baseball history, Deadball Era, fathers and sons, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, pitching, umpires, Uncategorized

Four Random Comments About Lower-Echelon and Old-School Baseball

“push-hitting” a pitch (Red Schoendienst)

Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, Joe Morgan… so many unforgettable ballplayers have lately been called up to the highest league of all that commenting upon their loss–upon our loss of them–is simply beyond me. I’ve decided, instead, to go with a few stray ideas that have been swirling in my head for weeks. I think, just maybe, they would have preferred it this way.

I’ll get this one off my chest first.  Are you a dad of a relief pitcher who throws junk—“unbarrelable” junk that hitters put into play as bloopers and twelve-hoppers?  Then you know the anguish of watching your boy trying to shine in high school, on a summer travel team, or even in college.

I thought about this a lot during the years of torture when I’d watch my son’s successes at inducing weak contact be undermined, over and over, by shoddy fielding.  Relief pitchers tend to enter the game with runners on base.  One of these runners may well be on second.  Young shortstops have been coached since their first pair of cleats to bird-dog the runner on second as he takes his lead.  Owen was a righty, most hitters are righties, and most of my son’s wipe-out sliders were therefore going to be pulled to the left side… just where the shortstop is supposed to be playing.  But Studs Superstar is too busy yoyoing around the second sack to play his position… so bowling balls keep rolling to the outfield grass.

This is the coach’s fault.  It’s the fault of coaches even at college-level.  My son had a great inside pick-off move and, over the years, had compiled a formidable list of scalps when runners wandered too far from second.  He was so good at catching them off guard that the coach should actually have wanted them to get a big lead, as a spider wants a fly to check out its bright, shiny silk.  Instead… instead, Owen’s ERA would painfully inflate on a series of bleeders that reflected the very type of contact he was called in to induce.

Then, too, you have the inevitable but regrettable obsession of adolescents with offense.  Hitting becomes such a fixation that Jason over there at second is still brooding about his strikeout when an easy grounder comes his way, and Daz over at third is still replaying his homer in slo-mo as a ground ball almost chews off his shoelaces.  Of course, such butchery isn’t deficited to the pitcher’s ERA… but a loss or a blown save still shows up on his account if the miscues of others prove fatal; and, more importantly, the coach comes to feel that letting him pitch is a risk, though not due to the boy’s own ineptitude.

Over time, I believe this largely subconscious prejudice of coaches infects even the professional game.  Why do we have so many flamethrowers in the MLB who can’t put away a pivotal hitter in the inning?  Because, from Little League on up, gas was always the ticket.  Even in Double A, the change-up was something Mr. Potential could work on—but the heater was what got him that far up the ladder.  Junk-ballers whose fast one can’t break out of the mid-80’s won’t get a serious look.  All they do is get people out… but then, as I argued above, they are not perceived as getting outs “reliably” in the lower echelons.  In my humble opinion, this is one reason for the immensely boring quality of today’s Major League game.  Walks and strikeouts abound: the excitement of balls put in play thanks to hurlers who pitch to contact is a rarity.

Now, if you shun the junkster to favor the fireballer, you’re going to get a bunch of Mighty Caseys on the other side of the ball.  My next two comments have to do with how much the slugger mentality has contributed to making The Show a bore-fest.  The other night, I heard Buck Showalter and Jim Kaat (of all people… don’t they know better?) subscribing to the proposition that radical shifts be outlawed.  I have another idea.  How about we teach hitters how to hit?  During my recent stints of reviewing old ballgames as I sit in the sauna, I’ve made the following mental list of middle-of-the-order guys who dropped bunts during World Series play: in chronological order, Walker Cooper, Hank Greenberg, Ted Williams, and Steve Garvey.  All four were successful in some measure with their bunts.  Cooper got his sacrifice down, as did Hank (I think one of these was thrown away by panicky defenders); Teddy—those who have ears, let them hear!—was bunting against the shift for a hit, which he easily accomplished; and Steve actually misunderstood manager Dick Williams’ instructions, laying down a perfect sacrifice rather than bunting for a safety up the vacated third-base line.  What’s radiantly clear is that all of these bruisers were practiced, competent bunters.  So… geez, if Hank Greenberg can do it, guys, why can’t you?  You think your offensive contribution with the all-out swing is of a higher quality than Hank Greenberg’s?  Really?

