The preoccupation of baseball fans from New York to Los Angeles this year has been the untouched ball; the one that Maris, Mantle and other muscular men have been hitting over the heads of opposing players and far into the grandstands. But by keeping their eyes in the sky, many spectators have missed spectacular performances by another group of baseball masters whose virtue rests in how quickly and deftly they handle batted balls that can be touched. These are the experts at the double play and, like the home run hitters, they have never been better.
The Yankees, for example, have a second baseman with five different pivots, and the Dodgers one with a unique sidearm throw. The Cardinals own a third baseman who saves a split second by not taking a step. The Indians boast of a first baseman who uses a daring backhand pickup.
Excellent infielders such as these have enabled major league teams to average 150 double plays a season. They are the efficiency experts of baseball. No time-study engineer counts fractions of seconds more carefully or works harder at saving them, for a tenth of a second is often the difference between success and failure in a double play. Most double plays take between 3.5 and 4.5 seconds. Anything slower is likely to fail—a very fast base runner like Mickey Mantle can reach first base in 3.3 seconds; a very slow one needs only 5 seconds. The necessity for precision can be fully appreciated when viewed in terms of how close the decision often is at first base on a ground ball when no double play is involved.
The most common double play goes from short to second to first. This is so because most batters (62%, or 198 major leaguers who can be considered regulars) are right-handed and tend to hit to the left side. This is the way it is done by the Yankees, who have led the American League in double plays four out of the last six years: Shortstop Tony Kubek first tries to get squarely in front of the ball. He holds his glove midway between his feet, which are set wide apart. This stance gives him maximum balance and sets him for a quick, step toward second as he throws sidearm. Using the sidearm throw enables Kubek to get rid of the ball more quickly than if he brought his arm up for an overhand throw.
Kubek's throw goes to Second Baseman Bobby Richardson. He uses any of five pivots for his relay to first. His choice, as with all pivot men, depends upon where and how sharply the ball is hit, how quickly and hard the runner arrives, where Kubek's throw is and the speed of the man going to first. Whenever possible, Richardson takes the "feed" while straddling second base and facing Kubek. Few second basemen straddle the bag these days, but that is how those in the Yankee organization are taught.
Of his five pivots, Richardson has one favorite. He straddles the bag to take a chest-high throw from Kubek. As he pivots, Richardson steps toward first with his left foot. He drags his right foot over the left-field side of the base and throws to Bill Skowron at first.
Skowron, like all first basemen on this play, has one main job—to catch the relay. He must be able to adjust his footing swiftly, however, for there are more poor throws on the double play than on conventional one-out plays.
Richardson's fastest pivot is also his most spectacular. His right foot touches the bag as he reaches the base. He executes an acrobatic leap, pushing off with his right foot, and makes his relay with a quick, mid-air flip. This leap helps him to elude the incoming runner, but the very speed of the play increases the danger of his making a poor relay.
If a runner comes in hard and on the outfield side of second, Richardson crosses to the infield side of the bag. He hits the base with his left foot and steps about a yard toward the infield with his right foot, then braces with it to throw.
Should the runner come in on the mound side, Richardson steps on second with his left foot. By pushing off the base with his left foot and backing up a step toward the outfield, he gets out of the runner's way. He steps toward first for added speed as he throws.
To catch a feed on the outfield side of the base or to avoid a runner coming straight in, Richardson quickly shifts from his straddle position. He drags his left foot over the bag as he takes a hop-step to his right and moves behind second. He then braces with his right foot, steps out with his left and relays to first.
The next most common double play is from second to short to first. National Leaguers feel Second Baseman Charlie Neal of the Los Angeles Dodgers is the best at this play. Certainly nobody starts it quicker. Neal believes that a slight innovation he made in his fielding style in 1952 saves much time. On balls hit to their right, almost all second basemen run in an arc toward the ball. That is, they run back and to the right so they can then come in on the ball, field it squarely, turn toward second and throw. "I go after the ball on a straight line," Neal says. "That way my body is already twisted toward second when I pick up the ball. The other way you are facing home and have to turn to make the throw. But I can throw sidearm to second without making a step toward the base." This conserves a fraction of a second and helps explain why the Dodgers have been consistently at or near the top of the National League on double plays in recent years.
