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How Hitting Has Changed


Wild Swingin’ Billy Cox

Watching old ballgames, one sees a lot of swings which look rather out of control to the modern eye.  Players certainly came out of their shoes more in that era — sometimes even falling down after a swing.  You see a lot of odd foot movements too.  Here, Billy Cox of the Dodgers leads off the bottom of the first of the 7th game of the World Series in 1952 (Sabermetricians might note that Cox is batting first with a season-long 639 OPS).  He pulls out sharply on a screwball, then hits a foul with a strange swing in which his back leg appears to pull out and finally strikes out with a wild swing that spins him like a top.  

Also of note in this video is Brooklyn manager Chuck Dressen coaching third base.  One final thought — it always suprises me how many men wore suits to the ballpark in this era (as can be seen on Cox’s foul).

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Choking Up

These days we tend to think of “choking up” as something little leaguers do. You almost never see it anymore in professional baseball. It is thought to give the batter greater bat control and is more often used against a fast pitcher or with two strikes. Still, the emphasis on power since the 1990s has pretty much eliminated choking up, except a few rare players — such as David Eckstein who used the technique when he was with the Angels and Cardinals.

Here we see Red Schoendienst in the 1957 World Series with an astounding choke up. It’s almost hard to believe he can control the bat there is so much sticking out below his fists. But control it he does, as he lifts a fly to centerfielder Mickey Mantle. Schoendienst, a 10-time all-star, even managed to hit 84 home runs in his long career.

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The McCovey Shift

Frequent defensive shifting only began in recent years with teams like the Tampa Bay Rays using the technique as standard practice. But most fans know of the famous Ted Williams shift by Lou Boudreau and the Cleveland Indians in the 1940s and the existence of occasional shifting in the past. 

This clip from a regular season Cubs-Giants game in 1972 suggests perhaps defensive shifting was marginally more common in the past than some remember. The Cubs shift here on the slumping Willie McCovey (batting .194) while Tony Kubek intriguingly suggests that some teams put four men in the outfield against the Giants slugger. A Wikipedia entry on defensive shifting mentions that McCovey once bunted on a shift, scoring Willie Mays from first and taking a double himself. And below we see that even Teddy Ballgame successfully used the bunt strategy to beat the shift in the 1946 World Series. There has been speculation that in future years, this ploy will eradicate shifting in today’s game as well.

We also see Candlestick’s famed wind blow a popup back into play fooling Randy Hundley. The Park (which welcomed just over 5,000 fans that day) was using artificial surface by 1972 and would not return to natural grass until 1979. It has been enclosed in 1971, but as we see here, the wind above the stadium was fearsome. 

Also interesting is the moment in which Ferguson Jenkins has the baseball, rather casually, examined by the third base umpire for a foreign substance. This was requested by opposing teams with some frequency in this era. Try that today and the controversy will likely make the requesting manager the lead on that night’s Sportscenter.

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Hank the Brewer

Some of the best bits of baseball trivia revolve around the surprising teams that star players played for in their final seasons. Making one last go-around in unspectacular fashion, it’s easy to forget the franchises where some stars ended up before calling it quits. Here we see the odd site of Hank Aaron in a Brewers uniform during his final season, belting one over the Green Monster against the Red Sox. Some other favorite last stops: Babe Ruth (Boston Braves), Ty Cobb (Philadelphia A’s), Joe Morgan (Oakland), Dwight Evans (Orioles), Warren Spahn (San Francisco), Ron Santo (White Sox), Jimmie Foxx (Phillies), and Andre Dawson (Florida). Hard to get used to the sight of any of those players in any of those uniforms.

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The Human Rain Delay

Cleveland Indian first baseman Mike Hargrove was known as the “Human Rain Delay.” He had a “deliberate routine at the plate before each at-bat…driving pitchers crazy by stepping out of the batter’s box after each pitch and starting his routine.” 

Here in a 1982 home game against the Boston Red Sox, analyst Bob Montgomery comments on Hargrove’s adjusting of batter’s gloves, saying the routine is a bit shorter due to the elimination of a finger protector he no longer wore. Indeed, by today’s standards the routine does not even seem so bad. Hargrove doesn’t exactly get out of the box on each pitch, his adjustments are done with at least one foot in. And the at bat moves along at a pretty decent clip, at least when viewed on a 2014 curve.

Incidentally, batting gloves were not as popular in the early ’80s as they are now. Clips from those years show a lot of bare-handed batters who seem to be constantly picking up dirt from the ground to wipe on their hands.

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