May 12, 2009
You Could Look It Up
The Importance of Being Paul Waner
One of the best lines on performance-enhancing drugs-perhaps it is more accurate in this case to say "performance-altering drugs"-can be found in The Disney Films, by Leonard Maltin. It refers to Disney's 1940 picture Fantasia:
Walt Disney did not live to see his film be taken up by the younger generation of the 1970s... He might have been dismayed by its new reputation as a psychedelic experience-and an adjunct to pot smoking-but he certainly would have been pleased that these young people appreciated the picture's overpowering display of visual imagination. (Some kids were so staggered by this creative explosion that they felt certain it must have been drug-induced. Asked about this, animator Art Babbitt, who brought the dancing mushrooms to life, remarked, "Yes, it is true. I myself was addicted to Ex-lax and Feenamint.")
Every generation has its drugs. Like alcohol. Before I get to that, let me say at the outset that this little essay, primarily about Hall of Famer Paul Waner, is really about Manny Ramirez, so-called PEDs, the offensive culture that leads to their usage, and their lack of necessity for succeeding in baseball. If I do it right, this will be the last time any of those terms are mentioned herein, and you can figure out how it fits together for yourself.
Paul Glee Waner's hitting philosophies are still valuable and would make him a fine role model for many position players today-except, you know, for the drinking. A quick sketch of Waner, and then we'll get the liquor out of the way. Born in 1903 in Harrah, Oklahoma, the son of a minor league ballplayer whose chance at making the bigs foundered on an inability to get Cap Anson to pay him more than he could make in the Three-I League, Waner was scouted and signed by the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League as a pitcher. When the left-hander hurt his arm, he moved to first base, and then to right field. The arm snapped back and became a weapon in the corner, with Waner throwing out at many as 28 runners in a single major league season, but it was the bat that made him a star. In 1923, the first-year pro batted .363. That didn't get him sold to the majors, and neither did the .356 he hit the next year. In Waner's third year on the PCL circuit he hit .401 in 175 games. That did the trick, and the Pirates bought him for $100,000.
Paul Waner made his big-league debut in 1926, hitting .336/.413/.538 (.316 EqA). For all intents and purposes he won the batting title; officially he finished fifth in the league, but everyone ahead of him had fewer than 400 at-bats. He'd claim the title for real the following season. At 24, Waner batted .380/.437/.549, raking 237 hits and leading the league in triples (18), and driving in a league-leading 131 runs, a single-season Pirates record that still stands. He won the NL's Most Valuable Player award as the Pirates took the pennant. He'd have several other seasons that were of the same quality or nearly as good in a 20-year career that saw him finish with three batting titles, career rates of .333/.404/.473, and 3,152 career hits. During the middle of his career, from 1926, when he reached the majors at 23, to 1939, when he was 36, Waner batted .342/.408/.493.
As a hitter, he was Ichiro in a good year, if Ichiro took 70 walks. When he was young he was one of the fastest players in the National League. There wasn't much basestealing going on at the time, but Waner ranked fifth in the league in steals during his 20s (1926-1932), and he led the league in triples by a wide margin, hitting 111 during this period, and 191 three-baggers for his career. Waner rarely struck out, averaging about 24 whiffs per 162 games. He ranks 46th on the career list of at-bat to strikeout ratio, higher if 19th-century players are eliminated, though still well behind his younger brother Lloyd Waner, who struck out just once every 45 at-bats or so.
We'll get to how he did this in a moment, but first, the alcohol. Waner was a committed alcoholic, though obviously a high-functioning one. (He was also a chain smoker, which is what eventually did him in.) Unlike many players who drank themselves out of the big leagues, Waner was able to keep playing at a high level, to the point that he even considered his drug of choice to be key to his hitting. "When I walked up there with a half-pint of whiskey fresh in my gut, that ball came in looking like a basketball. But if I hadn't downed my half-pint of 100 proof, that ball came in like an aspirin tablet." Since Waner was an effective drunk, his consumption was a source of fun, the starting point for hundreds of stories.
