Year-Round Strength/Conditioning Training Add Up To More Long Balls
While some of baseball’s most accomplished stars attained greatness despite having less-than-great eating habits and others achieved legendary status despite lackadaisical fitness routines; today’s major league diamond dwellers know that eating smart and regular workouts can help them avoid injury and achieve their ultimate potential.
During the early part of his career with the Boston Red Sox, “The Babe” Babe Ruth scarfed down four porterhouse steaks, eight hot dogs and eight sodas one day at Coney Island. After an embarrassing 1925 season, most observers thought the hard-living 30-year-old was permanently washed up. Instead, The Bambino hired a personal trainer and worked out in a gym for the next ten winters, in the course of which he broke his own record with 60 homers in 1927. But Ruth’s stupendous statistics didn’t convince lesser players, who refused to lift anything heavier than a beer mug.
Mickey Mantle preferred bar stools to barbells. The Mick’s off-season exercise regimen consisted of going hunting and playing cards with his friends.
Boston Red Sox great Ted Williams reportedly showed up for 1950’s Spring Training looking “as fit as an Indian buck.” According to reports, after a winter out of doors, including a month of lazy fishing at the edge of the Florida Everglades, he was tanned to a light mahogany. His brownish green eyes were clear and sharp, his face lean, the big hands that wrapped around the handle of his 34-oz. Louisville Slugger were calloused and hard. He had 198 lbs., mostly well-trained muscle, tucked away on his 6 ft. 3¾ in. frame. He expected, he conceded, "to have a pretty good year."
Harmon Killebrew gained his phenomenal strength as the unintended benefit of off-season manual labor and farm work. Nicknamed “The Killer” he murdered American League pitching for over twenty seasons. But despite his muscular body and ability to terrify opposing hurlers, Harmon Killebrew was a mild-mannered gentleman, who never drank and never was thrown out of a baseball game. In 1954, when he was seen playing in a pick-up baseball contest his raw power so impressed a scout for the Washington Senators that he offered him a $30,000 bonus to sign with them, a huge amount at the time. The scout, Ossie Bluege, recalled once about going to see Harmon Killebrew play. "He hit line drives that put the opposition in jeopardy. And I don't mean infielders, I mean outfielders.”
The same is true of “The Beast” Jimmy Foxx. An incredibly muscular specimen at an early age as a result of countless hours of laboring on the family's farm, the180-pound Foxx stood just under six feet and had a chest expansion of 6½ inches. Like a majority of the Big League players, he was a small town boy (Sudlersville, Md.) "I worked on a farm," he says, "and I am glad of it. Farmer boys are stronger than city boys. When I was 12 I could cut corn all day, help in the wheat fields, swing 200-pound bags of phosphate off a platform into a wagon,” he was quoted as saying. “We had games on the farm to test strength and grip. A fellow had to plant both feet in half a barrel of wheat and then pick up two bushels of wheat or corn and balance them on his shoulders. Another trick was to lift a 200-pound keg of nails without letting the keg touch your body. I could do that easily but I never realized then it was helping me train for the Big Leagues."
Double XX, as he was also known, was able to translate his physical fitness into athletic prowess. He set local records in track events and despite his brawny physique; he was very fast as a runner enjoyed He stayed fit throughout his career, despite not following a specific routine other than playing baseball. During the off-season Foxx enjoyed hunting and fishing.
Honorary 500 Home Run Club® member Jackie Robinson wasn’t just the first African American Major League Player, he was also an amazing hitter. As a rookie he was described as “a well-muscled, pigeontoed, 28-year-old from Pasadena, Calif., who, along with Glenn Davis and Babe Didrikson Zaharias, was one of the great all-round athletes of his day.”
A husky (180 lbs., 5 ft. 11 in), smooth-muscled athlete with a broad, guileless face, Willie Mays played baseball with a boy's glee, a pro's sureness and a champion's flair. On the ball diamond, he was always in a hurry; he never walked when there is room to run, even if only from bench to field or field to shower room. In the broad domain of centerfield, Mays covered ground with limber-legged speed to pull down balls tagged with the promise of extra bases. He threw from center with a zip and an aim that brought chagrin to the National League's brashest base runners. "He's thrown men out at first like he was a shortstop," said the Giants' captain and shortstop, Alvin Dark. "He nails 'em at home like he was throwing from second."
Few contemporary players are graced with the natural power and raw strength of Ruth, Foxx, Mantle or Killebrew, but one such player is 500 Home Run Club® candidate Jim Thome, who exhibited his awesome slugging abilities with the 2005 World Champion Chicago White Sox. Although his body doesn't show it, Thome admits he likes a good meal more than weightlifting: “I eat steak and eggs, and I don't lift. My wife's a good cook."
In 1997, “Big Mac” Mark McGwire hit a (then) career-high 52 home runs and might have challenged Roger Maris' single-season mark of 61 had injuries not limited him to 130 games. Frusrated by his injury plagued season, the St. Louis Cardinal’s first baseman re-dedicated himself to staying healthy by eating healthy and working out the following year. As a result, he shattered Maris’ record the very next year by hitting 70 homers in 1998.