Shortstop Maury Wills likes to take Neal's throw as he crosses the bag, or even an instant before. A shortstop has an easier relay to make than the second baseman, because he is already moving toward first base when he catches the throw from the second baseman. Ideally, Neal's throw is letter-high and on the center-field side of second. "This puts the ball right in throwing position," Wills says. "A good feed is the most important part of the double play because there are a lot of things to consider in a short time. You always want the feed in the same spot. That way you don't have to do any extra thinking or adjusting."
As soon as the ball is hit along the ground. First Baseman Norm Larker moves to the bag. "I face second and keep my heels against the side of the bag," Larker says. "I don't hold my glove up for a target—the guy throwing knows where the base is."
One of the most exciting double plays is from third to second to first. There is nothing slow about any double play, but the two long throws in this one heighten the suspense. Added to this is the fact that any ball that a third baseman can convert into a double play must have been hit hard, demanding some fast fielding by the infielder. John McGraw once said, "A third baseman does less thinking than anyone in the game—he doesn't have time."
Ken Boyer, the very quick third baseman of the St. Louis Cardinals, does his thinking in advance. "Coaches teach you to take a step toward second as you throw, but I don't do that any more," Boyer says. "I just whip the ball across my body toward second. You don't have time to step and aim. I throw for the bag, but I try to make the toss so the second baseman can see the ball coming out of my hand. It's a lot easier if he can pick up the flight of the ball from the start." For three of the past five years Boyer has led all major league third basemen in double plays.
Cardinal Second Baseman Julian Javier gets a fast start toward the bag as soon as the ball is hit to Boyer. To slow down so he will be balanced for the feed and relay, he uses the short, choppy steps that most pivot men employ as they approach second. Javier likes Boyer's throw chest-high and on the first-base side of second. He touches the bag with his left foot as he catches the ball and makes his relay throw to first with a sidearm motion.
The most difficult of the four types of standard infield double plays—first to short to first—involves the fewest men. The main role is that of the first baseman. He must field the ball, throw to the shortstop at second and get back to first base to take the return toss. Vic Power of the Cleveland Indians has few peers, now or ever, in working this play. Jimmie Dykes, Cleveland manager, recently paid Power what he considered the supreme tribute by saying, "He's as good as Sisler ever was, and I've seen them both play."
Like most double-play experts, Power is deceptively skillful. He, too, has his own style. Instead of facing home and catching the ball between his legs in the prescribed manner, he backhands it. As he does this his right foot is pointed toward second. This sets him for his throw to Shortstop Woodie Held. Power pivots a little more on the ball of his right foot as he brings his arm back for a strong overhand throw. In this way he blends into a single smooth, fast motion what most first basemen use two or three time-consuming moves to achieve.
"Then I peek over the right shoulder as I finish throw and I find out where first base is," the Puerto-Rico-born Power says. "I don't turn the head all the way. I keep the eyes on the ball and I make quick steps to the back until I get to the base. I lucky maybe, but I never miss the bag yet."
When Lou Gehrig started playing first for the Yankees he was more awkward than able. In trying to maintain the rhythm needed for executing this play the great Gehrig used to say to himself, "Waltz, waltz, waltz."
"Rhythm very important," Power agrees. "Can't be jerky, but me no waltz. I cha-cha-cha."
