Every time I watch Dale Murphy take an off-balance, futile swing at a curveball, I wish my brother Chas were alive and coaching the Atlanta batters. I have watched Murphy, the gentlemanly and tall (6'5") centerfielder for the Braves, strike out something like 200 times over the past couple of seasons, on telecasts from Ted Turner's superstation.
Murphy isn't the only big-leaguer to whom "curve" is a dirty word. The player who can hit the curve is the exception, not the rule. Fortunately for the game, today's pitchers throw the curve no better than the batters hit it.
Turn my brother Chas loose on Murphy with a big bag of de-kerneled corncobs, and I'll guarantee Dale would be hitting curveballs to all fields and over the fences within a week. Chas taught me to hit the curve—the out curve, in curve and drop, as we called them—during lazy, hot afternoons in the summer of 1929, and I had nothing like Murphy's talent. Chas taught me so well that the following summer I had a day of glory.
Ted Williams has said that hitting a thrown baseball is the "most difficult thing to do" in sports. Golfers hit the ball almost every time, but if it's moving when they hit it, they're penalized. A basketball player can miss the center of his target by several inches, and the ball still will go swish. Hockey, soccer, lacrosse and polo players can miss the middle of the goal by feet or even yards and still score. The quarterback's target is moving but can adjust to passes off the mark. A tennis player has a large, flat surface with which to hit, and a boxer has a very large object to swing at.
October 18, 1981
A baseball is different from all other targets in one special way. Unless it is hit dead center, with only a small amount to spare up or down, the batter loses. Unlike the tennis ball, of course, the baseball must be hit with a rounded, not a flat, bat. If the center of the round bat is a little under the center of the baseball when the two meet, the ball will pop into the air; if the center of the bat is a little over the center of the baseball, the ball will take to the ground. It's easy to understand that hitting a ball traveling in a straight line is far from easy. But have that ball, thrown from 60'6" away, travel in a straight line for 58 or so feet, then use the last couple of feet to dip down and away from the batter, or down and in toward the batter, or straight down toward the plate, and the difficulty of hitting it has been compounded many times.
Chas could throw a curve and hit one, and as relaxation from his studies he decided that part of my education should be learning to hit the curveball.
We didn't have a lot of money for equipment growing up in Franklin, Pa., so we used what was available—corncobs from a tenant farmer's pigsty—for balls. Chas chopped each corncob into three lengths and, using the century-old, treadle-style grindstone in the barn, ground the pieces into rough spheres. The corncob "balls," I would guess, were perhaps three-fifths the size of baseballs and one-fifth the weight. They could be thrown at good speed—Chas estimated 30 mph, which, I'll never forget, equals 44 feet a second.
Don't ask me to explain the math of all this, but Chas figured that with home plate 18 feet from the pitching slab, he could get exactly the same ratio of curve-to-distance with a ground corncob that a pitcher could get with a baseball at 60'6". He threw a few corncobs at the back of the house to test his theories and then borrowed some lime and lined out a home plate, batters' boxes and pitcher's mound.
Now we needed a bat. For some reason I have forgotten, none of our collection of old, abused bats would do. So Chas dipped into his newsboy earnings and bought one. The bat was a very interesting example of the kind of things that could happen in the world of grown-up skulduggery. It had an oval trademark bearing the trade name Ailerich and Brady, and the A in Ailerich was more like an H with the top closed. The bat was an "Official Louiseville Slugger" and was autographed by somebody called "Rabe Buth." It cost Chas something like 35¬¨¬®¬¨¢. It was about two-thirds as long, and the barrel about two-thirds as big around, as my beloved, battered Tris Speaker model, but it was the bat Chas wanted me to use while learning to hit the curveball.
I didn't particularly want to learn. When a pitcher threw a ball that seemed to be coming at my head, all I wanted to do was get the hell out of there. Besides, no schoolboy pitcher I had ever faced could get three curves out of seven pitches in the strike zone with any consistency, so it was a safe bet that I'd get something to swing at most times at the plate. But when Chas made up his mind to do something, opposition was useless. I would learn to hit the curve, and that was that.
All that summer, an hour or two every sunny day, we played Pirates and Yankees in our backyard. Occasionally other boys would join in, but mostly it was just Chas and me. Chas was the Yankees and I was the Pirates. The Pirates were given nine outs per inning to the Yankees' three, but my Pirates and I still got clobbered the whole month of June.
By the end of the month I had learned to determine from the pitcher's motion and wrist action whether he was throwing a fastball or a curve. By the end of July I could tell whether Chas was throwing an out curve, in curve, drop or fast curve (later known as a slider). By the end of August I had learned to judge the trajectory of the break and met corncob cleanly with bat barrel. The Pirates and Yankees played on even terms. Chas lined more doubles into the grape arbor in rightfield, but I pulled more home runs over the asparagus bed in leftfield. I had learned to hit the curve, at least in our corncob league.
Chas' teaching held true with a real baseball at regulation distances. In those days there was no Little League, but every town had its baseball team. There were no boys' leagues, as such, in a town, but boys used to gather at the ball park in haphazard fashion, and if enough showed up for two teams, they would play a regular game; otherwise, they played other types of ball games.
