baseball history, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hand-spreading, low line drives, Uncategorized, weight transfer

My Favorite Deadball Swing

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At the bottom right of every page on SmallBallSuccess.com now sits a link to My Favorite Deadball Swing.  I put this discussion’s elements together while being physically incapacitated by a problem that may need a simple surgery (if surgery is ever simple).  The greatest distress I’ve had since emerging from the ER has been thanks to the medication I was prescribed.  The complaint is very manageable, if only I survive the cure!

Anyway, being sidelined is a good thing when it forces you to complete several neglected tasks.  Now that the site is drawing quite a bit of attention, I really do need to spruce it up… and this page condensing my decade of research into a very usable stroke was the obvious place to begin.  I don’t mind admitting that I’m quite proud of the composite picture I’ve put together.

Yet I should issue a warning that I didn’t squeeze into the page’s discussion.  I’m not sure that such a small warning label fully “on topic”, or that my readers will even need it: what follows is more of a comment about human nature than about the mechanics of the swing.

Whatever they say politically, most people are very conservative when it comes to their foundational notions about life, or about their special corner of life.  In that regard, Marxist revolutionaries are conservative.  They don’t like to talk things over: their way is the right way—admit it or hit the road!  Any ballplayer will recognize the attitude at work here.  In fact, when I began collecting material about twenty years ago for a book titled Key to a Cold City, I noticed early and often that young black players breaking into the big leagues soon after Jackie Robinson encountered an almost belligerent degree of “correctional coaching”.  Were the Establishment’s white coaches trying to set up their young pupils for failure—was it all a covert racist plot?  But, you know, that made no sense, for at least a couple of reasons.  One was that no-name, dimly promising Caucasian recruits were being forced into the same cookie-cutter.  The other was that coaches don’t keep their jobs by producing disciples who fail.  You’d have to be one heck-of-a rabid racist to sacrifice a big-league gig just for the satisfaction of fouling up a few dark-skinned kids!

I’m not just rambling here from the hallucinatory effects of Flavoxate.  It so happens that the style of hitting commonly practiced in the Negro Leagues after World War II was as close as you could come to time-machine transport back to the Deadball Era.  (No surprise there: strapped for cash, the Negro Leagues would use baseballs until the seams split open, just as was done in the MLB half a century earlier.)  This put young black players on a collision course with the new orthodoxy; for if Fifties hitting instruction was about anything, it was about jacking long balls out of the park.  An analogy with our present “launch angle” romance would be very apt.  I call the standard technique of that decade “lean back and hack”.  Hitters were to stay back on a bent thigh, swivel their forward hip, and send the barrel immediately through an upward loop.  Ted Williams writes as though he invented the system in The Science of Hitting, but… no, he was just preaching to the choir by that point.  If anything, ironically, the Splendid Splinter’s stroke was far more level and forward-shifting than Duke Snider’s or Eddie Mathews’.

Young black players who ascended through the Giants organization seemed to get a heavy dose of this pedagogy.  Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson show its more positive results.  A kid named Willie Kirkland didn’t pan out so well; his impressive home run totals didn’t compensate for his dismal batting averages (or not until he was able to straighten himself out in Japan).  Other Negro League graduates like Bob Boyd and Sam Jethroe, who could have contended for big-league batting titles, were never really given much of an audition.  They refused to pull and elevate, logging mere singles at a .300+ clip.  And if there were real bigotry in Major League front offices, it was here: a black kid had better club homers like Mays and Banks if he wanted to stick around—any puny white kid could be turned into a hunt-and-peck hitter.

Well, I’m afraid that the kid who walks on to a try-out field and unveils my recommended techniques will get a similar reception today.  At least one of these techniques has been explicitly derided by the coaching brain trust for generations: hand-spreading.  At least one other—the shuffle step in the load—will be something that none of the batting-cage Merlins has ever seen before, and that most will say they never want to see again.  The only way to combat such derision and contempt is through instant success.  The wizened veteran of many a Little League or high school campaign will keep that cry of indignation in his throat if your shuffle into the pitch and heavy forward weight-transfer are followed by a cracking line drive into the power alley.  And then you send another up the middle, and another.  By the end of your session, he’ll be muttering to his confederates, “I don’t know how the hell he hits that way… but it seems to work for him.”  He’ll keep his hands off of you, because coaches love—above all else—success.  Wins.  V’s.

They left Stan Musial alone, too, although radio and TV announcers hatched many a jibe at his expense.  Wes Covington, who was the Negro League version of the Musial contortion, might have become a household name if his knees hadn’t given out.  They left Wes’s teammate Henry Aaron alone for the most part, after convincing him to uncross his wrists in semi-professional ball.  The Hammer remained a front-foot hitter until relatively late in his career, when he decided to go all out for the Ruth record rather than for 4,000 hits.

