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The Head Game: Baseball Seen from the Pitcher's Mound

The Head Game: Baseball Seen from the Pitcher's Mound

by Roger Kahn, Murray Tinkelman (Illustrator)

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Beyond the techniques and training, baseball begins with one player facing another and the psychological battle that they wage-the head game. In his critically acclaimed and bestselling new book, Roger Kahn presents the story of this supreme war of wits and the people who changed the course of baseball by playing, what he calls, chess at 90 miles an hour. In


Beyond the techniques and training, baseball begins with one player facing another and the psychological battle that they wage-the head game. In his critically acclaimed and bestselling new book, Roger Kahn presents the story of this supreme war of wits and the people who changed the course of baseball by playing, what he calls, chess at 90 miles an hour. In The Head Game, Kahn investigates not only grips, tactics, and physics, but also the intelligence, maturity, and competitive fire that has inspired some of the greatest hurlers in history.
By covering renowned pitchers and pitching minds-from Christy Mathewson, Cy Young, Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson, and Bruce Sutter to today's reigning pitching coach, Leo Mazzone-Roger Kahn sheds new light on baseball's most pivotal contest. A delightful and edifying tour of America's favorite pastime seen through the pitcher's eyes, The Head Game "is as lively and familiar and old-shoe as the game itself, even today" (Los Angeles Times).

Editorial Reviews

Ron Fimrite
The title refers to the battle of wits between pitcher and batter, which is the essence of baseball. Kahn sides with pitching, and in a narrative that is both analytical and anecdotal, he rewards the reader with what amounts to a scholarly treatise on the craft. He does so through engrossing portraits of pitching masters, from Candy Cummings, the reputed inventor of the curveball, to Bruce Sutter, the popularizer of the split-finger fastball. Kahn also presents us with Christy Mathewson on the fadeaway, Warren Spahn on the changeup and Don Drysdale on the duster.

This book is Kahn at his best, which is pretty damn good.
Sports Illustrated

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Meticulous research about baseball's early days combined with interviews of prominent modern-day hurlers form this lively look at the evolution of pitching. Kahn (The Boys of Summer, etc.) follows the development of such pitches as the curve ball, the slider and the split-finger fastball, and he profiles several successful pitchers, beginning with Hoss Radbourn, who started 68 games in 1883, completed 66 and posted a win-loss record of 49 and 25. Those are amazing numbers compared to pitching standards in 2000 when most pitchers don't start more than 30 games and 20 wins combined with four or five complete games is considered an outstanding season. Kahn devotes the largest section to Christy Mathewson, who pitched for the New York Giants at the turn of the century, won 373 games and threw 80 shutouts. His most impressive feat, however, came early in his career, when, in the 1905 World Series, Mathewson pitched three shutouts in six days. Mathewson is clearly Kahn's favorite pitcher: he ranks him as the best pitcher of all time. Kahn also allots a considerable amount of space to the debate about the effectiveness and morality of the brush-back or knockdown pitch, a particularly relevant topic in light of Yankee pitcher Roger Clemens's beaning of Mets catcher Mike Piazza this summer. Kahn's love and knowledge of baseball is evident throughout this latest work in his baseball oeuvre, and his many fans will be especially pleased by his examination of the head game. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Bigger hitters, smaller parks, league expansion, and some plain bad pitching have contributed to the booming epidemic of major-league home runs. Kahn (The Boys of Summer; A Flame of Pure Fire) pleads that the great spectacle of baseball is not, in fact, the crowd-pleasing trajectory but the psychological battle between pitcher and batter, what Brooklyn hurler Clem Labine once called "the head game." Kahn elegantly traces the art of throwing across the years and through its many evolving grips--the curve ball from the Civil War days of Arthur "Candy" Cummings; Whitlow Wyatt's hitter-taming hard slider in the early 1940s; the Reagan-era advances in the split-fingered fastball and the circle change; up to the modern age, visiting with pitching coach Leo Mazzone's peerless staff of arms on the Atlanta Braves. There is enough memoir here (of Kahn's father teaching him his wrinkle pitch and of old Dodger days) to please readers who believe in Golden Ages and enough clear-eyed observation of the current game to satisfy fans who still believe that baseball can be beautiful, no matter how its owners tinker with it. Highly recommended for lovers of literate sports history and for bruised pitchers needing inspiration.--Nathan Ward,"Library Journal" Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Nonbaseball fans must wonder what it is about this game that can support such a large industry: 30 major league teams, each one playing 162 regular season games, followed by an extensive postseason, not to mention the exhibition season. From March to October, year after year, that's a lot of baseball. Kahn has seen his fair share. He wrote his first baseball story for the New York Herald Tribune in 1952, played the game for years before that, and has written about it off and on ever since. He likens the sport to a chess game at 90 miles per hour. Beyond winners and losers, beyond statistics, beyond the hoopla and hype, there is the "essential core of the game"-the pitcher-hitter duel. The author delves into the long and storied history of those battles, examining along the way the development of various pitches, the metaphysics of pitching, the enduring controversy of the brushback or knockdown pitch, and the role of the pitching coach, and gives an assessment of the great hurlers, past and present. Christy Mathewson gets Kahn's vote as the best of all time. Like most baseball books, this one is for the lover of the game, whether young or old. And the nonfan might turn to The Head Game for an answer to the question: What's all the fuss about?-Robert Saunderson, Berkeley Public Library, CA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Alan Schwartz
...unquestionably valuable as a tour of some of baseball's greatest pitchers.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A hot-stove league ramble, well lubricated with fine wines, on the subject of pitching, by a baseball writer who has seen it all.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

