Thursday, December 16, 2010

Checking A Swing--And Checking It Twice

Baseball fans and historians received an early Christmas present last night from the MLB Network with its special telecast of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series. Only a few months after a long-forgotten kinescope was found in the vault of Bing Crosby, part-owner of the Pirates in 1960, MLB Network staged a long-to-be-remembered event in Pittsburgh as participants in the Series watched complete-game footage of one of the most thrilling Series games ever. As the 9th inning began, Bobby Richardson--the lone member of the losing Yankees in attendance--said to Dick Groat, "this is exciting." Indeed it was.

A few things made a strong impression on me. One was the sparse commentary of the two announcers, Bob Prince and Mel Allen. We're so inundated today with the repetitious over-explanation by analysts of everything under the sun that it was refreshing to hear a solitary announcer simply describing the action. On the other hand, even though today's telecasts also overuse replays (do we really need six camera angles on every play?), it would've been helpful to have just a few judiciously added replays 50 years ago. Mel Allen, for instance, could only tell us that Tony Kubek had been hit "in the face" by Bill Virdon's bad-hop bouncer in the 8th inning. One brief slow-motion view would've showed that Kubek was hit in the Adam's Apple, making it clear why he had to leave the game. Two other plays would have been clearer with one or two extra views: Bob Prince was sure that Yogi Berra's 6th-inning blast was foul, but it was ruled a home run, and I would've liked a different angle showing how far inside the pole it was; in the top of the 9th there was the bizarre play on which the tying run scored while Mickey Mantle eluded Pirates first baseman Rocky Nelson on a bang-bang play at first. SABR members have debated this play for a long time, trying to figure out whether Nelson was at fault, Mantle was brilliant, or the whole thing was just dumb luck. On last night's telecast, Richardson quoted Mantle as telling him that he "froze" on the play (making it dumb luck), but it appeared that Nelson took a step toward second base, giving Mantle just enough room to dive away from his tag. A view looking along the baseline between first and second would help us see exactly how the two players moved.

In the discussion after the telecast, Dick Groat noted how horrible the infield looked. I noticed it early in the game, too. Every footstep on the infield dirt seemed to leave a large imprint, and there were rough spots all over the place. It seemed to me that the infield was not "dragged" after the 5th inning, as is customary today. If so, that would account for the wicked hop that turned an easy double-play ball into the end of Kubek's season, setting the stage for the five-run rally that gave the Pirates the lead heading to the 9th inning.

Another thing I couldn't help noticing was that Roberto Clemente looked horrible. I know how great his career was, and it was touching to hear his widow Vera telling the crowd at the Pittsburgh theater how he loved Pittsburgh and how strong his presence remains. However, he looked sloppy while fumbling two base hits, and I'm at a loss to explain his batting style. From the first pitch he saw, he stepped in the bucket more than any player I've ever seen. In that first at-bat, I thought perhaps he was stepping away from the plate because he expected to be knocked down after the previous batter, Nelson, homered. But he continued with that surprising style the rest of the game. He started with a closed stance, his left foot close to the plate, and as the pitch was released he stepped way to his left, putting his foot down nearly on the batter's box line closest to the third-base dugout. Could Al Simmons, the earlier Hall of Famer dubbed "Bucketfoot," have stepped any further from the plate? I don't see how. Clemente hit the ball weakly every time up, and I wondered whether he was making an extreme adjustment because the Yankees were pitching him inside. Nope. In the 8th inning, he finally got a hit--on an outside pitch. He stepped way in the bucket, extended his long arms as far as he could, flailed at the pitch, caught it weakly on the end of his bat, and hit a chopper which went for a hit only because the pitcher failed to cover first base. I saw Clemente play a lot of games in the second half of his career, and I don't remember him stepping in the bucket like he did in 1960. Help me out, Pirates fans--did you see what I saw, and did he keep doing that for the rest of his career?

But that's not why I'm here today. I want to talk about check-swings. That's what I was looking for in the telecast, and that's what I found. Watching video of Game 7 of the 1965 World Series several years ago, I noticed back-to-back pitches by Sandy Koufax on which Don Mincher took mighty swings that stopped with the bat pointed (more or less) at the foul pole--in other words, about 80% of a full swing. Both pitches were called balls, and the announcer remarked matter-of-factly that Mincher had held up his swing. This was long before the home-plate umpire was willing to yield to a base umpire on this call, and it was accepted as a check-swing. Today, we see strikes called on swings that are maybe 20% of a full swing. So yes, I'm saying that Mincher went four times further past the "plane" that determines the call today than today's players go when their check-swings are called strikes. I wondered whether I'd find more evidence of what I see as just about the only rule of the 1960s that went against pitchers.

