baseball history, Hall of Fame, hand use in hitting, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, umpires

They All Built Cooperstown, Though Only a Few Are Enshrined There

George McQuinn

I completely whiffed on Lou Brock’s passing, even when I began last week’s post by citing all the notable baseball departures from our world that I’d left uneulogized.  It’s not as though 2020 has lacked distraction, either at the public or the personal level; so I’m not going to tender an abject apology.  Yet I have to say that… well, Lou’s mortality shocked me in much the same way that my own did this past summer.  The evidence is pretty conclusive now that my prostate cancer is hereditary.  That explains why my always-fastidious diet and my quasi-religious commitment to regular exercise were no defense.  Still, Lou Brock… I haven’t researched his cause of death, but if ever anyone might have been predicted to live a century… sigh.  As old Seneca wrote, Nemo contigit impune nasci—which means, in liberal translation, that everybody has to die of something.

One thing I recall reading about Lou that I’ve never forgotten was that he numbered among the three ballplayers ever to power a homerun over the center-field fence at the Polo Grounds.  Picture Willie Mays running off into that infinite real estate to grab Vic Wertz’s drive over his shoulder… and then picture Brock hitting one that cleared all that grass and then cleared the wall.  Lou had tremendous power.  He could have been a homerun king had he not identified his gifts properly and determined that he would be of more use to his team as a get-on-base, take-an-extra-base kind of player.  The deep hitch with which he loaded his barrel created momentum at the stick’s end which didn’t require Killebrew-esque muscles to impart pop; and a less-than-all-out lowering of barrel into ball would also allow split-second adjustments to pitches that would spray them hither and yon around the park.  In an era when homerun fever was already epidemic in the Majors (ruining the careers of a lot of young black players, by the way, who’d figured out that they needed to hit like Frank Robinson rather than Bob Boyd to stick around), Lou was a throwback.  His patented stroke, his running game, and his mental approach have all long struck me as belonging to the Twenties or the Thirties rather than the Sixties.  Coming from my keyboard, that is supreme adulation.

The one other footnote I feel compelled to add about Brock is that the ultimate base thief was himself robbed in the critical final game 1968 World Series.  Lou, I’m sure, had been planning it earlier during the seven-game face-off: he would take a ridiculously long lead that forced a throw-over, then beat first-baseman Norm Cash’s peg to second.  He did so in the late innings of Game Seven off Mickey Lolich… only the umpire missed the call.  The preserved TV broadcast of the game offers a slow-motion replay of the action around second base.  Brock clearly beats the throw.  Harry Caray and his partner in the booth let an awkward, suspicious silence surround the replay.  In those days, broadcasters would never have questioned an umpire’s call—not on national television, and seldom on a local broadcast.  Yet the replay’s evidence is unequivocal.  Lou had done something that the second-base arbiter had never seen before.  If the pitcher surprises you by throwing over just as you leave in a sprint, and if the first-sacker delivers his relay on target, you’re supposed to be out.  It’s unimaginable that you wouldn’t be out.  The umpire called the play he saw in his mind rather than the one he saw with his eyes.

Lou could do that to you: he could make you think you hadn’t seen what you just saw.

I’m going to devote the second half of this post to what may seem a complete shift of subject… but I think it could be taken as part of my farewell to Lou.  As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote about poets a few months before he went missing during the final month of the West’s great war against fascism, good poets need bad poets; for the unsuccessful struggle, undertaken by many, to create beautiful poetry generates an atmosphere in which the poetic genius of a few is appreciated.

George McQuinn was one of those many not-so-great poets.  He was an above-average poet-in-cleats, and sometimes a pretty darn good one.  I came to know of him while watching highlights of the 1944 World Series—the only fall classic in which the hapless St. Louis Browns ever competed (and which they lost, of course, to the Cardinals).  I grew curious about the lanky six-footer with the sweet inside-out swing who led all Series participants in hits.  That drew me into the pages of a story which turns out to be a wide-open mystery, and whose resolution nobody with my meager resources will ever figure out.

McQuinn’s curtailed rookie adventure in 1936 didn’t set the world on fire, but had interest.  Though batting only .201 in 146 plate appearances, George logged four doubles and three triples among his 27 safeties.  Then, for four years, he took off.  In 1938, he batted .324 and smacked 42 doubles.  (Henry Aaron topped 40 only once in his 23-year career.)  McQuinn followed up with .316, .279, and .297 seasons, with the total of two-baggers registering 37, 39, and 28.  His triples reached double digits in two of these three golden years; and his homeruns, by the way, rang up respectable numbers at 20, 16, and 18.  For three out of George’s first four full seasons—1938 through 1941—his On Base Percentage flirted with .400: .384, .383, .343, and .388.  He was an All Star for the two middle seasons, and again in 1942. After the 1939 campaign, he ranked thirteenth in the MVP balloting.

