Hitting a baseball -- I've said it a thousand times -- is the single most difficult thing to do in sport.
I get raised eyebrows and occasional arguments when I say that, but what is there that is harder to do? What is there that requires more natural ability, more physical dexterity, more mental alertness? That requires a greater finesse to go with physical strength, that has as many variables and as few constants, and that carries with it the continuing frustration of knowing that even if you are a .300 hitter -- which is a rare item these days -- you are going to fail at your job seven out of ten times?
If Joe Montana or Dan Marino completed three of every ten passes they attempted, they would be ex-professional quarterbacks. If Larry Bird or Magic Johnson made three of every ten shots they took, their coaches would take the basketball away from them.
Golf? Somebody always mentions golf. You don't have to have good eyesight to play golf. Tommy Armour was a terrific golfer, and he had no sight in one eye. You have to have good eyesight to hit a baseball. Look at the tragedy of Tony Conigliaro of the Red Sox. Six foot three, beautifully developed, strong, aggressive, stylish, and an injured eye ended his career. When I managed the Washington Senators I insisted that
Mike Epstein get his eyes checked. He was having difficulties hitting, and I suspected it might be partially due to his vision. He did, and with new contact lenses he had his best season with the Senators. Just a tiny correction.
You don't have to have speed to succeed at golf, or great strength, or exceptional coordination. You don't have to be quick. You don't have to be young. Golfers win major tournaments into their fifties. I hit .316 when I was forty-two years old, and was considered an old, old man in the game.
You never hear a boo in golf. I know that's a factor. You don't have a pitcher throwing curves and sliders and knuckle balls, and if he doesn't like you, maybe a fast ball at your head. There is nothing to hurt you in golf unless lightning strikes or somebody throws a dub. And there's that golf ball, sitting right there for you to hit, and a flat-faced club to hit it with.
Thousands of guys play par golf. Good young golfers swarm into the pros like lemmings. In 1983, the first eleven tournaments on the U.S. tour were won by eleven different players -- the first twenty-three by twenty different players. Wouldn't it be ironic if Mr. Watson didn't win a tournament all season? Or Mr. Nicklaus? The two biggest names in golf? It could happen. But how many .300 hitters are there? A handful.
I compare golf not to detract from it, because it is a fine game, good fun, sociable and a game, unlike baseball, you can play for life. There have always been great athletes in golf. Sam Snead comes immediately to mind. There are points of similarity in the swings of the two games -- hip action, for one, is a key factor, and the advantage of an inside-out stroke. I will elaborate later.
The thing is, hitting a golf ball has been examined from every angle. Libraries of analysis have been written on the subject, and by experts, true experts, like Snead, Armour, Hogan, Nieklaus and Palmer. I've got their books and I know. There are as many theories as there are tee markers, and for the student a great weight of diagnosis.
Hitting a baseball has had no such barrage of scholarly treatment, and probably that is why there are so many people -- even at the big-league level -- teaching it incorrectly, or not teaching it at all. Everybody knows how to hit but very few really do.
The golfer is all ears when it comes to theories. He is receptive to ideas. There is even more to theorize on and to teach in the hitting of a baseball, but there aren't enough qualified guys who do teach it, or enough willingness on the part of the hitters to listen. Then there are the pitching coaches, standing at the batting cage and yelling at the pitchers to "keep it low" or "how's your arm, Lefty? Don't throw too hard, now," and never mind seeing to it that the hitter gets the kind of practice he needs.
Copyright © 1970, 1971, 1986 by Ted Williams and John Underwood. Excerpted with permission.