There was a time, little more than a year ago, when baseball's most dynamic symbol was the figure of a Mickey Mantle or a Stan Musial or a Willie Mays with a bat in his hands. But in the 1963 season the picture changed. Today the symbol is Sandy Koufax of the Dodgers (see cover), striking out 306 batters, pitching a no-hitter, winning 25 games. The pitchers dominated baseball last year and the success of Koufax' own team in winning the National League pennant and the World Series was in itself a season-long triumph for pitching. By the end of the year Connie Mack's old theory that "pitching is 75% of baseball" seemed to need an upward revision.
Even the statistics assumed a quality of unreality. The number of base hits decreased by 1,478 and runs by 1,681. As bases on balls dropped off 1,345, strikeouts rose by 1,206, and the list of 20-game winners climbed to 10, the highest in a dozen years. Seventeen percent of all games—275 games during the season—ended in shutouts. And only 15 hitters averaged .300, compared to 23 in 1962. Tommy Davis of the Los Angeles Dodgers won the National League batting championship with the second lowest average (.326) since 1919, while Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox won the American League title with the fourth lowest average (.321) since 1901.
Many explanations are advanced for this pitching phenomenon. Some experts, like former owner, showman and now full-time critic Bill Veeck, believe that the pitching looked so very, very good merely because the hitting was so very, very bad. "The hitters," says Veeck, "tried to knock everything out of the park instead of just meeting the ball." That delightful wandering minstrel, Satchel Paige, naturally has his own surrealistic explanation. He maintains that the pitching was not so much better in 1963 than it had been in previous years but that "today's hitters are not like the hitters we used to have. They are all tired and they get tired because they eat stuff out of hothouses and cans and freezers instead of right out of the ground."
Old Satch may be kidding—presumably pitchers use can openers, too—but three of the National League's more thoughtful citizens are deadly serious when they discuss the subject. Dick Groat of the Cardinals and Henry Aaron of the Braves—both former batting champions—agree with Manager Walt Alston of the Dodgers that pitching today is so good that it will continue to dominate the game for years. "Every time you look up," says Groat, "there is another strong young kid out on the mound throwing that ball exactly where he wants it and not where you want it."
Alston says, "During the last few seasons kids have been coming out of nowhere; kids that nobody ever heard of before. They are all fast, smart and can control not only a fast ball and curve, as pitchers did in the past, but many of them can handle the fast ball, curve, change, screwball and slider with some degree of proficiency. They study hard and learn quick, and most of them have a tremendous desire to make it to the top."
Aaron, the most devastating hitter in baseball, sighs when he says, "I just don't see how any hitter can possibly hit for an average as high as .350 anymore. When I first broke in 11 years ago it was virtually certain that one or two guys would hit .350 or .360. Those days are gone. Today's pitchers are better than any I've seen since I came to the big leagues. Every team has at least three top starters, and some have four. A manager can reach down into the bullpen and throw a relief pitcher at you who is just as tough, if not tougher, than the starter. In 1963 the so-called bad teams like Houston [ninth in the 10-team National League] had excellent pitching staffs, and they make it too tough for a hitter to hit for average."
The evidence to support Aaron's contention about the "so-called bad teams" is a comparison of the earned run averages of the last four teams in each league in 1953 and the last four in 1963:
In all but one case, today's pitchers on the weaker teams are far superior to those of a decade ago.
A specific reason often cited for the improvement in pitching is that somehow, through evolution, riboflavin or dedication to Canadian air force exercise pamphlets, pitchers have grown bigger and stronger than everyone else in baseball. Actually, the hitters have grown bigger and stronger too, and the sole obvious reason why big-league games resembled Little League games last year was the sudden appearance of a new strike zone that gave pitchers a marked psychological advantage.
When the Rules Committee raised the target for a strike in 1963 from the old "knees to armpit level" to the new "knees to top of shoulder level" the hitters became disturbed souls. The old strike zone had been riveted into every batter's consciousness to the point where his responses were almost automatic. Confronted with a "higher" strike, he began to worry, to second-guess himself, to reach for bad pitches. "Last year you wouldn't dare take a pitch close to your shoulders when you had two strikes on you," says Curt Flood, the .302 hitter of the Cardinals. The result was that many hitters went after a waste pitch in two-strike situations. If they didn't hit the high pitch right, they popped up. More often they struck out altogether.
Gene Mauch, manager of the Phillies and a man who swiftly reacts to the trends of baseball, may have the best explanation for what actually happened to batters faced with the new strike-zone ruling. "At the beginning of the year," Mauch says, "the hitters were confused. Players try like the devil to get off good at the start of a season and will settle themselves into a groove based on that first half. Some just never overcome a bad first half, and that bad mental block right at the beginning was a horrible thing for most of them."
