Cooperstown Confidential: The tale of Charley Lau

Mickey Hatcher had become a polarizing figure in Southern California. The Angels’ manager, Mike Scioscia, felt fierce loyalty to his batting coach, who had worked with him for the past 13 seasons. Many in the organization liked Hatcher’s sense of humor and his upbeat attitude, which helped him in developing a rapport with the team’s hitters.

Yet much of the Angels’ fan base had grown to detest Hatcher. They blamed him for the Angels’ poor offensive output in 2010 and 2011, and the continued offensive flailings this spring. Hatcher’s critics felt he made the Angels’ hitters overly aggressive, to the point that they didn’t draw enough walks and swung wildly at too many errant pitches. Hatcher came under further fire this spring when his newest star pupil, Albert Pujols, criticized the coach for revealing some information from a private meeting with the Angels’ hitters.

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Hitting coaches have become minor celebrities in recent years. Rudy Jaramillo first became known as a hitting guru during his long stint with the Rangers. Kevin Long has received praise for his work with Curtis Granderson and Derek Jeter. Merv Rettenmund was once hailed as an exceptionally good hitting coach.

But with celebrity comes high expectation, which can breed disappointment. When the hitters start to slump, the hitting coach become a convenient target. And when the slump lasts for too long, the hitting coach is sometimes terminated. That happened to Hatcher this week.

The first celebrity hitting coach I recall was Charley Lau. During the late 1970s and 1980s, he was regarded as the game’s elite batting instructor, so revered in some circles that his supporters felt he deserved to be paid as much as the manager.

After an unremarkable career as a singles-hitting backup catcher with the Tigers, Braves, Orioles and Kansas City Athletics and a relatively quiet season as Baltimore’s hitting coach in 1969, Lau came into the public consciousness as a coach with the Oakland A’s. During spring training in 1970, Lau worked extensively with Joe Rudi. Lau convinced him to change his approach at the plate. Rudi began choking up on the bat while adopting a severely closed stance with a deep crouch at the plate.

Rudi responded to the tutelage by hitting .309 in 350 at-bats. “It was,” Rudi told Sport magazine in recounting the first time he met Lau, “the turning point of my career.”

During that same season, Lau received some unwanted publicity when he became enraged with the team’s play-by-play man, the legendary Harry Caray. Not appreciating Carey’s on-air criticism of Oakland players, he nearly exchanged punches with the outspoken broadcaster on a team flight.

Then came the winter after the 1970 season. Charlie Finley had just fired John McNamara as managerduring a one-hour sitdown. Finley immediately held a press conference announcing the change. In a bizarre twist, the unpredictable owner spent much of the press conference criticizing his starting catcher, Dave Duncan. Finley knocked Duncan for a variety of reasons, in particular his living situation.

“One day I found out that Duncan was sleeping with [batting] coach Charley Lau,” exclaimed Finley, according to The Sporting News. It was an extremely poor and misleading choice of words. “By that I mean they were rooming together, sharing expenses. When I found out about this, I… asked them to break it up immediately, because as we all know, in the Army, troops don’t fraternize with officers.“

Duncan and Lau, whose firing was also announced at the press conference, had refused to comply with Finley’s order. Both men had recently separated from their wives. They had decided to cut costs by sharing an apartment, not surprising in an era when most players and coaches did not make representative salaries. Finley tried to intimate that Lau was sleeping with one of his players. It was as if Finley had intentionally used the phrase “sleeping with” as a way of falsely suggesting some romantic involvement between the player and coach.

Given the strange workings of Finley’s mind, it’s hard to know exactly what his motivation was with regard to Duncan and Lau. If Finley was somehow trying to blackball Lau and keep him out of the game, his efforts failed. Before the next season, Lau found work with the Royals.

From 1971 to 1978, except for a short stint when he was demoted by Jack McKeon, Lau served as Kansas City’s batting coach. During that time, he worked with a number of young, up-and-coming players in the Royals’ system, helping almost all become better major league hitters. The illustrious group included outfielders Amos Otis, Hal McRae and Willie Wilson, and a future Hall of Fame infielder by the name of George Brett. In 1976 alone, Brett and McRae battled each other for the American League hitting title, becoming testaments to Lau’s hitting theories.

Lau instituted the use of videotape in working with the Royals’ hitters. Long before the practice became the norm, he spent countless hours studying tape of his hitters, analyzing their strengths and weaknesses.

Brett became Lau’s most prized pupil. “After some experimentation and refinement, we came up with a stance and hitting approach for me that worked,” Brett said years later. “And little did I realize at the time what it was going to do and how it was going to change my life.”

