THE ART OF : SWITCH-HITTING : Ability to Bat Well From Both Sides of Plate Is Rare Skill; The Babe and Ty Cobb Didn’t Have It; Dave Collins Does

Times Staff Writer

Pete Rose learned to bat left-handed when he was 9 and playing “Knot Hole Baseball,” and today he says he can’t remember ever hitting right-handed against a right-handed pitcher.

Mickey Mantle learned to bat left-handed when he was “about big enough to start walking.”

Maury Wills, on the other hand, didn’t learn to bat left-handed until the middle of his eighth season in professional ball.

Rose, Mantle and Wills have something in common: They carried ambidexterity as batters to extraordinary heights. They hit left-handed and right-handed, almost with equal ease. In baseball jargon, they are switch-hitters.


The ability to hit well from either side of the plate is a rare skill. Babe Ruth couldn’t do it. Neither could Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays or Hank Aaron. In fact, only about 10% to 12% of major league batters are switch-hitters today and most of them aren’t very good, doing it in anonymity, without distinction.

The best of the lot today are Baltimore’s Eddie Murray, Kansas City’s Willie Wilson, Montreal’s Tim Raines, Oakland’s Dave Collins and San Francisco’s Chili Davis. Murray hit 29 home runs, drove in 110 runs and batted .306 last season. Davis hit .315, Raines .309, Collins .308 and Wilson .301.

Milwaukee’s Ted Simmons isn’t what he used to be, but he batted over .300 five times--.332 in 1975 at St. Louis--and hit 172 home runs from 1968 through 1980 while with the Cardinals. The Yankees’ Roy White batted right-handed in 1965, his first year in the major leagues, then became a .270 average switch-hitter.

Although Wills believes there are more switch-hitters today than there used to be, the Dodgers’ 1985 spring roster lists only two, Cecil Espy and R. J. Reynolds, and the Angels have only three, Mark McLemore, Gary Pettis and Devon White. Montreal has the most, six, and Philadelphia has none.

Over the years there have been some good ones. Frank Frisch was one, batting .294 in a 19-year career. James (Rip) Collins was another. He hit .296 and once hit 35 home runs. Reggie Smith batted over .300 six times and hit 32 home runs for the Dodgers in 1977. Max Carey averaged .285 for 20 years, Wally Schang .284 for 19 and Augie Galan .287 for 16.

Galan batted left-handed for the first five years, hitting .307, .310, .314, .286 and .209, before becoming a skillful switch-hitter. Schang was a switch-hitter from 1913 through 1926, then batted only right-handed in 1927 and ‘28, hitting .319 and .286.


The careers of Rose, Mantle and Wills are uncommon examples of how players can improve their lot by mastering the ability to bat from either side. If they hadn’t developed the skill, Rose probably would not be closing in on Ty Cobb’s record of 4,191 hits, Mantle would not have hit 536 home runs and made the Hall of Fame, and Wills would not even have made it to the major leagues.

Virtually all switch-hitters--and many left-handed batters--are natural right-handers. That’s not unusual, since it’s a right-handed world. Only about 8% to 10% of the world’s population is left-handed. Left-handedness or right-handedness is an inherited trait. If the left side of the largest part of the brain dominates, as it does for Rose, Wills and Mantle, the person is right-handed. Children are often born ambidextrous but soon develop a preference for one hand.

When tools became important in the Bronze Age, early man, largely ambidextrous, preferred to use his right hand and it came to be regarded as superior. Left-handers have been discriminated against in most things ever since.

Superstitions and legends about left-handers abound. In early Rome, bad omens were believed to appear from the left, good ones from the right. In the Muslim world, the left hand is considered unclean. Gauche the French word for left, stirs up images of physical and social awkwardness.

Baseball limits left-handed throwers to three positions: first base, the outfield and pitcher.

It is understandable why many right-handers want to bat left-handed, at least part of the time. In a right-handed world, left-handed batters have an advantage. About 70% of the pitchers in the major leagues are right-handed, which means that if you bat left-handed, most curveballs thrown your way during a season are breaking in toward you. No batter prefers it the other way.

