For those who persist in the blind conviction that Ted Williams and Stan Musial are the best hitters in baseball and that Mickey Mantle and Henry Aaron await only the passage of time before ascending the throne, it is suggested that they read the fine type in the sports pages of their daily newspapers. Figures do not lie—in baseball, they wouldn't dare—and there in the batting averages last week, for all the world to see, was incontrovertible proof that Williams and Musial were over the hill and that Mantle and Aaron were simply flashes in the pan. The best hitters in baseball were Reno Bertoia, the druggist's friend from St. Vito, Italy (see HIGHLIGHT), and Donald Albert Hoak, a retired trumpet player from Roulette, Pa.
This does not necessarily signify the end of baseball. For one thing, 20 games do not a season make, and there is still a long way to go. For another, Bertoia is only 22 years old and was once deemed worthy of a $25,000 bonus by the Detroit Tigers and someday really could become one of baseball's better hitters, with or without the benefit of Equanil. Stranger things have happened. But it is a little harder to explain this business of Don Hoak.
Hoak is 29 years old and has been playing baseball professionally since 1947, yet never has he hit over .295. His lifetime major league average is some 65 points below that. Of even more consequence, while Mantle and Williams were finishing one-two last year in the American League batting race and Aaron was leading the National, Don Hoak was making his mark by finishing dead last. Of all the players who officially qualified for the honor, Hoak and his .215 brought up the rear. This means that he was even worse than Willie Miranda, and in the big leagues you do not sink below this and still hope to stick around.
Yet after three weeks of the 1957 season Don Hoak was hitting .415, and a week later, after the first full month of play, he was still leading the National League at .388. And, what is more important, he was also right near the top of the column headed runs batted in. With Ted Kluszewski off flexing his muscles for the edification of the medical fraternity rather than the terrorization of opposing pitchers, with the other big Cincinnati sluggers, Wally Post and Gus Bell, at something less than peak form, Hoak had personally taken up the slack. He was swinging the big bat which sent the Redlegs off to their 12-game winning streak and to the top of the National League.
Most of baseball observed this miracle with the same air of puzzled wonderment which settled over Hoak's old teammates on the Chicago Cubs. "Are you sure," they asked, "that it's the same Don Hoak?" When told that apparently it must be, the Cubs, like everyone else, wanted to know what in the world had happened.
STRAIGHTEN UP AND SWING RIGHT
According to Hoak, it was fairly simple. The formula goes something like this: First, assume a stance in the near-geometric center of the batter's box. Then spread your feet as far apart as possible without falling over, crouch slightly and at the same time bend forward from the waist. Immediately abandon this position and move as far toward the back, inside corner of the box as you can get without stepping on the catcher's toes or obscuring the umpire's view of the game. Place your feet close together, stand up straight and relax. Then, when a baseball comes by, hit it. This may not work for you, but it has done wonders for Don Hoak.
If the new batting stance has made Hoak a celebrity as a hitter, the old one earned for him a certain renown, too. When dug in at the plate, Hoak appeared capable of standing staunch before a hurricane—as long as it blew from the direction of the mound. "He looked," once wrote Dick Young of the New York Daily News, "like the Holland Tunnel with a bat in its hands."
"I started hitting that way at Fort Worth in 1950," Don says. "I was having a lot of trouble hitting the high fast ball so I decided to crouch. You notice how a lot of good fast-ball hitters crouch—Lopata, McDougald, Banks. So I did, too, and it helped.
"A couple of years ago, when I was with the Dodgers, Alston and I fooled around with changing my stance, but I never did feel just right, so I went back to hitting the same old way.
"I was all locked up. Too tight. And I was swinging too hard. I'm not a home-run hitter and I know it, but Ebbets Field will do that to a guy; you always think you can hit one into those seats. Reese used to tell me I was swinging too hard. So would Hodges. And Birdie has told me that he used to notice it all the time.
"So this spring when I reported to the Reds down at Tampa, Tebbetts called me in and he said, 'You know you can't play in the majors, Don, and hit .215.' I told him nobody knew it better than I did. He said, 'Do you want to work on changing your stance? It might help.' And I told him anything he wanted to try was O.K. with me. So he had me start hitting this way and here I am."
At first Hoak had trouble finding the strike zone. He was comfortable in the new position, but he was so close to the plate, his elbows, in fact, extending out over it, that every pitch looked like it was going to knock him down. And then, even after he became accustomed to that, Don discovered he had lost quite a bit of his power.
