Reverse-Engineering Yesteryear’s Swing: History + Physics
Ty Cobb’s Fidget: The Straight, Downward Chop
One of the very few motion-films ever taken of Ty Cobb is a brief sequence that shows him fidgeting with his bat while taking self-conscious peeks at the camera. Was he simply fidgeting… or was he perhaps rehearsing a cleaver-like chop down into the ball that would impart quick backspin? Ballplayers have known for generations that cutting into the ball so as to spin it somewhat backward makes it hang in the air longer and carry farther. Nowadays, we would say that the spin causes the ball to act like an airplane’s wing, whose rounded top half clears out a little vacuum and thus produces a sucking effect. The back-spinning ball is sucked upward because its spin is clearing away some of the air that sits upon its top.
Every time he picked up a bat, Ty Cobb was probably creating muscle-memory by practicing that chop. You can see players today obsessively repeating some motion that they want to master as they step out of the batter’s box between pitches. This was Cobb’s choice for the most important motion to master: the quick, straight, slightly downward chop.
You can find similar poses, though frozen in still shots, if you thumb through photographs of celebrated batsmen of the late nineteenth century (such as Dan Brouthers, Buck Ewing, and King Kelly) or look at reproductions of old baseball cards. There rarely seems to be much tension in the lower body of these old-timers or much coil in their shoulders. They almost have the pose of a Victorian big-game hunter resting his boot on the beast’s head as he awaits the flash of the photographer’s plate, rifle cradled in arm. But is the position of the hands merely such casual cradling? We tend to think so today. The hands are not drawn back toward the armpit to strike: the bat isn’t even lifted to rest on the shoulder. The loose fingers, aligned almost along the uniform’s buttons and perhaps held out a bit from the body, imply anything but a lock-and-load readiness… to us.
But what if, nevertheless, they were loaded? What kind of attack could be launched from such a position? How do you sting a ball with your top hand projected in waiting from your collarbone, or even a little lower than that?
Think of a hammer: a sledgehammer that requires two hands to hold. Picture a contestant standing before one of those five-cent challenges in an old-fashioned carnival where you try to hit the plank so hard that it launches the ball upward to ding a bell. How would you take your swing? Obviously, one hand would be above the other: you couldn’t get a good grip on the sledge’s handle if you interlaced your fingers. You would likely rear back without moving your feet and drive straight down on your target. Yet if you really wanted some extra acceleration in your blow, and if the hammer weren’t so heavy as to throw you over on your back, you might also lift a leg up and then bring it sharply down to catalyze the descent of your hands. Imagine that complex movement carefully. The lifted leg would need to be stiff and straight, its knee probably locked. If the knee veered inward even slightly, it would cock the hip and create a sidewise movement as the hip opened back up; and that sidewise movement would draw power from the directly downward attack off to the left or right. You want to bring the hammer down as close to the dead-straight as possible.
The essential stroke of the Dead Ball Era batting champion, as used by many and perfected by Ty Cobb, resembled swinging this hammer. Yes, the old-time batsman’s barrel was descending moderately, not perpendicularly onto some fairground fulcrum. But even a moderate descent must be straight to strike hardest, and everything in this stroke is committed to the straight line and fighting against curves.
The focus here is clearly not on stride or hips, as it would become in later years when power was emphasized. Instead, the “hammer” approach was concentrated so intensely on the movement of barrel straight down through ball, minimizing everything else as much as possible, that it produced crisp hits from all parts of the strike zone which shot to every field. Edd Roush confides that he had mastered just such an attack with a bat that weighed half again as much as today’s favorite models.
Of course, I hit very different from the way they hit today. I used a 48-ounce bat, heaviest anyone ever used. It was a shorter bat, with a big handle, and I tried to hit to all fields. Didn’t swing my head off, just snapped at the ball. Until 1921, you know, they had a dead ball. Well, the only way you could get a home run was if the outfielder tripped and fell down. The ball wasn’t wrapped tight and lots of times it’d get mashed on one side. Come bouncing out there like a jumping bean. They wouldn’t throw it out of the game, though. Only used three or four balls in a whole game. (Edd Roush in Lawrence Ritter’s Glory of Their Times)
This Hall-of-Famer didn’t bat over .300 for eleven straight years and win two batting titles by swinging from the hips with today’s two-and-a-half-pound elongated bowling pin. He was generating most of his force with his hands.
Think of it this way. All swings are somewhat circular because all hands are attached to a body, and hence must orbit that axis. You’re trying to hit something traveling in a line with a motion that’s fixed on hinges. The pernicious effects of the swing’s curve, however—notably, undercutting and pulling off—can be diminished to the degree that the circle can be turned on its edge to approach a plane perpendicular to the ground. (That is, the bat head would drive forward-and-down from this circle’s “high noon” point.) Any error in timing is now mitigated because the barrel wheels out of the ball’s flight path less quickly. In more current terms, this hitter is being “short to the ball”.