Now, there’s more than one way to beat a shift or advance base-runners.  Stroking a line drive to the opposite field works, too… but when is the last time you saw somebody do that today?  I’m talking about a drive that the runners can read quickly, so that they proceed to take an extra base with confidence: these are not bloopers squirreled off the end of the bat in lunging contact.  Time after time, relatively pedestrian players of over half a century ago would go the other way when a Bob Feller, a Spuds Chandler, or a Robin Roberts had shut them down earlier in the afternoon.  They processed failure and found a formula for success.  They learned: they adjusted.  Marty Marion, Alvin Dark, Jimmy Outlaw, Earl Torgeson, George McQuinn, Billy Cox… these fellows knew how to play the game.  Yes, they had longer bats.  I guess you have to be able to reach the outside corner before you can drive a pitch the other way from down there.  But don’t leave out the footwork.  Tommy Holmes would actually set up on top of the plate, stride open, and trail his barrel so as to make late contact: the opposite field seems to have been his preferred target for pitches in all quadrants.  And I’d swear that I saw Dark shuffle his feet as the delivery was in progress so as to angle his barrel the off-field.

Footwork: where do you see that now?  Guys spread out in the box and hardly take a stride… or else they heave up the front foot and then slam it down, not so much orienting the body to the pitch as starting a loop of energy for a fiercely descending barrel to follow.  I love to watch Nolan Arenado’s busy, jittery feet; but most of those widespread pairs of legs are doing nothing to extend the bat path farther into the pitch (also known as front-foot hitting).  Their feet are, as my cousin the Royal Navy commander once told me in defining a ship, a “platform for guns”.

A last stray observation that I must squeeze in: umpires.  Would you believe that the arbiters of 70 or 80 years ago just about never got riled?  I saw one runner get called out at second, jump up, and bump the umpire with his chest (no, I don’t have any names: note-taking isn’t easy in a sauna).  The man-in-blue’s response was… to pat the guy on the shoulder and calm him down.  Another irate competitor turned toward the umpire after a called third strike and beat his bat upon the ground within three feet of the man’s shoes.  Response: nothing.  Just look at him and watch him skulk back to the dugout.  And there were numerous scenes where a first- or third-baseman became very animated after a close play.  Even from cameras lodged several rows up in the stands, you could see neck muscles and veins working through the skin.  Cover the children’s ears!  But never was any of these human firecrackers tossed from the game.

Umpires, too, were different in the old days.  They knew that nobody had bought a ticket to see them, they knew they weren’t perfect, they knew the young men before them were at the highest pitch of competitive ardor, and they knew… well, a war had just ended.  Maybe they knew that it was good to be home playing ball again.  Call it perspective.  As one great referee of the period said when challenged, “Yeah, I probably missed the call.  So what do you want me to do?”

The show can go on after a bad call—but it can’t go on when no calls are firm and final.  Wow… when did we forget that in the broader context of life?  Is there any chance that we may soon rediscover its truth?

baseball history, bat acceleration, bat design, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, low line drives, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, weight transfer

Excavating Treasures From Forgotten Techniques: Hitting

Billy Herman

As I noted in my opening words last time, hitting is both the preferred subject of the casual fan and the specific subject that drew me into examining disused baseball practices all the way back to the Deadball Era.  I think I’ve made genuine progress.  Lately I have had occasion every afternoon to review black-and-white footage on DVD’s chronicling yesteryear’s game. I crank up the show before going to languish for twenty minutes in a far-infrared sauna. (It’s called “hyperthermic therapy”: cancer cells loathe heat!)  Discoveries which I had already added to my treasure box are constantly being confirmed.  Take the controversial matter of what I call the “shuffle step” (controversial only because nobody today has the guts to break the mold and judge by actual results).  I had read years ago that Tris Speaker somewhat “ran” himself into the pitch—or, more accurately (in my conjecture), we may say that Spoke took a forward step with his back foot before the front foot strode.  I subsequently observed Edd Roush doing something of the sort in batting practice before the 1919 World Series… as well as Babe Ruth, of all people, cheating forward with such a shuffle to anticipate Wee Willy Sherdel’s curveball in the 1928 Series.