"I told Birdie and he just grinned. He knew I really hadn't lost any power, it was just that I couldn't swing as hard this way. He told me right at first: 'You hit 15 or 20 home runs on this ball club and you're nobody. We've got guys that hit 35 or 40. You cut down on that swing and just worry about meeting the ball.' "
THEY COULDN'T GET HIM OUT
Just meeting the ball, Hoak hit .416 in spring training. On opening day, he hit two doubles. As the Reds struggled through those disastrous first two weeks when they lost six games to Milwaukee, Hoak was about the only member of the club who did keep on hitting. And then the Reds began to win. On May 2, exactly a year from the day Don had set a National League record in futility by striking out six times in one game, he drove in five runs against the Giants, including the two winning runs in the ninth inning, with three singles and a home run. Against the Dodgers on May 8, he hit a grand-slam home run off Don Newcombe to win another game. And on May 12, in Chicago, he beat the Cubs in the first game of a double-header with a late-inning single.
"I'm lucky and I know it," he says now, "but somehow I'm hitting the pitches that used to get me out. The good fast-ball pitchers—Antonelli, Buhl, Newcombe, Simmons, Roberts—always used to get me out. Last year I went 0 for 12 against Newk. The other night I hit that home run off him. Anyway, it sure feels good. I just hope it lasts."
Don Hoak is tall and slender, 6 feet 1 inch in height, and he weighs about 179 pounds. He has close-cropped red hair and green eyes and an oft-broken nose and, when he is very determined about something, he looks like nothing so much as a slightly angry hawk. Throughout most of his baseball career he has usually looked like a slightly angry hawk. Determination is just another name for Don Hoak.
He was born and grew up and still lives in Roulette, a northern Pennsylvania town of some 1,100 habitants, and in high school he played baseball, football and the trumpet. He used to pick up a little money playing in a dance band, but there was never much doubt that baseball was what mattered most. He went into the Marine Corps when he was 17 and still in high school; in 1947, when he got out, he went to work playing baseball.
If Hoak wasn't a great hitter, he had certain other talents which sustained him and kept him moving up toward the big leagues, through places like Valdosta, Ga. and Nashua, N.H. and Greenville, S.C., through Fort Worth (where he was married one August night in 1950 at home plate) and St. Paul and Montreal (where President Shag Shaughnessy called him "the best third baseman in the International League in 10 years"). He could run like a rabbit, he had an exceptionally fine arm and his defensive excellence was unquestioned. And Hoak always wanted to win—sometimes, it seemed, too much. He was thrown out of ball games, fined for too-strenuous arguments with umpires and had half a dozen fights. "I don't think I've had any more trouble than most guys," he says, but he will admit that "sometimes during a game you get a little excited."
He was knocked down by pitches so often in his first year that one day he went to his manager at Valdosta, a man named Hugh Holliday, and asked him how come.
"I don't know exactly, Don," said Holliday, "but if I was pitching against you, I'd do the same thing. You just look like a guy that you'd want to knock down."
It didn't really bother Hoak. He was just curious.
When he came up to the Dodgers in 1954, there was little doubt that he was a major league third baseman. The only trouble was the Dodgers already had two major league third basemen named Billy Cox and Jackie Robinson, and Hoak had to wait for them to wear out. In fact, before Robinson wore out, Hoak was gone to Chicago in a trade for Randy Jackson, who had more power and was supposed to grow fat on the friendly left-field stands at Ebbets Field. Hoak, upon leaving the best team in the National League to become a member of the worst, was overjoyed. "I may not have been able to make the Dodgers," he said, "but I can play every day for the Cubs."
He did—or almost every day—and he hit .215.
The winter of 1956-57 was a time of decision for Hoak. The summer before he was nagged almost constantly by sharply recurring headaches. "Sometimes I couldn't sleep for two, three nights," he says. "I thought it was a pinched nerve. I didn't know what it was." Last winter he found out. During a four-hour operation to patch up Hoak's nose, surgeons extracted 26 pieces of bone splinter and cartilage from around the sinus, eye and nose area. The headaches cleared up.
When he heard that he had been traded to the Redlegs, Hoak knew as well as anyone exactly why Cincinnati wanted him. They didn't need a hitter at third base, because the Reds had plenty of hitters, so many in fact that some of them spilled over onto the bench. What the Reds needed was another slick-fielding third baseman like the one they had, Alex Grammas, so that Tebbetts could play Grammas for a while, lift him for a pinch hitter like George Crowe or Smoky Burgess or Bob Thurman and then play Hoak, for example, who in the ninth could be lifted, too, for another pinch hitter.