On the other hand, if the swing’s wheel turns more or less parallel to the ground, then its window for potent impact with the ball becomes tiny. It’s “long to the ball”. An especially level circular swing may stay in the ball’s line of flight for a long time. The problem is that the bat’s sweet spot is transiting in and out of that line—especially on outside pitches—very quickly, leaving “bad wood” in its place as it passes, or else nothing at all. Coaches have barked at kids since the days of Ted Williams not to “pull off” the pitch: i.e., to keep the bat head in the zone. This typifies an unhelpful kind of coach-speak, for emphatic lateral hip action of the Ted Williams style requires you to pull off the pitch quickly whether you like it or not.
Now, the Ted Williams style will win most power contests (although Dan Brouthers held several distance records with his home runs of 400+ feet) because its practitioners are throwing everything they have, from the toes up, into their cut. But the Ty Cobb style wins in good contact throughout the strike zone because it can so quickly execute a “barrel smackdown” with so few movements. Beginning or struggling hitters might do well to copy the Cobb approach. You can make the team a lot easier by hitting .400 with a few doubles than by hitting .112 with a bomb every third week. (Williams could hit .400 with dozens of bombs—but don’t make the mistake of thinking you can be Ted.)
How the Swing’s Dynamics Radiate from the Maximal Acceleration Point
Ty Cobb, in repeating his “fidget”, never broke his wrists. Coaches and other master-mechanics of the game used to swear that powerful contact occurs only as the top hand comes driving over the bottom one—that an explosive “snap of the wrists” was responsible for the superhuman deeds of Ted Williams and Henry Aaron. Who knows if Cobb would have held a detailed rebuttal of the “wrist-snapping” theory in his hip pocket? Whether through careful thought or murky intuition, however, he knew that the moment of greatest impact happens before the wrists roll over. Our sledgehammer hero at the carnival isn’t snapping his wrists as he brings the mallet down and rings the bell. The axe-wielding lumberjack that Ted Williams imagined in The Science of Hitting isn’t snapping his wrists, either, as he rains blows into a tree trunk.
Fact: the bat head is maximally accelerated as the top wrist is still tautly driving down through the ball and the top arm’s elbow is not yet—not quite—fully extended. If the swing is taken even a tiny millisecond beyond that point, we find the bat entering into rapid deceleration. Ty Cobb was probably aware of this. That’s why his practice maneuver didn’t go beyond the straight-wristed stage into the wrist-breaking stage. (By the way, Buster Posey may be observed practicing the same little maneuver between pitches, a century later.) What Cobb was anchoring in every muscle of his body that would store memory was the Big Bang, the contact point that gave the best results.
For convenience, let’s call this the Mac Point (short for “maximal acceleration”). The Mac Point is one of hitting’s “inflexibles”. If you’ve hit a low liner that carries like a missile into the gap, it’s because you caught it at the peak of your bat’s acceleration, which can occur at only one place—and with all due deference to coaching legend Charley Lau, that place is not just as the top hand is coming off the bat. There’s simply no engine to drive acceleration at that stage. The Mac Point is a physical fact, and a logical necessity. A lot of hitters, apparently (to judge from the number of coaches giving them bad advice all along), reach this position subconsciously. They are merely answering the call of the wild.
Cobb, Speaker, and Co. were much more deliberate about placing the Mac Point at the center of all their training. Everything preceding it was designed to get to it; everything following it was a natural, free-flowing exit from it. We can guess what a few of these things probably were. For instance, a linear explosion straight into the hitting zone requires the wrists to be closely aligned, not angled widely apart. Cal Ripken, Jr., and others have advocated the alignment of the “knocker knuckles”, which is really just another way of bringing the elbows and wrists closer together. (You wouldn’t hurl an axe straight into a block of wood with your elbows pointing out, would you?) We can further remark that the thumbs shouldn’t be clamped tightly around the handle, locking it hard and fast into the palm of either hand, because this would make Ripken’s knuckle alignment almost impossible to arrange as the handle went from a “rest” position to a full load. The grip should be loose. The bat should be held in the fingers.
Charley Lau endorsed the same arrangement of the hands. He was far from disagreeing with the Old School across the board, though the great hitters of yesteryear don’t validate every item on his list of fundamentals. It’s appalling to see how many young hitters at tournaments, and even on national television, violate the most basic of basics, as understood by everyone from Cobb to Lau to Ripken. Intellectuals of the game like Brian Kenny who brood over the alarming increase in strikeouts argue that a return to earlier methods might more than compensate for the decrease in power. Kenny often speaks on his television show of using a bigger bat that stays in the zone longer, as if one were to visualize a batsman of bowler-hat days simply thrusting a thick tree limb over the plate and holding it there. Yet the old-school stroke organized around the Mac Point was not necessarily weak. Yes, Wee Willie “Hit ’Em Where They Ain’t” Keeler managed to wedge an extra-base knock in among his 2,932 hits less than fifteen percent of the time; Rabbit Maranville, using a similar approach, couldn’t reach ten percent. Both hitters’ photos often show them gripping a bat fully midway up. The only way you can swing a stick thus grasped without receiving a punch in your solar plexus is to release the top hand (as Charley Lau recommended) on contact. And, yes, this would detract from power if you were using a large bat (as opposed to today’s 32” whip) and not a lot of hip action.
