On the first day of spring training, March 1, 1954, Ted Williams broke his collarbone running after a line drive. Williams would be out for six weeks, and in April he wrote an article with Joe Reichler of the Saturday Evening Post saying that he intended to retire at the end of the season. Williams instead returned to the Red Sox lineup on May 7th, and during the 1954 season he hit .345 with 386 at bats in 117 games.
There’s been a lot of talk about the new rules going into effect for Major League Baseball’s 2023 season. With Opening Day just over a month away, it seems like a good time to take a look at these updates here.
This year, the size of first base, second base, and third base is increasing from 15 inches to 18 inches square. This, in effect, decreases the distance between bases by 4.5 inches. One argument in favor of this change is that it will create more excitement, with closer plays at each base. The league believes that the larger bases will also decrease injuries, which seems like a more plausible explanation.
My thoughts: I can’t help but wonder how necessary this really is. I have heard the new bases getting compared to pizza boxes, which seems a bit excessive to me. When I played softball in high school, there was a “safety base” at first base — a double base that allowed the runner to run through the exterior base while the first baseman fielded the throw from the interior base. I think I would rather see the double base implemented at first over the bigger bases all around the infield. Is there a greater injury risk with the smaller bases? Sure, I agree that’s probably true. I guess I’m opposed to this change in the same way I oppose the restriction on sliding into fielders to break up a double play. It takes away from the game, in a way.
On the other hand, some proponents point out this could mean an increase in stolen bases. As a fan of small ball, if this turns out to be true and the game becomes more exciting as a result, I might become a convert.
Restrictions on defensive shifts
Going forward, we will no longer see defensive shifts where the shortstop or the third baseman plays on the first base side of second base. With the new restrictions, two infielders are required to remain positioned on each side of second base. Furthermore, infielders must have both feet situated within the boundaries of the infield — no more second basemen playing shallow right field. What’s more, players cannot switch positions unless a substitution is made. Therefore, a team’s second baseman and shortstop must stay in their positions — they are not interchangeable for the sake of putting the better defender in position to field a batted ball.
My thoughts: At first, I was very much against this. In his book, The Science of Hitting, Ted Williams argues that it is up to the batter to adjust to the shift, and that made perfect sense to me. But then I saw this tweet about the decline of batting averages in recent years, and I realize that perhaps the shift has become a little too effective, and maybe it is time to bring a little bit of a spark back to small ball.
The pitch clock
In the same way that basketball has a shot clock and football has a play clock, baseball now has a pitch clock. Between batters, the pitch clock is set to 30 seconds before the pitcher must begin his motion. When bases are empty, the clock sets a limit of 15 seconds between pitches. When runners are on base, this limit is 20 seconds. If there is a delay that is determined to be the pitcher’s fault, a ball is added to the batter’s count. If umpires determine a delay is the batter’s fault, then a strike is added to the count.
The rule also limits hitters to one timeout per plate appearance and allows pitchers to step off the rubber twice per plate appearance, at which point the clock resets. This essentially puts a limit on the number of pickoff attempts a pitcher can make, which will hinder pitchers’ ability to prevent stolen bases. You’re able to make a third pickoff attempt, but if you don’t get the runner out, it’s a balk, and the runner advances automatically.
My thoughts: I am a bigger fan of this change than I thought I would be. As much as I love baseball, even I can find the 3 1/2-hour games a bit cumbersome. Maybe that’s just my millennial attention span speaking, but I don’t think so. Back in the day, baseball games were played in as little as 51 minutes. Granted, a lot of the delay in today’s games are due to commercials, ballpark entertainment, and other advertising bull, but I do think that it is a good time to inject a little pickup into the pace of the game itself.
I recently finished listening to the audiobook version of former Yankee Paul O’Neill’s memoir, Swing and a Hit: Nine Innings of What Baseball Taught Me. While I could never bring myself to root for the Yankees, I did enjoy watching O’Neill play during his time in New York. He was one of those player who, when watching, you could always tell that he cared about the game and about playing it well.
This memoir, published in May 2022, focuses a lot on O’Neill’s thoughts and perspectives on hitting. And he talks about everything hitting-related — about his stride, his leg kick, his approach at the plate early in the at-bat versus with two strikes, facing left-handed pitchers, hitting against the shift, his conversations with other players in the game about their own approaches to hitting, and so on.
I found myself glad that I had just read Ted Williams’s The Science of Hitting not too long ago, because this book by O’Neill felt very much like a complement to the Williams text. In fact, Paul O’Neill references The Science of Hitting multiple times in his own work. There was little doubt, as I made my way through Swing and a Hit, that O’Neill worshipped Ted Williams. He even goes so far as to a phone call he received from Williams as speaking with “the voice of God.”
