It would be nice to be able to lay down some hard rules that would eliminate all weaknesses for a batter. Every batter has some, and every pitcher, his natural enemy, is on the lookout for them, though pitchers, as a breed, are dumb and hardheaded. The smart ones, like Whitey Ford and Bob Feller and Ed Lopat, are always after an edge. The hitter has to beat the edge.
I think you will find as we go along that much of what I have to say about hitting comes down to your own self-education: thinking it out, learning the situations, knowing your opponent and, most important, knowing yourself. You, the hitter, are the greatest variable in this game, because to know yourself takes dedication. Today that's a hard thing to have. Today ballplayers have a dozen distractions. They're always on the run. In the old days we didn't fly, we rode the train. We might be 10 to 12 hours on a train, and much of the talk was hitting. We didn't have television, we didn't have a lot of money to play around with. We lived in an atmosphere of baseball. We talked it, we experimented, we swapped bats. I was forever trying a new stance, trying to hit like Hank Greenberg or Jimmy Foxx or somebody, and then going back to my old way. I recommend that for kids. Experiment. Try what you see that looks good on somebody else. Try different bats, a bigger handle, a bigger barrel, anything.
My preference was a light bat. I treated my bats as though they were babies. I boned them. I used to take them to the post office to check their weights. I ordered 33-ounce bats, but they'd come to 33� ounces, maybe 34, so I always checked. I'll never forget, Mr. Hillerich of Hillerich & Bradsby Co., the Louisville Slugger company, put six bats on a bed one time. One was half an ounce heavier than the others. He had me close my eyes and pick out the heavier bat. I picked it out twice in a row.
A trip to the plate was an adventure, one that I could remember and store up information about. I honestly believe I can recall everything there was to know about my first 300 home runs—who the pitcher was, the count, the pitch itself, where the ball landed. I didn't have to keep a written book on pitchers—I lived a book on pitchers. That's the kind of dedication I'm talking about.
Now, there are all kinds of hitting styles. The style must fit the player, not the other way around. If you have a boy with natural talent to work with, you sure as hell don't try to take anything away from him. You add to what he already has, or you suggest a little adjustment. For example, when Carl Yastrzemski, who had been great in the minors, first came up he was wheeling the bat all around his neck. I didn't make a big thing of it. I just tried to impress him with this: "Don't forget, Carl, the pitching in this league is going to be a little faster. You have to be a little quicker. You can't have any lost motion." I didn't tell him to stop doing anything. I didn't want him to think that much about it. He worked it out for himself.
Now, when the mistakes are mental, as so many of them are, a coach has to bear down. I remember a chat with Rico Petrocelli last year before spring training. I said, "Rico, have I ever told you anything about hitting?" "No," he said. "You know why? Because I can't. You've got a wonderful style. You hit pretty near every pitch well. You've got good power. In a jam, I'd as soon see you at the plate as anybody. But you know what, Rico? I'm beginning to think you're stupid. You don't even have the vaguest idea what is going on at the plate. Just yesterday a guy threw a fastball right by you on a 3-and-1 pitch." What I meant was that here was a kid who with two strikes could very well hit as tough a pitch as you could throw, but when he had the pitcher in the hole at 3 and 1, and the pitcher had to come right down the middle with it, he did not realize that he could really rip, really take advantage of the edge. He was up there looking for the tough one when he could have been taking pickings. I have to laugh. Rico said, "You know, Ted, you're right. I'm stupid."
There probably never has been what you would call the "complete" hitter. Babe Ruth struck out more than he should have. Cobb didn't have the power, he didn't have great style. Harry Heilmann wasn't serious enough. I suppose Rogers Hornsby came the closest to being complete. I'll never forget being with the Minneapolis team in camp at Daytona Beach, me, a 20-year-old kid picking Hornsby's brains for everything I could. He'd stay out there with me every day after practice and we'd have hitting contests, just the two of us, and that old rascal would just keep zinging those line drives. Hornsby wasn't a very diplomatic guy, but he knew what it took to hit.
There are three things I would emphasize to any hitter before even considering the rudiments of a good swing. The three are more constant than the swing itself, and every bit as important. The first is something Hornsby originally impressed on me that spring long ago: get a good ball to hit. The second is something you must always take up there with you: proper thinking. Have you done your homework? What's his best pitch? What did he get you out on last time? I remember one time Hal Newhouser of Detroit dusted me off, then struck me out on three pitches, the last one a sharp letter-high curve. When I came back to the bench I was burning. Rip Russell made a crack and I said, "Listen, I'm betting five bucks if he throws that same pitch again I'll hit it out." Newhouser did, and I did.
The third thing is to be quick with the bat. It applies all the time, and I'll tell you ways to increase your quickness. But what about that "good ball to hit"? You can see in the strike-zone picture what I considered my happy zone, where I consistently hit the ball hard for high average, and the areas graded down to those spots I learned to lay off of, especially that low pitch on the outside 3� inches of the plate. Cobb once said, " Ted Williams sees more of the ball than any man alive—but he demands a perfect pitch. He takes too many bases on balls." I don't resent that. I'm sure Cobb thought he was right. What is "seeing?" I had 20-10 vision. A lot of guys can see that well. I sure as hell couldn't read labels on revolving phonograph records as people wrote I did. What I had more of was discipline, and isn't it funny? I took so many "close" pitches that when I retired I wound up third in all-time bases-loaded home runs, third in alltime home runs and in the top five in runs batted in per time at bat. I had to be doing something right, and for my money the principal something was being selective.
I have said earlier in this series that a good batter can hit a pitch that is over the plate three times better than a great batter can hit a questionable ball thrown to a tough spot. Pitchers still make enough mistakes to give you some in your happy zone. But the greatest hitter living can't hit bad balls well. Sure, you get occasional base hits on pitches in the gray areas; Yogi Berra and Joe Medwick were so-called "bad-ball" hitters, usually on high inside pitches. But more often than not you hit a bad pitch and nothing happens. Nothing. And when you start fishing for the pitch that's an inch off the plate, the pitcher—if he's smart—will put the next one two inches off. Then three. And before you know it you're making 50 outs a year on pitches you never should have swung at. Giving the pitcher an extra two inches around the strike zone increases the area of the strike zone 37%. Figure it out.