Left Is All Right

Everything from staircases to scissors gives the advantage to the dextral. So in a world designed with the right hand in mind, why is it that so many lefties are great athletes?
May 08, 2005

The human form has a tremendous preference for symmetry. Just about everything we have comes in pairs. This is not a matter of redundancy so much as it is of balance. Our left foot, after all, is not extra; it is the required other half for standard locomotion. And yet not all sides are equal. In the human anatomy, which is otherwise dominated by duplication, there is the curious anomaly of handedness. In almost every case one hand works much better than the other. ¶ Nobody really knows why. Handedness is probably a matter of genetics, although some researchers say birth trauma could be a factor. But, for whatever reason, 90% of almost every population, through almost every era, has been righthanded. Because it is man's instinct to punish the minority--to extinction, if possible--it is an evolutionary miracle that lefthanders have held steady at 10%, surviving insults of language and industrial design to lead somewhat normal, although (as we will learn) shortened, lives. Despite the relentless bias, institutionalized to the point where it is not really safe for lefthanders to operate power tools of any kind, they have become great artists, statesmen, magazine writers and, most of all, athletes.

As to why lefthanders should thrive in this last, peculiar arena of life, again, it is a mystery. Through the ages, all activity has been organized according to the survival of the dextral (as opposed to the sinistral). Why were medieval staircases built to ascend in a clockwise spiral? To give a righthander an advantage against attackers coming up the stairs. It's the same in sports: When there's a choice in the matter, games are designed with the righthander in mind. An example: The appropriate-sided hitter is allowed to face first base, as he would be normally inclined. The resulting counterclockwise flow of the game, dictated by this initial prejudice, is further advantageous to the similarly appropriate-sided fielders, who are now allowed a natural throwing motion toward first. That's baseball.

And yet there are more lefties in baseball than their representation in the general population would suggest--27% of all pitchers since 1900 have been lefties; 14% of position players in that span have been lefthanded throwers, despite the fact that few lefties play catcher, second base, short or third. Indeed, southpaws have not been excluded from the game but have thrived in it instead. The Hall of Fame is full of them.

In sports that are more lateral-neutral--games like golf, football and basketball--it is somewhat more difficult to regulate against the lefthander. But where rules can't be made to work toward his oppression, other discriminations can. Perhaps it is through the reduced availability of equipment (though now possible to shop for lefthanded golf clubs, it's still hard to get lefthanded fishing reels) or just the powerful sway of folklore (one of Steve Young's coaches told him he would not contribute to the heresy of a lefthanded quarterback). Whatever. The overall effect is one of discouragement.

If you believe Stanley Coren, a University of British Columbia psychology professor and author of The Left-Hander Syndrome, our minority subject is so poorly adapted to life on this earth that it really is a marvel he has so stubbornly persisted. It's Coren's theory that roughly half of all southpaws are that way as the result of birth stress or trauma. And that as a group they tend more toward suicide, alcoholism, bed-wetting, psychosis and immune diseases than their righthanded brethren. To Coren, lefthandedness is basically a "marker" for a festive smorgasbord of pathologies.

"Plus," he points out, "there is that major concern with longevity." According to his controversial study, a lefthander can expect about nine fewer years of life than a righthander can. In other words not only is the food bad, but the portions are absurdly small.

But look around at these brave lefthanders, doomed not only to the massive inconveniences thrown up by conniving righthanders but also to wet sheets, the DTs and early graves. Look how plucky they are! They are susceptible to ulcerative colitis and yet still go out for the team. Just recently: Johan Santana wins the Cy Young, Matt Leinart the Heisman Trophy, Barry Bonds the MVP, Phil Mickelson the Masters, Winky Wright the light middleweight championship, Steve Young entry into the Hall of Fame. Manu Ginobili is an Olympic gold medalist and a lefthanded stalwart for the San Antonio Spurs. Not too shabby for a group that's had to battle predispositions to mental retardation and eczema.

