Baseball: The Counterclockwise Sport

This article was written by John Schwartz

This article was published in the 1978 Baseball Research Journal


Baseball is a sport of self-contained time, measured in innings, not by a clock, and space: the rule-book does not set a maximum distance on the foul lines. Another peculiar feature of baseball is its deliberate and consistent lack of symmetry.

To illustrate what I mean, let us consider the example of watching a sporting event in a giant mirror. Assume that the players do not wear numbers or names on their uniforms, nor are there any other numerals or letters in view. Whether the game is football, soccer, basketball, hockey, golf, tennis, or bowling, it would not be possible to tell if one were watching the actual game or its mirror image. The actions of the players betray no consistent indicators that tell us “left” from “right.” In this sense these games have a certain symmetry about them.

Even the newer baseball stadiums with their symmetrical playing fields cannot disguise the game’s basic lack of symmetry. Let us go back to our “mirror” example for a moment. We would know if we were watching a baseball game or its mirror image as soon as the first batter broke for first base. If we were looking in a mirror, the batter would appear to be heading for third, in a clockwise direction. It is the built-in counterclockwise direction of baserunning that gives baseball its obvious lack of symmetry.

There is some evidence that suggests that, before the advent of professional baseball, games antecedent to baseball, such as rounders, were sometimes played with the bases run in a clockwise direction.  In William Clarke’s The Boy’s Own Book Extended, published in 1851, such a game is diagrammed with the batter placed on the catcher’s right-forcing him to bat lefthanded. (This diagram is reproduced in Harold Peterson’s The Man Who Invented Baseball. Mr. Peterson states that it was first published in an earlier edition of Clarke’s book in 1829 in a description of “rounders,” and in 1834 in The Book of Sports by Robin Carver in a description of “baseball.” All of the other games with more than two bases described by Mr. Peterson utilize a counterclockwise direction in baserunning.)

Why did counterclockwise, instead of clockwise, baserunning prevail? The answer probably lies in a combination of factors, some of which lie unfathomed within the enormously complex and largely unknown human brain. One fact is pointed out in Jack Fincher’s Sinister People: by whatever definition one uses for “handedness” every human society appears to be predominately right-handed.

Clockwise baserunning, therefore, would necessitate that most fielders would have to turn before they threw the ball (to a teammate or at the runner; the latter was often the case in games antecedent to baseball). As pointed out above, left-handed batting was called for.  Since a majority of the population would find it easier to throw without first turning, and to swing the bat right-handed, counterclockwise baserunning gradually prevailed.

Now the environment of the game can influence skills that can be learned. Professional baseball evolved with batters standing on either side of the pitcher-catcher axis. It is conceivable that the batter could have been forced to remain stationary, and the catcher compelled to move to either side of the batter (depending on which way the latter swung) but that’s not the way the game developed. The left-handed batter stands closer to first base, and this provides his team with an offensive advantage. He can both reach first more quickly, and block the catcher’s view of the runner on first. 

Just how much does the baseball environment influence the batting styles of players? The following table lists the 80 men at the 8 offensive positions (240 outfielders) who have played the most games at the position. It also lists their batting and throwing styles (complete through 1976 season):

 

 

BRTR

SHTR

BLTR

BRTL

SHTL

BLTL

Catcher

64

3

12

0

0

1

First Basemen

35

3

8

1

3

30

Second Basemen

54

9

17

0

0

0

Shortstops

65

9

6

0

0

0

Third Basemen

67

1

11

1

0

0

Outfielders

98

9

77

2

1

53

 

Note: Stan Musial and Ron Fairly, both BLTLs, are included as first basemen and outfielders. Ernie Banks, a BRTR, is included in both SS and 1B. Tommy Leach, a BRTR, is included in both 3B and OF.

 

Even allowing for the preponderance of right-handed throwers, the proportion of righties who bat left far exceeds those of lefties who bat right. Because of the preponderance of right-handed pitching, switch hitters bat left-handed 70-80% of the time, although this proportion may decrease as teams cultivate more left-handed pitchers.

