Friday, January 20, 2012

Baseball's Third Commandment by J. D. Thorne

I came across the “10 Commandments of Baseball” on an advertising card from Bill Zuber’s Restaurant and Dugout Lounge in the Amana Colonies of Iowa that had been a keepsake of my Dad’s. The “Commandments” composed by Joe McCarthy, were printed by the thousands many years ago. Over a span of twenty-four years, McCarthy managed the three most storied franchises in the golden age of baseball: the Chicago Cubs, the New York Yankees, and the Boston Red Sox. He still holds the highest winning percentage for any Major League baseball manager.

McCarthy's principles are at the center of my classic book called The 10 Commandments of Baseball: An Affectionate Look at Joe McCarthy's Principles for Success in Baseball (and Life) published by Sporting Chance Press. This post touches on McCarthy's Third Commandment.

Commandment Number Three: “An outfielder who throws back of a runner is locking the barn after the horse is stolen.”

On a base hit to the right fielder, imagine that the batter rounds first base in full stride heading to second base, but realizes that he cannot make it. He stops in stride about midway between first and second. The right fielder is tempted to throw “in back” of the runner to the first baseman to pick off the runner. But, if he throws to first, how does the runner adjust? Does the runner go back to first base to try to beat the throw? No. Once he sees the throw going behind him back to first base, it is easy to go to second base safely.

Looking Forward

This principle is about judgment. In a broad sense, the commandment suggests that players need to adjust to their circumstances, play “their game,” and look forward not backward.

In baseball, base running is one of the primary parts of the game where decision-making is critical and risk taking is followed by an immediate reward or penalty. Joe McCarthy said that Joe DiMaggio was the “best base runner I ever saw. He could have stolen 50, 60 bases a year if I had let him. He wasn’t the fastest man alive. He just knew how to run the bases better than anybody. I don’t think in all the years [he] played for me he was ever thrown out stretching.”

Another player who achieved greatness playing “his game” was Lou Boudreau. Sportswriter Rud Rennie described Lou Boudreau this way: “He can’t run and his arm’s no good, but he is the best shortstop in the game.” Boudreau was a “heads up” kind of player. He proved it year after year by leading the American League shortstops in fielding average eight times. He was a player manager of the Cleveland Indians at age 24 and led the Indians to win the World Series in 1948. His judgment at bat was so good he struck out only nine times in 1948.

Ernie Banks Played His Game

By adjusting his style and playing within himself, Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, was another player who had a much longer and more rewarding career than he might otherwise have had. The young 22 year old from Dallas, just out of the military, came in as a shortstop with the Chicago Cubs via Cool Papa Bell’s Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League at the end of the 1953 season. He became the starting shortstop for the Cubs in 1954 and hit 44 home runs in 1955, the most ever for a shortstop. Banks hit three home runs in one day at Wrigley against Pittsburgh and an NL-record five grand slams. He was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1958 and 1959. Banks led the National League in home runs (47) in 1958 and (45) in 1959. From 1955 to 1960, Banks hit more homers than such luminaries as Mantle, Mays, and Aaron, who were also playing at the time.

However, Banks originally struggled in the field. Early in his career and through the 1958 season he was error prone. In fact, he led the league with 32 errors in 1958. Determined to turn things around, Banks worked hard on his fielding and chalked up only 12 errors in 1959 and won a Gold Glove Award for fielding in 1960. Ironically, injuries to his legs cut down Bank’s fielding range and in 1962, he switched to first base. It was a move that helped extend his career until 1971. Banks was always adjusting to his physical abilities and skills. Mr. Cub was the first Cubs player to have his number retired.

Winning in the Long Run

The Third Commandment tells you to look forward not backward. Few people get ahead when trying to be too sharp. In baseball, this lesson is played out repeatedly. After one batter gets on base, the intelligent play is often to work at getting the next hitter out. Throw ahead of the runner, not behind. Look ahead, make adjustments and play your own game.

Image is J.D. Thorne, courtesy of David Bernacchi
Copyright 2012 Sporting Chance Press, Inc.

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