Coren, who was assailed when his findings were published more than a decade ago (some researchers questioned his data, while many lefties simply didn't like his conclusions), stands by them today and cites additional data that buttress his original research. "It's all been verified," he says. But, although he delved into sports and handedness (his ability to easily sift through baseball rosters for handed-mortality relationships provided him his first longevity results), he can't account for, and only grudgingly acknowledges, what seems to be a disproportionate success rate among lefthanded athletes. "In certain sports--combat sports like judo, boxing and fencing, where arms are flying from slightly different angles--the lefthander does better," he says. "In certain other sports it's just folklore."

He is not keen on the idea that lefthanders, who are roughed up from birth on, are, as an imperative of survival in a dextral world, more neurologically adaptive than righthanders. You might think that southpaws, who must always fight the system, have become opportunistic, overly creative and resourceful. But Coren is not generous to southpaws in this regard either and believes a lot of the right-brain/left-brain talk is so much hooey. Dr. Albert Galaburda, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, sort of agrees. He says distinctions between the language-heavy left brain and the spatially oriented right are now considered blurry. "We're finding that brains are more bilateral than we thought," he says. Still, isn't there some wiring in there that might explain a lefty's resilience?

"Well," says Coren, "I have found that an unusually high number of graphic artists and architects are lefthanded, and more chess masters than there should be." This is some good news but hardly explains the lefty's survival. Would you say they're more creative? "In strongly language-oriented areas they're underrepresented. If you look--and the data is hard to find--among book authors, lefthanders are underrepresented." Coren, a righthander, has written eight books himself (six about dogs alone), so he probably single-handedly skews his own data. But that's just book authors, correct? "Journalists, too. Not so good."

Let us ignore science for the moment and accept the premise that lefthanders do succeed in unfriendly environments, that they hit .300 at unlikely rates (of the top 50 players ranked by career batting average, 30 hit lefthanded), defend the jump shot much better (Bill Russell, 'nuf said?) and drive orthodox boxers crazy--within a shorter, boozier, possibly bipolar life span! Accepting that premise (you've read this far), let us then examine some of the lateral hostility out there, and the lefthander's consistently subversive approach to his own survival.

Let's start with baseball, which, by its very design, is lateral-exclusive. A lefty is denied nearly half the positions on the diamond, just because the field was drawn with righthand action in mind. The righthanded batter faces first, and all properly right-armed infielders have easy throws there. There have been a few lefthanded catchers in history, but they have been kept from behind the plate by the scarcity of equipment, their difficulty throwing the ball to second and especially third with a righthanded batter at the plate and the tendency of a lefty's throw to tail away from the runner; there will be a woman president long before there's another lefthanded catcher.

Oddly, the lefthander has found a way to prosper, or seem to, against these odds. Coren investigated this idea and was forced to admit that while position players were represented by lefthanders only slightly more than in the general population, the relative preponderance of lefthanded pitchers--as much as a third of a staff--was evidence that somebody thought lefties had an advantage. But not him. "A myth," he says.

What Coren fails to understand is that the exploitation of handedness is just about the only opportunity for a manager to complicate an absurdly simple game. The deployment of lefthanded relievers, or pinch-hitters, has become a vital strategy in baseball, more so than in any other sport we know. How important is it? Managers would be at a loss to demonstrate their wizardry if not for the ability to orchestrate a double switch. It is one of the few buttons they can push.

The upshot is, baseball is the most hospitable place for southpaws of athletic ambition, sometimes to the point of silliness. For some reason general managers value lefthanded hitters according to position, so that a lefthanded-hitting catcher will have a job for life; his .250 average trumps a righthander's. As Pete Rose once said of a lefthanded player, "If he was righthanded, he'd be in the minors." Pitching is where it really gets nuts. Apparently no G.M. can bear to part with a lefthanded pitcher. Jesse Orosco, a southpaw of middling distinction, played to the age of 46; the Arizona Diamondbacks remained willing to pay him $800,000 to turn 47 on their dime.