To that distinguished list, thanks to my sessions in the sauna, I can now add Hall-of-Famer Billy Herman for certain.  Billy’s shuffling was probably intended to orient him better for taking an oppo shot to right field.  Less obvious was Joe Cronin’s slight resettling of the rear foot in conjunction with his raise of the barrel.  I was irresistibly reminded of Nolan Arenado.

Now, my faithful readers (also known as “gluttons for punishment”) know how much I love hitting to the opposite field… but the advantages of the shuffle step extend far beyond turning the cannon aft, and indeed may be observed in dead-pull hitting, as well.  The shuffle fights against rotation in the swing.  If you keep your weight back upon a dug-in foot, or if you shift it emphatically rearward again after a stride forward, you force your barrel to circle a stable axis that descends more or less precisely down the middle of your body.  Color commentators on TV love to use their telestrators in showing the inherent beauty of such a swing—and, yes, it can be as graceful as a Kristi Yamaguchi pirouette.

But in our sport, you don’t get points for grace.  What the shuffle does is mobilize this stable axis so that it slides forward into the pitch.  The barrel is allowed to descend straight into the ball over a much longer span.  The term “front-foot hitting” has been flung about over the years to designate the movement (though, as my examination of old photos and videos and my own experiments repeatedly demonstrate, a full forward weight shift doesn’t necessarily send you straight up-and-down over the front foot: indeed, it rarely does, as illustrated in the photo of Billy Herman above).  A line bisecting the ball’s heart is a more dynamic kind of baseball engineering than a curve that tops the ball, and the forward weight shift assists enormously in constructing that line; because when the barrel cuts through the ball in a slightly descending line, the result is a hard line drive—a shot that travels a long way in a short time.  That’s Old School hitting, à la Joe Cronin.

Meanwhile, the beautifully pirouetting “lean back and hack” hitter (my personal term) is forced by his stable axis to lift his barrel immediately after plunging it down into the pitch.  This swing (usually associated with its glorious advocate, Ted Williams—though Teddy actually leaked forward a lot more than he realized) has virtually no chance of cutting a straight line into the ball’s center.  Positive outcomes are few: 1) the barrel may well miss the ball entirely as it swoops into and out of the pitch’s plane; 2) it may backspin the ball during the descent to produce a harmless pop-up; 3) it may top the ball as it pulls out of its nosedive to generate a “rollover” grounder; or 4) it may happen to smack the ball’s center if the swing-hyperbola intersects the pitch-plane at just the right point.  Of course, #4 is what our contemporary sluggers are betting on, with all their chips.  Sometimes, in certain small ballparks, they get #2 to carry over a fence in fair territory; and #3 can produce true line drives… but these are usually neutralized by the radical shift, since today’s defenders have learned inductively that the stable hitting axis makes pull-hitting inevitable (of course, neither they nor their coaches would put the formula in those words).

With a longer, heavier bat, by the way, a Fifties pull-hitter like Eddie Mathews or Duke Snider might have kept the barrel on its descending line in spite of the uncooperative axis—for a barrel extending three or four inches farther from the hands wouldn’t yield to a quick rise after a steep descent.  This is why you see finishes from sixty years ago featuring a low wrap around the front shoulder (classic Ted Williams) rather than today’s typical high, one-handed flourish.  During my afternoon DVD tutorials, I heard no less an immortal than Jimmie Foxx explain on a newsreel that the power hitter’s objective was to throw the barrel’s weight into the pitch, not to swish the bat through the zone with maximum effort from start to finish.  The longer bat rewarded such thinking: nowadays those dynamics don’t work so well.

It should also be noted that sluggers got higher pitches in 1960.  That meant that the ascending barrel might just backspin a fastball even though the swing-hyperbola had already bottomed out.  Today’s boppers, in contrast, are constantly fed low pitches (since umpires don’t call anything at the letters).  As a result, their barrel is descending very steeply and pulling back up almost as steeply: a happy split-second rendezvous with the pitch has become more improbable than ever.

