- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Every time I watch Dale Murphy take an off-balance, futile swing at a curveball, I wish my brother Chas were alive and coaching the Atlanta batters. I have watched Murphy, the gentlemanly and tall (6'5") centerfielder for the Braves, strike out something like 200 times over the past couple of seasons, on telecasts from Ted Turner's superstation.
Murphy isn't the only big-leaguer to whom "curve" is a dirty word. The player who can hit the curve is the exception, not the rule. Fortunately for the game, today's pitchers throw the curve no better than the batters hit it.
Turn my brother Chas loose on Murphy with a big bag of de-kerneled corncobs, and I'll guarantee Dale would be hitting curveballs to all fields and over the fences within a week. Chas taught me to hit the curve—the out curve, in curve and drop, as we called them—during lazy, hot afternoons in the summer of 1929, and I had nothing like Murphy's talent. Chas taught me so well that the following summer I had a day of glory.
Ted Williams has said that hitting a thrown baseball is the "most difficult thing to do" in sports. Golfers hit the ball almost every time, but if it's moving when they hit it, they're penalized. A basketball player can miss the center of his target by several inches, and the ball still will go swish. Hockey, soccer, lacrosse and polo players can miss the middle of the goal by feet or even yards and still score. The quarterback's target is moving but can adjust to passes off the mark. A tennis player has a large, flat surface with which to hit, and a boxer has a very large object to swing at.
A baseball is different from all other targets in one special way. Unless it is hit dead center, with only a small amount to spare up or down, the batter loses. Unlike the tennis ball, of course, the baseball must be hit with a rounded, not a flat, bat. If the center of the round bat is a little under the center of the baseball when the two meet, the ball will pop into the air; if the center of the bat is a little over the center of the baseball, the ball will take to the ground. It's easy to understand that hitting a ball traveling in a straight line is far from easy. But have that ball, thrown from 60'6" away, travel in a straight line for 58 or so feet, then use the last couple of feet to dip down and away from the batter, or down and in toward the batter, or straight down toward the plate, and the difficulty of hitting it has been compounded many times.
Chas could throw a curve and hit one, and as relaxation from his studies he decided that part of my education should be learning to hit the curveball.
We didn't have a lot of money for equipment growing up in Franklin, Pa., so we used what was available—corncobs from a tenant farmer's pigsty—for balls. Chas chopped each corncob into three lengths and, using the century-old, treadle-style grindstone in the barn, ground the pieces into rough spheres. The corncob "balls," I would guess, were perhaps three-fifths the size of baseballs and one-fifth the weight. They could be thrown at good speed—Chas estimated 30 mph, which, I'll never forget, equals 44 feet a second.
Don't ask me to explain the math of all this, but Chas figured that with home plate 18 feet from the pitching slab, he could get exactly the same ratio of curve-to-distance with a ground corncob that a pitcher could get with a baseball at 60'6". He threw a few corncobs at the back of the house to test his theories and then borrowed some lime and lined out a home plate, batters' boxes and pitcher's mound.
Now we needed a bat. For some reason I have forgotten, none of our collection of old, abused bats would do. So Chas dipped into his newsboy earnings and bought one. The bat was a very interesting example of the kind of things that could happen in the world of grown-up skulduggery. It had an oval trademark bearing the trade name Ailerich and Brady, and the A in Ailerich was more like an H with the top closed. The bat was an "Official Louiseville Slugger" and was autographed by somebody called "Rabe Buth." It cost Chas something like 35¢. It was about two-thirds as long, and the barrel about two-thirds as big around, as my beloved, battered Tris Speaker model, but it was the bat Chas wanted me to use while learning to hit the curveball.
I didn't particularly want to learn. When a pitcher threw a ball that seemed to be coming at my head, all I wanted to do was get the hell out of there. Besides, no schoolboy pitcher I had ever faced could get three curves out of seven pitches in the strike zone with any consistency, so it was a safe bet that I'd get something to swing at most times at the plate. But when Chas made up his mind to do something, opposition was useless. I would learn to hit the curve, and that was that.