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Baseball Columnists

Collegiate Baseball Newspaper

Baseball's Ultimate Inventor

 

By JOHN HERBOLD

Columnist/Collegiate Baseball Newspaper

LOS ANGELES — Flat bats…square baseballs…pop-up tees…tennis bats…crooked bats…batting nets…"avoid hitting the bottom of the ball"…side-arm pitchers who are really throwing overhand…

He had ‘em all. He being the late Kenny Myers, LA Dodgers and California Angels scout of some years back.

Just recently Paul White, talented sports editor of Baseball Weekly, ran a great feature on Myers; and it got me to thinking about the greatest baseball teacher and thinker I ever met…and those who remember will undoubtedly agree.

Kenny’s been gone a few years now, but oh the things he left us.

Personally, I believe it was Myers who invented what we now all call "soft toss." Maybe someone else did, but I never saw it. I can remember him in the ’50s pitching to some of the Dodgers like Gil Hodges almost head on — kind of dangerous, wouldn’t you say? But he did it.

He also operated a pop-up tee where the operator pulled a string, and the ball would fly up into the air. This was not his invention, but he admired it so much that he did design a tee with balls popping up from five different locations around a home plate. The idea being that the batter wouldn’t know which ball would be coming up — only the operator knew. But he never really got the idea completely "off the ground," and the contraption now probably has been gathering dust in his garage since the day he died, which indeed was a sad one.

You know, Kenny was a pretty good minor-league hitter himself — once he hit two grand slams in one inning for Las Vegas against Ontario in the old Sunset League!

Later he signed a young outfielder named Lance Junker who did the same feat in the minors…some coincidence. And as a manager of the 1949 Las Vegas club, he and his players set a ton of home run records.

Once while standing and swinging a bat at an ABCA clinics at the LA Biltmore Hotel, Myers was spotted by Ted Williams, who said admiringly: "But, with that swing, you must have been a hell of a hitter." That he was…but his weight was always a worry.

So exactly what did Kenny Myers leave us?

Well, how about his crooked bat for a starter? Looked like a crank handle…a bat with a big "L" in the handle. Its purpose? To prove that hitters do not "roll their wrists" when they hit. The "roll" is after the ball has been struck.

Roll the wrists with his crooked bat, and you never hit the ball — rolling over it or under it.

Next came his patented batting "net." Myers always preached that "baseball is a paddle game like tennis, ping-pong, or racquet ball." To make the baseball go in a certain direction, it has to be hit a certain way. Hit the ball on its "first base side," and the ball goes toward third base, and vice versa…hit the ball in its "face," and it goes up the middle.

Then he constructed a rectangular metal frame, maybe six inches by ten inches to correspond to the hitting area of a bat. To the rectangular frame he attached a net pocket; and then a bat-length handle was made part of the whole unit.

Voila! Swing the "net" (or "Bat Rite" as he labeled it) correctly, and the batter would "catch" the ball in the net. But, do it wrong — rolling over or under the ball — and the batter would fail to land the ball in the net.

Yeah, a lot of local guys made fun of him. "There goes Myers with his butterfly net…chasing butterflies."

Of course, they had nothing to offer themselves.

Next, a half-bat, half-tennis racket. The handle was off a regular bat, but with a tennis racket head attached. The idea: "The bat is nothing more than hitting a tennis ball with a tennis racket…come down on the high ball slightly; and swing down to pick the low pitch up." He used tennis balls to demonstrate with his "tennis bat."

To better prove all of this, Myers then attached a ball to a bat, demonstrating to the hitter that coming slightly down into the ball did not result in harmless ground balls but in line drives instead. How does a tennis player serve? He/She comes down on the ball from over the head, and the ball goes out on a line.

Another Myers’ technique was to have a batter kneel on his back knee and then swing at soft-tossed pitches. Rather hard to uppercut from this position! Or he’d demonstrate using a pick axe handle instead of a bat, forcing the batter to approach the ball correctly.

Sometimes he demonstrated with square baseballs — field the "bottom," "throw the front," hit slightly down on the upper edge on the high pitches, etc.

Or he’d pitch volleyballs to better get his pints across.

Being baseball’s Thomas Edison only got him barred from the Dodger clubhouse because he was very popular with the players, but wasn’t the team’s "official" batting coach, whom they often ignored.

What did Mark Twain say about "jealousy being admiration in war paint?"