And the numbers for All Star season of 1942, just before which I’ve drawn my dividing line, remained… well, okay.  Maybe the fans didn’t have much to choose from, since so many regulars were in uniform—in Uncle Sam’s uniform—by that time.  Yet the great mystery about George McQuinn strikes me as precisely that he fell off so steeply during those war years when the competition was light.  In 1943, he batted a mere .243 and struck only 33 extra-base hits of any kind; while in 1944, with a handful more of AB’s, those figures were .250 and 40.  The OBP lingered in the mid-300’s, because he had learned to draw more walks (or was being walked more by weaker pitching), with a career-high in free passes (85) occurring in 1944.  Still, there were no Brian Kenneys alerting the public that a walk’s as good as a hit during the Forties.

With the Yankees rather than the St. Louis Browns in 1947, McQuinn staged an impressive comeback: .304, a mere 40 extra-base hits again, but a career-best .395 OBP.  The following season, his at-bats almost cut in half, George nevertheless came within two of his previous year’s homerun total (11 and 13) but fell off over fifty points in both average and OBP.  Thus ends the career of one George McQuinn.

When I scribbled a book titled Key to a Cold City several years ago—a somewhat whimsical study of black ballplayers of the Fifties, undertaken on the suspicion that Jackie R. hadn’t really exploded the color barrier—I got used to looking at careers like George’s.  Of course, McQuinn was Caucasian… and therein lies the rub.  You think you see evidence of great promise being cheated by reduced playing time or undue pressure off the field—but maybe you don’t.  Maybe, like the umpire who wrongly called Lou out at second, you’re only seeing figments of the imagination.  What makes a career like McQuinn’s go south?  Injury?  Divorce?  Dissension with management or ownership?  Mere overreach—trying to be what you’re not?  Vada Pinson and Curt Flood, for instance, were two speed-merchants who declined to take Brock’s path and chased after power numbers instead of stolen bases… to the detriment of their overall offensive productivity.  But then, as I noted above, there was a lot of pressure on young black stars of that day to secure their place by whacking round-trippers.

What was George’s excuse?  Can anyone like me—anyone without a press pass or other golden bough that would win him admittance to locker rooms—ever know?  What ever happened to Jim Gentile after a couple of phenomenal seasons?  I only lately learned that Tom Tresh, like Tommy Davis, fell off the track to superstardom thanks to injury.

Lou Brock made it big in a profession where lots and lots of guys almost make it big, or make it big for a couple of years… maybe five or six.  And the reason that Pinson or Flood or Davis—or, for that matter, George McQuinn—is not Lou Brock may not really have much to do with Lou’s inherent superiority.  Baseball isn’t necessarily the ultimate meritocracy, as it has been called.  It’s also a poetic riddle whose imponderable answers are gathered together, in a kind of surrender, under the word “luck”.  A few very gifted and hard-working boys grow up to be Sweet Lou.  Many others grow up to be Pete Reeser, and wear themselves out running into walls.

Part of the glory of guys like Lou is that the sun shone fondly upon them throughout their day.  They knew that, too.  It inspired that speechless humility that you saw in them when they stood up to deliver a few words in Cooperstown.  The rest of us may try to make them irresistible demigods, always in full control of their own fate… but I think they all must know that something very special happened in their lives—something unresponsive to their personal direction.  Such is the grand mystery of success and failure, all bound up into human reality. And because many have failed—because most fail somewhere along the journey—a very few are left standing for all of us to admire.

Cooperstown is for everyone who ever tried.  I think Lou would like us to understand that.

baseball history, Deadball Era, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, mental approach, Uncategorized

Switch-Hitting and Small Ball: Not an Obvious Pairing

raw

George Davis, Hall of Famer: formally inducted in 1998, almost a century to the year after his retirement.  As someone wrote lately, the best ballplayer you’ve never heard of.  Okay, I admit that I’d never heard of him, either, before delving into the history of switch-hitting.  George was that rarest of animals, a “bats both” from the nineteenth century.  During the Deadball Era and in the years preceding it, such artists were probably less common than cross-wristed hitters like Dave Bancroft.  It’s not hard to imagine why.  Power-hitting as we know it didn’t exist, so one of the two great motive forces for switch-hitting wasn’t in play.  We think readily of sluggers like Mantle, Murray, Reggie Smith… and more recently, Mark Texeira, Chipper Jones, and Lance Berkman.  They didn’t have to worry about the breaking ball dipping under and away from their bat: they could enter the box with the intent of pulling almost everything.

Slightly less glorified as superheroes, on-base machines like Tim Raines, Ozzie Smith, and the almost-immortal Pete Rose are a bit more of an enigma.  Primarily concerned with contact than power, they hit the ball where it was pitched and—like their mightier brethren—were difficult to neutralize with the slider.  A few batsmen of this category (and I don’t know the story of the three just named) seem to have taken up switching because their career from the right side was going absolutely nowhere.  Maury Wills springs to mind.  I half-believe that Nellie Fox may have adapted to batting south so well that he simply gave up on the right side; I’ve seen him listed both as a lefty hitter and a switcher.