Throwing seems to be a more specialized skill than batting, for  the first century of major league baseball has not produced one ambidextrous thrower. In the 19th century, pitcher Tony Mullane would occasionally throw left-handed, but he did not do so often or consistently.

Going back to the table for a moment, let us enumerate those players in the smallest cells. The switch-hitting catchers are Wally Schang, Duke Farrell, and Ted Simmons, all good-hitting backstops.  The left-handed catcher is Jack Clements, who played in the 1890s.  The switch-hitting first-sackers are Tommy Tucker, Candy LaChance, and Dan McGann, all of the dead-ball era, and all right-handed throwers, and Lu Blue, Walter Holke, and Wes Parker, all more recent players and left-handed throwers. The BRTL first baseman is fancy-fielding Hal Chase, who also won a batting championship in the NL in 1916.  The only long-time switch-hitting third sacker is Jimmy Austin, though Pete Rose may someday join him. The BRTL at third is Warren William

(Hick) Carpenter, who played in the 1880s. He was at a disadvantage both in the field, where he had to turn to throw to first or second, and at bat. In the outfield, the switch-hitting lefty is Bob Bescher, whose NL base-stealing record was broken by Maury Wills. The BRTLs in the outfield are Cleon Jones and Jimmy Ryan, the only BRTL with more than 2500 hits and a .300 batting average. Currently, Doug Ault of the Toronto Blue Jays is the only active (non-pitcher) BRTL.  He has said that scouts tend to shy away from BRTLs. This is probably due to the environmental disadvantages these players are subjected to due to the non-symmetrical nature of baseball.

When pitchers are considered, we find a wider range of batting styles. For the most part, pitchers throughout baseball history have not been good hitters; indeed, for some long-time hurlers, their batting style is now known. Some-pitchers even experimented with different styles throughout  their careers. For the 90 pitchers with the most innings pitched, 1876-1977, these are the predominant batting and throwing styles: BRTR, 59; SHTR, 10; BLTR, 3; BRTL, 4; SHTL, 3; BLTL, 11. Here there is no clear-cut indication that pitchers’ batting styles are shaped by baseball’s asymmetric environment. Their jobs do not depend on their hitting.

When lifetime performance tables are examined, it is found that left-handed batters account for a greater number of outstanding totals than their proportion in the general baseball population. Roughly one-third (215 of 636) of the hitters listed above bat exclusively left-handed. Yet if the top 80 performers, 1876-1976, are examined in each of several offensive categories, it will be seen that southpaw Swingers are dominant:

 

 

BR

SH

BL

%BL

 

BR

SH

BL

%BL

Games

36

6

38

48

EBLH

41

1

38

48

At Bats

34

6

40

50

Doubles

38

5

37

46

Runs

32

6

42

52

Triples

32

3

45

56

Hits

33

6

41

51

Home Runs

48

1

31

39

Singles

30

6

44

55

RBI

40

3

37

46

Total Bases

33

5

42

52

BB

28

8

44

55

Extra Base Hits

37

4

39

49

SB (l886-on)

40

11

29

36

 

The table provides some indication that right-handed hitters maybe catching up. Home run hitting is emphasized in the modem game of baseball, and most modern baseball stadiums have fences that favor neither left- nor right-handed hitters. Lefties comprise only 31 of the top 80 homer hitters. In contrast to this is a list that rarely changes, the leading triples’ hitters. Here, lefties comprise 45 of the top 80 spots. In the future we may see a shift away from left-handed dominance in categories that do not rely too heavily on getting out of the batter’s box in a hurry.

Baseball developed in a manner favoring the very specialized skill of right-handed throwing, and the less-specialized technique of left-handed hitting. Most ball-players at all positions throw right-handed; many bat left-handed, however, and there have been very few hitters indeed who bat right and throw left. Because of the necessity for speed in throwing, there have been no regular, longtime southpaws at C, 2B, SS, or 3B in this century. The lack of ambidextrous throwers is evidenced in the fact that the rule book does not cover the situation in which a switch-pitcher faces a switch-hitter! Perhaps some day  scientists will have a better understanding of why the human population is overwhelmingly right-handed and shed more light on why baseball became the counterclockwise sport.

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