Back to the shuffle (and I’m going to write a book if I don’t get back there immediately): it greatly assists in delivering the barrel straight into the pitch, though Foxx himself didn’t employ it.  It throws the weight directly forward rather than channeling weight into a circle.  Okay… basta: I’ve said all that before.  Now here’s something new.  I’m currently working on the theory that the action of the hands during this shuffle can determine whether the line-drive is pulled or “pushed”.  In other words, if my theory is correct, it may be possible for the hitter to step into the box with the intent of stroking a liner to left or to right and then executing that intent with a high degree of success.  In an age of radical shifts, harmless pop-ups, and anemic rollovers, wouldn’t that be something?

If the hands rise close to the body and the forward leg doesn’t cock or coil, the barrel can fall straight into the pitch in what feels almost like the swing of an axe.  We particularly want the bottom hand to take an extra “micro-load” just before the attack, pushing the handle so far up that the barrel droops slightly toward the ground.  (I shared this discovery in a somewhat off-the-cuff video a few weeks ago: “Tweaking Yesteryear’s Line-Drive Swing”.)   The barrel’s line into the ball becomes so straight with this technique that weak pop-ups and rollovers are highly unlikely; and because the front leg is doing little more than lifting and then descending, with minimal rotation of any kind, contact will be rushed into the pitch and the hit will streak up the middle or to the pull side.  Everything in this technique aims to meet the ball in front of the plate.  The hands, rather than loading far back, stay forward.  They hurl down into the pitch: they do not whirl toward it in a tornadic motion that may or may not enter the pitch-plane at just the right instant.

And oppo hitting?  Simple: just change two of the parameters above.  Give the forward knee a cock as you load: the slight coil will close the front shoulder and prepare you to enter the pitch late and from the side.  With the same objective in mind, thrust the bottom hand out from the body, keep it lower than if you were pulling, and allow it to stray just a bit farther to the rear.  (The leg’s coil almost requires this complementary motion: the two movements are joined at the hip, we might say.)  By contacting the pitch more laterally, just before it pops the catcher’s mitt, you’re guaranteed a hit that isn’t pulled if it lands fair.  Even the inside pitch has a chance of being “pushed” over the opposite-side infield in a bloop safety as long as your bat has a little meat above the trademark.

These days. of course, few bats do.  Oh, those bats!

I don’t know why somebody wouldn’t want to have the talents of the legendary place-hitter on tap in our day’s game, when radical shifts are deflating averages by fifty points.  The table-setting guys in the line-up, at least, should want to be able to spread out the defenders and multiply chances of getting a hit through the net.  So why isn’t anyone doing what’s suggested here?  Why isn’t anyone even trying it?

baseball history, bat acceleration, bat design, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, hitter reaction time, metal bat use, opposite-field hitting, strike zone, Uncategorized

Oppo-Hitting Is Hard Because We’ve Made It So

raw-1

In the Year of the Lockdown, I’ve enjoyed watching whatever games I can find featuring the Tampa Bay Rays. More than any other team I’ve seen lately, their line-up features a variety of hitting techniques, not nine guys who could have fallen out of a cookie cutter or who, at any rate, are all trying to do the same thing (i.e., hit home runs). Lowe keeps his hands below the shoulder and close to the torso, like most hitters a couple of generations ago. Brosseau and Díaz drive their barrel down almost in one motion with their lead foot—something that you’d see in abundance only if you set your time machine to travel back before World War II. It’s really fun to watch an offense that features so much diversity of attack.

I find it ironic, then, that the Rays broadcasters were the pair I heard remarking on the difficulty of hitting against the shift. The exact words were something like, “A lot of fans wonder why players don’t beat the shift by taking the ball the other way. Most people don’t realize how hard it is to go opposite-field.” Well… yes. That’s certainly so in my case, anyway: I don’t realize why it should be so hard to hit the other way. For one thing, you’re deliberately trying to be late, and being late should be much easier than being early. You have more time to react, to look at the pitch and decide if you wish to offer. Why is it hard to be given more time?