The photo of Cool Papa Bell at the top of this post doesn’t show anything radically different from what I recommend in my composite of Deadball techniques.  I might almost have called the whole bundle “Negro League secrets”… but it’s too easy to step on a PC land mine when you venture into such territory these days.  Just remember that, if you dare to use these methods because the big-boy, Home Run Derby style isn’t working for you, you’re actually honoring some of the game’s most reverend traditions—forgotten traditions, true, but traditions that produced unforgettable players.

And remember, too, that you’ll need to get really good at this style before you put it on public display.  You need to prepare a nice, fat cork that will keep the coach’s contempt bottled up in his throat.

baseball history, bat acceleration, coaches and trust, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, low line drives, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Beware of Where You Begin: It Determines All That Follows

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As the summer—a long, hot summer—finally settles into fall, I look back with considerable satisfaction on Metal Ropes, the book I’ve just published through Amazon that imports Deadball Era lessons to our age of alloy bats.  Writing the book (like writing anything on any subject) was itself educational: I mean, I learned a lot just by setting down what I had learned.  One of my most painful lessons was realizing that the first thing I had my son do in a batter’s box when he was a little tyke was wrong.  I had him spread his feet wide.  I reasoned… well, I’m no longer sure just what I reasoned.  The tactic was vintage Charley Lau, so I could blame it on my great mentor, author of The Art or Hitting .300.  The widespread stance must have seemed sensible for a short kid, at any rate, because it emphasized a firm base that would allow the hands to go straight at the ball.  A contact hitter: that’s what we wanted.

But there are two erroneous assumptions in this theory.  One is that minimizing lower-body movement and focusing on the hands will make the attack quicker.  It won’t.  It actually slows the attack down.  The hands are quickest to the ball when they tap into energy that has already been generated in the lower body.  Reduce or remove that energy… and you have nothing but hands, all on their own: that translates into a slow swing.

The second error is that widespread feet create a level stroke that keeps the barrel in the hitting zone for a long time.  Intuitively, you would want to approve this connection.  If someone asked you to take a yardstick and describe as flat and broad a plane as you could in thin air, you’d spread your legs to stabilize and then rake the stick from side to side.  But no one is asking you to accelerate the stick at this moment; and once you try to add speed to the equation, the feet (as noted in the previous paragraph) have to get involved.  The most obvious and, I suppose, natural way for them to do so is for the front knee to coil in the load and the front hip to flip back open as the attack begins.  Now, however, your beautiful plane has scattered to the winds.  As the knee coils, the hands load up and back… and as the hip opens, the shoulders rotate out and up.  In other words, you’re leading the bat into a pronounced dip.  You’re likely to cut under the bull’s eye and pop the pitch up if the dip is still descending; or, if you catch the ball as the barrel begins to rise, you’ll topspin or “roll over” the pitch.

Of course, starting with the feet close together can create an even more extreme—much more extreme—undercut/uppercut dynamic.  (Look at Cody Bellinger: he may well be this year’s MVP, but he has cooled off, and he’s not 5”7’ tall. His pop-ups and roll-overs assume his own epic proportions.)  A relatively long, easy stride into the pitch can also produce the most level of swings, though.  Yesteryear’s great stickers knew this.  They knew, to be precise, that if they 1) didn’t load their hands far up and back, and 2) followed the striding foot very closely with those hands down into the pitch, the barrel would hold a straight, slightly descending line into the ball’s center all the way to the front of the batter’s box.  Then the bat would come up over the forward shoulder in a tight parabola with the head still pointing directly at the mound.  You can find that very finish in thousands of photos from before the Fifties (though in very few after then, thanks to the Age of the Uppercut).

A full forward weight shift, in short (also known as front-foot hitting), is the key to keeping a quick, linear stroke on target into the pitch and producing a line drive.  Aaron did it.  Clemente did it.  A lot of the players who entered the MLB through the Negro Leagues brought the Old School technique right along with them, though many were subsequently destroyed as hitters when “instructors” insisted that they lean back and hack.

I don’t want to rewrite Metal Ropes in this spot.  Just beware of what you’re telling your child—understand that the thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone.  When you have a boy assume a certain position in the box, that is to say, you’re already confining him to a narrow sequence of moves that can work fluidly with that position.  Think it all through.  Don’t start at a point that just happens to be what everyone else is doing… and therefore must be right.  Make every element of the swing contribute to the effect you want.

In my case, I wanted my son to hit low line drives—and I sabotaged my endeavor right out of the gate.  I wish I could take back those initial mistakes, but instead, I’ll have to live with them.  One way I’ve made my peace is to create SmallBallSuccess.com.

baseball ethics, baseball history, coaches and trust, Uncategorized

Size as Well as Race Has Been a Source of Bigotry in Baseball

I was almost twenty years in writing Key to a Cold City.  I should clarify that the work began about twenty years ago, and then the project was pushed aside for a long time.  Now that I’ve retired from teaching, I’m paying renewed attention to some of those undertakings that never quite got off the ground.  This was the most challenging of them all.