"I was about ready to quit," says Don. "I went to Gabe Paul [the Cincinnati general manager] and I told him I'd give it a try, but if I didn't do much better, if I couldn't help the ball club, I was going to quit. I told him then and I still feel the same way: I'll never become a baseball bum."
As it has turned out, neither Grammas nor the pinch hitters, at least so far as Hoak is concerned, have had much to do. And now, although no one expects him to continue hitting the way he has, Hoak has won a job.
"He's riding a hot streak," says Tebbetts. "Right now he's got a hot hand. But you've got to remember he looked good when we were losing, too. That's the mark of a ballplayer. Along with his hitting, he's helped our defense. We need him both ways."
Says Coach Jimmy Dykes: "A wonderful ballplayer. He can get that ball. He's taken a big load off Roy McMillan's shoulders. It lets Mac concentrate on the double play."
ALL HIS DREAMS COME TRUE
As for Hoak, he is living in something of a dream world which used to pass close by but never came quite close enough to touch. Radio and television are after him in every city the Redlegs reach, and the newsmen, who used to avoid him like the plague ("Sometimes I didn't talk to one for weeks"), now make his waking hours pleasantly miserable with interviews. He has had a cold since the season began and a sore muscle in his leg bothers him at times, but Hoak can honestly say, compared with all the good things that have been happening to him, that these are nothing.
He considers Tebbetts "the greatest baseball man I've ever seen. His theories are all sound," says Hoak, "and you never feel any pressure when you play for Birdie." He knows that the Cincinnati infield, which, with Hoak at third base, is perhaps the best in baseball, would still likely be the best in baseball even without Hoak—just as long as his roommate, Johnny Temple, plays second and the magical McMillan is at short. He also knows he is no .415 hitter.
"I'm not a .215 hitter either, though," he will tell you. "In fact, I don't really know what kind of a hitter I am. I do know that this ball club can win the pennant. If I can hit a good hard .270 and help win the pennant, that's all I'll ever ask."
HIGHLIGHT...AND HIGH LIFE
In Florida this spring, Reno Bertoia, Detroit's young bonus infielder, seemed nervous. He was awkward in the field and harmless at the plate. It looked as if the jittery Reno was doomed to the minors. Mel Ott, the onetime New York Giant right fielder, who now broadcasts the Tiger games, noticed all this and suggested to Jack Homel, Tiger trainer, that Bertoia be given a tranquilizer pill to ease his tension before a game. Ott himself had never needed tranquilizers during his days as the National League's alltime home run king, but he had turned to them when he found himself tensing up before his broadcasts. Bertoia, with nothing to lose, agreed to the experiment, and the results were astounding. He started hitting furiously and fielding gracefully. When Detroit moved into New York for a series with the Yankees, Reno Bertoia and his pills were leading the league with an extraordinarily healthy batting average of .398.
Several other American Leaguers might well take a leaf from Bertoia's medical book. Last week Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle were each fined $25 for flinging their bats after striking out, in contravention of a league rule protecting spectators. Some other Yankees might benefit too. A few of them—Mantle (again), Hank Bauer, Johnny Kucks, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford—celebrated Billy Martin's birthday by going a few extra innings at the Copacabana, a flashy Manhattan late spot, and wound up in an early-morning brawl. It seemed they needed their pills after the game.
On the evening following the Copa fracas, the Yankees were taking batting practice prior to a game with Kansas City. From the Kansas City dugout a thick-tongued voice pierced the cool evening air. "Heppy birthday to yoo, heppy birthday to yoo," it sang. The prankster was Billy Hunter, an ex-Yankee. Said another K.C. player, "When I saw that some Yankees were involved in a night club brawl, I could name three of them without reading any further."
Most of the revelers were benched for the game, which was won by the Yanks' "9 o'clock" ballplayers, 3-0. Bob Turley substituted for Ford and pitched the shutout, aided by a triple play.
There were soon rumors that Billy Martin, who, it has long been suggested, exerts an unhappy influence over Mickey Mantle, would be traded. Then the rumors were denied. But it looked as if the Yankee front office was displeased with the volatile Martin and was looking for a calmer, steadier infielder. Someone like Reno Bertoia, perhaps.—W.B.