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How Pitching Has Changed



Great footage from the 1910 World Series between the Philadelphia A’s and the Chicago Cubs. Of course, we have all seen it before but the windmill motion used by some pitchers in that era was really quite extraordinary. The initial movement, a kind of wind-up before the wind-up, eventually disappeared as pitching motions became more compact and efficient. We also see Philadelphia’s famed “$100,000 Infield” posing briefly (they seem anxious to get on with it).  And its cute to see the way the old-time ballplayers jumped onto home plate like little leaguers.

The video also allows a lovely view of old Shibe Park, which had opened just a year earlier. The traditionalist’s mind wanders, imagining what such a gem would like today had there been a vital preservationist movement in 1970 to save it. Or if you really want to dream, think of a modern American League featuring old Yankee Stadium, Fenway, Tiger Stadium and Comiskey with the National League hosting games at Wrigley, Shibe Park, Forbes, and Crosley. Maybe the Mets playing in Ebbets…


Presenting: The Pitchers

Here we see the opening to the broadcast of Game 7 of the 1952 World Series.  In this rather fascinating clip, we hear Mel Allen discussing the pitching match-up for the game featuring Joe Black and Eddie Lopat.  Black, who had come out of the Negro Leagues, was not even on the Spring Training roster for the Dodgers. It’s also quite odd to see the two pitchers warming up on opposite sides of home plate at Ebbets Field, which did not have fenced off bullpens.  Finally, we get a peek at 1950s groundskeepers and the setting of the batters’ boxes, which was apparently done at the last minute.

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Extra Intentional?

According to a Wikipedia entry on the Intentional Walk: “Before the 1920 season, catchers typically stood far to the side of the plate to receive intentional balls. In an effort to increase scoring…team owners…attempted to ban the intentional base on balls.  [But] the owners succeeded only in mandating that “the catcher must stand with both feet within the lines of the catcher’s box until the ball leaves the picther’s hand.”

This is certainly what we are used to today.  However, here is a clip from the 1954 World Series that seems to call into question the above entry. The Giants catcher is clearly standing well outside the box, never moving to catch the ball for ball four.

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In the Wrigley Wilderness

Many people remember the 1950s as baseball’s heyday — and it was in New York City, where the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers battled throughout the decade for baseball’s supremacy. But in much of the rest of the country, the lack of competitive balance left fans yearning for competitive teams (and led them increasingly to turn to pro football to find them).

The Chicago Cubs lost Game 7 of the 1945 World Series. The would not win their division again until 1984. They did not even post a winning record between 1946 and 1963. The 1960 Cubs, seen here, won 60 games and finished 7th out of 8 teams. 

Given this record for losing, it’s amazing to watch the excitement at Wrigley Field as the fans find something to cheer about — in this case, a dramatic no-hitter from Don Cardwell in his first game as a Cub. While a no-hitter is always exciting, fans are literally jumping for joy, and later, storming the field as Cardwell gets the no-no. 

The game is saved with 2 outs in the 9th on a fine running catch by left fielder Moose Moryn. Jack Brickhouse makes the call in a traditionally homer-ish Chicago style that was later passed down to Harey Caray and Hawk Harrelson. A post-game interview takes place in a wild scene as Cardwell answers question after question until finally pleading with the interview to “just let me go.”

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Sandy was Human

Dodger manager Walt Alston agonized over whether to start Drysdale or Koufax in Game 7 of the 1965 World Series against the Twins. Alston was rewarded with his decision to start Koufax when the lefthander turned in an amazing performance on just two days rest — He hurled a three-hit shutout to lead the Dodgers to the title. 

Interesting here though to see Sandy in the first inning after walking his second batter. He could not get his curveball over and Drysdale was already warming up in the bullpen. Koufax wound up pitching his way through the game almost exclusively on fastballs. Incredible the differences in the workload of starting pitchers in those days compared to now. 

It’s also curious to see a baseball legend like Koufax not at his best. The lore of baseball builds hall of famers into such gods, it is sometimes hard to even imagining a pitcher like Sandy Koufax walking a couple batters.

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Fatigued Fergie

Ferguson Jenkins won 284 games as a big-league pitcher. He also lost 226. How did he do it? By staying in so many games for so long. Jenkins had 30 complete games in 1971, leading the National League. just one of four times he led the league in that category. But his numbers were not uncommon. Starting pitchers had a much longer leash in those days and were often judged on whether they were “good finishers.”