Warren Spahn of the Milwaukee Braves, ordinarily a slow starter, won four games in April last year. He believes that the new strike zone enabled pitchers to control hitters better than at any time since he entered baseball almost a quarter of a century ago. "The new zone helped limit the efficiency of those thin-handled whip bats that the hitters have been using and it also cut down the effect of the lively ball," he says. "Those 1963 figures on shutouts and low-run games were no accident. The pitching cycle has taken over."
One of the men who put the pitching cycle in motion, if there really is one, is Paul Richards, the general manager of the Houston Colt .45s. Richards started building his .45s three years ago, and he built them almost completely around pitching. He took some of the rejects offered in the expansion draft and added the useful slip pitch to their deliveries. He and Pitching Coach Cot Deal also changed their styles of throwing. They used the big park in Houston and their pitching to establish much better marks than the other new team, the New York Mets.
Says Richards, "There are some advantages now available to pitchers that even they can't attribute to their own skills. People tend to overlook the improvement of playing fields as a boon to pitchers. Infields are much better now than in the 1930s. They're manicured, trimmed and pampered. Infielders get the good hops now, while in the '30s, in most parks, a ground ball was like a hand grenade.
"The instruction all over baseball has developed and improved by 99% in the last 20 years, and the pitchers are getting a lot of it. For one thing, pitchers are easier to teach than hitters. If you walk into the National League tomorrow as a pitcher, say, you already have a style. Against most hitters your style is going to stay the same. But as a hitter you face 90 pitchers, and you have to learn the best pitch that each one has and what he will use in a clutch."
(The general excellence of pitching troubled some others in baseball besides the hitters. According to many concessionaires, close games have an adverse effect on the sale of peanuts, hot dogs and beer. Houston's Buddy Martin says, "In a close game sales drop to nothing—everybody stays in his seat." Buzzie Bavasi, general manager of the Dodgers, does not agree. "Whenever you have a tight game going," he says, "people seem more nervous and, although I can't prove it, they seem to be eating more.")
As with the sale of hot dogs, there are opposing views on how long pitchers will enjoy their edge, or even if it will last through the current season. Richards himself says, "The hitting will catch up. It's a law of nature. The pitchers get ahead and then they become relaxed and careless and the hitters move up."
Vice-President Stan Musial of the Cardinals insists, "The cycles come and the cycles go. There is no doubt that the pitchers seem to be on top right now. Remember, in the years following World War II, all sports were in an offensive stage. Sluggers like Ralph Kiner, Gil Hodges, Henry Aaron, Duke Snider, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Roy Campanella came along, and the idea of the game was to go for the long ball and the big inning. Today the newer parks going up are a disadvantage to all hitters. It used to be that left-handed hitters had a distinct advantage, but today's stadiums are virtually symmetrical and thus baseball seems to be going back to defense, speed and pitching."
As Musial spoke he picked up a bat. "I have to think," he continued, "that this is still the greatest equalizer of all and that this, properly used, can change more cycles than anything else."
Coach Pete Reiser of the Dodgers, one of the most exciting hitters of his day, agrees with Musial. "Very few hitters today," he says, "take advantage of what they have. Too many of them stand up to the plate and think, 'I want a ball I can hit real good,' rather than sticking their bats out and eating some of those lollipops that are thrown up at them. Take a kid like Frank Howard. He has tremendous potential but at times he seems afraid to take a pitch. So they throw bad pitches to him and he swings and misses or pops up. Now if he would take some of those bad pitches he would be walked, and there aren't any pitchers around who like to give up walks. Eventually they would become afraid of walking Howard and would have to use strikes to get him. A guy that big can hit any ball in the strike zone. The pitching cycle today is helped a great deal by the hitter's idea of going for the long ball. 'Going for downtown,' they call it. That feeling of going for downtown now seems universal. I even saw those little guys in Japan down at the ends of their bats. They won't choke up on them. Downtown, everybody wants to go for downtown, but I think that the trend is about to stop."
Actually, there appeared to be a shift in that trend toward the end of last season. Says Gene Mauch, "I thought I saw quite a few hitters hitting the ball better—much better—during the last half of the season. They probably adapted to that strike zone a little, and with the mental barrier gone at the beginning of this year it should help them. Oh, the pitching will still be good, don't doubt that. But the hitting may come back."
Mauch's observations are supported by a comparison of first and second half of the season batting averages:
On 14 teams, averages increased, some by as much as 20 points. In spring training this year the hitters continued their offensive. Few of them were complaining about the strike zone anymore. The mighty Koufax was roughed up in two games; so were Whitey Ford and Ernie Broglio. Everything considered, it appears that Stan Musial's equalizer is already at work. The symbol of the game is still Sandy Koufax—but, like all pitchers, he may find that baseball coming back at him a little more often this year.