Nevertheless, Cobb and Speaker fly high among the all-time leaders in extra-base hits. Ty ranks fifth, as of 2015, in total bases, and Tris comes in at Number Sixteen. The Grey Eagle also logged 793 career doubles, a tally never remotely approached by anyone else (with Stan Musial a distant second). We will explore below how these two probably took advantage of lower-body strength and a dynamic grip of the handle.
For now, consider one more vital fact about strong contact: the Mac Point necessarily varies with the pitch’s location. Coach Perry Husband describes these shifting power-points with multiple charts in an intense little book developed for pitchers.
If a pitch is thrown at 90 MPH, each of the boxes [imagined in the strike zone] the pitch could enter will have a different reaction time—some slightly different and some radically different. Each pitch has only one perfect time and place to be hit at 100% on-time contact and with 100% efficient swing mechanics. (Downright Filthy Pitching)
Wee Willie Keeler could seldom have wanted to hit a pitch as it passed over the plate. He was standing right on top of it with just half a bat above his grip, and he would have been severely “fisted”. He would have wanted to be very quick on inside pitches and very late on outside pitches. The point of maximal acceleration differs throughout the strike zone, being sometimes far in front of the plate and sometimes actually behind it. You can make a kind of three-dimensional graph in thin air of these shifting Mac Points by gripping a bat as you would hold it at that instant (i.e., with wrists close together and “knocking knuckles” more or less aligned) and extending the top arm until its elbow is not quite locked. Carry that hand position all throughout the strike zone, never allowing the top elbow to extend fully. You find that ideal contact is made deeper in the zone as the pitch rides farther outside; and you find, as well, that the Mac Point moves farther back for lower pitches, since your hands must reach down to get them. The high-inside pitch is the one that you turn on and catch farthest in front of the plate (though yesteryear’s great hitters may have preferred to be very late on this one so as to dump it into the opposite field). The low-away pitch is the one where you almost part the catcher from his mitt.
We will see later that Cobb, Speaker, et al. claimed to arrange their feet as the ball was in flight so as to hasten contact on inside pitches and delay it on outside pitches—a maneuver which every contemporary player would swear is impossible. (And so it indeed seems, until you put all the pieces together.) For now, it’s enough to observe that the Old School “chop” or “hammer” style allows a much broader, quicker adjustment of the Mac Point to the incoming pitch than any technique in use today. This is just one reason why it is worth learning for those in desperate search of a way to succeed as a hitter.
The Vital Importance of the Hands: Top Hand
The explosive impact at the Mac Point comes mostly from the top hand: that much grows very clear upon brief examination. Students of the martial arts know that you don’t achieve much impact if you throw a punch in a circling motion around the target with your elbow up. That’s a natural approach in untrained brawlers, but it mostly produces swollen ears, bruised knuckles, and sprained wrists. The really devastating punch comes straight from the shoulder. The palm turns down just before the knuckles reach their mark, and the shot drives straight through the bull’s eye.
The top hand working explosively on a bat varies from this shoulder-punch model only in that the palm turns up as the straight line drives through the ball. Joe Brockhoff, once the head coach at Tulane for over two decades, teaches his Super-Eight Hitting System through materials marketed very widely over the Internet. His approach is most certainly not the Dead Ball Era method in very many respects; but his emphasis of the top hand in a powerful, compact, well-aimed attack upon the ball is convincing and fits right into our exposition here.
The entry to the Mac Point has another important resemblance to a potent punch, as well: the last-instant flexing of the top wrist from a limberly bent to a tautly straight-out position. This final straightening accounts for the palm’s turning down (in a punch) or up (in a swing). There’s a “snap” in both cases; and in the hitter’s case, the fingers simultaneously tighten on the bat. Could you achieve the same degree of acceleration if your wrist were taut all the way through impact? No, because smaller, more finely articulated joints are capable of quicker, more explosive movements: hence you want them to contribute a last-second “pop”. Would a uniformly fat whip produce the same loud crack from its tail as a more conventional whip with its slimly tapered tail? The answer is clearly negative. Something of the whip-effect resides in that wave of force which travels from shoulder through elbow and into wrist. The lightning-quick flexure of the wrist leading into the Mac Point allows maximal retention and transference of energy.
