If there’s a baseball bat around it’s hard to resist picking it up and taking a stance. We’ve all done it. Some of us who played baseball had our own stance, possibly fashioned after our baseball heroes. Some of us could copy stances, maybe even dozens of them.
Every ballplayer has their own stance. In a way, like snowflakes, no two are exactly the same. Mike Schmidt used to wiggled his front hip in the batters’ box in what he called “his dance with the pitcher.” Eric Davis wagged his fingers and rotated the bat as he waited for the pitch. Will “The Thrill” Clark was known for his signature “rocking” motion, which was simply a timing mechanism. Tony Batista stood facing the pitcher in an extreme open stance, then he’d swing his arms and the bat toward home plate as if he was placing something on a table. John Wockenfuss did something that’s hard to describe. There were players who liked to shake the bat a lot, like Gary Sheffield and Vlad Guerrero. Batting stances are unique to each hitter.
Anyone who has ever stood in the box to hit in professional baseball has had a batting stance, but most of them have been forgettable. This article is about the history of batting stances and the players who had famous stances.
Put it Right Here: The First Batting Stances
What did Cap Anson’s batting stance look like? How about Billy Hamilton or Dan Brouthers?
We will never know what the stances were like for these 19th century stars, but we can infer some things based on how the game was played back then.
Prior to 1887, a batter could call for a pitch to be either “high” or “low.” The pitcher was required to deliver a pitch somewhere above or below the batters’ waist. As late as 1882 the pitcher could not release a pitch from above his hips. Batters were in a position of strength. In 1876, the year the National League conformed by playing under the same rules, a man named Ross Barnes hit .429. It was the fourth time he’d hit over .400 in six years. There were guys hitting over .400 nearly every year before 1900.
As a result of rules that favored the batter, hitters didn’t worry about having to make contact. Most of them stood erect in the box and faced the pitcher with both eyes and held their bats near where they wanted a pitch to be placed. Contact was a given, missing a ball was unusual. Walks were extremely rare and not encouraged. At one point it took nine balls for a batter to get a walk. The point was for the batter to put the ball in play. (How refreshing). Even though pitchers were standing much closer to the plate (45 feet in some cases), the rules favored the hitter because pitchers couldn’t and didn’t throw the ball hard, and their tosses were meant to be reasonable offerings. Few pitchers could make the baseball curve. It was a batting practice fastball league.
It wasn’t until the 1890s that individualized batting stances became common, after the pitcher was allowed to throw from a uniform elevated mound. The batter no longer had a great advantage and pitchers were becoming sophisticated with their pitching repertoires. The baseball was being thrown harder than ever before: it was moving, dipping and diving. Hitters adjusted their approach and that meant, in part, that they needed to be comfortable.
A few hitters had unusual stances. Cy Seymour, who had a 16-year career that started in 1896, was a known tinkerer. he started as a pitcher but he converted to the outfield in mid-career. Seymour adopted a stance that placed him deep in the box while leaning on his front (right) foot, placing most of his weight on the front leg. It looked awkward, but Seymour won the batting title that way in 1905 when he hit .377 for the Reds.
Ed Delahanty, one of the best hitters of the late 19th century, held the bat high and off his back shoulder while spreading his legs wider than most hitters (later Hank Aaron’s stance would be compared to his). Until he tumbled over Niagara Falls after drinking one too many, Big Ed hit for great power and his style was copied by many sluggers.
Hands Apart and Feet Together: How Ty Cobb and The Babe Did It
If there was ever a batting stance that deserved imitation it was the one used by Ty Cobb. He won 12 batting titles with it, and he didn’t change it much at all in the 24 years he spent in the major leagues on his way to a .367 career batting average.
There were four notable things about Cobb’s stance:
1) He kept his hands very low, below his waist, tilting the bat toward the catcher on a 45 degree angle.
2) He held his hands one to three inches apart on the bat handle.
3) He kept his feet pretty close together.