Naturally, if you’re all dug in and your swing is so grooved that you can’t adjust your footwork to the situation in any manner, no matter how minute, then being late with your hands is pretty much all you have going for you. But why would a professional ballplayer be incapable of a little flexibility in his lower body? Here’s what Willie Mays had to say about Yankee singles-hitter deluxe Bobby Richardson:

It’s a pleasure to watch a professional like Bobby Richardson, the former Yankee second baseman, when he’s about to move the runner on first base around to third. Bobby hit behind the runner better than anybody else, for my money…. The batter, as the pitch is delivered, shifts his weight slightly and steps back with the rear foot a couple of inches [if he bats right, like Richardson]. Then, swinging a fraction of a second late, he just meets the ball with a short, sharp “punch” and bangs it to the right side of the playing field.   (My Secrets of Playing Baseball, 1970, p. 70)

Now, I consider Bobby a very interesting subject in his own right.  Richardson was no Pete Runnels or Dick Groat: he wasn’t going to compete for a batting crown.  But he did manage to become the only Yankee to top .300 in 1959, and he did muster a league-leading 209 hits in 1962 (when the number of games on the schedule had but lately increased by eight).  He had progressed from a smooth-field, no-hit prospect to a respectable component of a potent Yankee line-up.  Many have faulted him for not drawing walks from the lead-off position, to which he was admittedly not well suited.  I have to assume that an aggressive approach was part of what allowed him to hang around the .270 mark for years.  Okay, he might have pushed that to .290 if he’d been more selective.

Maybe part of the reason Bobby wasn’t more persnickety at the plate was his huge bat.  I vaguely recall marveling at that stick as a boy of seven or eight, when I’d get to watch my beloved Mickey on our black-and-white screen every Saturday and would wonder, “Who’s this little guy with the biggest bat on the team?”  Oh, Bobby would choke up a bit… but he still had to hurl the barrel down into the pitch in a manner that required early commitment—and probably allowed for being late.  Not that a child’s memory is a reliable witness… but it seems to me that most Richardson base-knocks went right up the middle.  His knees were distinctly bent as he assumed his stance, and on them he would glide into the pitch.  Think of a Scotsman hurling a caber: it all starts from the feet, and especially the knees.

It was Bill Dickey, then a Yankee coach, who advised Bobby to use the larger bat (as Richardson reveals in The Bobby Richardson Story, 1965). This Hall-of-Fame mentor was obviously a product of the Old School; there weren’t a whole lot of active players (with Rizzuto having just retired) who would have possessed such arcane knowledge.  At any rate, Richardson’s success at the plate took off when the big bludgeon was placed in his hands.  No, he didn’t have much bat speed.  His entire twelve-year career—for three consecutive years of which he led the league in at-bats (that’s what can happen when you never draw walks)—produced only 34 home runs.  But with the likes of Mantle, Maris, Skowron, Berra, and Howard batting behind him, homering wasn’t really a priority.  (Honesty compels me to observe that, despite such firepower at his back, Bobby never quite managed to score 100 runs.)

So what has all of this to do with oppo-hitting?  I think it’s the bat.  The reason Dewayne Staats and Brian Anderson (two of my favorite announcers, by the way) may have deemed off-field hitting “harder than you think” is because today’s bats are mere conveyances for a tiny, explosive sweet spot.  They make no allowance for misjudgment: they work extremely well only when everything in the swing is right on time.  If you try to reach for an outside pitch and push it (perhaps one-handed) to the infield’s far side), you encounter two problems: 1) your bat may be too short by a couple of inches; and 2) the balance in that bat is so top-heavy that you’ll probably foul off or pop up the pitch by dipping under it, if you contact it at all.

And that’s if you can get an outside pitch, or if you adjust your position to the far corner by recoiling with a Richardson-like move (for who doesn’t crowd the plate these days?).  What if the pitcher insists on pounding you inside, as more and more of the good ones dare to do?  Then is when you really need some bulk in the handle.  With the old-school lumber in your hands, you might have fought off the tight pitch to the off-field grass by inside-outing (in the fashion described in Ted Williams’ Science of Hitting, of all places: I wonder if Ted ever used the technique once in his life?).  Armed with today’s club, however, you’ll be picking splinters out of your face; or if you have the advantage of a metal bat, your chances of a weak infield pop-up are still very high just because of the handle’s tiny diameter.