The science behind this premium on lefthanders at the plate and on the mound is, as you would expect of baseball, somewhat murky. Coren can think of only one condition under which a lefty should excel, and that's when he is right-eyed. He believes, from seeing pictures of Ted Williams looking through a camera and Babe Ruth looking through a telescope, that their right eyes were dominant, and that having their dominant eye directly aimed at the pitcher explains their hitting ability. Dr. Galaburda, meanwhile, theorizes that southpaws tend to have more dexterity in their off hand than righthanders do in theirs; a southpaw is thus more ambidextrous, more capable in more situations. (Williams threw righthanded; Ruth signed his name with his right.)

However, baseball, despite its inherent bias, truly believes the lefthander enjoys a very real advantage. Baseball tutorial: It seems that the lefthanded hitter, besides his lifelong familiarity with righthanded pitching, has a step-and-a-half lead to first base and a bigger hole on his side of the infield when the first baseman is holding a runner on the bag; a southpaw pitcher has a much easier pickoff play and, moreover, neutralizes all those lefthanded hitters by throwing a curve that breaks away from them.

There is one other explanation for a handed advantage that makes sense. Occasionally, because old-time ballparks were constructed according to architectural whimsy, there will be a stadium that plays one way or another. Fenway Park, with its Green Monster, is a pretty nice place for a righthanded hitter to be banging away. Yankee Stadium, with its 295 feet to the rightfield pole (and vast left-center on the other side), is, on the other hand, far more comfortable for lefthanded sluggers. The House that Ruth Built was in fact built for Ruth.

This is a good place, by way of digression, to point out that the acceptance of southpaws comes at a price. Baseball's embrace of the lefthander (in a game that seems to stack the deck against him) is somewhat tempered by its constant slurring of the southpaw. He's wild, and he's crazy.

Until Coren does a follow-up study, all evidence of handed-eccentricity is anecdotal. Which is to say, it mostly falls on Lefty Gomez. This guy, all on his own, established the stereotype of lateral goofiness. Baseball has had plenty of screwballs, of course, but when the screwball is actually named Lefty, the search for the source of his craziness is somewhat simplified. Gomez is the pitcher--a pretty good one, too--who invented the revolving bowl for tired goldfish. Well, he said he did. The Yankees Hall of Famer actually said lots of things, mostly self-deprecating, usually funny. Once he explained, "The secret of my success was clean living and a fast outfield."

He might be best remembered for interrupting World Series play to watch a plane fly overhead. When skipper Joe McCarthy complained, Gomez said, "I've never seen a pitcher lose a game by not throwing the ball."

To be sure, there have been other, genuinely strange lefties. There was the tennis player Art Larsen, a figure from the 1950s who appeared for a match wearing a shirt with the hanger still inside. There was Stanford quarterback Frankie Albert, who held up a Rose Bowl game to watch a plane fly overhead. There was ... wait a minute! What's with the lefthander's preoccupation with air travel, anyway?

In recent times the tradition has been kept alive by Bill Lee, the former Red Sox reliever who remains better known for his deep thoughts than his saves. When we caught up with him recently, he was just out the door of his Vermont home and headed for a plot of land he was hoping to secure on Vancouver Island. His new plan was to build a replica of Fenway Park. "It's going to be the focal point of my new Church of Baseball," he explains. "We're working on the commandments right now. Thou Shalt Steal. Thou Shalt Not Use Aluminum Bats. Also, Thou Shalt Crow-Hop on Outfield Throws." Lee, who claims to be the only guy to pitch in all the Communist countries ("except for Albania--don't think they had a team"), plans to run the place as a kind of fantasy camp. "We've even got our own elixir, made of ginseng and maple syrup, and then some more ginseng."