“Unless it is a scroogie (a screwball, which breaks away from lefties)--and there aren’t many of those--the curveball is always coming in to you, and you have a lot more confidence,” Rose said.


Additionally, the fellow who invented baseball provided left-handed batters with another edge. Faced with a choice, he directed batters to run to the right once the ball was struck. He could have positioned first base on the left-field line just as easily, giving right-handed batters the head start left-handers have today.

The step or step-and-a-half edge made a big difference to such swift runners as Wills and Mantle.

Mantle, the most feared of all switch-hitters because of his power, used the advantage to boost his batting average for 18 years to .298. “I liked to drag bunt, and got 15 or 20 hits a season that way,” he said. “It made a big difference in my batting average.”

The difference between .290 and .300, Rose said, is about 8 or 10 hits a season.

Mantle ran to first base from the right side of home plate in 3.4 seconds. From the left, he made it in 3.1, which often was fast enough to beat the ball to the base by a step. One of baseball’s remarkable oddities is the frequency with which batters are thrown out at first base by only a step.

As a Dodger in 1959 and the early 1960s, Wills, a consummate base stealer, turned the chopped ground ball into a deadly offensive weapon, effectively combining a level swing and a tendency to hit the ball late with a headstart from the left side of the plate. “With my speed, the extra step was a big advantage,” he said.

Wills was the first of many players the Dodgers made into switch-hitters. “We called it a move in the right direction,” Dodger Vice-President Al Campanis said.


It was especially important for Wills to get on base, Campanis said, “because he then became more valuable to us. He used his speed and a high hopper chopped into the infield to get a lot of hits.”

In 1965, the Dodgers’ World Series championship team had an entire infield of switch-hitters: Jim Gilliam at third, Wills at short, Jim Lefebvre at second and Wes Parker at first. The Dodgers tried unsuccessfully to make a switch-hitter of the right-handed Bill Russell. “He couldn’t adjust,” Campanis said.

Virtually all switch-hitters are better swinging from one side than the other. Most of them, including Wills, Mantle and Rose, have more power from their natural side because it is easier for them to pull the ball from that position.

“I have more of a tendency to pull the ball batting right-handed,” Rose said. “All power hitters pull the ball.”

In Campanis’ view, the hardest adjustment for switch-hitters to make is to learn to pull the ball from the unnatural side. Wills didn’t have much power from either side but what he had, he said, was delivered from the right side.

However, Wills--as many natural right-handed switch-hitters do--developed into a better left-handed hitter. The main reason for this odd turn of events is the scarcity of left-handed pitchers. Switch-hitters just don’t get to bat as often right-handed. Rose, for example, has batted right-handed only about 25% of the time in his career. However, it doesn’t seem to really matter from what side the Cincinnati manager hits. Probably the most consistent of all switch-hitters, Rose is averaging .311 batting left-handed and .292 batting right-handed.


However, he said he is a better left-handed hitter because he gets more practice from that side. “Some teams don’t have more than one good lefty starter,” he said.

Mantle was an exception. He was a better right-handed batter, although he hit 373 of his 536 home runs batting left-handed. “I had just as much power, if not more, batting right-handed,” he said. “And I hardly ever struck out batting right-handed. I struck out a lot left-handed.

The Yankees could not break down his statistics except for home runs, but Mantle said he hit about .345 right-handed and only about .250 left-handed.

On his ability to hit more home runs batting left-handed, besides his batting more times from that side, he said, “That was Yankee Stadium, you know. It was 457 feet to left-center but only 407 to right-center.

After Casey Stengel, the Yankee manager, began platooning in the early 1950s and the idea was quickly adopted by other teams, switch-hitters had still another advantage. They remained in the lineup because it didn’t matter if a left-hander or right-hander was pitching.

Mantle’s father got the idea even before Stengel. “My dad always believed there would be platooning some day,” Mantle said. So as a kid barely old enough to walk, Mantle was turned into a switch-hitter. He was a reluctant pupil. “I did it when Dad was around,” he said. “He was a right-hander.” But Mantle’s grandfather was left-handed and when he pitched, young Mickey batted left-handed.