So, yes: upon consideration, I suppose opposite-field hitting these days is indeed harder than I think—with emphasis on “these days”.  Even the resourceful Tampa Bay Rays can’t seem to do much about the hardware they take to the plate.  How about at least giving an audition to shifting your feet in the box, though, guys?  Devote a little practice to it and see if you don’t get good results.  Please?  A touch of small ball from yesteryear’s handbook would make today’s game so much more interesting!

baseball history, Deadball Era, Hall of Fame, mental approach, opposite-field hitting, Uncategorized

And the Greatest Ballplayer Ever Is…

raw

I enjoyed Allan Barra’s Yogi Berra: The Eternal Yankee so much when I happened upon it recently that I looked around for other books by the same author. I was amazed to discover that one of these had long been sitting on my bookshelf: Brushbacks and Knockdowns, a collection of essays. Then, as I started browsing, it all came back. I really didn’t fancy the essays because so many of them… well, they address subjects that the typical sports fan would bite on, but they just don’t draw me in. The discussion of “the greatest ballplayer of all time” is one of these. Odd, isn’t it? Why does that kind of debate irritate me so much?

It isn’t the barrages of stats that get heaved back and forth, or not just those. I could say—and I do say—of McGwire and Sosa and Bonds that their surpassing Roger Maris’s 61 home runs is a phenomenon of the steroids era and has little value after adjustment for cheating. That’s my opinion; others have another. So we argue back and forth about just what percentage of homer output steroid usage might have accounted for as the millennium turned over; and we also bandy about that Roger played in Ruth’s Yankee Stadium of the friendly right-field porch, and that pitchers weren’t throwing that hard in the Sixties or that well in the expansion year of 1961. Back and forth, back and forth… a never-ending dispute, and also one which really doesn’t get at what needles me.

This might get us closer. McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds were all represented as superheroes in the popular media to a degree that Maris—or even Mays or Mantle—couldn’t approach. The sluggers of our time have agents, advisors, brokers… and probably personal trainers and private chefs. They harvest fabulously lucrative contracts and are veritable commodities: nobody would dare undermine their health as they go about courting “immortality”. Maris lived at time when owners could ship a fielder who made one hapless play in a World Series to deepest, darkest Kansas (as happened to Norm Siebern), when obtaining a good salary required putting your entire career on the line, when endorsements amounted to a few hundred bucks for slapping Aqua Velva on your face, and when pressure could drive a man almost to suicide without the public’s ever catching a hint of it.

The late Nineties were not the early Sixties: no, not in terms of pitching prowess and field design… but also not socially or culturally. The sabermetricians may be able to adjust for the former—but how does anyone adjust for the latter? How do you compare an era when a man’s wife might take the kids and leave him if he gets traded one more time to an era when the gossip columns celebrate how many girls a guy has on the sidelines? How do you adjust for psychological impact when society at one stage considers the journeyman shortstop a ne’er-do-well husband and at another considers the wife who skips as deserting the ideal provider? How would you factor in stress related to racial prejudice in the Fifties? How about the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that must have messed with many a World War II veteran (e.g., the chain-smoking Gil Hodges), but which hadn’t even been given a name in the Forties?

Okay, so forget about the “mental”… though you can’t and shouldn’t, but say that you could. Say (as many have said to me) that the greatest player ever simply has to be drawn from our era, because our guys are in so much better shape physically. But doesn’t that just beg the question? Is a Pujols or a Trout the greatest player because he’s the best fed and best conditioned? What kind of player would either have been in an era of poorer diet and no science of weight training whatever? If distance to the home park’s pull-side porch calls for an adjustment, then why doesn’t the “unfair” advantage of superior dietary and kinesiological guidance call for one?

How good would Cody Bellinger or Max Scherzer be if he had to ride a train all night to reach the next series? How would such supermen make out if they had to sleep in a downtown hotel with paper-thin walls and no air conditioning?

At some point, you’re simply left with what you see on the field. You have to start and end there when adjustments and corrections always open the door to more adjustments and corrections. And if the “eye test” is the ultimate test… well, how do we apply it to performers we’ve never seen and can now never see? Those who saw him in the midst of all his peers claimed that Oscar Charleston was the greatest thing ever to emerge from the Negro Leagues. How can we say here and now that he wasn’t the greatest ballplayer ever?