Slugger Zack Wheat also found the boxing analogy appropriate. In the chapter of F.C. Lane’s Batting titled “The Secret of Heavy Hitting”, Wheat and other stars of yesteryear’s game line up to express their disagreement with Babe Ruth. The bone of contention? That heavy hitting results from having a big body swinging a big stick, with lots of arm muscle to do the driving. Zack is only one of perhaps half a dozen interviewees who stress the role of quick hands in clever collaboration. His rebuttal of the Bambino, however, offers much the most detail:
The strength to hit as I do is in my wrists and forearms. It isn’t so much the swing you give the bat as the quick snap just as you meet the ball. That’s what drives the ball. It’s the same as in boxing. A long, roundhouse swing that comes halfway across the ring and then bumps into a man will shove him out of the way, but it won’t hurt half so much as a quick, short jolt from a boxer who knows how to hit. When you snap the bat with your wrists just as you meet the ball, you give the bat tremendous speed for a few inches of its course. The speed with which the bat meets the ball is the thing that counts. You can tell when the ball is going to travel by the quick, sharp crack when the bat meets it.
Manual celerity is of the essence in fighting off the attack both of a human assailant upon one’s person and of a baseball upon one’s strike zone.
By way of contrast, think of what happens with some contemporary Iron John of our Metal Alloy Age. The bat held high over the rear shoulder with elbow pointing steeply up into the backstop is his default position. No bent wrist snapping taut at the last instant for him: his top hand drives like a piston all the way down, and then releases at once. To bend the wrist from his set-up, indeed, would be almost physically impossible. Zack Wheat wouldn’t have approved—and not because he was addicted to punching singles through the infield. One third of “Buck’s” 2,406 hits went for extra bases.
Today’s tall slugger, with his exaggeratedly downward cut on the ball as it passes over the plate, is in fact not getting the most out of his top hand. The Ripken “knocker knuckles” alignment mentioned above equates to a bend in the wrists, since the alignment requires the bend. Here’s another basic, then, that the game’s greatest hitters haven’t disagreed about for over a century.
Picture for a moment a black-belt karate king coiling into a defensive pose as an assailant approaches him. His hands lift loosely before his face, almost as if holding an invisible globe—and his wrists, of course, bend. This is the position from which his blows will acquire maximal acceleration. The Cobb-style batsman has his wrists in a very similar position as he waits to identify the delivery. And just to clarify the “hammer” analogy in this somewhat altered setting… obviously, the contestant wielding a sledge at the carnival would not bend his wrists for a directly downward blow as much as would a hitter aiming laterally at a pitched ball. Yet neither would his wrists be strictly straight and taut as he lifted the hammer’s head. Try it yourself. The wrists want to bend at that stage. They seem to know, with a wisdom of the blood, that a late stiffening and straightening into the point of impact will give them their best chance to ring the bell.
Finally, a few words must be said about the top hand’s position in the follow-through, since this issue has excited such controversy in the wake of Charley Lau’s and Walt Hriniak’s teaching. The overwhelming majority of superstar old-timers kept the top hand on the bat all the way through a high finish… in their public-relations photos. It’s a beautiful pose, modeled by Zack Wheat just above. But the type of pitch thrown or the pitch’s location must sometimes have determined how thoroughly the hands would conform to the prototype. The objective is to get barrel to ball with maximal acceleration—not to execute a suitable-for-framing flourish at the end. A famous photo of Eddie Collins shows his legs twisted around like an ice skater’s coming out of a pirouette as his bat trails far behind him in his bottom hand. Eddie was probably trying to stroke a hard grounder up the middle during infield practice (for he, like many greats of his time, managed during some of his active playing days). He likely made himself reach far out for the toss in order to direct it just where he wanted it. A live pitch cutting the same low-away part of the plate would also surely have persuaded his top hand to depart early.
It’s especially easy to let the top hand adjust to an incoming pitch when executing the straight, slightly downward chop. Color commentators on TV broadcasts always chuckle over a “one-handed” swing, and today it truly does indicate that the hitter was badly fooled. In the “hammer” swing, however, the barrel can continue driving straight down on the ball even as the top hand is releasing early; little momentum is lost, and solid contact can result.
The whole flap about whether the top hand should or should not remain on the handle, then, is wasted energy, at least with regard to this swing. The answer is that the early release is a brilliantly effective split-second adjustment, and any good batsman of yesteryear would have used it on occasion.
The Vital Importance of the Hands: Bottom Hand
The most respected wisdom of today holds that the bottom hand guides bat to ball. Coach Brockhoff says so, and he adds the helpful analogy that it “shines the flashlight” of the bat’s knob upon the oncoming pitch. Yet the “flashlight” explanation implies that the bottom hand has little or nothing to do with power: it’s just directing traffic. This may be true, but it deserves a much closer look.
Rudy Jaramillo (when he was the Texas Rangers’ hitting instructor) would sometimes talk about the “stretched rubber band” effect of tensed front-rear separation in the swing. The batter was to produce this effect as the front foot came down, just before “pulling the trigger” on the backward-stretched hands. This could be construed as a restatement of the Ted Williams hitting philosophy, since it apparently depends upon throwing the front hip. The bottom hand reaches back to hold one end of the rubber band fast. Without an emphatic weight shift, the bottom hand might as well just be leveling the bat as the top hand drives it through.