For example, after one long night, Waner showed up for a game against the Cubs a bit worse for wear. He told that day's starter, "If you want to knock me down, this is the day. I couldn't possibly get out of the way of a duster." He hit two home runs that day. A variation of the story says that he hit four doubles-this is the supposed explanation for his record-tying four 4-for-5 with four doubles at St. Louis on May 20, 1932, though somehow every source on Waner says the game was played at Chicago. (Parenthetically, Waner drove in just one run that day. He batted second, and his brother Lloyd, the leadoff hitter, went 0-for-4. He also scored just one run, as Arky Vaughan, batting third, went 0-for-5. The Pirates won anyway, because Larry French pitched a shutout.) When Pie Traynor became manager of the Pirates, he asked Waner to quit drinking, or at least lay off the hard stuff. Waner stuck to beer and stopped hitting, and Traynor told him to go out and tie one on so the team could win a few games. Charlie Grimm, manager of the Cubs in the 1930s, told the story of how Waner started a game against his team sleepless and hung over. Waner rarely struck out, and he rarely swung and missed for that matter, but in this game he was missing by wide margins. As the game went on, however, he began to get the range. Finally, in the ninth inning he lined a triple for the game-winning hit. "It's just like you, you little punk," Grimm shouted at him, "to sober up at a time like this." Dizzy Dean told of the time that Waner hit a game-winning home run off of him after Cardinals manager Frankie Frisch dismissed him as being in no condition to play. "Next time," Dean told Frisch, "You better tell us how to pitch to Waner if they brung him into the clubhouse on a stretcher."
Or consider some of the later-career yarns. In 1941, Waner started the season with the Dodgers but was released and signed with the Braves. The Braves then visited Ebbets Field. Waner was playing right field when Dixie Walker hit a ball into the right-field corner. The spheroid somehow slipped under the wall. Walker was able to circle the bases while Waner was on his hands and knees trying to dig it out. "Watcha lookin' for, Paul?" one of the Dodgers shouted. "Did you hide a pint back there this spring?" It was said that he once rounded second and then slid into a bald patch in left field, thinking it was third base. Casey Stengel said that Waner "had to be a very graceful player, because he could slide without breaking the bottle on his hip." There is a story of a rookie taking a drink from a bottle of Coca-Cola that Waner had left on the bench, only it wasn't Coke and the rookie didn't wake up for two days. Ralph Branca told Fay Vincent about rooming with Waner his rookie year. "In the morning he reaches under the bed. He takes out a bottle. They had these round tumblers, and he filled it about that high and said, 'This is my orange juice... Don't tell anybody.'" Pitcher Roy Parmelee of the Giants said that the secret to pitching to Waner was to determine if he'd been drinking-sober, he hit to the opposite field, and hung over he pulled. "So we'd pitch him just the opposite, depending on whether or not he had drunk. Not," he said, "that it made a great deal of difference." Contemporary outfielder Jo-Jo Moore said, "No telling what he would have done if he had taken care of himself." Teammate Buddy Hassett told Donald Honig that Waner was incredibly agile and would sober up by doing back-flips.
Despite his dissipation, Waner was a very serious student of hitting, approaching it as much psychologically as mechanically, and in his post-playing career as a hitting coach he had many a convinced disciple. Waner had extraordinary bat control and a line-drive approach at the plate. He was not a home-run hitter, reaching double figures only three times in his career, and finishing with just 113 round-trippers. Some of that was due to his philosophy, more perhaps to his playing the bulk of his career in Forbes Field, where it was 462 feet deep in the left-field alley, 442 feet to center, and 408 feet deep in right-center. No doubt many of his triples came courtesy of liners to those huge gaps, liners that would have carried over the wall in a smaller park.
Still, he never would have been a 500-home run type of hitter. Waner believed in being relaxed at the plate (in every sense of relaxed), meeting the ball and trying to control its direction, rather than attempting to kill it. "I try to place my hits," he said. "The opposing teams know that I don't always hit to the same field, and the players have to spread out. With the fielders unable to play for a set spot, I have a good chance to find a hole for my drives." He also believed in selectivity. "It is possible to get base hits by swinging at bad balls, of course," Waner told the Boston Record in 1942. "I got my share of base hits off them in my career, but the percentage is against you. A consistent .300 hitter should be able to hit four of ten good pitches safely, but he'll be lucky to hit one of ten bad pitches safely." More succinctly, he said the secret to hitting was "Wait until you get good pitches, and swing at them." Bat control probably placed one of his key philosophies even beyond the powers of most modern hitters: "Aim for the foul lines. If the ball stays fair you got a hit, and it doesn't you get another chance. If you foul it into the stands, don't worry; someone else is paying for the balls."
