I’m reading Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer. It is, for lack of a better word, amazing. I’m taking my time with it because, frankly, I don’t want it to end.
Kahn grew up a huge supporter of the Brooklyn Dodgers. “Within shouting distance of Ebbets Field.” By 25, he was covering the team for the New York Herald Tribune. Yet, after having read Kahn’s prose, which strikes you immediately (pardon the pun, bro), I’m having a hard time thinking of Kahn as a Dodgers fan first, and a writer second. Nobody who writes about baseball today writes the way Kahn did about the Dodgers. (Except masters of prose Carson Cistulli and Dayn Perry.) Today’s baseball writers strike me as baseball fans first, and writers second. Kahn may have grown up a Dodgers fan, but he’s a writer before anything else.
I urge you to read The Boys of Summer. You’ll learn why they were called the Dodgers, something I didn’t know until I bought the book. You’ll read about the incredible racism in the American South in the early 1950s, and what Jackie Robinson went through, and said, as he broke baseball’s color barrier. And, finally, you’ll read 484 of the greatest words I’ve ever come across about the art that is pitching. I’m going to turn it over to Mr. Kahn …
Pitchers, of all ball players, profit most from competitive intelligence. It is a simple, probably natural thing to throw. A child casts stones. But between the casting child and the pitching major leaguer lies the difference between a boy plunking the piano and an artist performing.
A major leaguer ordinarily has mastered four pitches. The sixty feet six inches that lie between the mound and home plate create one element in a balanced equation between pitcher and batter. No one can throw a baseball past good hitters game after game. The major league pitching primer begins: “Speed is not enough.” But a fast ball moves if it is thrown hard enough. Depending on grip, one fast ball moves up and into a right-handed batter. Another moves up and away from him. A few men, like [Clem] Labine, develop fast balls that sink.
The fast ball intimidates. The curve—“public enemy number one,” Chuck Dressen called it—aborts careers. A curve breaks sideways, or downward at an intervening angle, depending on how it is thrown. Branch Rickey regarded the overhand curve as the best of breaking pitches. An overhand curve, the drop of long ago, breaks straight down, and, unlike flatter curve balls, an overhand curve is equally appalling to righthanded and lefthanded batters. The pure drop, hurtling in at the eyes and snapping to the knees, carried Carl Erskine and Sandy Koufax to strikeout records (fourteen and fifteen) in World Series separated by a decade.
Finally, the technique of major league pitching requires excellent control. Home plate is seventeen inches wide; and a man does best to work the corners. A good technical pitcher throws the baseball at speeds that exceed ninety miles an hour, makes it change direction abruptly and penetrate a target area smaller than a catcher’s mitt.
Art proceeds subsequently. The artful pitcher tries never to offer what is expected. Would the batter like a fast ball? Curve him, or, better, throw the fast ball at eye height. Eagerness leads to a wild swing. Strike one. Would the batter like another? Now throw that public enemy, down and dirty at the knees. Strike two. Now he’s on notice for the curve. Hum that jumping fast ball letter-high. That’s the pitch he wanted, but not there, not then. Sit down. Strike three called. Who’s next?
The pitchers are different from the others. They work less often, but when they do, they can hold nothing back. Others cry at a loafing pitcher, “Bend your back. Get naked out there.” Action suspends and nine others wait until the pitcher throws. All eyes are on the pitcher, who sighs and thinks. “Ya know,” Casey Stengel said about a quiet Arkansan named John Sain, “he don’t say much, but that don’t matter much, because when you’re out there on the mound, you got nobody to talk to.” Pitchers are individualists, brave, stubborn, cerebral, hypochrondriacal and lonely.
See, incredible, right? I wouldn’t lie to you.
If you’ve got some recommendations for me, some baseball writing I simply must read, drop ’em in the comments. I’ll add them to my list.
Image credit: I am Sam Jackson. No, not that Sam Jackson. I think.
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