But throwing open the front hip is not the only way to stretch the rubber band’s forward end, and is probably a poor description of what most Dead Ball Era hitters did. It presents certain persistent problems. For one thing, the rotating hips can easily work against the top hand’s straight, true punch into the ball’s center. The hips are driving parallel to the ground and away from the plate as the top hand tries to drive down and through the pitch: a confusing mix of forces that can only produce offensive success before the barrel’s ascending follow-through if the pitch is low. A decisive throw of the front hip, furthermore, also commits the hitter in a fashion that allows for little correction in the case of mistiming.
With all of that conceded, what are the alternatives? How can the hitter achieve quick acceleration into the ball without flying open with his front hip? How did yesteryear’s greatest batsmen produce the “rubber band” effect?
A vital clue lies in Ty Cobb’s signature spread of the hands. Photographs abound which show a good three inches of wood between Cobb’s top and bottom paws. It used to be that kids and coaches alike would mock anyone who spread his hands on the playground. The usual taunt was that it was a “girl’s grip”. Well, one of the “girls” who used it piled up over 4,000 hits. Another—Leon Wagner, whose career peaked in the early Sixties—stroked 211 home runs in just over 4,400 at-bats.
There’s scarcely any notable hand-spreading in the game today because there cannot be, thanks to the bat’s physical specs. A stick of 32 or 33 inches doesn’t allow much latitude for the upper hand to “cheat” a little closer to the barrel. It also offers no substantial advantages to the move. These bats are designed to be whipped through the zone as both hands crowd the knob. With their short length, they need to utilize every stingily created inch of projection to cover the plate; and with most of their weight concentrated in the barrel, they really don’t give a feeling of significantly greater control if one hand crawls farther up the pipe-thin handle.
In his short book, My Life in Baseball, Ty Cobb asks that we imagine ourselves holding a ten-foot pole and being charged with touching its end to a small point on a wall. We would, of course, spread our hands so as to gain better control of the wobbly stick. Hence, argues Cobb, hand-spreading is all about bat control. But this isn’t the whole story. Imagine now that you have to swing Cobb’s ten-foot pole as quickly as possible. Picture it as bamboo or something else light and fairly rigid, such that the wobble isn’t much of a factor. Would you not spread your hands to do this, too? Why? Is it only because your top hand would move closer to the center of gravity? We’re forgetting the bottom hand, which would greatly accelerate the bat by driving in a direction more or less counter to the top hand’s. With one hand pulling backward at the stick’s base as the other hand pushed forward, the stick’s burst of speed would be dramatic.
While speed can be generated in this manner merely by deploying the hands, it would be a mistake to think that Cobb, Speaker, Honus Wagner, and earlier sluggers like Dan Brouthers were only using a hand spread to accelerate their barrel’s chop. It’s extremely hard to reconstruct what they might have done with their lower body… but they were surely doing something more than Punch-and-Judy hitters like Keeler, Maranville, and Heinie Groh (inventor of the peculiar “bottle bat”)—all of whom spread their hands, as well. Nevertheless, when Cobb sought to explain his high tally of extra-base hits, he gave most of the credit to his grip of the bat. Here are his own words:
“Power” is not just hitting home runs. With a hands-apart grip, I once hit a pitch by Chief Warhop [sic] of the New York Highlanders that ripped the glove off Harry Wolter in deep right field and broke his finger. I used to love to choke up and smash them at Hal Chase at first base for New York—the kind that carom off the knees of an infielder and leave him limping for days. You can make a ball ring like a bell off the right-field fence with a choked grip, and never doubt it. Again—timing. (Ty Cobb, My Life in Baseball)
Now, timing actually has a lot to do with the lower body; for when the hitter strides or shuffles or kicks too soon or too late, the best hands in the world can do little more than foul the ball off. If Cobb had taken note of this, he might have left us priceless information about his own lower-body preparation. As it is, we can only use old photos, confusing accounts, and tested logic to reverse-engineer that final part of yesteryear’s stroke.
Before we conclude this section, though, let us revisit Coach Brockhoff’s “flashlight on the pitch” with what we know now. The bottom hand (with or without hand-spacing) pulls as the top hand pushes in any great wrist-hitter’s stroke. Not only that: in such hitters, there is almost as often a bottom-hand “mini-load” in reverse direction—a backward-pushing coil of the lower wrist that prepares its hand to pull hard through the pitch’s path as the top hand enters the Mac Point. This “back-and-forward” flick of the bottom hand would be a further accelerant; for a lot of movements in baseball (and other sports) involve a preparatory motion in reverse direction that strengthens a driving movement. An arm draws back to throw forward. A foot whips back to kick a soccer ball hard and low. The bottom hand flicks the bat’s knob away from the ball for a split second because it’s about to pull that knob very hard into the ball’s path: also known as “shining the flashlight”.
