I doubt that there will ever be a lot of .300 hitters again in the majors." The speaker was Stan Musial, a man eminently qualified to discuss the problems of the .300 hitter.
Musial was sitting on a red equipment trunk in the St. Louis Cardinal dressing room in St. Petersburg. At 40, he still looks very much the major leaguer, although there are signs of the restaurateur in the thickening waist and thinning hair. As owner of Stan Musial and Biggie's restaurant in St. Louis, he will not have to worry when his playing career ends.
"Lot of things make it tougher for a batter today than it was 20 years ago," he said. "The shape of the bat has changed because everyone swings for the fences now. Why shouldn't they? The home run hitters draw the big money. Used to be bats had thick handles and a big barrel. Then they found out it's not the size of the bat that gets home runs—it's the speed with which you can swing it. So now everyone uses a bat like this. See? A thin handle and a long taper, so that most of the wood's in the end of the bat. You can whip this one around and get power in your swing.
"But that's only part of it," he said. "When I came up to the majors in 1941, very few pitchers had the slider. You practically never saw it, and it wasn't very effective. Now every pitcher you face has the slider and uses it pretty well. It fits the shape of this bat. They used to call a slider a nickel curve. It's not that. It comes in like a fast ball and breaks a few inches in toward the hands of the batter in the last few feet of its flight. That means it breaks in where there's no wood in the bat. Just the thin handle. It breaks so late you can't adjust your swing for it. And it's a fourth pitch, remember. Used to be all you had to worry about was the fast ball, the curve and the change-up. Add the slider, and right there the batter's problem is 25% harder."
Howie Pollet, the Cardinal pitching coach, broke in.
"First pitcher I remember really working on the slider was Murry Dickson," he said. "That was in 1948. Murry worked on it all year long, but he led the league in throwing home run balls. Every time he'd throw a home run pitch Eddie Dyer, the manager, would ask him, 'What did you give him?' Murry would say 'the slider,' and finally Dyer told him to take the slider and lose it somewhere."
"He didn't say anything about the sliders Murry threw that got the batter out," Musial said dryly.
"Pitching is different now," Musial went on. "When I came up, the idea was for a pitcher to go a complete game. So the pitchers paced themselves. They'd ease up now and then if there was no one on base, and you might get a fat pitch. In the late innings, too, they would get tired, and you could get hits off them. Another thing—you could get organized against a pitcher who stayed around for the whole game. You look at a pitcher twice, then the third time up you know pretty much what to expect.
"It's not like that now," he said, regretfully. "Now the managers send a pitcher in to throw as hard as he can as long as he can. If he gets tired they send in a relief pitcher who throws as hard for as long as he can. Now, in the late innings the pitchers are fresh and the batters are tired. Just about the time you get used to a pitcher's delivery, he's gone and you're looking at a new one. You never hit against a tired pitcher, and every pitcher is bearing down on you with each pitch.
"Night baseball cuts a lot of points off the average, too," he went on. "There's no substitute for good old sunlight—I don't care how bright they make the lights. They can't light up the skies or the trees or buildings in the background. You're hitting against blackness at night, and you lose your sense of depth perception. Lots of pitchers can win at night who would never win a game in daylight.
"The scheduling doesn't help, either. Play a night game, then come back the next afternoon for another game. The batters play in both, but the pitchers are fresh."
He picked up a glove.
"Everything's working against the hitter now," he said. "Even the gloves. They're bigger and better made. If a fielder can just touch the ball with one of these mitts, he's got it. They make plays every day that you wouldn't see once in a season a few years back."
He put the glove down, picked up a bat. "One thing," he said as he walked toward the batting cage. "There's no difference in ballplayers. In the '40s, when I came up, I played against the great players of the '30s, and I heard them talk about the great ones of the '20s. Now it's the '60s, and some of these kids I'm playing with and against will be the superstars of the '70s. You get a long perspective, and the players are just as good now as they were then. The difference is in the game."