Hitting is the most difficult of the athletic arts," once declared Garry Schumacher, veteran publicity man for the New York Giants and one of the few constant observers of baseball who can be truly described as a student of the game.
"You can't teach a man to hit," adds George Kell, who knows how. Kell's credentials include an American League batting championship, 2,000 major league hits and a lifetime batting average of .307.
Kell argues: "You can't teach a man to hit. You can correct his mistakes and help him to improve, but he has to be able to hit to begin with. He needs certain things: good eyesight, reflexes, coordination, strength. But he has to be able to hit. You can't make a hitter.
"Take Paul Richards [the astute manager of the Baltimore Orioles, who had a lifetime major league batting average of only .227]. Paul knows how to hit. He can show a man the right things to do and what he's doing wrong. He knows what you're supposed to do. Paul's a brilliant man. If anybody ever could learn how to hit, Paul Richards could have learned. But Paul couldn't hit."
Hitting, then, is an instinctive art, a pure skill. Ben Hogan can take the hacker in golf, instruct him in detail as to the correct grip of the hands on the club, the necessary position of the feet, the proper movement of the arms...and turn the duffer into a reasonably competent golfer. A good golf swing is a habit.
But in baseball the swinging of a bat cannot be frozen in an amber drop of precisely taught and carefully acquired habit. The baseball is not held rigidly in one spot waiting for the batter to swing at it according to a carefully tested stereotyped procedure. The baseball moves. Can you imagine trying to hit a golf ball that was moving in slow circles around the tee?
Yet a baseball not only moves, it is projected in the batter's direction at high speed and in such a way that it shifts its direction in flight. The only constant a batter has to rely on is the fact that the pitcher must throw the ball through the strike zone over home plate.
Batters have to approach the problem of hitting such a fast-moving, wavering projectile according to their own individual capabilities and needs. Duke Snider has superior strength abetted by a wonderful coordination of wrist and forearm and shoulder and back. Ted Kluszewski is immensely strong, but not so well coordinated. Both are home run hitters. Snider swings fully, extravagantly. Frequently he misses the ball completely (Hogan would blanch) and he strikes out a good deal; but frequently—or at least more often than any other major league player in the past eight seasons—he hits his home runs.
Kluszewski, and this was so even before the onset of his current back injury, does not swing freely. His swing is short, stubby and controlled, but his brute strength achieves the desired home run.
Richie Ashburn is comparatively small. He has the coordination to swing like Snider but not the strength to hit home runs. So he holds the bat short to better control its leverage, snaps the bat quickly and gains, not home runs but many base hits and very few strikeouts.
"Hitting is all in here," George Kell says, indicating the forearms and the wrists. "It doesn't matter how much power you have, or how hard you bring the bat around. If you can't pop that bat at the last instant, you can't hit."
Snider whips at a pitch, Kluszewski bludgeons and Ashburn fences, each in his own way—since big league players solve the problem individually. But Kell's one dictum is obeyed—the wrists are popped—and each is a hitter, a type, a skilled master of the amazingly difficult art of batting a baseball.
Nelson Fox (top left) is small as major leaguers go. No home run hitter, he chops at the ball, slices it, pushes it, bunts it. He's smart, resourceful, very determined. An ex-teammate says: "When little Foxie goes up there, let me tell you, he intends to hit." Gil Hodges (bottom left) is a different type: a big, powerful free-swinger to whom pitchers throw carefully, usually with good curve low and away. Gil strikes out a lot, but he walks often and hits home runs
Pitchers have a profound respect for Henry Aaron (right). Brooklyn Pitcher Clem Labine complains: "Even if you fool him with a pitch and catch him off balance, he just snaps those wrists at the last instant and hits a double to the opposite field," Yogi Berra (next page) commands much the same sort of respect. "He's harder to pitch to than Mantle," says Labine. Tall, rangy Harvey Kuenn (opposite Berra) is noted for his flat, slashing line drives to all fields
Jim Lemon (left) is slow getting himself unwound from home plate as he starts for first base. This is characteristic of batters who, like Lemon employ violent muscular effort when they swing
Though hitting styles differ greatly, the distinctions are more apparent in the way batters stand while awaiting pitch rather than in actual swing. Once a batter commits himself, he falls into an astonishingly consistent pattern, as pictures on this and following pages show. Compare the left-handed-hitting Mickey Mantle (right) with the right-handed-hitting Rocky Colavito (below). Colavito's hands a re held slightly higher than Mantle's, but otherwise the two are almost perfect mirror images of one another: rigidly anchored rear leg, knee slightly flexed; raised front leg, knee bent in, toe barely off ground; front arm pulled back across chest, chin against shoulder, rear forearm at right angle to rear upper arm; bat lifted high and tilted in slightly toward the head
Baseball players hop when they hit. Technically it's more of a stride than a hop, because at no time do the feet leave the ground simultaneously. But it is a hopping motion—which is sometimes hard to believe. A hop seems abrupt, awkward, whereas the wonderfully level swing of Willie Mays, pictured on the right, is almost classic in its beauty. Even those who don't care for baseball marvel at the restless grace of Ted Williams (bottom left) and the catlike pounce of Stan Musial (bottom right) when those great practitioners of the art swing their bats. Nevertheless, each hops. Batters about to swing have all their weight on the rear leg and their forward foot off the ground (see Mantle and Colavito on page 23). Here, Mays, Williams and Musial have swung and hit the ball. Their batting styles are quite different to the eye but the camera clearly shows that each has shifted his weight abruptly to his forward leg. Only Al Kaline (bottom center) has rear foot firmly on ground, and this is because he has shifted his body to hit to right field, the "opposite" field for a right-hander