This is a good place for one further digression, and that involves suicide. Coren believes that lefthanders, already compromised by birth trauma, should be more liable to depression and thus to killing themselves. Yet Loren Coleman, a recently retired professor in Maine and the author of a 2004 book on suicide clusters, discovered that lefthanded ballplayers are practically immune to that level of depression.

Coleman, who figured major league baseball for the ideal sample for his study (where else is the population's handedness tracked so scrupulously?), was surprised that of the 80 or so suicides he could document among major leaguers (which was already overrepresented by lefthanders almost 3 to 1 compared with the real world), he counted only one committed by a lefty. "My speculation," says Coleman, "is that because of his adaptability to unusual situations, the lefthander has protective factors against suicide. That doesn't seem to apply to the righthanded pitcher, who's a model of rigidity."

Coleman, who found that pitchers and catchers account for nearly 60% of all baseball suicides, wasn't sure that all lefthanders are necessarily zany--"Although there is Bill Lee," he admits--but if they are, the unpredictability of their behavior becomes a kind of coping device. Nobody who has the good sense to pause in his work and appreciate the miracle of aeronautics is very likely to stare down the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun. So he's got that going for him.

Do we have time for one more digression? It concerns the nickname itself, which has sadly faded in modern sports. It no longer has much cachet. Steve Carlton may have been called Lefty from time to time, though there's no indication the Hall of Fame pitcher ever answered to it. And Phil Mickelson, who is also called Lefty occasionally, doesn't seem to care for it either, especially as he is not actually lefthanded. (Mickelson plays lefthanded clubs because at a very young age he learned the game by standing opposite his father and mirroring his swing.) Not only are there very few athletes tagged Lefty, but of the ones who are, some aren't even lefthanded. This is very unreliable.

Even the ones who are named Lefty, who really are lefty, and who answer to it, are hard-pressed to come up with meaningful backstories. Lefty Driesell, the longtime basketball coach at Maryland, got the label as a fourth-grader and not for doing anything particularly athletic. At the time, as a grade schooler, he was a student-manager on the football team. "This guy, the head manager, was in charge of giving everybody a nickname," says Driesell, now retired to Virginia Beach. Clearly Driesell lucked out in the nickname department. "There was also Fish Head, Tadpole and Frog."

The nickname stuck and, except for those few years at Duke when he was actually doing something lefthanded (and was called by his given name by just about everybody at the time), he's been Lefty ever since. "Most people don't know what my name is anymore," says Charles.

Here's Joe Nuxhall's story: The Ol' Lefthander didn't get his handed-handle until he had retired from baseball and was doing the radio broadcasts for the Cincinnati Reds. At which point, of course, it was no longer particularly descriptive or even interesting. (A lefthanded announcer?) It was in 1967, and one of the team's coaches, Whitey Wietelmann, suggested he could use a catchy sign-off, something like, "This is Joe Nuxhall, the Ol' Lefthander, rounding third and heading for home." Nuxhall tried it for a week, thought it was stupid and dropped it. But listeners apparently loved it and pressed him to include the signature goodbye in the broadcast. And he did it until, after 37 years in the booth, he really rounded third last year and, heading for home, stepped out and fled to Florida.

Now, on to boxing, a sport that finds lefthanders so disagreeable that trainers share the following adage: "Lefthanders should be drowned at birth." This is a form of discrimination that is not, so far as Senator John McCain knows, practiced any longer. Whereas there never used to be southpaw boxers, now, in an increasingly permissive age, they crop up occasionally. But no one's pleased about it. Trainer Joe Goossen, old school in some ways, says they should be "executed," but failing that, "just send them all to Devil's Island." But then, he suffered a maddening loss when his fighter Sugar Shane Mosley was outpointed a second time by lefty Winky Wright. (And by the way, wouldn't Lefty Wright have worked better than Winky?)