The book wasn’t entirely about hitting, though, as Paul O’Neill also chronicles his life and baseball career. He discusses his father’s influence, which was substantial in his life and career. O’Neill also delves into his relationships and views on players and managers around him. He discusses what it was like to be a player with the Reds when the Pete Rose gambling case was making headlines, describes what it was like to play with Derek Jeter, and also what a terrifying experience it was to face Randy Johnson’s pitching.
All-in-all, while I enjoyed the book, I do feel it was a bit lacking on the actual memoir side of things. It felt more like a MasterClass on hitting a baseball — again, like a complement to Ted Williams’s book. It’s worth the read if you’re into that sort of perspective, but if you’re looking for something more personal, this book won’t quite get you there.
On November 11, 1941, the American League Most Valuable Player Award went to Joe DiMaggio, who hit 30 home runs, 125 RBIs, and collected 348 total bases. DiMaggio also led the Yankees to a 101-53 season that culminated with their ninth World Series title. In the midst of all of this, the Yankee Clipper also had a Major League-record 56-game hitting streak along the way.
DiMaggio edged out Ted Williams in the voting for the award. Williams remains the last player to finish a season with a .400 average, doing so when he hit .406 in 1941. Williams’s season won him the American League batting title by a whopping 47 points that year, however, his efforts fell short in the league’s MVP voting.
Ted Williams’s The Science of Hitting has been on my radar for a few years now, though admittedly, since it has been so long since I last played ball, I wasn’t in any real hurry to read it. But now that I have, I’m glad that I did because even though I no longer play, I learned a lot from this book.
First published in 1971, The Science of Hitting serves as a guide on how to improve one’s performance at the plate. Even though it is a very slim volume, only 81 pages long, it is a goldmine on hitting technique and about the game as a whole. Ted Williams, with the help of John Underwood, manages to walk a fine line between elaborating on the technical aspects of hitting while maintaining a very readable style of writing.
Despite the fact that Williams originally wrote this book more than 50 years ago, the observations and advice within are timeless. Some of the advice is commonly heard today, such as being selective at the plate and making the pitcher work until they’ve got two strikes on you. Other bits of advice flies in the face of popular coaching today. For example, the recommendation to maintain a level swing, parallel to the ground, is something I heard throughout my playing days. Williams argues and demonstrates why a slight upward swing is the better approach. The book is full of pictures and diagrams depicting Williams’s teachings in a visual format.
Nevertheless, Williams’s approach to teaching the art of hitting is not strictly proscriptive. He provides numerous examples of variations on hitting styles, naming some of the greatest hitters in the game as examples of these variations. (As new editions of the book have been released, the lists of players named have been updated to include some who played in more recent years.) A hitter’s swing is unique to that hitter, so if what a player is doing is working, stick with it. If it’s not working, or if that hitter is looking to improve, then The Science of Hitting provides a number of things to consider.
This book doesn’t just stop at hitting, either. Williams briefly discusses pitching and touches on his thoughts on the approaches of various pitchers. He talks about what approaches work on the mound, which do not, and the importance of studying the game and being able to make adjustments.
As a whole, Ted Williams emphasizes the importance of practice, practice, practice. Given the number of factors that go into a single swing of the bat, this book is aptly named — hitting is a science. And in order to improve at it, players need to study, think, adjust, and continually practice.
The Axe Bat has been floating around the baseball world for a few years now. If you’re not familiar, the handle of an Axe Bat is shaped like the handle of an axe.
The idea behind this handle is that it will fit the hitter’s hand better, which thus makes it more ergonomic. The axe handle is more oval-shaped than round, allowing the hitter to get a better and more comfortable grip on the bat. Additionally, the knob of a traditional round-handled baseball bat can sometimes slide into and bang up against the palm of the hitter’s hand, while the shape of the axe handle helps prevent this. Manufacturers of the Axe Bat claim that this feature also helps the barrel of the bat to progress through the strike zone unhindered, thus allowing the batter to generate more bat speed.
The creation of the axe-shaped bat handle came from Bruce Leinert, who filed a patent application for the ‘Axe Bat’ in 2007. But the original inspiration of Leinert’s invention came from a line in a book by one of the game’s greatest hitters, The Science of Hitting by Ted Williams. According to Williams, “Swinging a bat is like swinging an axe.”
Over the years, use of the Axe Bat has spread throughout college and professional baseball, and permission from Major League Baseball for in-game use of axe-shaped handle bats came starting the 2015 season. MLB players who have adopted the new bat handle have included Mookie Betts, Dustin Pedroia, George Springer, Kurt Suzuki, and Dansby Swanson.