Sure, some of the top brass didn’t like players like Norm Larker, Hodges, Al Ferrara, and others coming to Myers for help.

So now they had to come to him surreptitiously. Then he took a young long-jumper named Willie Davis out of Los Angeles Roosevelt High School, turned him around into a left-handed hitter, and made him a major league star. He was a speedster so fast that in the minors, he scored nine times from first base on SINGLES while playing for Reno.

Maybe some of you have seen Myers and Davis in the old black-and-white movie "The Willie Davis Story," which really should have been named for Kenny Myers instead.

The other day, I heard some softball coach expounding on how to get better bat speed by standing near a fence and then swinging a bat. With slow bat speed, the bat plows into the fence; but do it correctly, and the bat escapes jolting the fence.

Good idea, Ma’am, but please don’t try to take credit for that technique. Ken Myers taught that 35 years ago. I know because I was there. Also, he taught players to play catch right along side a fence, forcing the thrower to keep the elbow up properly.

He proved that a good thrower never turns the ball over when throwing, except maybe in fielding a bunt or slow roller. He once rejected a high-priced bonus prospect who later had only moderate pitching success in the majors because he’d turn the ball upward toward the heavens in his pitching delivery.

He saw EVERYTHING…once when asked by Japanese newsmen about his hitting style, Hank Aaron smiled and pointed toward Myers: "Gentlemen, I don’t wish to be rude, but there’s a man who knows more about me than I know about me!"

This was true because it was Myers who dispelled the belief that a hitter can’t hit the ball with his back foot off the ground, pointing out via pictures that Aaron’s foot was usually off the ground when he hit or homered!

He also pointed out that Aaron gained much of his bat speed by hitting cross-handed as a youth, which he did indeed.

Kenny Myers could IMITATE any hitter; one moment he was Ruth, then Billy Williams, then Musial ("he crouches to make the balls higher to him")…then Mantle ("look at the loading coil with his front knee"…"while Williams coils his front hip").

He was so incredibly accurate in his portrayal you’d say to yourself: "By gosh, it is Ruth, or Gehrig, or whoever."

And then finally all the experts came around to realizing that Aaron’s back foot indeed was off the ground after all…sort of a modern-day version of "The Emperor’s Clothes."

Stan Musial once marveled when Myers convinced him that in hitting to the opposite field, the ball is actually hit more on the bottom part of the bat than the front part!

Or that most hit-and-run men turn their back heels IN toward the plate when they hit. Check it out — you’ll see.

Or that many over-handed pitchers are really throwing sidearm!

It’s just that they tilt their heads toward the ground in one direction appearing to be throwing over-handed. Jim Bunning was a good example. Or that some catcher in throwing to third on low, outside pitches actually do the same thing, firing the ball over their right ears with the left ears tilted groundward.

Myers gave the great relief pitcher Ed Roebuck his career back by having him stretch his arm repeatedly over a chair back to cure his sore arm…taught hitting using an axe…demonstrated his hitting theories in restaurants using knives for bats, napkins for home plates, and salt shakers for baseballs.

He talked hitting by the hour while his cigar never left his lips…enthralling Long Beach coaches into the wee hours of the night until police squad cars wandered by, shone their spotlights on the group, paused in wonder, and finally drove off shaking their heads.

"Who are those guys anyway?" as Myers continued lecturing.

"Sometimes," he’d explain, "think of the bat as being a flat board or square." Then he’d find a piece of hardwood and hit with it or construct a square bat and do the same. "If you were hitting with a board, you wouldn’t swing up at the high ball, would you?"

And then he’d have the hitter swinging away at high pitches using the square bat or a flat hardwood board.

And he was scouting almost to the day he died…more or less AWOL from the Veteran’s Hospital, sneaking down to Blair Field to check on one of his prospects.

When Kenny Myers was working with a hitter, nobody, but nobody, could or would interfere, not the President of the U.S. even!

When it was your turn to be tutored, it was your turn…for hours maybe…but then you might have to wait hours for that chance.

Nope, only God stopped Kenny and his ideas and inventions; but many of today’s top hitting men — Jim Lefebvre, Tony Muser, Mike Stubbins, Jerry Weinstein, John Scolinos, etc. are more than willing to credit Kenny.

As the softball lady went on expounding on how to hit, ex-Dodger Bill Sudakis looked across the table and smiled: "Kenny Myers would be proud to hear his stuff being stolen if he were here."

I replied: "Maybe he is."

 

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