THE MOST IMPORTANT SKILL IN THE GAME
Hitting a baseball, as I said earlier in this series, is the single most difficult thing to do in sport. I get raised eyebrows when I say that, but what is there that is harder to do—that requires more natural ability, more physical dexterity, more mental alertness? What is there that requires a greater finesse to go with physical strength, that has as many variables and as few constants, and with it all the continuing frustration of knowing that even if you are a .300 hitter—which is a rare item these days—you are going to fail at your job seven out of 10 times? If John Unitas completed three of every 10 passes he threw he would be the ex-quarterback of the Baltimore Colts.
Golf? Somebody always mentions golf. You don't have to have good eyesight to play golf. You have to have it to hit a baseball. You don't have to have speed, either, to succeed at golf, or great strength, or exceptional coordination. You don't even have to be young. Golfers win major tournaments into their 50s. In the history of baseball, only Satchel Paige was still effective at that age.
You never hear a boo in golf. I know that's a factor. You don't have a pitcher throwing curves and sliders and knuckle-balls and, if he doesn't like you, maybe a fastball at your head. There is nothing to hurt you in golf unless lightning strikes or somebody throws a club. And, gee, there's that golf ball, sitting right there for you to hit, and a flat-faced club to hit it with. Thousands of guys play par golf. Good young golfers are swarming into the pros like lemmings.
I compare baseball with golf not to detract from it, because it is a fine game, good fun, sociable and a game, unlike baseball, that you can play for life. There are some great athletes in golf. Sam Snead comes immediately to mind. There are points of similarity in the swings of the two games—hip action, for one, is a key factor, and the advantage of an inside-out stroke. I will elaborate later. The thing is, hitting a golf ball has been examined from every angle. Libraries are jammed with books on the subject. There are as many theories, in fact, as there are tee markers and, for the student, a great weight of diagnosis.
Despite the fact there is more to say about batting, hitting a baseball has had no such barrage of scholarly treatment. Probably that is one reason why there are so many people—even at the big-league level—teaching it incorrectly, or not teaching it at all. Another surely is that not enough people have examined hitting. Then there are the damn pitching coaches who stand at the batting cage and yell at the pitchers to "Keep it low, keep it low," and "How's your arm, Bill? Don't throw too hard, now," and never mind seeing to it that the hitter gets the kind of practice he needs.
Baseball is crying for good hitters. Hitting is the most important part of the game. For an outfielder, hitting is 75% of his worth, more important than fielding and arm and speed combined. Yet there does not seem to be a hitter in baseball today who is going to wind up a lifetime .333 hitter. Hank Aaron was down to .316 at the beginning of this season. Roberto Clemente was .312. Willie Mays .309. Al Kaline .305. Mickey Mantle will be lucky to finish above .300.
The longer season is blamed for this, and the pitching in the majors is supposed to be better. Certainly a week should be cut off both ends of the season if for no other reason than to get away from some of that lousy cold weather. It's hard to hit in cold weather. But I wonder. If the longer season were responsible for the low averages you would still expect a few of the better hitters to average .360 or .370 for at least 100 games, and they don't. How, too, can the pitching be better when, with the disappearance of minor league teams, there are fewer pitchers in organized baseball and when expansion has made starters out of 20 or more who would otherwise still be in the minors?
The answers are not all that hard to figure. They talk about the ball being dead. The ball isn't dead, the hitters are, from the neck up. Everybody is trying to pull the ball to begin with, trying to hit home runs, which is folly and I will tell you why as we go along—and how Ted Williams, that notorious pull hitter, learned for himself. I probably will get carried away and sound like Al Simmons and Ty Cobb did to me when they used to cart their criticism of my hitting into print. I don't mean to criticize individuals here. Not at all. I do criticize these trends.
I think hitting can be improved at almost any level, and my intention is to show how, and what I think it takes to be a good hitter, even a .400 hitter if the conditions are ever right again, from the theory to the mechanics to the application. If I can help somebody, fine. That's the whole idea. I feel in my heart that nobody in this game ever devoted more concentration to the batter's box than Theodore Samuel Williams, a guy who practiced until the blisters bled, loved batting anyway and always delighted in examining the art of hitting the ball. I'm almost 50 years old now. I've had a lot of time to think about it.