While compiling his Hall-of-Fame record with the Yankees, Mantle had most of his slumps batting left-handed. He slumped a lot in Cleveland, he said, because the Indians had four strong right-handed pitchers--Early Wynn, Bob Feller, Bob Lemon and Mike Garcia.

“I had a blind spot, high inside, batting left-handed,” Mantle said. “Major League pitchers found it and they could keep the ball there.”

Mantle said he often thought about batting right-handed all the time. “If I had played in Boston or Detroit (where the parks have closer left-field fences than Yankee Stadium), I might have,” he said.

Against right-handed knuckleball pitchers such as Hoyt Wilhelm, he batted right-handed. “I also hit right-handed against right-handed pitchers just for practice when we were way ahead or behind,” he said. But not always.

“I never batted right-handed against Ewell Blackwell or Don Drysdale,” he said. “They threw sidearm pitches that looked like they came from third base.

“I was always glad I could bat on the other side against them.”

In the middle of his eighth season as a professional, Wills was taking batting practice at Spokane one day when his manager, Bobby Bragan, suggested he try batting left-handed.


“I was in an eight-year slump, so I decided to give it a shot,” Wills said. “I started fooling around swinging left-handed.”

It changed his life, he said. “I knew I couldn’t hit well enough right-handed to go to the majors. Apparently, I had a fear of the curveball batting right-handed.”

Becoming a switch-hitter wasn’t easy for him, either. “I had to work at it,” he said. “The hardest part was getting into a rhythm.” He also feared he would not be able to get out of the way of a pitch batting left-handed. However, he lost that fear while playing winter ball in Venezuela in 1958.

A Spokane teammate, Larry Sherry, pitched in the same league for a different team. “I was stealing a lot of bases,” Wills said. “I was practicing every day, even when we were ahead and I didn’t need to steal.”

On one such day, after Wills had singled off Sherry and stolen second and third, the pitcher told him: “I’m going to put one right in your ear.”

Sherry tried it, too. “He aimed a 90-m.p.h. pitch right at my head,” Wills said. But Wills ducked it and learned a valuable lesson. “Hey,” he said to himself, “I can get out of the way.” Sherry had done him a favor.


Wills became a full-time switch-hitter June 4, 1959, hit .313 at Spokane in the next 25 games and was summoned to Los Angeles by the Dodgers. In his first full season as a Dodger in 1960, he hit .295 and his 14-year major league average was .281. He twice hit .302.

Wills’ son, Bump, is also a switch-hitter, having developed the skill on his own, his father said.

Campanis tried to get his son, Jim, a former Dodger catcher, to become a switch-hitter when he was young but couldn’t talk him into it. “When he was 5 or 6 years old, I tried to teach him to bat left-handed,” Campanis said. “I would underhand him a pitch and he’d turn around and swing at it right-handed.”

Rose’s son, Pete, 15, throws right-handed but bats left-handed. Is he a switch-hitter? “He hasn’t showed me he needs to be a switch-hitter,” Rose said.

But Pete Sr.’s father wanted his son to bat both ways. “The fact that I had an uncle who was a scout for the Reds helped,” Rose said. “He became a good player when he became a switch-hitter at age 30.”

To Rose, the confidence factor is the most important reason to switch-hit. He likes that curveball breaking his way. “I don’t know if I could have made it to the majors as a right-handed batter,” he said.


There are some quirks to Rose’s switch-hitting. He needs less batting practice as a right-hander. “There aren’t enough left-handed batting practice pitchers, anyway,” he said. He says he can hit fungoes right-handed but not left-handed.

He plays pepper right-handed and said: “I can’t do it left-handed.”

Two left-handed pitchers made it tough on Rose: Jim Brewer, a screwball pitcher, and Randy Jones, a sinkerball specialist. Rose, desperate, tried to hit them left-handed.

With all the advantages switch-hitters command, it is surprising that more batters, particularly those who hit left-handed, don’t learn the skill. It is one that can turn a mediocre player into a good one and a good one into a great one. It will also keep them in the lineup.

More baffling yet, why aren’t there any switch-pitchers? Imagine the impact they would have on the game.