With his stance overhauled by Lau, Brett batted .308, .333 and .312 in three of his first four seasons. Though he was considered a prize prospect, no one could have predicted that he would emerge as one of the top 10 hitting third basemen of all-time. Following his batting coach’s advice, Brett epitomized the best qualities of the Lau hitting system. When executed correctly by a player with Brett’s talent, Lau’s system worked.

Lau believed that each hitter must begin with a balanced and workable batting stance, but should feel encouraged to incorporate rhythm and movement into the stance. From there, a hitter needed to execute a profound weight shift, beginning with a firm and rigid back side and then striding forward to a firm and rigid front side.

Lau believed that the hitter must hit through the ball, with a swing free of tension. Then came the bone of contention. Many of his hitters finished their swings by releasing their top hands from the bat. Though he did not require that (a point not often understood by his critics), he encouraged them to release the top hand as a way of extending their arms. More than anything else, this characteristic became the point of criticism during the height of Lau’s popularity. The skeptics cried, “How can you hit one-handed?”

What the critics failed to understand was that the hitter released his top hand only after making contact with the ball. A hitter could actually extend the bat further with one hand, rather than holding onto the bat with both hands. To Lau’s way of thinking, extension mattered more than gripping the bat with two hands after the fact.

Lau’s philosophies remained property of the Royals through the 1978 season, when the Royals fired him. Royals management felt that Lau was converting the team’s power hitters into singles hitter. The firing upset Lau, who was already battling a problem with alcoholism. He did not remain unemployed for long. Now a free agent, he signed a lucrative multi-year contract with the Yankees.

Lau would not have the same impact with the Yankees that he did with the Royals, but a few of the Bombers did respond. Reggie Jackson had one of his best seasons in 1980, as did Oscar Gamble. Even journeymen like Rick Cerone and Uptown Bobby Brown surprised with productive offensive campaigns.

“Charley is the most scientific teacher I’ve ever seen,” said Yankee first baseman Bob Watson. “If I’d had a Charley Lau seven years ago, I’d be a much better hitter today.”

In 1981, Lau’s impact seemed to lessen as the Yankee offense fell off significantly. Of the regular players, only Dave Winfield posted an OPS of better than .800. So the Yankees allowed Lau to leave, permitting him to take his services to the White Sox, where he signed an unprecedented six-year contract.

Lau’s philosophies seemed to have more of an impact in Chicago, where he made positive strides with players like Carlton Fisk, Ron Kittle, Harold Baines and Greg Luzinski. Lau received credit for helping Kittle win the American League’s Rookie of the Year Award.

It was with the White Sox that Lau became seriously ill. Stricken with colon cancer, Lau took a leave of absence in 1983. His health took an especially bad turn in the spring of 1984. On March 18, with the Sox in the midst of spring training preparations for the new season, Lau died at the age of 50.

If not for Lau’s early death, he might have remained a batting coach through the rest of the 1980s and 1990s. He might be better known to today’s generation of fans, which generally seems unaware of his accomplishments. After all, Lau has been gone for nearly 30 years.

Since his passing, some batting coaches, like Lau disciple Walt Hriniak and former Yankee hitting coach Lou Piniella have gained some level of celebrity as hitting coaches. So has Jaramillo. But none have become the superstar that Lau was. In many ways, he remains the oracle of hitting coaches, one that we may never see the likes of again.

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Comments

  1. Ed said...

    Hey, don’t forget Terry Crowley. 

    The Crow was hitting coach for the Baltimore Orioles from 1985 through 1988, the Minnesota Twins from 1991 through 1998, and back to the Orioles from 1999 through 2010. He is now the interim bullpen coach for the O’s…. and was a heck of pinch-hitter too, with 108 career pinch hits.

    Not a celebrity batting coach, maybe, but a really good one and revered by Orioles fans.

  2. Steve Treder said...

    As the hitting coach of the Orioles in 1969, Lau’s key project was to help Mark Belanger improve on a 1968 performance which saw him hit .208 with 114 strikeouts.  Under Lau’s tutelage in ‘69, Belanger hit a career-high .287 with 54 strikeouts.

    With the A’s in 1970, along with Rudi, Lau’s other targeted player was his soon-to-be roomate, Dave Duncan.  Through 1969, in 527 major league at-bats, Duncan’s career batting average was .173, with 179 strikeouts.  Under Lau’s tutelage in ‘70, Duncan hit a career-high .259, with 38 strikeouts in 232 at-bats.

