A person issues thundering pronouncements these days at his peril. Nevertheless, here is one: Baseball is entering a Golden Age of Hitting. Or at least a new Golden Age, several others having come and gone. All Golden Ages are introduced by youth, and this one is no exception. Just look around. In The House That Ruth Built, one in which Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle also lived, there is a 24-year-old—Don Mattingly's the name—who has hit .343 and .324 in his two full major league seasons. He won a batting title his first year and an RBI title his second, a season in which he strung together numbers, as statistics are now called, that recall the Yankee legends: 211 hits, 48 doubles, 35 homers, 145 runs batted in, 107 runs. Just up the road from Mattingly, in Fenway Park, is Wade Boggs, who has hit above .360 twice and above .340 once in just four major league seasons. At 27, Boggs is a two-time batting champion. Last year he reached base more often than anyone in history except Ruth, Gehrig and Ted Williams. Out West, in San Diego, there's 25-year-old Tony Gwynn. He has averaged 205 hits in his two full seasons, has won a batting title and is already so well regarded that when he hit .317 last year, fourth best in the National League, he was accused of having an "off" year. In St. Louis, the carpet is rolled out for Willie McGee, 27, who won a batting title last year with his .353 average, highest ever for a National League switch-hitter, surpassing the .348 of both Frankie Frisch (1923) and Pete Rose (1969).
In fact, a fair number of men turned back the pages of time in 1985:
•Rickey Henderson scored 146 runs, the most since Williams scored 150 in 1949, and by touching home that many times in 143 games, Henderson became the first major league leader since Gehrig in 1936 to have more runs scored than games played.
•George Brett came within two intentional walks of tying the AL record of 33 set by Williams in 1957. Despite having been pitched around, Brett led the league in slugging percentage at .585, giving him three slugging championships to go with his batting (two), hits (three), triples (three), doubles, total bases and on-base-percentage titles. The only other American Leaguers with such a variety of titles are Lou Gehrig and Ty Cobb.
•Eddie Murray ran his career totals to 258 homers, 931 RBIs and a .298 batting average. Only six players in history can match those nine-year totals: Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, Williams, DiMaggio, Hank Aaron and Jim Rice.
•Cal Ripken extended his streak of consecutive innings played to 5,457, spanning 603 games, to break the record believed established by Buck Freeman, who played every inning of 534 games for the Boston Carmines from 1901 to 1905.
•Willie Wilson hit 21 triples, the most since Dale Mitchell swatted 23 for the Indians in 1949.
•Pedro Guerrero tied the major league record for home runs in June, 15, shared by Ruth (1930), Bob Johnson (1934) and Roger Maris (1961).
•Tim Raines became the first major leaguer to steal at least 70 bases in five different seasons. Raines has been in the majors for only five seasons.
•Ryne Sandberg hit 26 home runs, the most by a Cub second baseman since Rogers Hornsby's 39 in 1929. He also stole 54 bases, the most by any Cub since Frank Chance stole 57 in 1906.
•Dale Murphy tied a major league record with 29 RBIs in April. He is now halfway to joining Willie Mays and Mel Ott as the only National Leaguers to have at least 100 RBIs in eight consecutive seasons.
Brett, at 32, is the oldest of the bunch.
There are other hitters spoken of in hushed, awed tones: Dave Winfield, Dave Parker, Keith Hernandez, Lou Whitaker and Rice. Then there are even more experienced men like Mike Schmidt, Bill Madlock, Steve Garvey and Rose. In the wings are the aspirants: Darryl Strawberry, Phil Bradley, Alvin Davis, Greg Walker, Bill Doran, Mike Marshall, Tony Fernandez.... And this spring, rookies are blossoming all over: Jose Canseco of Oakland, Pete Incaviglia of Texas, Wally Joyner of California, Will Clark of San Francisco.
Great hitters, like roses, bananas and hits themselves, come in bunches. Consider the class of 1915-16: Ruth (then a pitcher), Hornsby, George Sisler, Harry Heilmann. Or the 1924-26 crowd: Gehrig, Bill Terry, Al Simmons, Paul Waner, Charlie Gehringer. Joe Medwick, Hank Greenberg, Joe DiMaggio and Johnny Mize all came up between 1933 and 1936. Williams appeared in '39 and Stan Musial in late '41. And then, between 1951 and 1954, there was a real explosion of talent: Mays, Mantle, Aaron, Ernie Banks and Eddie Mathews.
And so it has always gone. It's natural and, indeed, honorable for a player to stand up for his own generation. Willie McCovey, newly elected to the Hall of Fame, concedes that there are some pretty fair hitters now, but "not as many as there were in my day. You can kind of handpick them now." One shouldn't presume to argue with McCovey, but the fact remains that in 1969, his best year, there were 18 hitters who would or will end up in Cooperstown. According to The 1986 Bill James Baseball Abstract, at least 18 current hitters have a good chance of making the Hall.
There are other baseball people, old-timers among them, who are convinced the modern-day hitter is a better-taught, more scientific, harder-working, faster and stronger athlete than his predecessors. Listen to Whitey Ford, the Hall of Fame pitcher for the Yankees. "You know what I think?" says Ford. "I think Mattingly and Boggs are unbelievable, because pitching has improved so much in the last 20 years. It's tougher to hit than when I was playing. As great as Ted Williams and Stan Musial were, I don't think their averages would be as high if they were playing today.