Baseball Seen From the Pitcher's Mound
By Roger Kahn


Ask them hitters about the curve. They'll tell you.
It's Public Enemy Number One.

Before considering pitching as history, and pitching as combat and indeed, pitching as life, it makes some sense to review a controversy that has spilled into baseball's modern times. On September 15, 1941 Life magazine, then the most popular weekly in the United States, published a dramatic photo essay which suggested that a baseball could not be made to curve. That year Lefty Gomez, a droll Californian who pitched for the New York Yankees, was fighting back from arm trouble and hooking his way across a season in which he would lead all American League pitchers with a winning percentage of .750. "Damn," Gomez said, as he stuffed a copy of Life into his locker in the catacombs under the grandstands at Yankee Stadium. "Here I am, trying to make a comeback and what do they tell me? My best pitch is an optical illusion."

The old Life, a contentious, sexy, influential, self-important publication, was not above firecracker journalism, printing stories charged with more shock value than substance.* But the curve-ball piece, a copiously illustrated photo essay, appeared to be serious business. Life engaged a renowned photographer named Gjon Mili and hired two pitchers, including the Hall of Fame lefthander Carl Hubbell, who had been a twenty-game winner five times for the New York Giants. Both pitchers threw what were supposed to be breaking balls "under the scrutiny of three high-speed cameras." The magazine published eleven pictures and reported: "Mili's evidence fails to show the existence of a curve, raises once more the possibility that this stand-by of baseball is after all only an illusion." Details of Mili's methodology were left vague, but Life's collective mind brooked no argument with its conclusion: Thrown baseballs always follow a straight path. The hop of Bobby Feller's fast ball did not exist, either, Life added. Feller had won twenty-seven games the year before, mostly with hopping fast balls. Like the curve, Life maintained, Feller's hopping hard stuff was "a batter's optical illusion." Honed to an edge, Life's charge came down to this: Big-league pitching in America was a fraud.

Three months later the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Gjon Mili went on to other things. He induced Pablo Picasso to stand in a pitch-black room, holding a baton tipped with a light bulb. Mili set the time exposure on his Leica and said, "Draw." The subsequent photographs of Picasso's sketches in light were a wonder.

"But wait a minute, Mr. Mili," I said some years afterward, during an all-night Christmas party at his studio loft. "How do you think it's possible for people with just about the best vision in the world, major-league hitters, to be so consistently fooled by optical illusions? And why do some pitchers have better optical illusions than others?"

Mili shrugged. He was famous. His Christmas parties were famous. He held a wineglass in one hand. A dazzling Eurasian model clutched his arm. Salvador Dali, in cape and mustache, was entering. A Broadway actress, standing on a platform, announced that she was going to strip naked. Baseball must have seemed far away. "Please," Mili said. "Go get yourself a drink. We'll talk about curve balls some other time." We never did. Dali embraced Mili. I failed to catch the Eurasian model's name or eye. The Broadway actress stopped her striptease early when Walter Winchell arrived, talking loudly. She would undress for a wine-dark Soho party, but not for the hundred and fifty newspapers and all the ships and clippers at sea that were Winchell's glaring and prodigious syndicate.

People and publications are sure of one thing when they advance the hypothesis that a curve ball doesn't curve-or that a fast ball doesn't hop, or that a slider doesn't slide, or that an inshoot doesn't shoot in, or that a knuckleball doesn't "knuck." Putting this in Newtonian terms, they know that their action will produce a reaction. (When certain publications need attention, they move toward fireworks journalism. The old Saturday Evening Post, wanting to show special verve, once published an article entitled: "I Hate Dogs." Grrrr. Outrage arrived in a rush of mail sacks burdened with missives defending poodles, Chihuahuas, and wolfhounds and threatening to loose hungry Dobermans on the author.)

