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The preoccupation of baseball fans from New York to Los Angeles this year has been the untouched ball; the one that Maris, Mantle and other muscular men have been hitting over the heads of opposing players and far into the grandstands. But by keeping their eyes in the sky, many spectators have missed spectacular performances by another group of baseball masters whose virtue rests in how quickly and deftly they handle batted balls that can be touched. These are the experts at the double play and, like the home run hitters, they have never been better.
The Yankees, for example, have a second baseman with five different pivots, and the Dodgers one with a unique sidearm throw. The Cardinals own a third baseman who saves a split second by not taking a step. The Indians boast of a first baseman who uses a daring backhand pickup.
Excellent infielders such as these have enabled major league teams to average 150 double plays a season. They are the efficiency experts of baseball. No time-study engineer counts fractions of seconds more carefully or works harder at saving them, for a tenth of a second is often the difference between success and failure in a double play. Most double plays take between 3.5 and 4.5 seconds. Anything slower is likely to fail—a very fast base runner like Mickey Mantle can reach first base in 3.3 seconds; a very slow one needs only 5 seconds. The necessity for precision can be fully appreciated when viewed in terms of how close the decision often is at first base on a ground ball when no double play is involved.
The most common double play goes from short to second to first. This is so because most batters (62%, or 198 major leaguers who can be considered regulars) are right-handed and tend to hit to the left side. This is the way it is done by the Yankees, who have led the American League in double plays four out of the last six years: Shortstop Tony Kubek first tries to get squarely in front of the ball. He holds his glove midway between his feet, which are set wide apart. This stance gives him maximum balance and sets him for a quick, step toward second as he throws sidearm. Using the sidearm throw enables Kubek to get rid of the ball more quickly than if he brought his arm up for an overhand throw.
Kubek's throw goes to Second Baseman Bobby Richardson. He uses any of five pivots for his relay to first. His choice, as with all pivot men, depends upon where and how sharply the ball is hit, how quickly and hard the runner arrives, where Kubek's throw is and the speed of the man going to first. Whenever possible, Richardson takes the "feed" while straddling second base and facing Kubek. Few second basemen straddle the bag these days, but that is how those in the Yankee organization are taught.
Of his five pivots, Richardson has one favorite. He straddles the bag to take a chest-high throw from Kubek. As he pivots, Richardson steps toward first with his left foot. He drags his right foot over the left-field side of the base and throws to Bill Skowron at first.
Skowron, like all first basemen on this play, has one main job—to catch the relay. He must be able to adjust his footing swiftly, however, for there are more poor throws on the double play than on conventional one-out plays.
Richardson's fastest pivot is also his most spectacular. His right foot touches the bag as he reaches the base. He executes an acrobatic leap, pushing off with his right foot, and makes his relay with a quick, mid-air flip. This leap helps him to elude the incoming runner, but the very speed of the play increases the danger of his making a poor relay.
If a runner comes in hard and on the outfield side of second, Richardson crosses to the infield side of the bag. He hits the base with his left foot and steps about a yard toward the infield with his right foot, then braces with it to throw.
Should the runner come in on the mound side, Richardson steps on second with his left foot. By pushing off the base with his left foot and backing up a step toward the outfield, he gets out of the runner's way. He steps toward first for added speed as he throws.