Fellow 500 HRC member, Chicago Cub star Sammy Sosa also surpassed Maris’ mark when he hit 66 homes that very same year in a “down to the wire” homerun race with McGwire that captivated the attention and admiration of fans worldwide.
At the time, McGwire and Sosa were among the game's most dedicated weight lifters and widely regarded as the strongest men in the majors. However, McGwire says it's hard to say how much weightlifting improved his power over the years; he hit 49 home runs as a rookie in 1987, long before he became a year-round lifter in '91. "I don't know how much it's helped. That comes more from hard work, not weightlifting," he says. "But it does help your confidence. When you look good, you feel better about yourself."
McGwire says the greatest benefit of year-round work out routines is the ability to stay healthy and sustain adequate strength during the second half of the year and, indeed, many fitness programs are geared as much toward endurance as muscle growth. Many players add extra muscle in the off-season, figuring they'll lose it over six grueling months of travel and irregular eating.
Others aren't quite as sold on weight work. Ken Griffey Jr., eschews lifting in favor of a program emphasizing flexibility and leg strength. According to Jr., bat speed is directly related to hand strength. And one of the best hand-strengthening exercises is to lay out a newspaper and scrunch it up one sheet at a time, as I'm doing at right. Sounds easy, but it isn't.
And Braves slugger Fred McGriff, who isn’t in the 500 Home Run Club®but fell just shy with 493 career dingers says that during his playing days lifting consisted of little more than light work with Nautilus equipment in the off-season. McGriff said he owed much of his natural strength to working as a vendor at Tampa Stadium as a kid, hoisting crates of Cokes through the grandstands. "To keep a smooth swing, you have to stay loose and limber," McGriff says. "It's great to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but it's tough to hit a baseball when you're that muscular and thick.
McGriff points to the amazing success of “Mr. Cub” Ernie Banks, who remained slim and athletic while relying on quick wrists and a perfect technique to send balls sailing out out of Wrigley Field’s friendly confines onto Waveland and Sheffield Avenues. No shortstop has ever hit more home runs than Ernie Banks and none has ever made it look so effortless,” McGriff said.
“Mr. October” Reggie Jackson was a remarkable example of a player who had both tremendous ability and unwavering determination to achieve greatness. “True success is one of our greatest needs. Success is not something you stumble into or come by accident,” Jackson was quoted as saying after the 1977 World Series, when he became the only player to hit five home runs during a single World Series, including three homers on three consecutive swings off three different Los Angeles pitchers in the sixth and deciding game of the World Series. “Success is something you must sincerely prepare for day in and day out, game after game, season after season,” he explained.
He looks like the champ's champ. At 6 ft. and 200 lbs., he is built like a bull, with musculature that would make Atlas envious. He puts his 17-in. biceps. 27-in. thighs and 36-oz. bat to good use. When fellow 500 Home Run Club® member Ted Williams first watched Jackson swing, he said, "He's the most natural hitter I've ever seen." Williams, the hitter's hitter, has not been proved wrong.
In 1969, his second full year in the majors, Jackson hit 47 home runs. He hammered several balls more than 500 feet. In streak hitting, Jackson is unrivaled today. He has clubbed eight home runs in six days, accounted for ten runs batted in in one game and hit .630 over a seven-game stretch. As of last week, Jackson had a league-leading 13 home runs, 37 RBls and was batting .397—second in the A.L. In one win over Minnesota last week, Jackson was a one-man wild bunch, knocking in five of the A's seven runs with a homer, double and single.
“I remember in the '70s, when I was playing, seeing Reggie Jackson bench-pressing 300 pounds before a game over in Oakland," recalls ex-L.A. Dodger / New York Mets Manager Bobby Valentine. "And I thought that was quite taboo because I grew up being told weights were not good for baseball players because they could cause you to be muscle bound and slow your reflexes."
As it turns out, Jackson was almost 30 years ahead of his time.
Almost all starting Major League ballplayers have every-day conditioning coaches to design and schedule workouts for their individual physiques as well as baseball’s special biomechanical demands. The hours-long workouts might utilize scientifically-proven techniques including ballistic stretching, aerobic dance, variable resistance exercises, and isometrics. Even elements from yoga and the martial arts. All along, full-time trainers with physiology degrees utilize state-of-the-art workout equipment while monitoring ballplayers for muscle mass and flexibility When the final pitch is pitched, most Major League ballplayers’ commitment extends well into the so-called ‘off’ season.
Today’s major leaguers know that solid methods of strength training and conditioning will help them swing the bat harder and hit the ball farther. And of course, during a long-season, the well-conditioned player will less likely succumb to injuries, allowing him to play his best for the whole season. It is the player who works smart, not just hard, who succeeds in the game of baseball year after year.