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For those who persist in the blind conviction that Ted Williams and Stan Musial are the best hitters in baseball and that Mickey Mantle and Henry Aaron await only the passage of time before ascending the throne, it is suggested that they read the fine type in the sports pages of their daily newspapers. Figures do not lie—in baseball, they wouldn't dare—and there in the batting averages last week, for all the world to see, was incontrovertible proof that Williams and Musial were over the hill and that Mantle and Aaron were simply flashes in the pan. The best hitters in baseball were Reno Bertoia, the druggist's friend from St. Vito, Italy (see HIGHLIGHT), and Donald Albert Hoak, a retired trumpet player from Roulette, Pa.
This does not necessarily signify the end of baseball. For one thing, 20 games do not a season make, and there is still a long way to go. For another, Bertoia is only 22 years old and was once deemed worthy of a $25,000 bonus by the Detroit Tigers and someday really could become one of baseball's better hitters, with or without the benefit of Equanil. Stranger things have happened. But it is a little harder to explain this business of Don Hoak.
Hoak is 29 years old and has been playing baseball professionally since 1947, yet never has he hit over .295. His lifetime major league average is some 65 points below that. Of even more consequence, while Mantle and Williams were finishing one-two last year in the American League batting race and Aaron was leading the National, Don Hoak was making his mark by finishing dead last. Of all the players who officially qualified for the honor, Hoak and his .215 brought up the rear. This means that he was even worse than Willie Miranda, and in the big leagues you do not sink below this and still hope to stick around.
Yet after three weeks of the 1957 season Don Hoak was hitting .415, and a week later, after the first full month of play, he was still leading the National League at .388. And, what is more important, he was also right near the top of the column headed runs batted in. With Ted Kluszewski off flexing his muscles for the edification of the medical fraternity rather than the terrorization of opposing pitchers, with the other big Cincinnati sluggers, Wally Post and Gus Bell, at something less than peak form, Hoak had personally taken up the slack. He was swinging the big bat which sent the Redlegs off to their 12-game winning streak and to the top of the National League.
Most of baseball observed this miracle with the same air of puzzled wonderment which settled over Hoak's old teammates on the Chicago Cubs. "Are you sure," they asked, "that it's the same Don Hoak?" When told that apparently it must be, the Cubs, like everyone else, wanted to know what in the world had happened.
STRAIGHTEN UP AND SWING RIGHT
According to Hoak, it was fairly simple. The formula goes something like this: First, assume a stance in the near-geometric center of the batter's box. Then spread your feet as far apart as possible without falling over, crouch slightly and at the same time bend forward from the waist. Immediately abandon this position and move as far toward the back, inside corner of the box as you can get without stepping on the catcher's toes or obscuring the umpire's view of the game. Place your feet close together, stand up straight and relax. Then, when a baseball comes by, hit it. This may not work for you, but it has done wonders for Don Hoak.
If the new batting stance has made Hoak a celebrity as a hitter, the old one earned for him a certain renown, too. When dug in at the plate, Hoak appeared capable of standing staunch before a hurricane—as long as it blew from the direction of the mound. "He looked," once wrote Dick Young of the New York Daily News , "like the Holland Tunnel with a bat in its hands."
"I started hitting that way at Fort Worth in 1950," Don says. "I was having a lot of trouble hitting the high fast ball so I decided to crouch. You notice how a lot of good fast-ball hitters crouch—Lopata, McDougald, Banks. So I did, too, and it helped.
"A couple of years ago, when I was with the Dodgers, Alston and I fooled around with changing my stance, but I never did feel just right, so I went back to hitting the same old way.