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. \o7 Gauche \f7 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.