4) Cobb crouched over at the waist, but did not bend his legs, it was like he was reaching over to get something on the other side of the table.
Only one of those things was unusual. That’s #4. Most players in Cobb’s era stood up straight. While some historians have made a big deal out of Cobb holding his hands a few inches apart on the bat handle, it was not unusual. Wee Willie Keeler and others had also used the method previously.
Cobb’s stance allowed him to do the things he felt were most important. He stood with his feet close together so he could quickly shuffle them into either direction depending on where he wanted to hit the ball. (Ichiro Suzuki later used the same approach with his feet in the batters’ box.) Cobb held his hands low so he could easily get them into position to bunt or slap the ball in any direction. And Cobb bent over so he could position his head closer to the plate, better to see the inside part of the strike zone.
Also, let’s clarify something: Cobb did not swing the bat with the split-grip. When the Georgia Peach saw a pitch he liked, he would move either his top hand down (to hit for more power) or slide the bottom hand up (to choke on the bat). When he swung the bat, Ty’s hands were together. He had more than 4,000 hits and he didn’t get them by swinging a bat with his hands apart.
It’s been more than a century since Babe Ruth took his first swing in the big leagues. His exploits are legendary. He’s still almost universally considered the greatest baseball player in history. But can anyone tell you what his batting stance was like?
Movies were in their infancy when the Great Bambino stepped on stage as a raw rookie in 1914. And many photographs of The Sultan of Swat show him in poses, facing the camera or following through on an imaginary swing. It was rare for photographers of that era to take photos of players in their normal stances. And the center field TV camera angle of batter vs pitcher we’re so used to know didn’t exist. But we do have a sprinkling of videos of the Babe in his stance, and it was unique to the great slugger.
Ruth stood with his feet nearly touching each other and standing at the extreme rear of the batters’ box. Like Cobb, he held the bat low, practically cradling the nob on his belt. A video from the 1932 World Series shows Ruth moving his hands so that the bat seems to be turning, as if he was churning butter. When the pitch arrived, Ruth moved his mammoth frame forward toward the baseball, putting every ounce of his body into his swing. The bat came up slightly and the Yankee slugger followed through with great emphasis. One historian wrote that Ruth’s follow through left his body “twisted in such contortion that he resembled a human barbers’ pole.”
This method — feet close together, hands very low, tremendous weight shift — clearly worked very well for the Babe. So why didn’t more players try it? The answer is probably talent. A select few did attempt to use the Babe’s stance: teammate Bob Meusel tried it for nearly a full season. He urged Lou Gehrig to try it too, but Gehrig stayed with his preferred stance, in which his feet were spread shoulder width apart and the bat was held far off his back shoulder. Ken Williams of the St. Louis Browns — like the Babe a left-handed hitter — used Ruth’s stance for a few years with success, but then returned to his favored style. Mostly though, players did not have the talent to emulate Babe’s power hitting, and after some of them tried and were unable to see great returns, they quickly abandoned it. Maybe they assumed only immortals like Ruth could use such a stance.
Masters of the leg kick
Giants’ outfielder Mel Ott was one of the best players in baseball during a career that spanned from 1926 to 1947. He stepped into the batters’ box for the first time when he was only 17 years old, and he took his last swings when he was 38. In between, “Master Melvin” hit 511 home runs, winning the National League home run crown six times. He hit four more home runs in the World Series, helping the Giants to a title in 1933 when he clubbed a pair of homers and had seven hits in five games in the Fall Classic. When he retired he ranked first in NL history in homers and third only to Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx all-time. He remains one of the greatest right fielders to ever play the game.
Unlike Foxx and the Babe, Ott was a small man, weighing in at 170 pounds and standing just five foot nine inches tall. On the field, Ott looked like nothing special, and off the diamond he didn’t seem any different than the average man on the street. But his batting stance helped him become one of the greatest hitters in baseball history.