After about five decades of intermittent research, I have to conclude that articles in Life and elsewhere that deny the existence of a curve belong to the hoary I-Hate-Dogs genus, which does not mean that they will go away. Look magazine hired a photographer named Frank Bauman in 1953. This time, according to an anonymous Look writer, the pictures indicated that "Yes, a ball does curve, but in a gentle arc. No, a curve ball does not break." Different cameras. Different conclusion.

Within the past decade a scholarly batting coach, Ben Hines, who has worked for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Houston Astros, undertook baseball studies from a different angle. Working with various ophthalmologists, Hines tried to find out precisely how a batter perceives a pitch. For example, which eye dominates the batter's vision at various points in the flight of the ball. One conclusion Hines reached was that sometimes a pitched ball moves faster than the ability of human eyes to focus. Calling a pitch a blur can be literally correct. This blur, Hines and his attending physicians decided, has the ophthalmological effect of slightly exaggerating the baseball's motion. A hop seems higher. A curve ball, in the baseball phrase, "falls off the table." The vanquished batter then shakes his head and swears, "That last damn pitch musta broke three feet."

Hines' work suggested, no, that last curve didn't really break that much, any more than Babe Ruth could clout home runs "a country mile." But for either exaggeration to have a starting point, movement of the baseball-the hop, the curve, the long home run- first has to be there. As we shall see, scholarly physical studies of the 1990s prove that a hop, a curve, a slider and a "knuck" are as real as the old Life's phenomenal newsstand sales. Put simply, a spinning baseball does veer in flight and sometimes sharply. That is physical fact. In addition, human vision, wondrous and imperfect, exaggerates the movement of the baseball. Voilá! Reality and illusion at the same instant, the stuff of magic, love affairs and curve balls.*

Fun, games and gainful employment have taken me from the very lowest levels of baseball to the very highest and the curve ball, the curve ball that breaks, is a wholly consistent element in that experience. When I was no more than six years old, my father, once a strong-armed college third baseman, threw gentle wrinkles at me down the long upstairs hallway of the large whitestone house where we lived in Brooklyn. I remember the house on St. Mark's Avenue. I remember my father. I remember the curves. We played catch with a gray rubber ball that cost five cents at Horowitz Candy & Stationery around the corner on Kingston Avenue. Mr. Horowitz's Baby Ruth candy bars sold three for a dime. Our family always lived in corner houses. That way my grandfather could install small black-and-white signs, A. Rockow, DDS, on two streets, possibly increasing his dental practice during the Depression, when more people suffered from toothaches than could afford the drillings and fillings required to eliminate them.

In the long white upstairs hallway, I reached toward the spinning gray rubber ball. It drifted past my right hand. I said, "Dad, what was that?"

"Let's try again."

He threw three more three-quarter overhand wrinkles. Then he said, "Curve ball."

"How do you throw that?" I said.

He showed me a quick wrist snap; he was rolling his right wrist sharply clockwise at the moment he released the rubber ball over his index finger.

"Let me try." I had seen the glorious windup of Van Lingle Mungo, who kicked phenomenally high and struck out just about one major league batter an inning when he pitched for the Dodgers at Ebbets Field during the 1930s. I kicked back, a ridiculous mini-Mungo in the long-ago white hall, kept my footing and rolled my wrist as I released the gray rubber ball. The ball I thought I was hurling toward my father, my first curve, jumped out of my hand as I snapped my wrist, sailed sideways into the wall on my left with a certain amount of force. It caromed into the wall on the right. Then back to the wall on the left. Boom blap. Boom. Blap. Oh, nuts.

My mother, who had been reading Melville or Whitman on the blue crushed-velvet sofa in the living room, called out what would become a war cry: "No ball playing in the house!"

Copyright (c) 2000 by Hook Slide, Inc., published by Harcourt, Inc. and reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.

What People are Saying About This

Tim McCarver
Roger Kahn reveals something new about the most important part of the game. In The Head Game he puts a fresh and original twist on the battle between the pitcher and the hitter, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Meet the Author

Widely acclaimed as the greatest baseball writer of his generation, Roger Kahn is most famous for his modern classic, The Boys of Summer, which James Michener called the finest American book on sports. Kahn is the author of 16 books, including The Head Game, Baseball Seen from the Pitchers’ Mound. His magazine articles won five Dutton Best Magazine Story Awards and his book The Era: When the Yankees Dodgers and Giants Ruled the World was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Born in Brooklyn, he now lives in Stone Ridge, N.Y. with his wife, the psychotherapist Katharine Colt Johnson.

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