The book had its origin in a lazy day of looking through the first baseball cards I ever collected: sets clipped with scissors off the backs of Post Cereal boxes in 1962 and 1963.  Believe me, there was a lot of pleasant nostalgia in revisiting those days of early childhood.  Yet as an adult, I found myself puzzled that so many young players with brilliant stats had simply dropped off the radar in the intervening years.  Even today, kids know (more or less) who Willie Mays and Hank Aaron are… but Vada Pinson?  George Altman?  The statistics in the latter cases could have come from the cards of the former two: Pinson and Altman were that good in the early Sixties.  What happened?

I wondered, as I compiled more and more such cases, if racial prejudice had not utterly disappeared after Jackie Robinson’s arrival on the big-league scene in 1947.  The book began in the hypothesis that it had passed somewhat underground without actually evaporating.  Oh, there were white players who raised similar questions.  Why didn’t Don Demeter blossom as his stats promised?  Why did two-time batting champ Pete Runnels seem to spiral into oblivion in the middle of a brilliant career?  These cases, however, were fewer and also less severe most of the time.  I mean, Pistol Pete did have enough of a chance that he carried home two batting titles!

I’m not offering a review of my own book here.  I’ve made access to it available through these links: Amazon Kindle and Amazon paperback.  (I managed to ratchet the cost of the latter way down by ditching the little bit of red ink used in four graphs; the graphs themselves are relatively unimportant, the red letters should remain distinct as a lighter gray, and the price reduction was an incredible $30!)  I will only say further here of the book’s contents that I find racial issues to be immensely complex.  I’ve developed a real dislike—even a kind of smoldering fury—at how the “r” word is tossed about every time a person of color is caught in a sleazy act.  Real racism shouldn’t be deflated in this manner: its existence shouldn’t validate a “get out of jail” card for grafters and shysters.  Guys in the Sally League were having to dodge bottles and batteries as they tried to follow play from left field.  Their ordeal was nothing remotely like that of a corrupt city mayor who gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

The specific reason I bring the issue of racial prejudice in the Fifties up here is that I truly believe skin color to have been a secondary factor in the discrimination I researched—a kind of ready-made “yellow star” for front-office dopes who couldn’t express their more abstract concerns.  White owners and managers at that time wanted machine-like offenses powered primarily by the home run.  The black players who were filtered to them through the Negro Leagues were well versed in bunting, chopping, hitting to all fields, base-stealing… all things that the MLB brain trust associated with a sloppy, silly, out-of-control game.  I’m sure that the association fed right into the stereotype of the kid of African descent as wild, fun-loving, and disorderly.  Here’s the point, though: the stereotype didn’t produce the distaste for creative, unpredictable baseball—the distaste came first, and (what do you know?) the young black players on trial were prime offenders.

Now, some of the recruits learned to adjust their game.  These are the household names: Mays, Aaron, Banks, Robinson.  Jackie was actually never a slugger of this caliber: I concluded the study very much convinced that Branch Rickey would have used his Negro League style as an excuse to send him back down if “the experiment” had damaged ticket sales.  It was Rickey who ruined George Altman’s prospects by pressuring him to pull the ball over the fence.  A great many other players who had dropped off history’s radar apparently had the same trouble.  Guys like Curt Flood and Floyd Robinson who could have been the next Pete Runnels were instead trying to muscle up and emulate the young Willie McCovey.  Another Willie by the last name of Kirkland was in fact given a very long leash, considering his series of miserable batting averages, because he showed promise in generating “jacks”.

I know I will irritate some people if I say that this situation comes very close to many we see at SmallBallSuccess.com.  Racial prejudice is supposed to be the ultimate misery that anyone may suffer… but to a boy or young man whose whole life is playing ball, not getting a fair chance to play ball is the ultimate misery.  Kids like Jake Wood and Ted Savage, though they were obviously five-tool players, were benched or demoted because, it was said, they struck out too much—but they were striking out too much because management was telling them to pull the hell out of everything!  That’s the precise situation in which my son found himself during his senior year in high school.  He eventually became a successful college pitcher; not every boy of smaller build has that kind of versatility.  Albie Pearson and Dick Hauser scored tons of runs during the brief time they were given to audition in the big leagues.  Though white lads, however, they seemed to be simply reserving a slot in the line-up until a taller prospect arrived at their position.  A promising Georgia boy called “Coot” Veal was taught four or five different batting styles by the “experts” until he didn’t know up from down, all because he came up as that most loathsome of creatures, a front-foot hitter.  Veal, too, was Caucasian; but I found case after case of young black prospects having to submit to precisely the same “lean back and hack” brainwashing that destroyed their success at the plate.

Well, hitting off the front foot happens to be one of the techniques we preach on this site.  The Negro Leagues, in fact, were a veritable repository of Deadball Era tactics that white baseball had consigned to the dustbin of history.  Funny how, half a century later, the game still seems to be waging that war against smaller players who employ offbeat styles to get on base.  They’re not welcome.  The 6’8” slugger who strikes out once a game and can do nothing to thwart a radical shift is on every GM’s Christmas list.

Let’s keep up the fight.  You can’t argue with winning—and eventually even the densest of coaching know-it-alls will have to give you playing time if you’re always on base.