Since a double play is so rewarding, infielders combine both subtle tactics and outright fraud to insure its success. (The players themselves openly call these maneuvers "cheating.") Anticipating where a particular batter is most likely to hit the ball, they will move in a few steps toward home and sometimes toward second base so they can field the ball sooner or be in position earlier for the pivot. These minute shifts must be made deftly, however, for sharp-eyed batters like Harvey Kuenn and Nellie Fox can detect and exploit them. By moving in, infielders cut down their fielding range, and the Kuenns and Foxes can poke the ball through the enlarged holes in the infield.
An even more valuable timesaver occurs when pivot men and first basemen, in their haste to complete a play, do not touch the bag while in possession of the ball. This is the controversial "automatic out." One major league manager (Jimmie Dykes) recently estimated that 30% to 40% of the time the infielder does not have the ball when he touches the base.
"Sure I pull my foot," Norm Larker admits. "When a play is close you have to cheat a little, but you gotta be sure of your timing. If you do it all the time the umpire gets used to seeing it, and that way it isn't so noticeable when you really need to do it."
Many umpires make their decision at first base by listening to the ball hit the glove while watching the runner's foot touch the bag. This is why a few first basemen slap their glove at the throw, creating a louder sound when they catch the ball. Power feels this effort to fool the umpire is not worth the risk involved. "Some, they hit at the ball. I don't like—might make error. When is close play I yell 'yaa, yaa' and I make the umpire think my way. Runge [Umpire Ed] say once, 'Vic, you got me calling play your way.' Is good."
Yet action at first base is not as bruising as it is at second, where runners rumble in intent upon breaking up the double play and, if need be, the pivot man too. Wills sums up the pivot man's problem this way: "That runner comes into second with blood in his eyes, and you have to get out of the way. If you miss the bag when you have the ball it's only by a tenth of a second. The umpire knows that if you had to you could have slowed down and made the play perfectly. He also knows the danger this is to you. The umpire usually gives you the out to protect you. Take Frank Robinson of Cincinnati. He always comes in hard. On men like this, Charlie and I take the throw from behind the bag a lot. That way they can't get you when they slide in."
Leo Durocher, who played in 1,637 games as a major league infielder, cites a rule interpretation that helped pivot men. "The runner coming into second used to be allowed to slide any way he wanted. They used to go halfway out to right field to get you. Now they have to be able to touch the bag with a hand or foot when they slide. When they came in at me I used to throw the ball at them right here," Durocher says, putting his right index finger on the bridge of his nose.
A change in the relay throw from second also has been significant. Oldtime pivot men often missed double plays unless the feed from the infielder was just where they wanted it. If the ball was too high or low or off to one side, the pivot man used to bring his arm and the ball all the way back from this position to his preferred throwing spot before relaying to first. Most pivot men now eliminate this time-consuming process. Richardson, Wills, Javier and Held all throw from wherever they get the ball.
Speaking of Javier, Boyer says, "He got a throw early this season that was around his knees, but he made the relay throw from down there and got the runner at first."
The Pirates' new play
Nor are refinements in this most meaningful of all baseball plays about to end. It is one of the wonders of the game that just when it seems a play could hardly be performed better or differently somebody finds a dashing new way. One day last season the Pittsburgh Pirates were in trouble in the seventh inning of a 2-2 game with St. Louis. There were Cardinal runners on first and second and none out. Joe Cunningham was the batter, and the Pirates suspected he would bunt. He did. Don Hoak dashed in from third and Dick Stuart from first as the pitch was thrown. Hoak fielded the ball and threw to Shortstop Dick Groat who, instead of covering second as he usually would, had made the long run over to cover third base. One out. Groat then relayed across the diamond to Second Baseman Bill Mazeroski, who was covering first base. Double play. It stopped a possible rally, and Pittsburgh went on to win the game 3-2 in the 11th inning. The Pirates had practiced this play extensively and were convinced it would work in a game, in spite of the risks in having their whole infield break with the pitch, thus leaving huge areas uncovered. The result: two quick outs, an eventual 3-2 victory and a step toward a pennant—all thanks to a surprising innovation in one of baseball's oldest plays.