"Don't get me wrong, they were great. But it's tougher now. Two reasons: the advent of relief pitchers and the new pitches. When I played, guys threw a curve, a regular fastball and a changeup. Now they're throwing cut fastballs, sliders, split-fingered fastballs, forkballs and all kinds of stuff. The fielders use bigger gloves, too. When you think about all that, you see how great Mattingly and Boggs have to be to hit so well at such young ages. Let's put it this way: I'm glad I didn't have to pitch to them."
Former Cincinnati slugger Lee May, now the Kansas City hitting coach, says, "The hitters of today are a little more scientific than the hitters of my era. This is the era of technology. You've got computer systems figuring the ratios of curves to fastballs. You used to have guys stressing different jobs. You had big guys who struck out and hit home runs. Now everybody wants to hit .300 and everybody wants to do everything. In the era of technology, everybody is trying to be that supreme hitter."
It's more than just a feeling that the hitters are better. The charts on page 27 show that Boggs, Mattingly and Henderson had mind-boggling years in, respectively, hits. RBIs and runs scored. In 1985 they put up stats that belong to the '20s, '30s and '40s. Lee May is right: Hitters aren't swinging for home runs anymore. But they are doing their damndest to produce more runs.
The pitching coach for the Phillies, Claude Osteen, thinks that "hitting overall is better and continuing to get better. One reason for it, I think, is that everybody these days seems to have a batting cage or a pitching machine or a batting tee, something to practice with. On top of that, there are hundreds of instructional videos out. Combine all that with the number of good hitting teachers around, and there is plenty of good advice available today that simply wasn't around 10 or 15 years ago."
The hitting instructor is a relatively new phenomenon in baseball. The more generous souls among the oldtimers shared their knowledge with youngsters. Other veterans hoarded their secrets, never wishing to disclose anything that might be used against them. Either way, instruction had an air of informality about it. Most young hitters learned by watching or, if they were lucky, as Williams was early in his career, by falling under the influence of such experts as Lefty O'Doul.
Williams himself has long propounded his theories behind the batting cage and in print. But the most influential of the thinkers on hitting was the late Charley Lau, batting coach for the Orioles, Royals, Yankees and White Sox. Lau became a sort of Socrates of Swat whose Platos, notably Walt Hriniak, batting coach of the Red Sox, are now strategically placed to spread his word. Lau's showcase pupil was Brett, who developed under his tutelage from a .280 hitter in the minors to a .390 hitter in the majors. Boiled down, Lau's theory calls for initial weight on the back foot, heavy concentration on hitting the ball up the middle, a shifting of the weight with the pitch to the front foot, a down swing, an extension of the arms so that after contact the top hand falls loose from the bat. Pull hitters like Williams have deplored the Lau method as robbing the hitter of power, but Lau's protégés have prospered on artificial surfaces, where ground balls often zip through for base hits. And variations on his theme are always possible. Brett, for example, still incorporates much of the master's teaching, but he altered his swing—with Lau's blessing—by raising the plane upward to get the ball in the air.
Hitters like McGee, Wilson, Raines and Vince Coleman have learned to use their speed, particularly on artificial surfaces, to "Baltimore chop" their way on base and, as Montreal manager Buck Rodgers says, "run 40 points onto their averages every year." Scientific hitting supposedly went out of fashion with the introduction of the lively ball 65 years ago. Bigger ballparks, faster surfaces and better instruction have all worked to bring it back. Besides, it's no longer true, as Ralph Kiner once had it, that only power hitters drive Cadillacs. Boggs's $1.35 million salary alone is evidence enough of that.
Brett has also set an important example with his work ethic, and if there's one thing that links young hitters like Boggs, Mattingly and Gwynn, it is their will to practice. The old saw about good hitters being born, not made goes only so far. Cardinal manager Whitey Herzog certainly has a valid point when he says of natural talent, "You can't hit if you're blind, you can't hit if you're weak and you sure as hell can't hit if you're scared." But Don Baylor of the Red Sox is probably closer to the mark when he says, "There's no such thing as a born hitter. Anybody who has become a .300 hitter for a prolonged period has worked at it. Ted Williams worked. Rod Carew worked. You can have the natural ability to be good, but you have to work to be very good. Hitters today have learned to hit the ball the other way. Once you learn that, then the whole field opens up." Brett says, "For me, I'd have to say that I'm a made hitter, not born. I don't call myself a great hitter. I call myself a good hitter, because I know how tough it is."
But the single factor that may have made the modern hitter a thinker instead of a swinger is the one thing that has always worked against him. "Hitting," as longtime baseball executive Buzzie Bavasi observes, "has always depended on pitching," and pitching, as Whitey Ford pointed out, has never been better. It is interesting to note that, while McGee had the highest batting average in the NL in 10 years, Dwight Gooden had the lowest ERA (1.53) in the NL since Bob Gibson's amazing 1.12 in 1968. This is a time of excellence for both the pitcher and the hitter, and they seem to be spurring each other on to new heights.
Since pitchers do have the final say, consider the suggestion of the Yankees' Bob Shirley for dealing with Mattingly: "What's the big deal? You just walk him and pitch to the next guy."
AVERAGE TOTALS OF MAJOR LEAGUE LEADERS
Wade Boggs 240
Don Mattingly 145
Rickey Henderson 146
* 1981 Strike Season pro-rated to 162 games