In our never ending quest to find new methods of teaching baseball, especially the hitting aspect, perhaps we should stop and look behind us instead of always looking forward.
Once upon a time a high .380% or .400% batting average was not all that uncommon, and of course there’s been plenty of change to the game since then, but still… does change explain everything. I think not.
An old time baseball player, named Tony Pena, once performed the catching duties for the Pittsburg Pirates and although he won great notoriety for his unorthodox catching style, he’d literally catch and throw while sitting straddled in the dirt, he was especially known for his swing at nearly every pitch style of hitting.
For the pitchers in that era, walking Tony Pena was nearly as hard as throwing a no hitter, and in spite of his apparent wild swings at nearly anything resembling a baseball, he hit for a high average. How could a player, who seemed to totally abandon any self control and proper hitting mechanics while hitting, hit for a high average against major league pitchers?
Tony Pena grew up in a very poor Latin American community where baseball was the all time favorite sport of the neighborhood youngsters, but no family was able to afford bats, balls and gloves which we consider so critical to the game.
However, everyone drank soda, and since the aluminum can hadn’t been introduced to soda, it came packaged in a glass bottle with a metal bottle cap. Metal bottle caps, carefully removed in order to not bend them, could be made to sail and a broken broom stick could be used as a bat to hit them with. This is where Tony Pena learned to hit.
Now, after some practice a bottle cap can be made to sail, dip, tail away and rise at will, and since this was the only activity available in the town, there was constant practice. In order to hit such a difficult target with a broom handle, took exceptional vision and timing, again the result of constant practice.
This is how and why Tony Pena apparently swung wildly, which we know now was actually an extremely controlled swing, yet hit for a high average. He’d spent his whole life swinging and hitting darting, jumping objects with a small stick.
Hitting coaches of today would require Tums, for their heartburn and Advil, for their headaches, attempting to coach a player like Tony Pena. It just wouldn’t happen anymore and I’m not per se recommending the strategy of free swinging be revived.
However, I do think a good old fashion game of Whiffle ball, where the ball darts, soars and jumps, would be an excellent occasional substitute for the batting cages. Instead of attempting to perfect timing through mechanics, which is what perfecting hitting a ball traveling in essentially the same path dozens of time in a row consist of, we play contact ball.
Let’s expose our eyes and reflexes to the split second darting and dipping of a moving object and learn to hit it. I can’t see that hurting anything. Can you?