  3. BlftBucco said...

    Although not often remembered, Harry “The Hat” Walker comes to mind as a respected hitting instructor prior to Charley Lau. 

    I once remember reading a quote by Ted Williams where he blasted Lau’s hitting techniques.  Can’t remember the exact wording of it though.  Might have been about the time Lau published his book on hitting.

    Both were succesful with helping hitters even though they had differing theories.

  4. bucdaddy said...

    help Mark Belanger improve on a 1968 performance which saw him hit .208 with 114 strikeouts.  Under Lau’s tutelage in ‘69, Belanger hit a career-high .287 with 54 strikeouts.
    —-
    This is usually where I note that the rules of the game changed significantly between 1968 and 1969 in favor of the hitter (for a change) and away from the Bob Gibson 1.12 ERAs. But the rule changes were even more significant than I give them credit for if they made an .080-point difference for Mark Belanger.

    Good call, BiftBucco, I knew there was someone before Lau he was forgetting. Was it Walker who got credit for teaching Matty Alou to beat the ball into the ground and become a batting champion? I’m thinking it was.

  5. Steve Treder said...

    The league-wide change in run environment was indeed very significant from 1968 to ‘69.  But it wasn’t close to as significant as Belanger’s blossoming.

    And yes, it was Walker as manager/hitting coach of the 1966 Pirates who transformed Matty Alou, giving him a 40+-ounce bottle bat and having him choke way up on and slap and bunt his way to a .342 average, after hitting .231 for the Giants in ‘65.

  6. Edmundo said...

    Bruce, as always, a wonderful look at the past.  I can’t think of a star hitting coach before Lau either.

  7. Marc Schneider said...

    Ted Williams apparently had the same impact on Eddie Brinkman in 1969 as Lau had on Belanger.  Both were obviously light-hitting shortstops in an era when shortstops were primarily in for defense. I’m not sure if Brinkman’s increase was as much as Belanger’s but it was close.  But I don’t think either one sustained their improved offense after that one year.  I would guess that the lower mound and smaller strike zone accounted for some of the impact. 

    My guess is that the biggest thing that Williams and Lau did for Brinkman and Belanger was make them think they could be hitters.  They gave both men an approach to hitting, albeit different. I’m not sure how much attention Brinkman and Belanger paid to hitting when they were coming up; perhaps people simply assumed they couldn’t hit and never would be able to.  Probably the same with Matty Alou and Harry Walker.

  8. Steve Treder said...

    You’re correct; Brinkman under Williams had an offensive blossoming in 1969 that was nearly identical to Belanger’s.  In both cases they dramatically reduced their strikeout rate, focusing on putting the ball in play, and saw their batting averages soar.

    Interesting that their results would be so similar, given that Lau’s and Williams’s philosophies were quite different.  Lau was a preacher of contact hitting, an easy level swing, hitting it up the middle and into the gaps.  He distinctly argued against pull hitting.

    Williams, on the other hand, argued for pull hitting (for hitters with the capacity to hit for power, anyway), and even liked a slight uppercut swing to generate backspin and increase fly ball distance.  But his primary lesson, of course, wasn’t about the swing, but was all about pitch recognition and strike zone discipline, about the patience to wait for a hitter’s pitch instead of a pitcher’s pitch. Lau’s approach didn’t stress strike zone discipline nearly as much.

    At any rate, Brinkman continued to succeed under Williams in 1970.  But traded to Detroit in 1971, his batting average dropped, and by the next year he was hitting (or not hitting) just like the Brinkman of old, with a terrible batting average, and the very occasional long ball his only offensive contribution.

    Belanger, with Lau gone in 1970, saw his strikeout rate creep up and his batting average dive.  He rebounded in 1971, but then completely fell apart with the bat in ‘72.  Only in one subsequent season, 1976, did Belanger hit decently.

    I suspect you’re correct that the main impact both Lau and Williams had with these slick-fielding shortstops was to give them confidence that somebody actually believed they could hit major league pitching.  Until then, they’d succeeded entirely on the basis of their gloves, and everyone (including probably themselves) just expected them to not hit well.

  9. Bruce Markusen said...

    Lau and Williams probably didn’t agree much on hitting philosophy, but both were excellent batting instructors, which indicates that there are at least two different paths toward great hitting.

  10. butch said...

    Ted Kluszewski Was A Great Hitting Coach!! He Hit With His Muscles, BUT Taught How To Hit With The Wrists, Like Hank Aaron Hit!!

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