BASEBALL'S GREATEST HITTING INSTRUCTOR
Excerpted from Lefty O’Doul: Baseball’s Forgotten Ambassador by Dennis Snelling by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. ©2017 by Dennis Snelling. Available wherever books are sold or from the Univ. of Nebraska Press 800.848.6224 and at nebraskapress.unl.edu
When Lefty O’Doul rejoined the San Francisco Seals in 1935, he was already considered one of the great teachers of hitting. Although he would serve as a manager for the next two decades plus, his greatest impact would be as an instructor—a combined hitting theorist and amateur psychologist of sorts who helped develop and inspire a number of great baseball players along the way.
Charlie Graham had O’Doul’s first prize pupil ready; the young man’s name was Joe DiMaggio, and he hailed from San Francisco’s North Beach. A generation earlier he would have been one of the neighborhood kids O’Doul and his mates considered mortal enemies—the Irish versus the Italians.
Joe DiMaggio was quite a baseball player. A natural. He had actually abandoned baseball in his teens, favoring tennis, basketball, and touch football, but had resumed using a bat and ball after his older brother, Vince, signed as an outfielder with the San Francisco Seals. He first joined the Seals during the final weekend of the 1932 season, a seventeen-year-old shortstop dragged to Seals Stadium by Vince when the Seals’ regular at the position—future National League All-Star Augie Galan—received permission to go home a few days early. However, by the spring of 1933, it was clear that Joe DiMaggio was no shortstop.
With Charlie Graham financially dependent on the fortunes of his baseball team—and on a strong seller’s market for players he signed and developed—the temptation was great to auction DiMaggio immediately to reap the benefits. At the same time, Graham knew that another season in the pcl would likely increase the young star’s value, so he decided to gamble and hold onto the teenage sensation. It appeared the gamble was lost when DiMaggio injured his knee during the 1934 season, missing two months. Amid concerns that he had not fully recovered, interest from Major League teams waned.
However, New York Yankees scout Bill Essick kept tabs on DiMaggio through his West Coast bird dog, Joe Devine, who assured Essick that DiMaggio’s knee had healed. Essick in turn convinced the Yankees to acquire the young outfielder, on the condition that DiMaggio remain with San Francisco in 1935. New York sent two players to the Seals immediately and promised three more if DiMaggio proved as healthy as Essick said he was.
Lefty O’Doul and Joe DiMaggio could not have been more different in terms of personality, but Joe was similar to Lefty in one important way—his approach at the plate involved remaining nearly motionless in the batter’s box, and taking a very short, quick stride when he swung. DiMaggio also exhibited superior defensive skills, impressing O’Doul by throwing out two runners at home plate from deep right field in a game against Portland in May.
Lefty took DiMaggio under his wing, dispensing hitting advice the future Hall of Famer would consider the best he ever received—whenever he struggled, he would recall O’Doul’s instruction. “Keep your left toe pointed toward the pitcher,” O’Doul lectured, “and lay off the bad balls.” That oversimplifies what O’Doul was telling DiMaggio—in baseball shorthand he was explaining how Joe could best utilize his impressive power while hitting to all fields. O’Doul knew that was the right amount of advice to impart—with his talent DiMaggio would do the rest; O’Doul’s number one job was to get the most out of the now twenty-year-old, and prepare him for big league life. In August, at the request of the Yankees, the Seals switched DiMaggio to center field, the position New York expected him to play for them. He, of course, excelled.
DiMaggio powered the Seals to the 1935 pennant with an incredible season that included thirty-four home runs among his one hundred extra-base hits, and a .398 batting average; the numbers were especially impressive considering that he played more than half of his games in pitcher-friendly Seals Stadium, which had replaced rickety bandbox Recreation Park in 1931. There was little question about Joe DiMaggio’s inevitable march to stardom—he joined the Yankees in 1936 and became one of the greatest outfielders in baseball history, as well as an American icon.
O’Doul was eager to let New York baseball fans know the treat they were in for, insisting that DiMaggio was as good as any player ever to come out of the pcl. “Barring injuries,” said Lefty, “he will be voted the Most Valuable Player in the American League in three years.” [Editor's note: Lefty was off by a year: DiMaggio claimed his first AL MVP in 1939]
San Diego had also become home to a new baseball team, the Padres, which were members of the pcl. The franchise had moved so quickly from Hollywood over the winter that owner Bill Lane almost literally threw together a ballpark on the site of a motorcycle race track at Broadway and Harbor Boulevard; a shortage of new uniforms resulted in the team’s first official photograph including a smattering of Hollywood jerseys.
The city of San Diego, which had long coveted membership in the pcl, was thrilled to have the Padres there. Among those most excited was Williams, who made his way to the team’s new home, Lane Field, a few days before Easter Sunday in 1936, not to attend the game between the Padres and the San Francisco Seals—he had no money for a ticket—but rather for a chance to soak up the atmosphere and maybe peek through the fence for a glimpse of some honest-to-goodness professional ballplayers.
