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Left Is All Right
RICHARD HOFFER
May 09, 2005
Everything from staircases to scissors gives the advantage to the dextral. So in a world designed with the right hand in mind, why is it that so many lefties are great athletes?
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May 09, 2005

Left Is All Right

Everything from staircases to scissors gives the advantage to the dextral. So in a world designed with the right hand in mind, why is it that so many lefties are great athletes?

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He might be best remembered for interrupting World Series play to watch a plane fly overhead. When skipper Joe McCarthy complained, Gomez said, "I've never seen a pitcher lose a game by not throwing the ball."

To be sure, there have been other, genuinely strange lefties. There was the tennis player Art Larsen, a figure from the 1950s who appeared for a match wearing a shirt with the hanger still inside. There was Stanford quarterback Frankie Albert, who held up a Rose Bowl game to watch a plane fly overhead. There was ... wait a minute! What's with the lefthander's preoccupation with air travel, anyway?

In recent times the tradition has been kept alive by Bill Lee, the former Red Sox reliever who remains better known for his deep thoughts than his saves. When we caught up with him recently, he was just out the door of his Vermont home and headed for a plot of land he was hoping to secure on Vancouver Island. His new plan was to build a replica of Fenway Park. "It's going to be the focal point of my new Church of Baseball," he explains. "We're working on the commandments right now. Thou Shalt Steal. Thou Shalt Not Use Aluminum Bats. Also, Thou Shalt Crow-Hop on Outfield Throws." Lee, who claims to be the only guy to pitch in all the Communist countries ("except for Albania--don't think they had a team"), plans to run the place as a kind of fantasy camp. "We've even got our own elixir, made of ginseng and maple syrup, and then some more ginseng."

This is a good place for one further digression, and that involves suicide. Coren believes that lefthanders, already compromised by birth trauma, should be more liable to depression and thus to killing themselves. Yet Loren Coleman, a recently retired professor in Maine and the author of a 2004 book on suicide clusters, discovered that lefthanded ballplayers are practically immune to that level of depression.

Coleman, who figured major league baseball for the ideal sample for his study (where else is the population's handedness tracked so scrupulously?), was surprised that of the 80 or so suicides he could document among major leaguers (which was already overrepresented by lefthanders almost 3 to 1 compared with the real world), he counted only one committed by a lefty. "My speculation," says Coleman, "is that because of his adaptability to unusual situations, the lefthander has protective factors against suicide. That doesn't seem to apply to the righthanded pitcher, who's a model of rigidity."

Coleman, who found that pitchers and catchers account for nearly 60% of all baseball suicides, wasn't sure that all lefthanders are necessarily zany--"Although there is Bill Lee," he admits--but if they are, the unpredictability of their behavior becomes a kind of coping device. Nobody who has the good sense to pause in his work and appreciate the miracle of aeronautics is very likely to stare down the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun. So he's got that going for him.

Do we have time for one more digression? It concerns the nickname itself, which has sadly faded in modern sports. It no longer has much cachet. Steve Carlton may have been called Lefty from time to time, though there's no indication the Hall of Fame pitcher ever answered to it. And Phil Mickelson, who is also called Lefty occasionally, doesn't seem to care for it either, especially as he is not actually lefthanded. ( Mickelson plays lefthanded clubs because at a very young age he learned the game by standing opposite his father and mirroring his swing.) Not only are there very few athletes tagged Lefty, but of the ones who are, some aren't even lefthanded. This is very unreliable.

Even the ones who are named Lefty, who really are lefty, and who answer to it, are hard-pressed to come up with meaningful backstories. Lefty Driesell, the longtime basketball coach at Maryland, got the label as a fourth-grader and not for doing anything particularly athletic. At the time, as a grade schooler, he was a student-manager on the football team. "This guy, the head manager, was in charge of giving everybody a nickname," says Driesell, now retired to Virginia Beach. Clearly Driesell lucked out in the nickname department. "There was also Fish Head, Tadpole and Frog."

The nickname stuck and, except for those few years at Duke when he was actually doing something lefthanded (and was called by his given name by just about everybody at the time), he's been Lefty ever since. "Most people don't know what my name is anymore," says Charles.

Here's Joe Nuxhall's story: The Ol' Lefthander didn't get his handed-handle until he had retired from baseball and was doing the radio broadcasts for the Cincinnati Reds. At which point, of course, it was no longer particularly descriptive or even interesting. (A lefthanded announcer?) It was in 1967, and one of the team's coaches, Whitey Wietelmann, suggested he could use a catchy sign-off, something like, "This is Joe Nuxhall, the Ol' Lefthander, rounding third and heading for home." Nuxhall tried it for a week, thought it was stupid and dropped it. But listeners apparently loved it and pressed him to include the signature goodbye in the broadcast. And he did it until, after 37 years in the booth, he really rounded third last year and, heading for home, stepped out and fled to Florida.

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