Ott employed a high leg kick to initiate the weight shift needed to produce his power. As the pitcher started his delivery, the left-handed batter would lift his left lead leg off the ground (about eight to twelve inches), then as he swung through the ball his front foot would come back to earth. A weight shift with a slight lifting of the front foot had been done before, of course. It was probably a natural physical response to a pitch coming in at high speeds, an attempt to accentuate a weight shift. In fact, photos exist of Ty Cobb at the plate with his front foot a few inches off the ground. But previous hitters had never lifted their leg as high as Ott. The video below shows Ott taking several swings with his unique leg kick.
Weight shift is one thing, but actually lifting the lead leg and holding it while in a batting stance has been unusual. Ott was famous for it, but few players followed his suit. It took a player thousands of miles from the U.S. to popularize the stance, and when he perfected it, he inspired an entire country to copy his style. Sadaharu Oh was a physical match for Ott, built almost identical, and also a left-handed hitter. Oh used what he called the “flamingo” leg kick, an exaggerated version of Ott’s stance, in which he lifted his front leg high off the ground and curled it close to his back foot. Oh hit 868 home runs in his career, setting a world record. His success was copied by generations of Japanese ballplayers.
Oh never played in the U.S., his only cracks at big league pitching came in exhibition home run derbies against Hank Aaron, but in 2001, batting star Ichiro Suzuki became the first Japanese position player to sign a contract in Major League Baseball. Ichiro quickly proved he was worthy, winning the MVP and Rookie of the Year awards. Ichiro employed a stance where he pointed his bat out at the pitcher prior to the pith, pinched his legs close together, and lifted his front leg as he prepared to swing, influenced slightly by Oh. Ichiro eventually compiled more than 3.000 hits in the majors and won two batting titles. In ’04 he broke the major league record for hits in a season when he piled up an incredible 262. In all, between Japan and the U.S., Ichiro has more than 4,300 hits in his career, more than Pete Rose or any other American ballplayer. Clearly, the unorthodox methods used by Ott, Oh, and Ichiro, all left-handed hitters, didn’t halt their assault on the record books.
It’s worth mentioning another player who was known for a dramatic leg kick: Darryl Strawberry, who hit more than 300 home runs. Strawberry was known for having one of the prettiest swings in the game, and his leg kick helped him generate his signature power.
Stan The Man and The Peek-A-Boo
It’s hard to imagine now, more than seven decades after his first major league game, but Stan Musial’s batting stance was revolutionary for his time. The 21-year old debuted with the Cardinals in 1941, and he quickly made a big impact from the left side of the plate.
Ala Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, “Stan The Man” kept his feet close together, but he tucked himself back into a closed configuration. His front hip was pulled in, and his front shoulder was closed to the pitcher as much as anyone had ever seen. Musial tucked his neck and head behind the lead shoulder, and as a result it appeared as if he was playing “peek a boo” with the pitcher. His body looked like a question mark retreating from the mound, coiled and ready to explode into the pitch.
It worked pretty damn well: Musial won seven batting titles. His success led to imitation: within a few years there were other big league hitters closing their stances, most famously Harvey Kuenn, who won a batting title for Detroit.
Musial’s stance was so famous, and such a part of his image, that for years after he retired, when he appeared in public, Stan would do it for the fans. A statue at Busch Stadium in St. Louis shows the Hall of Famer in his famous batting stance.
Tiny Strike Zones
For decades no one paid much attention to bases on balls. For a while no one kept track of them. A walk was considered a mistake by the pitcher. The batter deserved no credit for it.
But eventually, a few smart folks inside the game noticed that some players got more walks than others. It wasn’t solely because they were great hitters and were getting pitched around: these hitters were drawing walks because they had a good eye. Or maybe it was something else.
Shorter ballplayers naturally have a smaller strike zone. Even if they simply stand straight up, their strike zone (from the shoulders to the top of the knee for most of modern baseball history) will be smaller than a taller man.