No one will ever change [my swing] and if anything ever goes wrong with it, I’ll go back to Lefty and get it straightened out.” --Ted Williams
Within two months, Ted Williams would be playing in the pcl himself, a prodigy soon to be ranked among the greatest hitters of all time. Not long after joining the Padres, the not quite eighteen-year-old Williams was struggling a bit. When the Seals visited San Diego, he approached O’Doul for some advice. After watching his swing and assuring the youngster that he had nothing to worry about, O’Doul looked Williams in the eye and said, “No matter what manager or coach tries to change your stance, don’t listen to them.” Williams would always think highly of O’Doul; in 1941 he would use a Lefty O’Doul model bat, manufactured by Hillerich & Bradsby, as he became the last Major Leaguer to hit .400 in a season.
O’Doul lobbied Charlie Graham to acquire the youngster, but San Diego owner Bill Lane knew what he had and was not interested. “Williams has drawn more praise from O’Doul than any other manager in the Pacific Coast League,” wrote San Diego sports columnist Earl Keller, who said O’Doul told him, “That kid is the best prospect this circuit has seen since Joe DiMaggio. He has the makings of a great player and, if he is handled right, he will go places. I would like to be his teacher.”
Following his first Major League season in 1939, Williams was asked about the source of his picture-perfect swing. “I’ve always had it,” replied Williams. “Lefty O’Doul told me to never change it. That is good enough for me. No one will ever change it and if anything ever goes wrong with it, I’ll go back to Lefty and get it straightened out.”
Although professionals were hired as hitting coaches for colleges in the 1800s, it would not be until the 1950s that full-time hitting instructors began appearing regularly at the Major League level.
Cobb, for one, thought such coaching valuable. In 1917 he told Baseball Magazine, “I believe that it would pay every major league club to have a man do nothing but coach batters. A fellow gets into a slump for no reason that he can see. But a trained man who knows batting could see the reason, and coach a batter out of his slump.”
O’Doul became the next “scientific hitter,” and he began to produce results with his instruction. It was revolutionary. In 1948 the Hillerich & Bradsby Company, maker of Louisville Slugger baseball bats, asked O’Doul to write a feature on hitting for their Famous Slugger Yearbook. Titled “How to Bat,” O’Doul’s article began with an illustration.
“The best way I can describe hitting,” wrote O’Doul, “is to say that it is like swinging an ax at a tree. A man who takes an ax and swings at a tree does so naturally because he has no worries about the tree doing anything to him. He is certain he is going to hit the tree, and whether he knows it or not, he could replace the ax with a bat and have a sound baseball swing.
“Most hitting faults come from uncertainty, lack of knowledge, and fear. Lack of knowledge can be removed as an obstacle to good hitting by simple teaching. Fear can only be conquered by a batter gaining confidence in himself.”
O’Doul continued for six more pages, discussing the importance of holding the bat at the proper angle and keeping the head still. He cited Babe Ruth as someone who held his bat vertically before going into his swing, making him an outstanding low ball hitter. He used Tris Speaker as an example of a batter whose strength was hitting the high pitch—he held his bat horizontally, almost parallel to the ground, peeking over his elbow at the pitcher. “Joe DiMaggio,” wrote O’Doul, “carries his bat in a position I call the happy medium between the vertical and the horizontal. The angle of the bat in his hands is such that he can swing as easily and swiftly at a low pitch as at a high one.”
But O’Doul’s overriding mantra was keeping the head still. O’Doul wrote that in observing the hitters he deemed the greatest—Ruth, Speaker, DiMaggio, Ty Cobb, Harry Heilmann, and Ted Williams—they had in common keeping their head still through their swing.
“A man who knows the secret of keeping his head in one position will not stride too far. He will keep his back foot anchored securely to the ground. His hips will move out of the way so that the bat can come around. He will not dip his hips or his body[;] . . . he will hit the ball out in front and he will hit it hard and full.”
O’Doul cautioned against what he called a common fault—dipping the body while swinging, brought about by bending the knees. This, he said, causes batters to pull back their hips and “wave at the ball as it goes by.” O’Doul also noted that some batters slide forward, dragging the bat behind them on their swing. This, he said, results in locking the hips, which in turn locks the arms. Thinking a long stride generates power, these hitters are instead dissipating it.
“At the point of contact of bat and ball, the wrists will un-cock as the ball is hit,” he wrote. “This is the last action and gives the bat its final speed. Both arms will be straight and reaching as far as they comfortably can to provide a wide arc which increases power. This is where Ted Williams, I think, gets his power—from the wide spread of his arc.”
O’Doul also reflected on the mental aspect of hitting, and the importance of picking out a good bat—thirty-four inches long and thirty-five to thirty-six ounces was his recommendation. He concluded the piece by dispensing another bedrock of his hitting theory.
“Good hitters don’t swing at bad pitches, balls over their heads, or too wide or low. They make the pitcher come into the strike zone and that’s the way you want to stand, so that your bat covers the vital strike zone.
“The good hitter will always look for the fast ball. If he’s ready to hit the fast ball, he can adjust his timing for the slower curve and change of pace. But if he’s looking for the curve, the fast ball will be thrown by him.”