As I begin the home stretch of this ramble, I wish take it in still another direction. Since we’ve been reduced to such subjectivity in our judgments, then… well, why not admit that I personally may admire a kind of play that you value less? Maybe my “great” isn’t yours. I risk sacrilege when I write that Mike Trout impresses me primarily as a really, really big human being. I don’t particularly like his hitting style, which seems to me to leave a couple of holes almost as huge as he is—yet which doesn’t hurt him because, as Tom Verducci (without detectable irony) observed shortly before another Trout homer in Arlington a few days ago, umpires won’t call high-inside strikes on him. So we’re left with a Titan carrying a kid’s bat who has his own little zone around the knees….

More sacrilege: I’m not even a devoted adorer of Ted Williams. Any hitter whose reaction to being radically shifted is to drive the ball through or over the shift doesn’t seem to me to be using all the resources that a Ty Cobb or an Eddie Collins deployed. So the WAR geeks prove that Teddy’s bat won more ballgames than Ty’s… yeah, okay. I won’t cycle back to the “attendant circumstances” species of argument which could explain so much of that (the Pesky Pole, the absence of sharp pitching after World War II, etc). Indeed, I could just double down on my Mike Trout response; for Williams (so the anecdotes run) seems to have been conceded a shrunken strike zone by many veteran umpires.

And Babe Ruth, probably much the most popular candidate in the “best ever” sweepstakes? Why, he was the greatest home-run hitter for generations and a superior left-handed pitcher! Okay… but he wasn’t both at once: he didn’t pitch and slug concurrently throughout his career. Maybe Ichiro would have been a star closer as well as a batting champ if he’d been allowed to indulge his mound ambitions as Shohei Ohtani has been. Mickey Mantle, we hear from those who warmed up with him, had a killer knuckleball.

And the Bambino’s mighty blasts? It’s been said that Cy Williams (another, and an earlier, Williams who was radically shifted) could have equaled them if he had flourished in the days on the lively ball. Cobb hit three homers in a single game one afternoon just to show that he could.

I guess where I’m going with this is here: the best ballplayers ever to me are those who play the brand of baseball I most admire. Yes, that’s subjective—but what have I been demonstrating about other measures if not that their objectivity is illusory? Why cannot our answer to “greatest ballplayer ever” be the best who played what we happen to consider great ball? I’ve already betrayed my preference for a guy who can hit to all fields—and I’d like him to concentrate on doing this all the time, winning every battle that he possibly can against every pitcher in any situation. He’s always bearing down, even when his team is suffering an eight-run deficit. I once read a remark of Henry Aaron’s where the Hammer admitted to guessing—to guessing all afternoon, perhaps: looking at two called third strikes before finally getting his pitch halfway through the game. That remark disappointed me. Why would you be hunting a certain pitch with two strikes? I know it’s Hank Aaron, but… but why wouldn’t you just be making contact? That’s what my kind of player would be doing: Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker… Roberto Clemente, Tony Oliva… Tim Raines, Tony Gwynn. Speaker had the advantage over Cobb of having revolutionized his defensive position: he would even creep in from his shallow center-field spot and pick runners off second base on occasion. Clemente likewise staked his claim to being one of the greatest right fielders ever. And Tim Raines on the base paths… well, you could make it Rickey Henderson and I wouldn’t object, but I had a special fondness for Timmy because he was a switch hitter.

Maybe, in fact, I bear a grudge against the Hendersons and the Bondses and the Harpers for being showboats. I want my all-time best player to hate losing, to be in the game at every moment… but also to hate vainglorious or humiliating displays. That may very well be why I have to dig into baseball’s past for my superman. The showboating in today’s game repels me.

So… the greatest player ever? Don’t know, don’t care: not if you expect an “objective” answer out of me. My favorite players are my nominees for best player. I love them because of all they brought to the field, and not what they bring to a spread-sheet.

As for Willie and Mickey, Mr. Barra—no, I didn’t forget about them. I scarcely felt the need to mention their names. I was trying to be a bit original. But yes, definitely Willie and Mickey. And Yogi, too. All of them were the best.

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

raw

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.

Screen Shot 2020-05-16 at 9.38.50 AMScreen Shot 2020-05-16 at 9.41.04 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2020-05-16 at 9.39.01 AMScreen Shot 2020-05-16 at 9.41.19 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2020-05-16 at 9.39.59 AM

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.