THE HEAD GAME
Baseball Seen From the Pitcher's Mound
By Roger Kahn
"THE HELL IT DON'T CURVE"
Ask them hitters about the curve. They'll tell you.
It's Public Enemy Number One.
Before considering pitching as history, and pitching as combat and indeed, pitching as life, it makes some sense to review a controversy that has spilled into baseball's modern times. On September 15, 1941 Life magazine, then the most popular weekly in the United States, published a dramatic photo essay which suggested that a baseball could not be made to curve. That year Lefty Gomez, a droll Californian who pitched for the New York Yankees, was fighting back from arm trouble and hooking his way across a season in which he would lead all American League pitchers with a winning percentage of .750. "Damn," Gomez said, as he stuffed a copy of Life into his locker in the catacombs under the grandstands at Yankee Stadium. "Here I am, trying to make a comeback and what do they tell me? My best pitch is an optical illusion."
The old Life, a contentious, sexy, influential, self-important publication, was not above firecracker journalism, printing stories charged with more shock value than substance.* But the curve-ball piece, a copiously illustrated photo essay, appeared to be serious business. Life engaged a renowned photographer named Gjon Mili and hired two pitchers, including the Hall of Fame lefthander Carl Hubbell, who had been a twenty-game winner five times for the New York Giants. Both pitchers threw what were supposed to be breaking balls "under the scrutiny of three high-speed cameras." The magazine published eleven pictures and reported: "Mili's evidence fails to show the existence of a curve, raises once more the possibility that this stand-by of baseball is after all only an illusion." Details of Mili's methodology were left vague, but Life's collective mind brooked no argument with its conclusion: Thrown baseballs always follow a straight path. The hop of Bobby Feller's fast ball did not exist, either, Life added. Feller had won twenty-seven games the year before, mostly with hopping fast balls. Like the curve, Life maintained, Feller's hopping hard stuff was "a batter's optical illusion." Honed to an edge, Life's charge came down to this: Big-league pitching in America was a fraud.
Three months later the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
Gjon Mili went on to other things. He induced Pablo Picasso to stand in a pitch-black room, holding a baton tipped with a light bulb. Mili set the time exposure on his Leica and said, "Draw." The subsequent photographs of Picasso's sketches in light were a wonder.
"But wait a minute, Mr. Mili," I said some years afterward, during an all-night Christmas party at his studio loft. "How do you think it's possible for people with just about the best vision in the world, major-league hitters, to be so consistently fooled by optical illusions? And why do some pitchers have better optical illusions than others?"
Mili shrugged. He was famous. His Christmas parties were famous. He held a wineglass in one hand. A dazzling Eurasian model clutched his arm. Salvador Dali, in cape and mustache, was entering. A Broadway actress, standing on a platform, announced that she was going to strip naked. Baseball must have seemed far away. "Please," Mili said. "Go get yourself a drink. We'll talk about curve balls some other time." We never did. Dali embraced Mili. I failed to catch the Eurasian model's name or eye. The Broadway actress stopped her striptease early when Walter Winchell arrived, talking loudly. She would undress for a wine-dark Soho party, but not for the hundred and fifty newspapers and all the ships and clippers at sea that were Winchell's glaring and prodigious syndicate.
People and publications are sure of one thing when they advance the hypothesis that a curve ball doesn't curve-or that a fast ball doesn't hop, or that a slider doesn't slide, or that an inshoot doesn't shoot in, or that a knuckleball doesn't "knuck." Putting this in Newtonian terms, they know that their action will produce a reaction. (When certain publications need attention, they move toward fireworks journalism. The old Saturday Evening Post, wanting to show special verve, once published an article entitled: "I Hate Dogs." Grrrr. Outrage arrived in a rush of mail sacks burdened with missives defending poodles, Chihuahuas, and wolfhounds and threatening to loose hungry Dobermans on the author.)
After about five decades of intermittent research, I have to conclude that articles in Life and elsewhere that deny the existence of a curve belong to the hoary I-Hate-Dogs genus, which does not mean that they will go away. Look magazine hired a photographer named Frank Bauman in 1953. This time, according to an anonymous Look writer, the pictures indicated that "Yes, a ball does curve, but in a gentle arc. No, a curve ball does not break." Different cameras. Different conclusion.
Within the past decade a scholarly batting coach, Ben Hines, who has worked for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Houston Astros, undertook baseball studies from a different angle. Working with various ophthalmologists, Hines tried to find out precisely how a batter perceives a pitch. For example, which eye dominates the batter's vision at various points in the flight of the ball. One conclusion Hines reached was that sometimes a pitched ball moves faster than the ability of human eyes to focus. Calling a pitch a blur can be literally correct. This blur, Hines and his attending physicians decided, has the ophthalmological effect of slightly exaggerating the baseball's motion. A hop seems higher. A curve ball, in the baseball phrase, "falls off the table." The vanquished batter then shakes his head and swears, "That last damn pitch musta broke three feet."
Hines' work suggested, no, that last curve didn't really break that much, any more than Babe Ruth could clout home runs "a country mile." But for either exaggeration to have a starting point, movement of the baseball-the hop, the curve, the long home run- first has to be there. As we shall see, scholarly physical studies of the 1990s prove that a hop, a curve, a slider and a "knuck" are as real as the old Life's phenomenal newsstand sales. Put simply, a spinning baseball does veer in flight and sometimes sharply. That is physical fact. In addition, human vision, wondrous and imperfect, exaggerates the movement of the baseball. Voilá! Reality and illusion at the same instant, the stuff of magic, love affairs and curve balls.*
Fun, games and gainful employment have taken me from the very lowest levels of baseball to the very highest and the curve ball, the curve ball that breaks, is a wholly consistent element in that experience. When I was no more than six years old, my father, once a strong-armed college third baseman, threw gentle wrinkles at me down the long upstairs hallway of the large whitestone house where we lived in Brooklyn. I remember the house on St. Mark's Avenue. I remember my father. I remember the curves. We played catch with a gray rubber ball that cost five cents at Horowitz Candy & Stationery around the corner on Kingston Avenue. Mr. Horowitz's Baby Ruth candy bars sold three for a dime. Our family always lived in corner houses. That way my grandfather could install small black-and-white signs, A. Rockow, DDS, on two streets, possibly increasing his dental practice during the Depression, when more people suffered from toothaches than could afford the drillings and fillings required to eliminate them.
In the long white upstairs hallway, I reached toward the spinning
gray rubber ball. It drifted past my right hand. I said, "Dad, what was that?"
"Let's try again."
He threw three more three-quarter overhand wrinkles. Then he said, "Curve ball."
"How do yo...