The Lower Body: Some Reasonable Hypotheses
Dead Ball Era batsmen did not employ a single lower-body strategy in firing their crisp linear blow into the pitch. Hitters like Keeler and Maranville who loved to choke up outrageously could only have been dealing sharp smacks to the ball out in front of the plate. This would likely have made their stride little more than a bending of the knees, as if to bunt. Heinie Groh (according to F.C. Lane’s chapter, “Position at the Plate”) simply set up in the box fully facing the pitcher. Whether squared to the field of play from the start or by use of a swivel, these authors of many singles would need do no more below the belt than support a presenting of the hands anywhere along a plane parallel to the plate’s forward side. They must have been quite proficient at punching hits through holes in the infield.
Keeler and Maranville are “minimalist” cases. Their feet and legs must merely have worked so as to give the hands a straight shot at the ball, more or less as an office-trolley’s wheels might spin to let the payload on top—a camera, a projector, a telescope—bear directly on its task. Cobb and Speaker were doing something much more energetic. All we have for virtually every player of the Dead Ball Era by way of evidence is photographs: “stills,” snapshots, sometimes taken in the heat of battle, sometimes staged for the photographer. The 1909 and 1912 American League home-run leaders—for Cobb and Speaker each led the league once in that “power” department—have left a photographic record of very active footwork. The feet are extremely close together at one point (either before or during the load), almost touching. As the swing proceeds, the front leg lifts relatively low and straight. Then, when that leg is planted, the gap between the two feet often seems alarmingly broad, as if the hitter had stepped as far forward as he possibly could.
This final impression is somewhat of an illusion. The front leg’s action was much more lift-and-drop than swing-back-and-swivel-forward. Since the drop would bring the back foot off the ground, the impression is created of a long stride. Ty Cobb hints his disapproval of spread-out, lunging footwork in these admiring comments about Joe Jackson:
Shoeless Joe Jackson, along with Rogers Hornsby the greatest of the right-handed hitters, stood with his feet close together. Joe usually marked a line three inches from home plate and then drew a line at right angles to it. He stayed back of the right-angle line, behind the plate. As the ball approached, he took a slow, even stride, starting his swing in unison with the stride. None of that wide-spread, dug-in stuff for Jackson. (Ty Cobb, My Life in Baseball)
Here, too, we get a bit of evidence in support of a shockingly provocative claim made often by the Georgia Peach: that he and other hitters moved their feet in response to where they saw the pitch coming. If Shoeless Joe could bring his bat forward (which is probably the intent of “starting his swing”) “in unison with the stride”, then foot and bat could both go to the ball at the same time. Professional ballplayers today insist that adjusting the stride to the pitch is flatly impossible. Yesteryear’s hurlers may not have broken the 90 MPH barrier as often as today’s; but even at 85 miles per hour, positioning your front foot in reaction to the pitch’s cutting inside or tailing outside simply defies belief. The human body is not capable of such rattlesnake-reflexes. Cobb was either misremembering or deliberately lying. Here’s what Ted Williams thought of the claim:
Ty Cobb and some others used to say the direction of the stride depended on where the pitch was—inside pitch, you’d bail out a little; outside, you’d move in toward the plate. This is wrong because it’s impossible. It is only 60.5 feet from pitcher to batter. If the pitcher throws the ball 90 miles per hour, it takes less than 0.40 second for the ball to reach the batter, even without allowing for the four or five feet the pitcher comes down the mound before releasing the ball. (Ted Williams, The Science of Hitting)
We may be missing a critical clue if we take this view, however. What if the barrel could actually be brought forward at the same time as the front foot was striding? This would seem to sacrifice the powerful “rubber band” effect; but if the hands were supplying that effect by spreading on the handle and working in the sort of twirl described in the previous section, then the rubber band could still be stretched. The heavy hitters of Cobb’s generation also tended to stand back from the plate. This would give them more time to adjust to pitches: they could be “late” in their swing without getting beaten outside or jammed inside. In fact, Cobb and Speaker probably hit most of their many doubles to left field—and we know that both Honus Wagner and Rogers Hornsby stood back from the plate and then took aim at their opposite field on the right side. Roberto Clemente would display the same technique decades later, though with a new generation’s very long stride.
But again, how would it be possible to lower your front leg and your bat at virtually the same instant, even with very adroit hand action? What kind of leg motion allows for this?
We can tell from old photos that Dead Ball Era hitters most often fully lifted up their front leg (as opposed to a Musial-like glide in the load, where the toe drags through the dirt). The leg-lift or kick that we know so well today is seen in a lot in Latin players, from Arod to Manny Ramirez. Yet with this approach, you get the front foot down very early and then drop the barrel from far over your rear shoulder (usually releasing the top hand upon contact). Such a paradigm is just the opposite of yesteryear’s swing in many ways. The evidence implies, rather, that Cobb et al. got their front foot down very late and also that they were not pumping it steeply in Manny fashion, to begin with.