Players who use the Axe bat speak highly of its benefits. It takes a few swings to adjust to the differently-shaped handle, but the adjustment happens quickly. According to Mookie Betts, “I was able to take it out for BP one day, and the next day, I was using it in the game. And from that point on, I’ve used it in every at-bat.” Perhaps the first player to really use the Axe Bat in MLB was Dustin Pedroia, who stated, “It feels good in your hand. And then I read up all the studies they did on injury prevention. Supposedly, the way the grip is set it increases bat speed. Just grabbing it feels comfortable. You don’t feel like you have to turn it before you swing. I like ’em.”
Several years ago, I wrote about baseball during World War I with the intention of following up with a post about the game during World War II. It has taken longer than I intended to circle back, but today, I finally make the return to what I started.
World War II began in September 1939, though the United States did not enter the war until December 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan. During the 1941 season, prior to the U.S. entering the war, Ted Williams batted .406, Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive games, and Lefty Grove earned his 300th career win. These led Major League Baseball to enjoy one of its most popular seasons to date, with its fifth-highest attendance total of 9.6 million spectators. As the war raged on through the 1942 and 1943 seasons, baseball would see a decline in attendance to 8.1 million and 7.4 million respectively. However, attendance would rebound during the 1944 season to pre-war levels, and by 1945, the league experienced an all-time high of 10.8 million people attending baseball games.
At first, there was some speculation as to whether or not baseball would even continue during the war. On January 14, 1942, baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis wrote a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt asking if baseball should stay in operation. FDR’s response to Landis became known as the Green Light Letter, stating, “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. […] And, incidentally, I hope that night games can be extended because it gives an opportunity to the day shift to see a game occasionally.” Roosevelt did also stress that any ballplayer capable of joining the military should absolutely do so, but he felt the popularity of the sport would not be diminished as a result.
Over 500 major leaguers and 4,000 minor leaguers saw action during World War II. The first major leaguer drafted into the war was pitcher Hugh Mulcahy, and the first to enlist was pitcher Bob Feller. Other major leaguers involved in the war included stars like Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Yogi Berra, and Hank Greenberg. As a result of so many major leaguers joining the war effort, many players who previously did not see a lot of action on the diamond and a lot of minor league players now had the opportunity to play big roles on major league ball teams.
Some players were classified as 4-F during the draft, meaning that they were not fit for military service. There was some criticism of the fact that there could be some individuals identified as unfit for military service, yet still in good enough condition to play baseball. Others noted that 4-F status was determined by Army and Navy doctors, and therefore was not related to their status as baseball players. Furthermore, while some 4-Fs may not have served in the military, many of them did serve in defense industries, and thus still contributed to the war effort.
During the war, military personnel showed overwhelming support for the continuation of baseball. Myriad service men’s teams formed across all theatres of war, and equipment was even made available to these teams. Exhibition games were put on by military teams for the entertainment of the troops, and pickup games were aplenty among deployed servicemen and in POW camps during the war.
Some known baseball stars were deliberately kept out of harm’s way, such as Joe DiMaggio, who spent most of his military career playing for baseball teams and in exhibition games against fellow major leaguers and minor league players. But this wasn’t the case for all major leaguers. Warren Spahn, for example, served as a combat engineer in Europe and was decorated with a Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and a Battlefield Commission for action at the Battle of The Bulge. Hoyt Wilhelm also earned a Purple Heart fighting in Europe.
In the fall of 1942, many minor league teams disbanded, as many minor league players found themselves being drafted to serve in the war. This plus the concern that major league teams might be in danger of collapsing prompted Philip K. Wrigley to begin the All-American Girls Softball League. Before long, the rules were changed and the name of the new organization was updated to the All-American Girls Baseball League. 280 women were invited to tryouts in Chicago, where 60 were ultimately chosen to become the first women to play professional baseball. Teams consisted of 15 players, a manager, a business manager, and a woman chaperone, and salaries ranged from $45 to $85 per week. League play began May 30, 1943, and each team played 108 games in the season. The league peaked in 1948, when a total of ten teams attracted 910,000 fans. However, following the war, the league began to break down and eventually folded in 1954. In the end, the AAGPBL gave over 600 women the opportunity to play professional baseball.
The end of World War II finally came on September 2, 1945, when U.S. General Douglas MacArthur accepted Japan’s formal surrender aboard the U.S. battleship Missouri. Over the course of the war, two MLB players lost their lives in battle: Captain Elmer J. Gedeon (Washington Senators) died during a bombing mission over France on April 20, 1944 and First Lieutenant Harry O’Neill (Philadelphia Athletics) was killed by a sniper on Iwo Jima on March 6, 1945. Hundreds of men who served in World War II played Major League Baseball, with even more having spent time playing for minor league teams. Most survived the war, and continued their careers on the field, but a small number paid the ultimate sacrifice, and never returned to the field.