Hey," said Roberto Clemente, "peetch me a strike." The batting practice pitcher pitched a strike, and Clemente slashed it high over the left-field fence at Milwaukee County Stadium.
"Notice he didn't ask for a curve or a fast ball," George Sisler, the Pirate batting coach, said. "Just for a strike. He's not a guesser. He hits the pitch where it's thrown."
Sisler was standing behind the batting cage, talking about the most intriguing facet of baseball, the psychological—and physical—contest between the man at the plate and the man who throws the ball at him.
"I don't like guess hitters," he said. "A batter that tries to guess with the pitcher—most of the time he's afraid of a certain pitch. The only way he can hit it is by guessing when it's coming. Most of the time he guesses wrong, just on the law of averages. You figure most pitchers got at least four pitches, so the odds are three to one against a guesser right there. Then if he guesses right, he usually swings at the ball even if it's not in the strike zone. A good batter hits strikes, no matter where they are thrown or what kind of pitch it is. Just as long as it's a strike."
He watched Dick Groat hit, his blue eyes sharp and intent. "A batter needs intelligence first," he said. "Judgment. Confidence. The mental things. They're more important than the physical. Then comes body control, quick wrists, good eyes. I have no patience with stories you read about batters complaining about night baseball, new pitches—the slider, for instance—better fielding equipment. They should blame themselves if they don't hit .300. Any good batter can hit .300, and a batter hitting over .300 now, there's no good reason he shouldn't hit .400. It can still be done."
He picked up a bat and hefted it. "The bats are too light now," he said. "This one is maybe 30 ounces. I used a 42-ounce bat, and I heard that Ruth used a 52-ounce bat and I expect he did. They use the light bats now so they can whip them around fast and hit for the fences. We hit home runs with the heavy bats. You can get a heavy bat around if it's balanced properly. There's no wood in these modern bats. That's why they break so many."
Sisler hit .407 in 1920, .420 in 1922, and his lifetime batting average, spanning 16 years in the majors, was .340, so he speaks with authority.
Clemente, one of his aptest pupils, agrees wholeheartedly with his coach on the advantage of not knowing what pitch is coming up.
"Sometimes I seet on the bench, the fellows are sayeeng, 'He's gonna peetch curve now, now he's gonna throw fast ball.' I move away down the bench because I don' want to know eet. I rather heet whatever he throw up there."
Groat, the Pirate shortstop who raised his average 50 points last year to lead the National League in batting, prefers not to guess, too.