BUCS DUGOUT BOOK CLUB: "Touching Second," Johnny Evers with Hugh Fullerton

Johnny Evers’ “Touching Second” is full of advice about playing “scientific baseball,” which was all the rage in Johnny’s day, and even some stuff that looks like primitive attempts at sabrmetrics. For instance, somebody (Fullerton, I've read) kept track of where balls were hit for something like 10,000 base hits and used it to show why fielders play where they play. This was about 1910, so at best maybe he had a slide rule and an adding machine and a pencil and paper to do his spreadsheets ....

Anyway, I hadn’t really thought much about why the deadball era was the deadball era. I guess I always figured it had something to do with one dirty gray baseball used for entire nine-inning games until the thing resembled something more like a mush ball (literally a “dead ball”), and that likely was a big part of it. But I had never much considered that the suppressed offense of the time was DELIBERATE. I mean, I’ve read stuff about how Babe Ruth came along and showed a different way to play—swinging for the fences—but I don’t think the full impact of what that meant sunk in until I read this remarkable passage in Evers’ book:

Frequently batters who slaughter the ball in the minor leagues, and hit any kind of pitching, fail utterly when drafted into the major leagues. Many followers of the sport imagine that the reason for this failure is to be found in the superiority of the major league pitchers, which is wrong. These men would hit in the major leagues, and hit hard, perhaps as hard as in the minors, if allowed to hit with the same freedom. There are, in the major leagues, many batters who could not hit in the minor leagues at all. The reason for both is found in team work, which is the chief cause of the decline in batting. Some batters are adapted to the system, others are not.

In the perfected team work of the major leagues batters must hit to advance runners and score runs rather than to get base hits. They are compelled to permit the kind of ball they can hit to cut the plate unmolested and then hit at one which, perhaps, they are lucky to touch. Besides many times they are ordered to wait, and not to hit at all, in order to allow the pitcher to weary himself.

A few years ago the Chicago club purchased a player late in the season who was one of the great batters of the American Association. His hitting helped the team win the pennant, yet Chance released him without even bringing him to Chicago to play the final games. The act surprised the followers of the Cubs and someone asked Chance why the man was released. “First ball hitter,” explained Chance loquaciously (for him).

Chance was right. The player was worthless as a team hitter, but if permitted to hit the first ball pitched to him he batted heavily and if he could have been the first man up in every inning he probably would have led the league in hitting.
This is remarkable for a couple reasons (to me). One is that Evers, a very smart man who probably knew no other way to play the game, doesn’t seem to consider that there might be anything wrong with this, doesn't seem to see the contradiction. He sounds a lot like Dusty Baker complaining about hitters who walk a lot clogging up the basepaths or something. "We don't want guys who can hit the ball messing up all our beautiful strateegery."

And, I guess, why would he? He lasted 15+ years in the majors (pretty much all in the deadball era) and played championship-caliber ball for guys like Frank Chance (he would later play for the Miracle Braves, too), so why would he question what worked?

Second, of course, is that even the best managers of the day were so caught up in the “scientific baseball” teamwork stuff of bunting and stealing and hitting and running and waiting for pitchers to get tired that they (literally) managed to suppress offense to a huge degree all by themselves. They must have thought 1-0 games where the a batter draws a walk, steals second, gets bunted to third and scores on a fly ball were the ideal. It’s not hard to understand why they would have despised a guy like Ruth, and the style of baseball that was soon to come along, why they weren’t just old men grousing about “Why, back in my day ...” It was the only baseball a guy like Johnny Evers had ever known.

Anyway, a few others things came to me while I was mowing the lawn.

One is that I don’t doubt that in the early part of the century, the best pitchers in the American Association probably were just as good as many of the major league pitchers. And many of those in the PCL and other top leagues were just as good too, since there wasn’t anything like the organized minor leagues that came into being later, and a really good ballplayer was just as likely to spend his career in a “minor” league.

Another possible reason for offensive suppression in this era is that it can’t have taken the pitchers long to figure out that if Frank Chance is going to get rid of a good hitter because he hits the first pitch, then grooving a first-pitch strike was likely a good idea. And we know generally that most hitters are worse hitters when they’re behind in the count.

Another is about the prevalence of group-think. It’s not hard to understand why the Cubs loved “scientific baseball”: They were great at it, one of the dominant teams of the 1900s. It’s hard to imagine, though, why the OTHER teams in the NL would go along with this and cooperate in their own demise. You’d think somebody would have thought, “To hell with this, this ain’t working, we can’t beat the Cubs at their own game, let’s try something different.”

(FWIW, the 1908 Cubs scored 3.96 runs a game and were second in the NL to the Giants, with 4.16.)

It took the better part of two decades before that happened, though.

This might be worth keeping in mind when we look at modern group-think among managers, such as bullpen use. Many of us now think it’s a silly idea to bring in your best reliever (and pay him tons of money) with nobody on base in the ninth to face the 6-7-8 hitters with a three-run lead. And maybe someday the managers will see it that way too. But it took nearly 20 years and one remarkable player to bust the “scientific baseball” mindset. We’ll see how long it takes for some of the modern mindsets to go away.

Anyway, I otherwise found the book to be remarkably dull and had to slog through it. I mean, I usually found myself looking for something else to read so I wouldn't have to finish it, and only picked it up again when there WAS nothing else. There are a number of anecdotes which strike me largely as of the "I guess you had to be there" kind, plus a fellow named Shane Tourtellotte put up a review of this book at "The Hardball Times" in August last year, in which he explored the veracity of some of the anecdotes and found several of them to be (to put it kindly) misremembered. Which is pretty odd, considering Fullerton (who mostly wrote the book) was a sportswriter who could presumably have spent a little time in his paper's morgue and gotten his facts straight.

Here's that review, and it's a good one:

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