Every boy with any pretension to being a pitcher could throw an out curve and a drop. What we called an in curve usually was really a fastball that tailed into a righthanded hitter when thrown by a righthanded pitcher. An exception was the in curve thrown by one of the town team's best pitchers, a former professional named Red Eddy. The Red came from his hair color; whether the Eddy was a first or last name I don't know. Eddy was a big man with a crackling fastball, a good changeup curve, a fast curve that must have broken at least eight inches, and an in curve that today would be called a fine screwball.
When a pickup team of boys faced the town team in a practice game, most of the boys moved to the front of the batter's box to hit Eddy's curve "before it broke."
This was contrary to Chas' teaching. "If the curveball is in your strike zone before it breaks, then it's going to be called a ball when it reaches the plate area," Chas told me time after time. "If it's going to break into the strike zone and you swing before it breaks, you're swinging at a pitch you can't hit."
I wasn't strong enough to get the bat around on Eddy's fastball, but in practice games I was able to murder his changeup and screwball, as they would be called now. He didn't like me very much for that reason until he learned he could get me with his fastball. After that he was able to tolerate me.
I know it was the summer of 1929 when Chas taught me to hit the curveball, because that was the summer our father died. I'm not sure whether it was the summer of 1930 or 1931 that the lesson paid its big dividend on Squirrel Island, which is off the coast of Maine, where the same families had been summering since the mid-1800s.
This particular summer there were more young men of college age on Squirrel than usual. Brokerage offices, banks and the like weren't making jobs for them that summer, so the college men were spending the vacation months in their families' summer homes. As a result, in addition to the regular tennis and sailing, there was heavy emphasis on Softball, touch football and baseball. A couple of Dartmouth boys even organized a track meet for islanders of all ages and both sexes.
There turned out to be enough good baseball players for just one team, which cut down baseball enthusiasm until someone suggested that we revive the traditional annual baseball game with the town team of Boothbay Harbor, the mainland jumping-off place for the island. The challenge was issued and accepted and a Sunday afternoon date set for a game on the Boothbay ball field. Practice produced the normal crop of injuries, and when the day of the game rolled around, there were only seven able-bodied men on the Squirrel team. That meant dipping into the eager but generally inept pool of prep-school freshmen and sophomores or forfeiting the game. To forfeit was unthinkable, so I won the leftfield job and another adolescent was put in rightfield.
Half a century later, I'm not sure of all the players, but I do recall that virtually everyone rotated into the pitcher's spot. Our starting pitcher was the visiting beau of one of the island beauties. Two particularly memorable players played at short and second. They were a couple of dissipated young collegians known island-wide as Flotsam and Jetsam. If I ever knew their real names, they're long gone from my mind.
The Boothbay town team was composed of lobstermen, fishermen and farmers, all of them seasoned ballplayers. They were fast, experienced, talented, used to playing as a team, and they outclassed us shamefully. Their pitcher was a skinny, bald-headed veteran called Herb, with a sneaky fastball and a big out curve. Our college men showed in the top of the first inning that his fastball wasn't too sneaky for them. We got four or five hits and two or three runs before Herb went to his curve and got us out.
The townies took out their innate dislike of invading Summer People on us in the bottom of the first, batting around and scoring half a dozen runs. I spent a busy 10 minutes chasing line shots to the fence and playing the carom.
I led off the second inning, and I remember hoping nobody would notice my trembling knees when I moved into the batter's box. Herb started me off with a fastball that I took for a strike. I swung late at another fastball that would have been easy pickings for one of the college men but was too much for me. Ahead by nothing and two, Herb decided to polish me off with his curveball. It was just like a session with the corncobs in our backyard. The ball started off right at my chin, but analyzing Herb's wrist snap was nothing to someone who had faced Chas. I waited for it, subsconsciously calculated the trajectory of the break, shifted my weight and swung. The ball went on a line over the first baseman's head and rolled all the way to the fence, while I turned on full speed and made it standing to third base.
The fact that I died on third couldn't erase the thrill of the triple, nor could the fact that Herb's curveball mowed down the islanders for the next two innings, while the townies padded their score almost at will. I came up again in the fourth inning and again got the curveball, bouncing a single to center. Later, I made a lucky running catch of a short flyball and, with my momentum helping, executed a perfect throw home to nail a townie trying to score after the catch.
We did nothing in the top of the fifth, and the game was called off to the very vocal annoyance of the entire population of Boothbay Harbor, which was enjoying seeing "them rich loafers from the island" getting their teeth kicked in. The final score was something like 27-3 or 26-2. It didn't matter much to me. I had had a marvelous day and was puffed with pride at being the only islander with two hits, a scintillating catch and an assist on a double play.
On the boat going back to Squirrel—the Nellie G., smallest steamship in the world—my ego was stroked further when either Flotsam or Jetsam sought me out and did a selling job on the glories of Williams College and its baseball team. I was the kind of fellow, he indicated, that Williams was looking for. I went to bed that night convinced that by morning the island would be ringing with the story of the game and particularly my heroic part in it. I wrote Chas a long and, I'm afraid, bragging letter without, I'm sure, thanking him for making it all possible.
The next day when I went to the tennis courts, expecting a certain amount of worship, all I got was a question from a friend about where I'd been the previous day. They had needed a fourth for doubles. Later in the day I came face to face with Flotsam and Jetsam on the boardwalk. They didn't even go single file to let me by. I had to step off into the tall grass to get around them.