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The reason batting a baseball is so tough is that even the best can't hit all of the balls thrown to them just right. To do so is a matter of making corrections every minute, in practice as well as in the game. Ground out a lot? You're probably swinging too early. Popping up? Probably swinging too late. Much of the correction, however, concerns the pitchers you face. I suppose I could name 100 pitchers who were tough for me, all requiring constant investigation. Some of the great ones I caught near the end of their careers—Bobo Newsom, Mel Harder, Red Ruffing, Tommy Bridges, Ted Lyons. If you asked me to name the five toughest, you might be surprised at my answer: Ford, Bob Lemon, Lopat, Feller and Hoyt Wilhelm. All different from each other but all smart as hell. A second five would be right up there: Paul Trout, Virgil Trucks, Newhouser, Vic Raschi and Allie Reynolds, but they were real power pitchers, guys who stood out there and dared you to hit their good ones. As a hitter, I could handle the fastball pitchers, at least with more consistency than the others. I didn't dread facing any of them, but, when I went into a game knowing the pitcher was tough, that was better for me. Invariably, when I'd say, "Boy, I'm going to bust this guy," it wouldn't happen.
The best all had good deliveries. They weren't stereotyped. They never conceded to the hitter. Three-and-one count and they'd still give you tough pitches. Lemon was a great natural athlete; his pitches were always moving, always sinking, always directed to a tough spot. Feller I put in there because he probably had more speed, more stuff than anybody, though I hit him pretty well. Even after losing his stuff he won on control. Lopat and Ford were lefthanders. Lopat had as fine a collection of junk as you'll ever see. He was always giving you something new. Ford had that sharp-breaking curve, and he always got it in a good spot, away and down. Most of the hits I got off Ford were to center and left center. He made very few mistakes. The only home run I hit off Ford was on a high curve, and that was the only high curve I ever saw from Ford.
Wilhelm? Knuckleball pitcher all the way. What do you do with a knuckleball? Don't ask me, because I seldom hit it, but I'd say you don't try to get big with it and pull, you just stay with it as long as possible. Wilhelm is a guy who'll throw you a sure-strike knuckler, then a real good knuckler, then, with two strikes, a real stinker of a knuckler, dancing in your face. I remember one time when he threw me a fastball. I said, "Well, gee, here's a nice fastball." Bow, line drive into right field for a base hit. I had that much time. He never gave me another.
Trouble with the average pitcher is his hardheadedness. He has too inflated an opinion of what he's got. Say it's his fastball. He thinks he can throw it any time, any place, anywhere. If you hit his fastball, he still gives it to you. He doesn't spend enough time studying hitters, and he concedes too often to a hitter in a tough spot. But his biggest mistake is in not working on getting breaking pitches over the plate.
The slider is probably as good a pitch as there is in baseball. All hitters have trouble with it—Mays says it's the toughest, Hank Aaron says it's the toughest. I say it's the greatest pitch in baseball. It is easy to control. It is easy to learn. It immediately gives a pitcher a third or fourth pitch in his repertoire.
The spitball is the biggest piece of fiction there is. They're always talking about the spitball. All a batter has to do is have the umpire look at the ball, because to be an effective spitter the ball has to be loaded up good. I played under Fred Shellenback for two years in San Diego, the greatest spitballer in the minor leagues. He threw spitters all the time, and I know he had to get the damn ball goobered up with that slippery elm, and the more he got on it the better it was. You can't just wet your fingertips and throw a spitball. And you can't control it unless you throw it a lot. I defy any pitcher to show me he can do it just wetting his fingers. I hit against Lou Burdette. Everybody said he threw spitters. Maybe they were, but they didn't look like spitters to me. They'd sink, or fade a little. They certainly weren't good spitters. Mike Garcia threw one at me one time and the spit came up and hit me in the eye. The umpire threw the ball out. I didn't realize it, but Tommy Bridges said he threw one to me and I hit it out of the park.
As far as the fear hitters have of getting conked with the ball, all hitters go through it, and they must accept terror as a pitcher's legitimate weapon. A pitcher puts a hitter through those test periods. Start wearing down the fences and they start giving you a look. Then they find out if you can hit from the prone position.
A good hitter knows that he must fight to stay in there because, once he starts bailing out, the pitcher has him beaten. I remember Lefty Chase, who pitched for Washington. He had a hell of a curve and fastball, but he was wild. One day he got me to 3 and 2 with two men on, and threw a big sharp curve, and I took it. Fooled me. Strike three. I got up again in the fourth inning, bases loaded, count goes to 3 and 2, and here comes another, and I'm hanging in there, waiting, waiting, and I don't think I moved until the ball was right by my ear. It darn near hit my hat and spun it on my head. I walked.
But I'm not writing about pitchers. This is a hitter's guide. Pitchers don't pick up things very easily, anyway. Half of them don't even take batting practice. And isn't it funny? The way the game is played, they represent 11% of the team's batting lineup going into a game. They should be as much concerned about their hitting as anybody, especially during those four days between pitching assignments. I know one thing. If I were a manager, my pitchers would get hitting practice. And my hitters would get plenty of hitting practice. It's the most important thing in the game.