SI Vault
Jack Mann
September 26, 1966
Batting is a dying art, mortally wounded by night games, big gloves, scientific defenses, unending lines of relief pitchers and the unreasoning stubbornness of the batters themselves
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September 26, 1966

A Farewell To .300 Hitters

Batting is a dying art, mortally wounded by night games, big gloves, scientific defenses, unending lines of relief pitchers and the unreasoning stubbornness of the batters themselves

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How about becoming a different hitter then? Seeing the defense "cheat" toward the left as the pitcher decelerated, couldn't a hitter go toward the right, just to keep the enemy honest? "Groat could," says Phillie teammate Harvey Kuenn. "But how many hitters with his kind of bat control have you seen come up in the last 15 years?" Well, there was Harvey Kuenn, and....

"It takes a lot of time to become a this-way and that-way hitter," says Haddix, "and almost nobody practices anymore. Anyway, they're bigger, stronger kids now, and the way the ball jumps, why should they learn to hit?" Teams of scientists periodically prowl the Spalding factory in Chicopee, Mass. and invariably conclude that the ball is no livelier than the antebellum ball. "The hell it isn't," says Haddix, "and I'll tell you how I know. When I first came in the league [1951] I could squeeze the seam and make a soft spot. I can't do that anymore. Maybe the stuff in the middle is the same, but that seam is tighter. Maybe they sew them by machine now, but it's tighter. And when we catch a home run in the bullpen, two-thirds of the time there's a mark on it that shows the ball has been hit on the seam."

So everybody's a swinger, and there's nothing new about it. There is, in fact, a historically supportable theory that the mile-or-miss concept is having its silver anniversary this year. One of Larry MacPhail's first moves in the reconstruction of the Dodgers after he came to Brooklyn in 1938 was to get Dolph Camilli from Philadelphia, and the second significant move was to reconstruct Camilli.

After leading the league in strikeouts in his first two years in the majors, Dolph had disciplined his swing and put together seasons of .315 and .339. But that wasn't what MacPhail bought. He would soon bring in Dixie Walker and Joe Medwick and Billy Herman to hit the line drives. Ebbets Field, you see, had this wall in right field. It was high, but it was only 297 feet away; the possibilities it presented for a strong left-handed pull hitter boggled the mind. If Jacques Fournier could hit 27 homers....

MacPhail, in effect, showed Camilli the wall and said, "Go, man." Dolph went. In 1938 he struck out 101 times and batted only .251. But he hit 24 homers and batted in 100 runs. Way to go, MacPhail said. His mind free of concern about his batting average, Camilli kept swinging, and in 1941 MacPhail's grand design was realized. Dolph whiffed 115 times and batted .285, but he led the league with 34 homers and 120 RBIs and the Dodgers won the pennant.

Home runs had been in vogue for two decades, but there was a significant difference. Up to then the long-ball boys had hit the short ball, too. Ruth had hit .356 along with his 60 homers, Hack Wilson .356 with his 56. In the 22 seasons between World War I and Camilli, only four men had led the National League in RBIs without hitting .300 (George Kelly, the first one, had tied Rogers Hornsby, who batted .370). Only four men under .300 had led in homers ( Mel Ott in 1937 tied Medwick, who hit .374). It is in the spirit of truth to say that nobody had done it in the American League: Bob Meusel (.292) led in both departments in 1925, but that was the year Ruth was sick.

In any case, no hitter had ever been named Most Valuable Player without batting at least .300. In 1941 the entire Dodger outfield hit better than .300, and Pete Reiser, at .343, had one of the finest seasons a man ever played. But Camilli was named MVP, and a new vista was open. MVPs since then have gone to such as Hank Sauer (.270), Zoilo Versalles (.273) and twice to Roger Maris (.283 and .269). The award also was packaged for the Phils' John Callison (.274) in 1964, before his team fell apart, whatever that has to do with his value.

Defensing and the slider and bigger ball parks and lighter bats and the livelier ball are all substantial factors in the metamorphosis of the game, but each of them would have far less effect were it not for that shift in emphasis from finesse to power. Because there is little premium in being a .300 hitter, there is little pride in it. Not only is there more profit in being a sweep swinger than in being a complete hitter, it is easier. Thus the modern player is in the happy position of being able to make more money by doing less than his best. They have even invented a euphemism for it: "getting the job done."

"Yes, I could have hit more home runs," says Wally Moses, who could still step into the batting cage and tattoo the right-field wall in Connie Mack Stadium when he was a 50-year-old coach. "But I'd have been a one-field hitter. When I played you either hit .300 or you weren't a good hitter."

Pepitone, one of the leading one-field hitters of the day, epitomizes the modern attitude. Asked in the middle of 1965 what would be his idea of a really good season, he said, "What the hell was wrong with the year I had last year?" Well, for one thing, you batted .251. "Yeah, but I hit 28 home runs, and I had more ribbies than anybody on the club except Mickey."

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