Major League Baseball

Technique and Tactics

By Ethan Allen

B.S., University of Cincinnati; M.A., Teachers College, Columbia University

Photographs and Drawings by the Author

The Macmillan Company, New York 1938

Up in Meredith, New Hampshire is a place called Mary Roberts Good Old Books, a big barn full of used books. In the barn I found a cardboard box of old baseball books. The most interesting was Major League Baseball (first edition) written by Ethan Allen, who was a big league player for 13 seasons, and then became baseball coach at Yale, where his most famous player was 1B G. Bush. Allen was also the inventor of that Cadaco baseball board-game with circular player discs which fit over a spinner: "All-Star Baseball".

Allen’s book, assembled over several years, was copyrighted 1938, and it was a "how-to" book, from a major league perspective. Unlike a "boy’s" book, for instance, this one explains how a catcher can steal a strike by pulling a bad pitch into the zone. Allen was a good photographer too, and did all the illustrations with big leaguers as models. It’s fascinating to see photo sequences of Gehrig’s swing, Dean’s delivery, Appling’s throw from shortstop, how Gehringer turned the double play.

Of the fielding positions, catching has changed the most. They caught the ball with two hands, of course, not having the flexible one-handed mitts of today (said to be popularized by Johnny Bench). Their mitt looked kind of like a pillow.

Catchers gave signals from the familiar squat, but what’s this? They’re catching the ball standing up! The trunk and the knees are only "slightly bent", as Rudy York, Earle Brucker, Ernie Lombardi, and Al Lopez demonstrate. Catchers are shown blocking wide pitches like an infielder would stop a grounder. There are pictures of the low target and the high target; the high one is about letter-high on the catcher (and also the batter), so there must have been a real (not just theoretical) strike zone above the belt.

If the catcher was standing up, the umpire must have been standing behind him, and the batters were only slightly bending their knees, protecting a shoulder-high strike zone, which the book shows superimposed on Jimmy Foxx. You could make a fast-motion animated film of the catcher, batter, and umpire gradually crouching lower and lower over the decades, until today they are focused on a strike zone that extends from the belt to just below the knee. (The film might end with Tony Peña bringing catching to a "new low": sitting down!) The strike zone has also migrated outwards--the inside part of the plate is now a ball, a couple inches outside is a strike. Did the strike zone follow the catcher downwards, or was the catcher chasing a shrinking strike zone?
Bill James, in "The Baseball Book 1991", has a discussion about catchers squatting--in his biographical sketch of catcher Jimmy Archer. Bill defines a crouch as a half-standing position (the one shown in Ethan Allen’s book), and a squat as all the way down, with the mitt between the knees. The catcher’s squat began as a way of hiding signs from the opposition, maybe then also as a way to present a low target. Some catchers probably would receive a pitch from the squat if the bases were empty, but get up in a crouch if they might have to make a throw. Bill says the transition took place in the teens and early twenties, but non-squatting catchers hung on well into the thirties--"much later than I would have thought". It seems safe to say that after World War II all big league catchers squatted all the time.

The pitcher of the Thirties was throwing from a mound that was 5 inches higher, through a much bigger strike zone, to a catcher who was standing up. The windup and delivery (demonstrated by Derringer, Dean, Stratton, and Auker) weren’t much different from today’s. But there were fewer weapons at the pitcher’s disposal. The slider wasn’t a standard yet; the book has only one pioneer throwing it: "Johnny Allen throws a fast ball that is unique because it slides or breaks like a curve. He throws it much like a curve but keeps the fingers and wrist stiff when the ball is released." A fellow named Jim Weaver was working with a fork ball, but it was a slow pitch--classified with the knuckler--and only a cousin of today’s split-fingered fastball.

We asked Johnny Pesky, who has seen as much  baseball as anyone over the past 50 years, Why did the high strike zone disappear? Johnny said that nobody could hit the high strike, so the umpires did away with it. Hmmmmm.

Reviewed by David Nevard (1991)

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