The problem, as you might guess, is that the southpaw enjoys a decided advantage when it comes to fighting, and no righthander wants to allow that. This is not just according to that Gloomy Gus, Coren. About a year ago a team of French anthropologists confirmed what boxing trainers have always believed: Lefthanders are unfairly propped up by their very genetic (or birth-stressed) deficiency. The theory, published in Proceedings B of the Royal Society, says lefthanders might well suffer when it comes to shopping for guitars (Jimi Hendrix added to the lore of unorthodoxy when he simply turned his upside down; no specialty ax for him) but make up for it in hand-to-hand combat.

This sort of answers a genetic conundrum. Shouldn't an already insubstantial segment of the species get further reduced, perhaps all the way to extinction, in a world of righthanded chain saws and stick shifts? Well, it should. There's no good reason for lefties to survive ... unless they have some specific skill that makes them more resistant to natural selection than, say, a head start to first base. That skill, according to the study, is killing righties.

The study focused on eight traditional societies in which there was a greater likelihood of mano-a-mano jousting (including the machete-wielding Kreyol of Dominica and the tribespeople of the Jimi Valley in Papua New Guinea, though not the Oakland Raiders). It found that societies with the highest number of homicides also had the greatest proportion of lefthanded people. While this could mean that lefties were simply frustrated with the poor availability of suitable can openers and spiral notebooks, the authors felt it more likely pointed to the conclusion that lefties were simply better at killing than righties. "Lefthanders have an advantage in sports involving dual confrontations," wrote one of the authors.

Do they ever! Goossen says the advantage might be as high as 30%, and it accounts for a lot of Jesse Orosco types in boxing--southpaw fighters of unspectacular ability who unfairly capitalize on the surprise angle of attack. The problem, the way Goossen explains it, is that a lefty, if he has not been drowned at birth or, more likely, converted to a righthand stance the minute he walks into a gym, is by necessity well-versed in righthanded opponents. Meanwhile a righthanded boxer can go years avoiding troublesome southpaws until he is finally forced, by either the demands of a mandatory defense or popular outcry, to face a sinistral. And not only a lefty, but by now a very good and practiced one.

"And then," says Goossen, "it's too late. Now it's a crash course, to relearn everything." Everything a righthanded boxer did before now puts him in harm's way in front of a southpaw. His slips are running right into punches, his tendency to circle to the left makes his face a generous target for the jab. "It's confusion city," says Goossen, "especially in the early rounds." The fighter's reactions, all hair-trigger stuff, now expose him to the grinning, homicidal southpaw in front of him.

Goossen says lefties are gaining acceptance in gyms and probably, inadvertently, evening the odds as orthodox boxers get more rounds with them. Oscar de la Hoya, a natural southpaw, might not have been switched up today. Still, Goossen says, the southpaw enjoys a frustrating advantage, and a mediocre lefthanded boxer--Michael Nunn, one of Goossen's first southpaws and later a middleweight champion, would have been no better than "ordinary" on his way up--gets a lot of mileage in this game.

Tennis is sort of like boxing, in the sense that it's a one-on-one confrontation and that play is sensitive to suddenly unfamiliar angles of flight. In addition the southpaw here enjoys a peculiarly spin-enabled edge. The serve--especially on grass courts, and especially back in the day--bites into the turf and tends to force a righthander to use his presumably weaker backhand. This is especially true in the ad court, when crucial points are up for grabs. It may help explain why some of the sport's greatest players--John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors--are lefties.

Mary Carillo, who has turned out to be a more successful broadcaster than she was a lefthanded tennis pro (her peak ranking was 33rd in 1980), doesn't believe the advantage is holding in the same way as it did in her day. "It used to be, big ol' lefty serve and you're at the net for the volley," she says. "What's changed is the return of serve, in a way that the rest of tennis just hasn't kept up with. Racket technology allows people to just stand back and whale, so when you can get to those lefty serves, you can return bigger shots from tougher positions."

The two-handed backhand, especially in the women's game, has further compromised the lefty's natural effectiveness. "For me, when there was a big point into the ad court, or break point against me, I'd swing them wide and aim into their backhands and get a weaker reply. With the advent of the two-handed backhand, well, you don't want to aim there anymore."