As I say, though, the earliest switch-hitters were certainly not trying to compete with Babe Ruth.  Before stumbling upon Davis (and it took me some stumbling: try Googling “first switch-hitter in MLB” and notice how evasive the search engine becomes), I couldn’t dredge up anyone from my memory earlier than Max Carey and, a bit later, Frankie Frisch.  Now, these two logged plenty of extra-base hits… but that’s what you would expect of any speedy hitter before World War II, when ballparks often had very generous alleys.  Most skilled practitioners of the batsman’s craft would bat left exclusively for the benefit of the step or two they would gain toward first base.  Perhaps Carey and Frisch flat-out couldn’t hit the pitch that broke away from them.  I’m sure neither was trying to be Mark Texeira and ding the foul pole every time they possibly could.

Cobb, Speaker, Collins… all righties who batted left.  (Yes, Speaker: he grew up throwing left only because of a badly broken right arm during his formative years.)  I doubt that the typical big-league striker of the Deadball Era—and these three were far beyond typical—would have objected either to being clipped by a tight pitch or to dribbling it the other way and racing the third baseman’s throw.  Hence the extreme rarity of the switch-hitter in the game’s distant past.

George Davis, then, presents an oddity, to say the least.  At five-foot-nine, he profiles as the kind of batsman we like to study at SmallBallSuccess.com; and yet, his true utility for the New York Giants appears to have been as an RBI-producer.  His homers are pretty impressive for the 1890’s: seven seasons in double digits from 1891 to 1904.  At the same time, however, his seasonal tally of two-baggers (usually in the mid-twenties) stacks up to about half of Speaker’s monumental totals, and his triples are also fairly mediocre for a star batsman of the time.  With 2665 hits in 9045 at-bats, then, George presumably legged out plenty of singles.  So the mystery remains: was he switching to magnify his pull-power or just to put the ball in play more often?

After I made a rather hasty video about switch-hitting last weekend (hasty because our Georgia weather keeps turning on a dime), I confronted the necessity of having to re-do it.  The result wasn’t all that bad… but why would a site post it that claimed to specialize in the Deadball Era?  Or if the point was precisely that batsmen of the glorious past were almost never switchers, then why hadn’t the video explained the crucial ground of distinction?  What exactly was I trying to accomplish for my viewers in those ten minutes?

What, indeed?  The claim I made repeatedly before the camera was that young switch-hitters should stop trying to mirror the stroke from their natural side in the side they’re trying to learn.  Almost nobody on earth is truly, fully ambidextrous.  That failing, you have one hand which is stronger and “smarter” than the other; and when the dominant hand is driving the bat like a piston, it has an effect very different from when it’s steering the bat down near the knob.  Allowances must be made for shifting points of emphatic power or precision.

Except that they don’t—or not nearly so much—when you’re simply hurling the barrel down into the zone from high above your rear shoulder.  What the Deadball approach teaches us, then, is transmitted through its active enlistment of feet, knees, hips, core muscles, shoulders, elbows, wrists, fingers… everything in the body is so ingeniously, harmoniously integrated into the Old School stroke that you’re much more apt to notice a cog along the edges getting out of sync.  I genuinely believe this.  I believe, in other words, that our contemporary passion for hurling blunt force at the pitch permits us to ignore a lot of energy leaking out along the way.  If you have a ten-ton tractor to do a job, you don’t care that it belches fumes and spins its treads before the burden attached to it gives way.  But if you have ten men with crowbars trying to budge the same mass, you can’t afford to waste a drop of sweat in the process.  Deadball hitting is the precision attack of a samurai, not the screaming onslaught of a claymore-wielding Rob Roy.  (Pardon the analogy’s inaccuracies: yesteryear’s bat, of course, was actually much more like a claymore—so the lighter, smaller player had to be especially clever about how to exploit the weapon’s imposing mass.)

When I take my favorite Deadball swing from the left side and try to replicate it from the right, I discover that major adjustments are necessary to stay somewhere close to the same paradigm.  That’s what I’ll stress when I remake the video—because I do like switch-hitting, at least when it’s done with a Cobb/Collins, “get on base” mentality.  It has to tie into an approach, a mental projection of the at-bat (and my earlier version just couldn’t have been squeezed under the “approach” rubric on our website).  The switch-hitter should be thinking “opposite field” most of the time, for it’s much easier to stay inside a pitch breaking into you (I find) than it is to be productively late on a pitch that breaks away and just keeps breaking and breaking.  In the latter case, you can outsmart yourself, chasing something far off the plate that—you thought—was right between your crosshairs.

Is this how George Davis hit?  I’ve no idea.  What about the ill-starred Pete Reeser, who couldn’t keep himself form colliding with the concrete walls of Ebbets Field?  I rather doubt it: subtlety wasn’t Pistol Pete’s game.  But I wish it could be more of our present game.  Among other things, standing off the plate to put a late swing on a pitch greatly diminishes the young hitter’s chances of getting hit by today’s flame-throwers who are trying to light up the scout’s JUGS gun.  Not having to guard against the fade-away allows you to frustrate the hurler’s plans more effectively without letting his homicidal wildness bully its way into the back of your mind.  That’s a winning strategy for a five-foot-niner.

Anyway… congratulations, George.  Very, very belated congratulations.