Here is a fine example of Leo Durocher’s patience with Jenkins in the 8th inning of a 7-4 game in 1969. Fergie starts the 8th inning on a hot day in Wrigley clearly fatigued. He walks the first batter and Curt Gowdy and his partner continuously remark throughout the inning on how Jenkins is leaving balls high, appears tired and so on. In today’s MLB, Jenkins would likely not even start the 8th inning of a game in this situation. No one even mentions a pitch count throughout the broadcast. Finally, with two men on, Durocher goes to the bullpen, but only after a discussion on the mound with his starter. How things have changed for pitchers…

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Blue Moon Dropdown

One thing you see pitchers do a lot of, during games in the 1970s and 80s, is play with their arm angles. It’s surprising that we don’t see more of this today. Much is made of odd release points on baseball broadcasts. The common remark is that batters have trouble  “picking up the ball” against strange deliveries. It stands to reason that batters would have difficulty with a pitcher who changes the angle at which the ball is released. Many pitchers in earlier years such Blue Moon Odom and Joaquin Andujar used to occasionally move to a sidearm or submarine pitch with two strikes as a surprise release.  Here we see Odom use the technique against Al Kaline with two outs in the 9th inning of Game 2 of the ’72 ALCS (Incidentally doesn’t it seem odd that Kaline and Odom played in the same era? Al is such an old-school player where as Odom was so hip and happening). But nowadays, pitching coaches and managers seem to be very concerned about a pitcher’s ability to reproduce the same arm angle again and again, thereby dissuading pitchers from changing release points. 

Switching subjects…one of the most unfortunate aspects of the multipurpose stadiums that became popular in the 1960s was the backdrop for the centerfield camera angle during baseball games. Here we see the interminably high backdrop at the Oakland Coliseum behind home plate. Combined with the very high outfield walls surrounding the field, you can watch many minutes of a 1970s ballgame without ever seeing an actual fan.

Also interesting to also note here that the Oakland A’s players are wearing green hats while the coaches are sporting white hats.

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A Bounty of Balks

So many interesting things to note in this clip from a Yankees-Royals regular season game in 1979.  40 year-old Jim Kaat comes in to face Darrell Porter (wearing civilian-style glasses) with the bases loaded. Kaat is working extremely quickly by today’s standards. On a few of the pitches it seems Porter has to struggle just to be ready to hit in time. Kaat also seems to balk on every pitch, never coming to a complete stop. That rule was first enforced nine years later, resulting in chaos. As mentioned on Recondite Baseball, “Only six weeks after opening day, Rick Mahler of the Atlanta Braves committed the 357th balk of the 1988 season, breaking the MLB record for most balks in a complete season…with three quarters of the season to play.”  The out of the baseline call is also interesting for a number of reasons.  1) It seems like a very tight call on the part of the umpire. 2) It’s mentioned by the announcers that the line drawn in on the artificial surface counts as the baseline.  If so, this would raise the question of how this differs from a grass field where no such line exists. Whitey Herzog comes out to argue and the call does seem a puzzler.

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“Judging Lefty”

It’s the 1980 World Series and a speedy Amos Otis is attempting to get a lead off first base with the ultimate “lefty,” Steve Carlton, on the mound. It’s interesting to note here the degree to which the AL and NL were still separate and unequal leagues. For instance, there was a wide difference in how the strike zone was interpreted in each circuit. Here, the broadcasters discuss the varied interpretations of the balk rule, with an AL ump judging the move of the NL’s Steve Carlton to first base.

A sideline reporter here also mentions a chalk line that was painted on the mound during the late 1970s to better determine balks from left-handed pitchers. According to the voice, MLB higher-ups wanted the controversy and took out the chalk —a dubious claim. I verified that such a chalk experiment took place but does anyone know the details of why they didn’t stick with it?

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Speedy Sorensen

This clip from a 1982 WSBK TV38 Red Sox broadcast suggests that perhaps pitchers in those years did not always take their alloted warm up pitches. The game returns with a 1-1 count on the batter, as announcer Ned Martin comments that pitcher Larry Sorensen only took 4 warm-up pitches between innings. Of course, these days the umpire would likely hold up play even if a pitcher did not want his alloted 8 pitches, in order to allow television to finish up with the commercials.

Jerry Remy, the batter, would later replace analyst Bob Montgomery for TV38, joining Ned Martin in the booth.

Sorensen also became a broadcaster but his troubles with alcohol has landed him in jail twice. He nearly died in 2008 when he was found unconscious in his car in Chesterfield, Michigan with a blood alcohol level of .48

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Cheating Through the Years 

Anyone voting against Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens on their Hall of Fame ballot should be forced to watch this game from 1982 in which Gaylord Perry scores his 300th victory. Perry, an admitted spit-baller (his 1976 autobiography was called “Me and the Spitter”), goes through an impression of a third base coach’s steal signs before each pitch as he psyches out hitters and umpires alike.

Perry was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991 (Gene Mauch once joked that “He should be in the Hall of Fame with a tube of K-Y jelly attached to his plaque”) after winning 314 games and a Cy Young Award in each league. Ironically, on the MLB Network rebroadcast of this classic game, we see steroid news and notes scrolling on a bottom-of-the-screen ticker.