Waner developed his batting eye in a way that sounds unique at first, but probably isn't too different from an amateur career as a backyard whiffleball slugger. Growing up in rural Oklahoma, Waner didn't always have baseballs to play with, so he and his friends improvised. "There is nothing in the world that will take a freakish spin, a sudden hop, a wide, sweeping curve like a corncob," Waner told The New York Times in 1927. "The kids used to toss these cobs up as hard as they could. They would get hold of a short cob between the index finger and the thumb and let go. Whiz, it would come screaming up, and believe me, I mean it, they would scream. There were more curves in those corncob games than I have ever seen in a baseball game... I became obsessed with the idea of mastering the hitting of them. I really believe that this constant practice at hitting at those strange curves of the corncob did more than anything else to build up my batting."
Perhaps the corn cobs explain not only Waner's legendary eye, but his terrific bat control. Pitcher Carl Hubbell said, "He could control a ball better with his bat than I could with my hand." (This quote should be emblazoned on the crest of those of us who subscribe to the concept of pitching as primarily a defense-dependent act.) He was so confident in his ability with the bat that he claimed to intentionally miss hittable pitches. "Countless times I instilled false security in a pitcher by purposely looking bad on pitches I could have murdered when it wouldn't have done him much harm, and then I wrecked him by hammering the same pitch in [the] clutch later on." He constantly readjusted his personal strike zone depending on the defensive alignment confronting him and where he wanted to hit the ball. He also was adept at playing head games with the pitcher and the umpire, changing his position in the batters' box from pitch to pitch, crowding the plate at one point, backing away at another, so as to alter the previously established dimensions of that day's strike zone.
A quick word on Waner's corn-trained eyes. Wilbert Robinson, the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1914 to 1931, said of Paul and Lloyd, "Why shouldn't they be able to hit? They got eyes like cats." In fact, Paul Waner didn't see very well in conventional terms, and as legend has it, the Pirates once got him fitted with glasses, assuming that if he was a .380 hitter when half-blind, he might hit .420 if he could actually see. He hated it, noting "With glasses on, the ball looks as big as a baseball. But when I don't wear glasses it looks as big as a grapefruit." He also put it this way: "I'd see two baseballs coming at me and I knew I could always hit one of them." By the time he became a war-surplus ballplayer, he did finally have to accept glasses. "Paul has probably been hitting from memory the last couple of years," said his manager, Casey Stengel, after Casey tried and failed to point out an outfield billboard to Waner.
Be it memory or his self-medicating, Waner's hitting philosophy was just about getting the most out of his natural ability, of not trying to do more than he was physically capable of doing. This was important then as it is important now, because Waner was not an imposing physical specimen. In baseball terms, he was a borderline midget, listed at 5'8½" and 153 pounds; he was 'Big Poison' only in relation to his brother Lloyd, the 'Little Poison.'] Dustin Pedroia is listed at 5'9" and 180 pounds. Even by the standards of the 1920s and 1930s, Waner was considered to be undersized. "Paul Waner had tremendous wrist action," said contemporary pitcher Johnny Vander Meer, and in the end that was all that really mattered. Scouts might have passed on him because he was "a little punk," but baseball is a game that is open to being solved by many sets of tools, not just size, strength, or home-run power.
When Waner was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1952, he was operating a batting range. In his induction speech he said, "Boys and their fathers come to my batting range now, and worry if the boy is going to be big enough to play ball. I tell them they don't have to weigh 190 or 200. A little man can do all right too." Waner did all right, putting a lot of runs on the scoreboard by accentuating his good eye and strong wrists with thinking. He did it without stature, he did it without glasses, and if he needed a shot or two, that was about juicing his mind, not his muscles. It was a lively ball era, more lively in many ways than it is now. Waner was a star, a Hall of Famer, and he never hit more than 15 home runs in a year.