TDIB 7 April 2008: Those Fabulous Sixties

Monday, April 07 2008 @ 06:00 AM EDT

Contributed by: Magpie

I'm really not one of those old fogeys who grumbles that things were way better back in my day. I'm really not. I make a point of not being one of those guys.

For example. I occasionally hear people of my own general vintage grumbling that most of today's music is crap, and that we had all the best tunes back in our day, whenever that was. (My own general vintage would be folks who started taking music very seriously indeed roughly around the time that the 60s turned to the 70s.) Anyway, to this it is my sworn duty to observe that we did indeed have a lot of great tunes, and how could we not - there really was more great music in the last forty years than in the last forty weeks. Like, DUH. But most of the music in our day was crap as well. And luckily, with the passage of time, we've forgotten all of it. And only brought the good stuff forward with us into the modern day. Where there is, I would observe, no shortage of great music. (Is anyone else as dazzled by The National as I am, by the way?)

And so it is with baseball. I don't think the players of the past were better than the ones today. The game is played at a higher level today. This is entirely due to advances in nutrition, training, and coaching - human beings don't evolve and improve that quickly. Not in two generations. We're not fruit flies. And so, while Roy Halladay is doubtless a superior athlete to Christy Mathewson - had Mathewson been born when Halladay was born, it may have been an entirely different story. When you compare the players of different eras, I think you need to make this kind of space-time continuum adjustment.

That said, I want to be an old fogey for a moment.

Last week I posted a somewhat lengthy (somewhat? somewhat?) lengthy piece on the Dodgers. One of the fun parts of the task was surfing YouTube in quest of videos of Sandy Koufax. I knew his pitching motion needed to be described, and I wanted to have it in front of me. Naturally, in the course of my YouTubing I got sidetracked, and found myself looking at all of these wonderful clips of old World Series games.

And the pitcher's motions! I wrote about Koufax last week - the enormous stride forward, the almost total lack of follow-through from the traling leg... here!

Everybody should take a good look at Bob Gibson pitching. I hadn't quite forgotten, but it's still startling to see. He did that Paul Byrd double pump to get started - he delivers the ball normally enough - but in the process, he pushes off so violently with his planted leg that he literally vaults off the mound towards first base, and ends up having to turn his head and peer back over his right shoulder to follow the path of the pitch he's delivered.

And Juan Marichal! That wasn't a leg kick, that was a Rockettes move. He leaned back and pointed his straight leg as high as he could manage without toppling backward, until it was nearly perpendicular to the ground, and from this bizarre point, he somehow fell gracefully forward into his delivery.

(Should you find some pictures of Warren Spahn kicking his leg in a similar fashion - and there are lots of them - be forewarned. That's not what Spahn did on the mound when he was actually pitching. It's just what he liked to do for laughs when posing for the photographers. Spahn did have a big leg lift, but it was much closer to Dontrelle Willis than Marichal.)

We have nothing like this today. What's probably happened is modern coaching has weeded all of that out of the game, and taught kids the right way to do things. There's Dontrelle, and Mike Mussina does that weird bend when pitching from the stretch. But for the most part - don't you find everybody looks the same? They're all brisk, efficient, streamlined. They all look like Whitey Ford.

Now I'm moaning about this for aesthetic reasons. But Bill James in his second Historical Abstract actually suggests that because of the stripped down motions of the modern game (which he believes developed as a response to combat base stealing) most pitchers today simply don't throw as hard.

We have had some great, great pitchers in our time. And is there anything memorable in how they throw the ball? Anything? Other than the results? Here's a list of eight sure Hall of Famers, plus Johan and our Doc:

Roger Clemens
Tom Glavine
Roy Halladay
Randy Johnson
Greg Maddux
Pedro Martinez
Mariano Rivera
Johan Santana
Curt Schilling
John Smoltz

I challenge you! Is there anything memorable about the way these men deliver the ball?