A small handful of players stooped to help themselves over the years, most famously catcher Stan Lopata in the 1950s on the advice of Rogers Hornsby. Lopata, who was over six feet tall and looked odd crouching very low, had a mid-career resurgence and started drawing a lot more walks.
Little fellas like Maxie Bishop and Eddie Stanky drew walks, so that made sense. But there were also taller guys like Elbie Fletcher, Augie Galan, and Tennessee Roy Cullenbine who consistently ranked near the top in walks. What did they have in common?
Fletcher, Galan, Cullenbine, and Bishop all employed very low, crouching batting stances. But in their eras, it wasn’t the thing to do, so few players imitated their success. In the 1970s that changed.
Rickey Henderson developed his batting stance independent of any outside influence. A smart player, Henderson realized with his speed that if he could get on base he could take control of the game. He worked on hitting from an extreme crouch, leaving very little room for the pitcher to throw a strike. As a result, Rickey walked 2,190 times, setting a record (later topped by Barry Bonds).
What was different about Henderson’s stance? It was copied by many other big leaguers, even hitters who were known for their power.
In 1951 the St. Louis Browns took the tiny batting stance to the extreme when they sent midget Eddie Gaedel to the plate as a pinch-hitter in a game against the Detroit Tigers. Gaedel was only 43 inches tall and he had no intention of swinging his (plastic) bat. He promtly watched four high pitches go by for a walk, retiring with a perfect 1.000 on-base percentage.
The Great Shrinking Charlie Hustle
Pete Rose came into baseball when it was still shaking off the 1950s, an era dominated by the three New York teams. It was an era when newsreels, radio and newspapers began sharing space with TV. The graceful, conservative Hollywood style of Joe DiMaggio was going by the wayside. The 1960s would be about individualism. Rose quickly personified that. Upon witnessing Rose run to first base after a walk, Yankee pitcher Whitey Ford called Pete “Charlie Hustle.”
As a young Cincinnati Red in the 1960s, Rose’s batting stance reflected the “old times.” He stood fairly straight up with his bat out in front of his chest, ready to whip it through the strike zone. But as the 60’s began to morph into the 1970s, Rose started to clench his stance into a new form, making himself smaller and smaller. He hunched himself down into a “C” in the batters’ box from the left side, with his head peering over his front shoulder, almost Musial-like. When he swung he uncoiled and propelled himself toward the baseline. It was really a sight to see. Rose’s stance was intended to give pitchers a smaller strike zone to throw to, and it gave Rose a short, compact, energy-efficient swing.
It’s possible that Rose’s stance (the “Crouching C” stance that he used during the heyday of the Big Red Machine and for the remainder of his career) is the most imitated in history. Not by big leaguers, but by players at all levels. When I was growing up in Michigan in the 1970s every kid in my neighborhood was able to do the Pete Rose stance. Few tried to hit from it, but everyone could imitate it. Big leaguers could do it too, but no one, other than maybe Mickey Rivers, ever hit like that in the majors.
Because Rose was a switch-hitter he had to reverse the stance when he was in the right-hand side of the box. I guess we should call it a “Parenthesis” stance, since the result is a left parenthesis when Pete was batting left handed and right parenthesis the other way. It worked well: Charlie Hustle had a 44-game hitting streak in 1978 and seven years later he broke Cobb’s all-time hit record, a mark that may never be topped.
Charley Lau and His Disciples
By the time his book “The Art of Hitting .300” was published in 1980, Charley Lau had cultivated a cult following that adopted his strategies on hitting a baseball. Most notable was Kansas City third baseman George Brett, who hit .390 the year the book came out, the highest average since Ted Williams in 1941.
Lau was a catcher in the Detroit organization in the 1950s when he realized his approach to hitting wasn’t working. He tinkered and tinkered, and finally by 1962 he had developed a philosophy that he would hone for the next two decades until his untimely death from cancer in 1984.
Lau came up with nine absolutes of hitting. I won’t list them all here (you can see them on his wikipedia page), but the two most important are: (1) a good weight shift and (2) having the bat in launch position as soon as the front foot touches the ground.
