Some 10 or 15 million left-handed Americans live in a challenging and frustrating world dominated by right-handers. Sometimes apologetic, sometimes truculent, the natural born southpaw—or north-hander as he is called in certain sections of Great Britain—stalks through life doggedly resisting change. He cramps his left hand to write on right-handed school desks; he accommodates himself to right-handed checkbooks and violins. The world of sport is one of the few places where he readily finds a place, and even there he finds himself overwhelmed by a majority that numbers close to 90%.
Baseball is a conspicuously rewarding sport for a lefthander (see page 41), but by no means his best. Perhaps because of his unorthodoxy, the left-hander has had unusual success in fencing. In the last Olympics at Helsinki, two of the three men's champions were lefties. So were the United States foil champions in five of the last seven years. In boxing, the lefty hasn't enjoyed the same success, but that may be the fault of the managers. Traditionally, managers duck giving bouts to left-handers because they upset the righties so they make them look bad.
In many sports sidedness makes no real difference. Sometimes, as in tennis and table tennis, a lefty has a temporary advantage while his opponent adjusts to his style, but nobody has ever risen to a championship because of his left-handedness. Basketball and hockey are sports in which the best players are expected to be ambidextrous. Polo is at the opposite extreme. To play tournament polo left-handed, a player has to get special permission. But this is reckoning without the pony, which probably wouldn't permit a left-handed swipe anyway.
In several sports there seems to be no good explanation for the absence of lefties. Football coaches are forever announcing that they could use a good left-handed passer, yet one seldom comes along. Among professionals, only Frankie Albert of the San Francisco 49ers stood out. The late Harry Agganis might have been great had he not turned to baseball. Lou Little of Columbia claims that in 30 years he has never had a left-handed passer, although he would like one.
"You could have a reverse forward pass operating out of a single wing," he said not long ago. "He'd give you versatility you'd never get otherwise."
Entirely apart is golf in which lefties, playing from the right side, have had amazing success. Ben Hogan is a natural lefty who plays from the right. Sam Snead and Lloyd Mangrum are both congenital left-handers. One theory advanced to explain this queer state of affairs is that in the golf swing, as most pros teach it, the left arm is the important one to a right-handed player. It is possible that with their stronger left arms, the natural lefties have an advantage when they play right-handed. Conceivably, the reverse should be true for the righties.
The causes of right-handed dominance are still in considerable doubt. Some scientists hold that it is an acquired habit related to the way a child was held or perhaps fed in infancy. Others think it is a socially conditioned response. William Ludwig, seeking a physical explanation, found that in approximately 75% of human beings, the right arm is longer than the left, and that the difference first appears in the embryo stage. Many authorities assert that right-handedness is due to the functional predominance of the left hemisphere of the brain.
Whatever the cause, if both parents are left-handed, the chances are 50-50 that their child will be left-handed. If both parents are right-handed, the figure is one in 16. If one parent is right-handed and the other left, it's one in six. Left-handedness is more frequent among twins. In multiple births of three or more, at least one left-handed child usually occurs. One of the Dionne quintuplets, Emilie, was regarded as congenitally left-handed. Marie had left-handed tendencies and was nearly ambidextrous.
Human beings are right-and left-footed, and right-and left-eyed. Everyone is ambidextrous in the sense that there are many activities in which both sides are used and completely coordinated without conscious effort.
Animals can develop a certain degree of sidedness for special or repetitious acts. Experiments indicate that the higher apes are definitely ambidextrous, cats and lobsters predominantly right-sided and dogs left-sided.