Recall that the objective of the “hammer swing” is to come linearly into the ball’s center at a slight downward slant. There’s really nothing explicit in this formula about keeping the bat in the plane of the pitch’s flight as long as possible. Yet if you were to video experimental reproductions of yesteryear’s chop, you would probably be shocked (as we have been here) by how very level the straight, slightly downward cut turns out to be. Because the bottom hand pulls as the top hand pushes, their combined contribution does a lot of balancing out. The result is that the linear “hammer” stroke does, in fact, keep the barrel in the pitch’s plane of flight for an extraordinary length of time—very likely longer than any other stroke. The front leg has to be cutting a pretty direct line toward the ball for such smoothness to result. If the hip were to flip open vigorously, the barrel would dip down and up through the zone.
The old-school approach thus had a distinctly larger margin of error than most modern hitters enjoy. To stand the best chance of landing the hammer on time and on target, the old batsman must have striven to get the forward leg down in something close to the plane of the barrel’s descent, as opposed to turning out the hip parallel to the plane of the ball’s transit. The downward motion of foot and hands would come almost at the same instant. That descending foot and the hands trailing it would be describing a maneuver somewhat like a gymnast’s doing a cartwheel in handcuffs. Stretching the rubber band with an opening front hip, in contrast, would not only make the barrel dip through the strike zone; it would lie the swing’s rotating wheel on its side and reduce the barrel’s possible zone of intersection with the ball to a very small arc right over the plate. No wonder Ted of the Rolling Hips couldn’t conceive of the old-fashioned stroke!
And it’s still hard for us to bring into focus. The description that Honus Wagner provided for a chapter in F.C. Lane’s Batting is vague, but helps a little. Notice that Wagner credits Fred Clarke, a Hall of Fame batsman whose career began in the nineteenth century, with this insight:
Fred Clarke, who was one of the wisest baseball players I ever saw and a great hitter, taught me the foot shift as an aid to batting. I have always depended upon the foot shift ever since. I always stand on my right [i.e., rear] foot when I am batting. The weight of my body comes on that foot. But I stand in such a manner that I can shift my left foot around. You can cover a good deal of ground by shifting that foot. You can step away from the plate to hit a ball close up or you can lunge right into the plate to hit a ball that is on the outside. (“How They Grip the Bat”)
It certainly sounds as though Wagner’s “foot shift” responds directly to the pitch’s perceived path. The final sentence of the remark clearly expresses an adjustment made after the ball is identified as riding inside or running outside: the step is not anticipatory. The Flying Dutchman and his most celebrated contemporaries were dropping their front foot after they had tracked the pitch’s movement.
But what is meant by “shifting” the foot? The question lingers: how do you do this in response to the ball’s flight and arrive on time?
There’s probably more than one way. To build as little as possible on our initial conjecture, we might simply conceive of the front leg lifting relatively stiff just before the step and then going straight down (as in a cartwheel). The hands could follow the stiff leg down very closely—without a lot of pop, though, because keeping the leg stiff from lift to touchdown would not allow it to hit the ground very explosively. The Waner brothers may well have hit this way. They amassed thousands of singles, between the two of them; but Lloyd, especially, wasn’t much of a threat to go deep.
It appears in all of the very few photos available of Cobb and Speaker in mid-swing that they approached the forward step with more dynamism. The lead leg straightened out—but it likely did so from a bent-kneed load, so that the front heel could “stomp” the earth hard. You can see Speaker driving forward to touchdown in this photo. We know from written accounts that he actually gave a little hop to get on his back leg before taking this critical step. What an ingenious way to create forward momentum!
The front foot was probably pretty close to the ground in most other swings of the time, too, as has been said. The front knee may often have been faintly bent, both to preserve balance and to store energy for a potent straightening out. Getting the leg from that bend into a straight position might have enlisted a little sidewise–or even backward–kick (as when you shake an insect off the toe of your shoe). A backward kick, however, would effectively have closed the hip, so that the step forward would have a tendency to become a step outward, as well. This could explain how the classic linear swing happened to evolve into a rotational one later on. In the Speaker photo, the kick is about to be dealt directly to the ground: no spinning to the side with flexing ankle (as is seen in so many Japanese hitters today). In short, the most reliably old-fashioned method plays down (if not eliminates) the signature Williams cock of the forward hip.
Speaking of stiff-collar days, we’ve said nothing about the late nineteenth-century greats for a while. That’s because we have no direct information at all about their stride. Yet if you recall the leisurely upright pose of a Brouthers or a Thompson on one of the old tobacco cards, you may also remember that the front foot was invariably turned toward the pitcher. This seems to create a good set-up for the kind of modest “knee pump” just described. The leg can lift slightly and dangle lazily without much stress, then drive its heel hard into the ground and carry the hands straight into the ball. Early twentieth-century players may have adopted a more sidewise cock of the front foot because lifting it from a forward-facing position caused the upper body to rear back. That, in turn, would loosen the eyes from a riveting focus on the ball: not a good result.