Realizing the importance of these tactics, and aware that he was not physically gifted enough to do them strictly through athletic prowess, in 1962 Lau started using a batting stance that was designed to help him get the bat into the hitting zone quicker. He stood with his feet far apart and the bat off his back shoulder almost flat and perpendicular to the ground. Lau hit .276 for the balance of his career, almost a 100-point improvement over his previous mark. Baltimore hired him as a hitting coach when his playing career ended and Charley started teaching young Orioles his hitting method. But his approach seemed weird to veterans in the organization and he was let go after one year. The A’s tried him for a year until they too got rid of his “crazy ideas.”
Finally, the Royals accepted Lau’s methods. It took an expansion team desperate for success for Charley to get a shot. Lau convinced Brett, Hal McRae and others in the organization like Al Cowens and Willie Wilson to adopt his methods. Brett was so successful that Lau called him his “Frankenstein Monster.” Brett changed his batting stance late in 1975, leaning far back on his left leg like a “forward slash”. He won his first batting title the following year. He was hitting as high as .400 in the first week of September of 1980. He was a beast in the post-season. He won the MVP award in ’80 and a third batting title ten years later. He reached 3,000 hits and is one of the greatest third basemen to ever play the game. After the Lau conversion, Brett never again changed his batting stance.
The Fiddlers: Yaz and Ripken
Of all the great players in baseball history, the two that are best known for tinkering with their batting stances are Carl Yastrzemski and Cal Ripken Jr. Both played a long time (more than 3,000 games each), which gave them lots of trips to the plate to fiddle. As a result, there’s no “definitive” Yaz or Cal stance.
Early in his career, Yaz employed a common stance: feet a little more than shoulder width apart, bat held high and back and well away from his rear left shoulder. He had a slightly closed stance, but not much. Yaz tucked his jaw into his lead right shoulder, something he did his entire career no matter what stance he used. This was the stance Yaz used in 1967 when he won the Triple Crown while leading the Red Sox to the pennant.
The early 1970s saw Yaz mess with his batting stance almost every spring. By 1974 Yaz settled on an odd stance that saw him leaning dramatically forward on his right leg toward the pitcher. He still held the bat high and away from his body and tucked that jaw into his lead shoulder. By 1983, his final big league season, Yaz had tried several variations, including a very closed stance and a version where he held the bat flatter near his shoulder (perhaps influenced by the teachings of Charley Lau). No matter what he did, Yaz hit: the Hall of Famer retired with more than 3,000 hits and 400 home runs.
No superstar changed his batting stance as much or as dramatically as Cal Ripken Jr. Noted batting stance imitator Gar Ryness (dubbed “The Batting Stance Guy”) has cataloged Ripken’s stances, even giving them names. They include “The DeCinces”, “The ’90s Hand Flutter”, “The 1991 MVP”, “The Dojo”, and my personal favorite, “The Violin.” Ripken also notably mimicked other stances, including those of teammate Mickey Tettleton and the bizarre John Wockenfuss contortion stance.
Here’s a video of Ryness doing many of his batting stance imitations:
While other stars have changed their stances in mid-career (Pete Rose and Rod Carew come to mind), it’s usually because of some revolution in hitting science. Yastrzemski and Ripken were not afraid to change things up to get out of a slump.
The Hall of Famer traded because of his batting stance
In 1990 the Red Sox were trying to win the division title and needed bullpen help. On August 30, the Sox acquired veteran lefthander Larry Andersen from the Astros. The southpaw pitched brilliantly for Boston down the stretch and the Sox edged Toronto for the division crown. The cost of that division title? A Double-A prospect named Jeff Bagwell, the lone player sent to Houston for Andersen. Bagwell went on to a Hall of Fame career for the Astros, and the trade remains one of the most lopsided in history.