Still, Carillo believes there is an advantage that neither graphite nor technique can overcome. "Mainly, we're nuts," she says. "You look at all the lefthanders in tennis--Rod Laver was normal, but he was Australian--and you've got some real wing nuts. Connors, McEnroe, Goran Ivanisevic, Guillermo Vilas--you just love it when you've got people like that representing your group in tennis."

Carillo feels that the lefthander's instinct for survival--to surmount all those obstacles that the righthanded world erects--creates a flexibility and adaptability that is uniquely rewarded on a tennis court. "Connors didn't have the big-serve advantage," she says, "but he was the master of the long point. He had a liquid style of thinking, and the longer the rally, the more he liked it, his wheels spinning all the time." This ability to make adjustments is now featured in 18-year-old lefty Rafael Nadal's game. "That kid has a different spin on how to construct points, develop a rally. He thinks outside the box."

And that, really, is how lefthanders must think: outside the box, prevented access to normal routes of achievement, forced to apply desperate ingenuity in a strange struggle. Coren may deny the southpaw's advantage of wit, but there must be something that accounts for his survival in a world that is overwhelmingly other-handed--that is, if not outright hostile, extremely careless, dismissive, discouraging. And yet that same 10%, which would be driven to irrelevance if the other 90% had their way, keep plugging along, undaunted by studies that would doom them to sickness, industrial accidents, early death. That same 10%, given a chance in sports, even succeed, as we've seen, beyond their modest numbers.

Because if there's anything we've learned ... hold on one sec ... if we've learned anything at all, it's ... there's something ... is that an airplane overhead? ■

Coren theorizes that southpaws tend more toward SUICIDE, ALCOHOLISM AND PSYCHOSIS than their righthanded brethren. To him, lefthandedness is a marker for a festive smorgasbord of pathologies.

The deployment of lefthanded relievers or pinch-hitters has become vital baseball strategy. Managers would be at a loss to DEMONSTRATE THEIR WIZARDRY if not for the ability to orchestrate a double switch.

In boxing lefthanders are so disagreeable that trainers share the following adage: "They should be DROWNED AT BIRTH." This discrimination is not, as far as Senator John McCain knows, practiced any longer.

One study found that societies with the highest number of homicides also had the greatest proportion of lefthanded people. The authors concluded that lefties were simply BETTER AT KILLING than righties.

Carillo, a more successful broadcaster than she was a lefthanded tennis pro, believes lefty players have an advantage that neither graphite nor technique can overcome: "Mainly," she says, "WE'RE NUTS."

COLOR ILLUSTRATIONIllustration by Anita Kunz Bill Russell
Steve Carlton
Sandy Koufax
John McEnroe
Dorothy Hamill
Warren Spahn
Mark Spitz
Earl Anthony
David Robinson
Willis Reed
Bruce Jenner
Marvin Hagler
Babe Ruth
Martina Navratilova
Rod Laver
Randy Johnson
Barry Bonds
Steve Young
Ken Stabler
COLOR PHOTOBRAD MANGIN HALL FOR ONE The long-standing bias against lefty QBs may account for the fact that Young is the first to make it to Canton. COLOR PHOTOAL TIELEMANS A CUT ABOVE Researchers conjecture that top lefty hitters like Bonds are either "right-eyed" or more ambidextrous than most. COLOR PHOTODAVID WALBERG AGAINST THE GRAIN Mickelson signs those hefty winner's checks with his right hand but swings his clubs as a southpaw. COLOR PHOTOJOHN G. ZIMMERMAN LEFT CENTER Russell's sinistral orientation hardly hurt--he won more NBA championship rings than he could fit on both hands. COLOR PHOTOMANNY MILLAN SPIN DOCTORS The hard bite of the ball from a big southpaw server like Navratilova forces righties into tough backhand returns.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)