We can see the more lateral approach of Speaker working elegantly in the photo of Joe Jackson (see farther above). The front leg is making a direct, easy step forward, straightening out a slightly bent knee. Meanwhile, the bottom hand loads up, ready to pull as the top hand pushes immediately upon touchdown. This would send the hitter into that classic old-school finish, by the way, that we observe in Rogers Hornsby’s photograph: heavy shift over front leg and bat high over front shoulder after a strong follow-through. The Max Carey photo probably highlights these characteristics even better.
Ironically, though Honus Wagner has explicitly stated for us that he strode where he saw the ball coming, his approach seems least likely to have managed this marvelous feat. The Dutchman and Napoleon Lajoie were very big men (especially for their time) who appear to have lunged at the ball. They almost certainly set up extremely far back from the plate, in the “on-deck circle” corner of the box, and then sprang at the pitch, probably catching fastballs very late and taking them to right field (for “oppo” hits). Their hands would not have been able to keep up with such a stride, so the result would have produced a lot of flailing limbs that came toppling over each other in fairly unpredictable cadences. About Nap we have little more than written accounts; but numerous photos show “Hans” working himself into all kinds of contortion. One might well think of these two as the Hunter Pence of their era—and like Hunter, they were very successful. Yet they are more useful here to illustrate the out-of-bounds line for defining what we have called the samurai stroke of yesteryear.
Whatever yesteryear’s batsmen were doing in their lower-body load, they had to achieve a dynamic balance: a one-legged poise that could be held for perhaps two or three seconds but would not become frozen in a “straight up” yoga position. Pitching guru Paul Reddick has thrown the coaching world into turmoil by insisting that an up-and-down “balance point” over the rubber is a shortcut to arm problems. He advises, instead, a slight tilt of the spine (about five degrees) toward the plate which can channel potential energy straight into the movement home. This is a very apt parallel for what the old-school hitter wanted to do. We know that he was on one leg: Honus Wagner’s description suggests a one-legged wait for the pitch’s delivery. How could momentum toward the pitch have been preserved during the wait? Not, obviously, by reaching a perfect balance. Whether by rotating the front leg back as the spine retained a slight bend toward the mound or by actively kicking that leg backward—or even by giving a Speakeresque hop that would create a pendulum backward-forward effect—the hitter had to keep the straight-and-down attack in check for a few crucial instants.
Lifting the forward leg extremely high would not allow the batsman to wait calmly. The hip would now be slinging out to the side in Williams fashion, not turning straight into the ball and also slightly downward toward the ground. Sometimes Mel Ott’s bizarre load is offered as evidence of the ancient style; but Ott’s foot must have hit the ground noticeably before his hands came forward, for when his raised knee was highest, his barrel was almost dragging in the dirt and not remotely ready to fire. Mel appeared at a time, in fact, when the transition to a more rotational swing was… well, in full swing. A dead-pull hitter in a ballpark (the Polo Grounds) that featured a very near right-field porch, Ott produced violent rotation that lifted lots of fly balls over the friendly fence. (His 511 career home runs were unsurpassed by any National League lefty until Matthews and McCovey came along.) The hitters we have been trying to analyze were line-drive, up-the-middle types.
For the same reason, hitters with very distinct leg kicks don’t really suit our profile. Older readers will remember Ruben Sierra’s spectacular raise of the knee followed by an equally spectacular kick. (If you ever saw it, you’d never forget it.) Yet as was noted earlier of Latin players like Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, and Juan Gonzalez, this is another strategy for getting maximal extension between the front leg and the hands. The foot touches down early as the hands wait high over the rear shoulder; you might well say that this is the Mel Ott script rewritten for an age of lighter bats. There’s no reason to believe that yesteryear’s star batsmen did anything nearly so “loosey goosey”. On the contrary, with yard-long poles in their hands, they were mostly very contained and controlled… and always very balanced.
Balance is a tricky—and very individual—thing. We’re all put together a little differently. One researcher who has tried these methods is a switch-hitter, and he gets his balance before the straight-legged step a little differently from the right side than he does from the left. No doubt, some hitters a century ago may almost have tapped the front heel over the back toe when loading up, as Babe Ruth did. (And the Bambino claimed that he had copied Joe Jackson’s swing.)
A good place to end this brief historical tour, though, is where it began: with Ty Cobb’s fidget. Cobb didn’t keep repeating footwork when he stepped out of the box or modeled for a cameraman. He worked his wrists back and forth in a straight, slightly downward motion. Everything else he did radiated from that explosive center. And so it was, we must suppose, for the other immortals who flirted with .400 and struck out once a week.