Perry’s antics were cute, fun and probably good for baseball. He was a star attraction and never took the issue or himself too seriously. But he did flaunt the rules and gain a distinct advantage over the competition, which makes one wonder how Hall of Fame voters today can rank one form of cheating over another.

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Speed Guns in the 1980s

According to Tony Kubek in this clip from the 1982 World Series, speed guns measuring Joaquin Andujar differ by as much as 5 miles per hour. Is this true?  I can’t imagine that the guns were very helpful if that was the case, as the difference between a 90 mile per hour heater and a 95 is enormous in today’s baseball. 

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Coach Intimidation”

It’s a bit odd to see pitching coach Bob Gibson walk out to the mound in his Atlanta Braves’ baby blues in this clip from 1983. Few remember that Gibson tried his hand at coaching in the 1980s, originally joining Joe Torre’s New York Mets as an “attitude coach” —whatever that was. 

It’s a longstanding baseball maxim that the very best players don’t make great coaches or managers. Babe Ruth never got his shot, Ted Williams struggled as Senators’ skipper and “Gibby” only lasted until 1984 as a Major League coach.  Here we see him try to coax the best out of Greg McMurtry, who does manage to break Jack Clark’s bat and then escape the inning via a doubleplay on a ball scalded to third. Maybe the Old Gibson stare was effective after all?

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Fast Movin’ Phil

When you watch a game from the past, even the mid 1980s, you quickly see at least one reason why games today last 3 and a half or 4 hours.  Sure, there are more pitching changes and longer commercial breaks, but it’s also amazing how fast the pitchers worked back in the day.  Here is a clip from a 1985 Yankees-Tigers game with 46 year-old Phil Niekro on the mound.  The white-haired middle-ager looks impossibly old — but that knuckle ball is really moving.  So is Phil, who just stays on the rubber and keeps on dealing while the Tigers rarely leave the batter’s box.  When you see the game played at this speed, it’s hard to understand why baseball would be played at any other.

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Finish What You Started

There are many reasons why pitchers went deeper into games twenty or thirty years ago. There was less reliance by managers on lefty/righty matchups, teams did not carry the large corps of relief specialists that they do now and there was not as much worrying about pitch counts.  But another reason was simply that managers let starters struggle through bad outings.  If pitchers did not have their best stuff, they simply coped as best they could.  In this Tigers-Yankees game from 1985, Sparky Anderson really seems to think it over before yanking Morris in the 8th inning with two outs after he had just given up a 2 run homer for runs number 7 and 8. Clinging to a one run lead, Morris is about to deliver his next pitch when Sparky finally makes his move.  In today’s baseball, Morris would not have been out for the 8th (or maybe the 7th) and after the Pagliarulo home run, the manager would be out for the ball before Pags touched home.

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Overcoming Your Era

Given baseball’s rich and storied history, it is natural for fans to want to compare players from different eras. The debates lives on, who was better, Ruth or Mays? How does ARod compare to Honus Wagner? Could the ’75 Reds beat the ’27 Yanks? Of course, we all know this is a fool’s errand. If this website proves nothing, it shows just how much baseball has changed through the years. Spitballs, band boxes, steroids, Greenies, Astroturf, poor groundskeeping, changes in equipment and the quality of the baseballs are just a few of the many oscillating factors which make comparing eras so difficult. Still, we all play this comparison game… 

I say, when if we must compile the best of the best, start with players that overcame the trends of their era. Bob Gibson was one hell of a pitcher. There’s no doubt there. But it’s important to consider the context in which he played. In 1968, Carl Yastrzemski actually led the American League in batting average with a mark of .301. Bill Terry certainly belongs in the Hall of Fame. But the year he hit .401 the National league batted.303 as a league. 

The cream of the crop manage to counter the times in which they played. Babe Ruth hit 54 home runs in 1919 — not bad in any era. But consider that only one other team hit more homers than he did that season. The next highest individual total was George Sisler at 19.

Similarly, Pedro Martinez certainly had a few of the greatest seasons by a pitcher of all-time. In this clip, we see the first inning of the classic 1999 All-Star Game in which, after a stirring tribute to Ted Williams, Pedro blew the doors off the National League. Allusions to the hitting era that the game was being played in are mentioned throughout the inning. At one point Joe Buck marvels at Sammy Sosa finishing second in the National League during the previous season with 66 Home Runs. And yet in this era of steroids and swats, Pedro excelled. 

Just for the record, Pedro finished 1999 at 23-4, a 2.07 ERA (in the American League no less), a WHIP of 0.923 and, perhaps most impressively as it shows where the rest of the pitchers were at this time, a 243 ERA+ The next year he dropped his ERA to 1.74 and boosted his ERA+ to 291. Bob Gibson, Walter Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Steve Carlton… they all had incredible seasons during pitchers’ eras. When talking about the greatest single pitching season, I’ll take Pedro.

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