed, is Mickey uncoiling on a knuckler that he had finally tracked just right.  This is surely why baseball documentaries so often feature those slow-mo, golden-filtered sequences of guys rounding second or sliding home, guys chasing after line drives, guys nodding awkwardly to the camera from the dugout: because, I mean, the action itself is frozen.  You don’t know if the runner was actually safe at home or if the fielder actually caught the ball.  The glory of it all was in how eighteen young men (we might as well call them boys, though some were almost old men) were trying their utmost to win one silly game with the skills that God gave them and that they’d honed through hard work.  Silly? Well, yes, in the grand scheme of things. Even if it was the last game of the World Series (or “World’s Series”, as they said originally), the identity of the winner wouldn’t bring peace to Africa.  It wouldn’t even ensure a good wheat harvest in Kansas.  It was a small thing… but it was eternal.  It was intense, directed, peak-performance action snared in an eternal moment.

That’s baseball, to me.  Not the Series or the play-offs (which usually feature, especially now, a worn-out champion trying to outlast a team that got hot in September).  Baseball is about some nameless afternoon in mid-June, when a kid nobody’s ever heard of has won seven games in a row and a fallen All Star is building a come-back year.  As Immanuel Kant once wrote of great art, it’s “purposiveness without a purpose”. It’s an all-out bid to achieve something in a mortal existence where we have to wonder if we ever really achieve anything.  To that extent, the game belongs more to heaven than to earth.

For how golden can a crown really be when the competition for it will begin all over again in three months—every year, all over again?  Are we kidding ourselves? About the crown, yes… but not about the glory of the sun, grass, and dust in June.  The crown is just a gilded frame for summertime.

It pains me to admit what follows, but you know it as well as I do: we’re losing the beauty of the game.  We were losing it when the boys on the field started taking performance-enhancing drugs to “get better” (i.e., to win longer, more lucrative contracts).  We were supposed to realize, they pleaded, that this was no game to them, but a livelihood—and we were supposed to feel guilty, I guess, that we had made a mere game of their bread and butter.  But maybe somebody else should feel guilty (the cheaters themselves, but also a lot of collaborators) for turning our snapshot of eternity into yet another artificial stimulant: visual cocaine.  The Home Run Derby, the JUGS guns nudging young players into arm surgery, the late trade deadlines (moved up this year, but still far later than in 1950)… and—for our own kids—tournament baseball, the trophies upon trophies, the Little League World Series, the grade-schoolers who already have their own “walk-up songs” and mating-cockatoo celebrations at home plate… each of these, in its own small way and from a different direction, contributed to driving the mystical “higher purpose” out of the summer ritual and turning it into a win-win-win, “for profit” enterprise.

Don’t misunderstand.  I’m not advocating a trophy for everyone and no scorekeeping.  The participants wouldn’t play their hearts out if they saw no goal line to be reached.  This is the same thing that socialists don’t grasp about capitalism: take away the fat commissions, and you get no Michelangelo and no Rodin—no Sistine Chapel and no Burghers of Calais.  To create something of beauty whose highest purpose we don’t understand, we almost always—most of us—need instrumental lure whose purpose we understand very well.   Most people don’t stand on a stone in the middle of the Mojave to worship God: they build a temple full of human artifice and with a distinctly human design.

There comes a point, though, where preoccupation with the carrot in front of your nose is so great that you forget all about your destination.  Our game has reached that point today.  It’s not a game any more; it’s business, at almost every level.  (And if you don’t think pitching and hitting gurus make a helluva lot of money out of coaching eight-year-olds, you’ve been living in Tahiti.)  Part of the reason I launched SmallBallSuccess.com—the major part—was to give smaller kids the experience of assisting in a complex creation with skills that only they possess.  My objective wasn’t necessarily to help teams win more games.  All things considered, you have a better chance of winning more often with less effort if you only allow big kids onto the roster: that’s true.  It’s also true, as the apostle Paul writes, that people wholly absorbed in the ways of the world can usually run circles around those with one eye on the Other World.

But then, what do you have in December?  Another trophy, a few aches that won’t go away… and in February, it all cranks up again.  For what?  For a chance at a scholarship?  To do what?  To get a Business degree?  What will you do with that?  Wouldn’t you be wiser to commit yourself to studying Physics or Engineering full time?  All things considered, excelling at baseball as a strategy for earning big bucks in later life is about as smart as stocking a team with left-handed munchkins.

What a kid learns from the game when he plays it the right way is that there’s always a path around his deficiencies—an adjustment that can turn them into assets with hard work. Such a lesson transfers well into any degree or job.  But he also learns (and, for my money, this is the more important lesson) that some things you suppose yourself to be doing linearly so as to progress from A to X can become a mystical circle—a scrapbook of snapshots that you’ll carry throughout your life, and that nobody can ever take away from you.  For those who simply watch you playing your heart out on a June afternoon, the same snapshots pass into a kind of i-Cloud that Mr. Jobs never imagined.

Yeah, I remember Mickey’s upper-deck game-winner… but I also remember my son executing a slap-bunt that brought home the game-winner, when the defense was rushing to get him out at first and didn’t see the runner turn third without stopping.  And I’ll forget Mickey before I forget that boy’s joy.