Boy, did I! Did you? Can you picture them before you read further? The two I saw happened to come on two key at-bats, and they made a material difference in the outcome of the game. Without them, the Pirates would still have been playing catch-up after Bill Mazeroski's home run.

The first one occurred in the top of the 6th inning. The Yankees trailed, 4-1, and Richardson led off with a single, bringing up Kubek. With two strikes, Kubek made a whip-like swing on a borderline pitch, swinging about as far as Mincher did, so that when the bat's motion stopped it was pointing somewhere between right fielder Clemente and the right-field foul line. "He checked it," said Mel Allen as home plate umpire Bill Jackowski called it a ball. We could hear some Pirates fans yelping, but that was the extent of the protest. Kubek eventually walked, putting two runners on base for the heart of the Yankees order. Mickey Mantle singled in a run, and Berra's three-run home run put the Yankees ahead 5-4. If Kubek had struck out--as he would have today on the check-swing--the score would have been 4-4 at most.

But that was nothing compared to what happened in the bottom of the 8th. Trailing 7-4, the Pirates rallied thanks to the bad hop which nailed Kubek in the throat. (Was that karma for his getting away with the swing in the 6th?) With two outs, Clemente's cheap hit got the Pirates close at 7-6, leaving two runners on for catcher Hal Smith. Did you see what happened next?

On a 1-1 pitch, Smith took a hellacious swing, trying to hit the ball a mile. He missed by a mile for strike two. On the next pitch, he started to do the same thing, breaking his wrists but snapping the bat back about the time it was pointed at the left-field foul pole. Another 80% swing. Ball two, according to Jackowski. Catcher John Blanchard said something to him and Casey Stengel paced the Yankees bench, but there was no argument. That's the way the check-swing rule (which has always been the vaguest rule in the book and still is, which is why today's umpires display no consistency in applying it) was interpreted then. If you didn't follow through completely on a swing, it was a check-swing and a ball.

On the 2-2 pitch, Smith took another hellacious swing, and this time he connected for a three-run home run. He should've been out on strikes, but no. Instead he came close to being one of the all-time World Series heroes. Only a two-run rally in the top of the 9th by the Yankees stole Smith's glory, leaving the game tied, 9-9, and setting the stage for Mazeroski to become the enduring hero.

If the swings by Kubek and Smith occurred today, they both would've been rung up by the home plate umpire, with not a murmur of protest. The Yankees would've led 6-4 instead of 7-4 going to the bottom of the 8th, and Smith's strikeout would've left the teams tied 6-6. The Yankees would've gone ahead 8-6 in the 9th, and Mazeroski's blast would've made it 8-7, with the Pirates still batting. Of course, as everyone agreed at the Pittsburgh event where the kinescope was played, the Pirates' destiny was to keep coming back in 1960, and they would've won anyway. Somehow. But not the way we know it.


Tim Murray said...

Thanks for writing this. But, yes, Clemente started that stance in '60, and kept it the rest of his career. He got to the point where he was wiping out the chalk line so the ump wouldn't see him OUTSIDE the box. It must have worked. Best hitter for average in the decade of the game's greatest pitching. And his fielding was even better.

tony geraldi said...

Thank you soooo much for this article re: checked swings. This has been a peeve of mine for many years. I'm a 62 y/o baseball fanatic who has seen dozens of game films from the 50's and 60's where the batter does his 80% swing and it is matter-of-factly called a ball. I often wonder how this has evolved to what it is today. My theory is that sometime in the early seventies there was a pitch that the catcher thought was swung at and the umpire said "ball"....the catcher came up with an idea that was never broached before: "I have an idea...why don't you ask the first base umpire for help...?". From this point on, we have witnessed the slightest "flinch" of a batter being called a strike. Catcher points.....crowd yells....large ego umpire emphatically rings him up.....pathetic. Think of how many times a batter today has the bat taken out of his hands on such a call.

As an aside, I umpire Little League games and have a VERY hard time calling a strike on a checked swing....