Wednesday, May 11th, 2005
5:42 pm - Pitching a Case...  
Finished Roger Kahn's The Head Game: Baseball Seen from the Pitcher's Mound last night. Kahn is best known for writing The Boys of Summer about the Brooklyn Dodgers of the early fifties. This book comes out of a conversation he had with one of them, Preacher Roe, about the mental aspects of pitching, what Roe called the head game. Warren Spahn once said that "Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing." Kahn takes that idea, and looks at both the various techniques by which a pitcher can upset timing, and the thought processes that go into them by looking at a number of great pitchers and pitching coaches.

The book is split into two sections chronologically. The first discusses the development of baseball in general, and pitching in particular, through the end of World War II. There's a chapter on Old Hoss Radbourn, the first truly great pitcher, who won 60 games for the Providence Grays in 1884, in part because he was the first pitcher to master the curve ball, a brief one on Cy Young, and a couple of chapters on Christy Mathewson. The section finishes up with a discussion of the introduction of the lively ball, and the dearth of good pitching over the 25 years or so that followed.

The mini-biography on Mathewson, Kahn's choice for greatest pitcher of all time, may be worth the price of the book alone. Mathewson was one of the few well educated men who played in that era, and one of the first to analyze what pitching was all about. He never met a pitch he couldn't throw, and he would throw them all, including his fadeaway, now known as a screwball. He also wrote one of the first books about pitching, Pitching in a Pinch. As the years have gone by, Matty has often been portrayed as the saint among the sinners on the old NY Giants, but things turn out to be a little more complicated than that. He wasn't Ty Cobb nasty, but he did occasionally throw at batters, and wouldn't shy away from a fight. He and John McGraw make up one of the all time great player and manager odd couples of all time, probably rivaled only by Jim Palmer and Earl Weaver, but Palmer's and Weaver's families didn't share an apartment. Mathewson and Palmer seem very much alike. Both were great pitchers, educated men who tended to be aloof from their teammates, and who would also occasionally blame bad outings on anything but themselves. (Kahn suggests that Matty may have been one of the inspirations for Ring Lardner's story, "Alibi Ike.")

Up to this point, Kahn has been working from published accounts, including Mathewson's book, and from reminiscences of old timers. The second part of the book, which picks up after the War, is based on conversations Kahn had with the pitchers being profiled. He starts with Spahn and Johnny Sain, the two teammates forever joined by doggerel ("Spahn and Sain, and pray for rain"). Spahn is the winningest left-hander of all time, sort of a left-handed equivalent to Mathewson, a man who knew how to throw a large number of different pitches, all of them for strikes. After a game, Spahn could recall every single pitch he'd thrown, and why he'd thrown it. Sain wasn't as talented a pitcher, but in his later years he became one of the best teachers of pitching in the game. An enormous number of pitchers had their best years with Sain as their pitching coach.

There's a chapter on Don Drysdale, and the use of intimidation to upset timing. Drysdale, a generally mild-mannered man who was in the top five for number of batters hit in the NL for 12 straight years (and either 1st or 2nd for nine of them), is unapologetic about pitching inside, and even hitting guys. He saw it as just part of the job. Bruce Sutter is up next, partly to talk about the advent of the closer, but mostly because Sutter was the first major leaguer to throw the split-fingered fastball effectively, a pitch that was as revolutionary as the curve or the slider. I was never quite sure how to throw it before, but Sutter's explanation is quite clear, plus there's drawing of the grip. Now I just need to find somebody to try throwing it to. The final chapter is about Leo Mazzone, the spiritual descendant of Sain, under whose tutelage the Braves have had the best pitching in the majors over the last fifteen years.

The oddest chapter in the book may be the one about Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson, two of the three great NL pitchers of the sixties (the other being Juan Marichal), and the use of anger as a tool. He postulates that Koufax (who is Jewish) and Gibson (who is black) both faced terrible prejudice both before and during their careers, and that their anger at this helped them focus on the task at hand. Gibson readily acknowledges this in his conversation with Kahn. Koufax, on the other hand, won't even discuss it with Kahn. Kahn takes this as Koufax being in deep denial about the anti-semitism he faced, but which appears to me to be Koufax not wanting Kahn to project Kahn's own issues on him by putting words in his mouth. (Koufax no doubt had to deal with anti-semitism in his career, but from the accounts I've read, he seems to have saved his indignation for the situations his black teammates faced, doing whatever he could to support them.) Clearly Kahn is a bit annoyed by this, and he expresses it by taking some indirect shots at Koufax by trashing the ESPN 100 Greatest Athletes of the Century series, and the fact that Koufax was the only pitcher they picked for their list. Koufax couldn't hit a lick, he says, so he shouldn't even be on the list. Fair enough, I suppose, but Smokey Burgess could hit, and no one would ever mistake old Smokey for a great athlete. Kahn fails to mention that Koufax went to college on a basketball scholarship. (FWIW, I'm not sure Sandy should've been ranked as high as he was, either, but Kahn's pettiness on the issue is annoying.) Then, Kahn goes the other way, pooh poohing the long-held notion that Dodger back-up catcher Norm Sherry was the one who helped Koufax solve the wildness problems that plagued his early career by convincing him to stop trying to throw every every single pitch as hard as he could. It's a fiction, Kahn says, because a pitcher of Koufax's intelligence and experience (he'd already been in the majors for six years) would be able to figure this out on his own. Well, maybe so, but Koufax states in his autobiography that Sherry's advice was the turning point of his career. Who are you gonna believe? Also, if pitchers are that smart, why are we talking about Sain and Mazzone?

There are a few other things that puzzle as well. Kahn dismisses Lefty Grove, considered by some to be the greatest left-hander of all, with but a single sentence, apparently because guys who pitched in the thirties don't really count. Walter Johnson, named by Bill James the greatest of all time, scarcely does better than Grove, getting a paragraph or two. Despite all that, it's still a very good book. Kahn really has only one bad inning in the outing, which isn't that bad when one is pitching one's case.
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