Why did the Sox part with Bagwell? There are several reasons handy: at the time he was a third baseman and Boston had Wade Boggs; they also had a good first baseman in Carlos Quintana, blocking a move of Bagwell to his other position. In many ways it was a knee-jerk reaction by a front office trying to win a World Series. Can’t blame them much for that. But there’s another reason Bagwell was included on a list of players the Astros could choose from: his peculiar batting stance.
Bagwell’s stance has been described as a man sitting in a chair waiting for his dinner. The righthanded hitter crouched so low and so dramatically that his backside looked as if he was sitting in a kitchen chair. Yet somehow he maintained balance. At the time of the trade, Bagwell was tearing up the minor leagues, but he wasn’t hitting home runs. Some people in the Red Sox organization predicted he would never hit for enough power to be successful in Fenway Park. Some scouts simply thought his batting stance was too odd to lead to a long career.
“Bags” fooled his detractors, winning the Rookie of the Year Award in 1991, and an MVP award three years later. As for the power? He hit as many as 30 homers nine times, retired with 449 home runs, and in 2017 he was elected to the Hall of Fame. He might be the only Hall of Famer to be discarded because he had a funny batting stance.
The Age of Weird Stuff
Through the years there have been players with strange batting stances. Dick McAuliffe held the bat very high out in front of and over his head while pointing his lead foot out to the mound. He looked extremely uncomfortable. Milt May stretched the bat two to three feet above his head as he waited in the box, almost as if he was raising a broom to the rafters. In the 1970s, Oscar Gamble stuck his backside out and leaned across the plate, and Mickey Rivers did something similar, tightening his body into a ball, sort of like Pete Rose, with an added bat wag. Joe Morgan was famous for his “flap” where he flexed his rear left elbow as the pitch was being delivered. Morgan used the tactic to remind himself to keep his hands back.
But the strangest batting stance of the 1970s belonged to John Wockenfuss, a utility player primarily for the Detroit Tigers. A right-handed batter, “Fuss” pulled his front left foot in so it was directly in front of his back left foot, as if he were walking a tight rope. He pulled his upper body back in a closed fashion, but that was only part of the strangeness. Wockenfuss also held the bat out in front of his chest with his fingers extended and wiggling, as if playing a flute. When the pitch arrived, he’d pull his arms into hitting position and uncoil his body as he stepped into the baseball. It was so unusual that nearly every time he went to the plate the announcer mentioned it. Fans found it bizarre but imitated it. Wockenfuss hit 86 home runs as a part-time player in his 12-year career, finding exceptional success against lefties.
The weirdness in batting stances has exploded since the age of Wockenfuss and other random oddballs. Julio Franco emerged in the 1980s with his high extended arms and his method of pointing the barrel of the bat at the pitching mound over his head. Kevin Youkilis used a similar stance years later but added a twist: he separated his hands so his top (right) hand was several inches forward on the bat, making it appear that Youk was tuning a violin.
Aaron Rowand used what became called “The Drunk” — he stood with his legs extremely far apart and leaned back and to the side awkwardly, looking like he was going to tip over. Johnny Damon’s stance could have been called “The Shake & Wiggle” because he wiggled his bat behind his head and shook his body back and forth, faster and faster as the pitcher began his delivery. He seemed like a pot on the stove coming to boil.
Craig Counsell may hold the record for the most ugly batting stance in baseball history. Counsell was a middle infielder for 16 years in the National League and he was named MVP of the 2001 NLCS while with the Diamondbacks. But Counsell is remembered by many for his peculiar batting form. Rather than try to explain it, here’s a photo:
Tony Batista had an extreme stance, and we’ll share a video here because words don’t do it justice:
Cal Ripken Jr. has explained that a “batting stance is just a starting point” in the entire process of the swing. Some players like to be calm at their starting point, like Cobb standing with his feet together and almost still, while others, like Dave Winfield, liked to move their feet and body (“dancing with the pitcher”) as the pitch was en route. Both approaches worked for getting to the Hall of Fame.