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Original Issue

With mirrors, flat gloves and sawed-up bats

A Thomas Edison complex has led to fun, profit and coaching success for Florida State's Danny Litwhiler

Danny Litwhiler was a good major league ballplayer for more than a decade. Philadelphians may recall that he was the Phillie who fielded 1.000, the first major league outfielder ever to go through an entire season without making an error. Sportswriters remember him for a more special reason—after Litwhiler completed 10 years in the majors he gave a bottle of whisky to the sports-writers in each of the cities in which he played as a thank-you for the stories they had written about him. If the errorless season wasn't enough to make him unique among ballplayers, the whisky was.

A decade and more later, Litwhiler remains unique. A college graduate who taught school in the off season during his major league career, he was named head baseball coach at Florida State University in Tallahassee in 1955. In seven of his nine seasons, Florida State has made the NCAA district playoffs and twice has gone on to the college world series at Omaha. But success can be routine. What has brought Litwhiler the Coach to attention are his novel methods of teaching baseball.

Danny is a gadget man, an improver, an inventor. He is always fiddling with something to see if he can't make it work better, or wondering if he did this that way what would happen, and would it be good. If Litwhiler had lived a hundred years ago he would have invented the telephone, the telegraph and the Murphy bed. He has developed or adapted training aids and coaching techniques that include the flat glove, the miniature ball, the bongo board and the eye patch, not to mention bat-throwing and isometric pitching and bat-swinging exercises. He has devised a machine that smooths out and waters down an infield in less time than it takes a ground crew to do it (the Kansas City Athletics liked this gadget so much that they traded him an expensive major league infield tarpaulin for it). He sells a Tallahassee-made product that dries out wet baseballs and footballs in seconds and can put a rain-soaked infield in playing condition in less than an hour. He has written a text book on baseball {Baseball Coach's Guide to Drills and Skills—Prentice-Hall) and has prepared a glossary of baseball terms in four languages (English, Dutch, Italian and Spanish) for State Department use. He has run baseball clinics for the State Department in Europe and the Caribbean and this summer will spend six weeks in Central America on another such tour. He has a pretty wife, five handsome children and many friends. (A boys' baseball league in Tallahassee is called the Litwhiler League, much to his wife's amusement. "The Babe Ruth League and the Litwhiler League," she says. "Doesn't it sound wonderful?" Danny Litwhiler just grins.)

Visiting Litwhiler is like walking through a museum with its curator. Everything has a story, and everything becomes more fascinating as it is explained. Here is Danny's five-man batting cage. When he arrived at Florida State there was no batting cage at all, but a local men's club ran a benefit to raise money to build one. The result was a standard enclosed cage, long enough for a pitcher's mound at one end and a home plate at the other. But it bothered Danny's Pennsylvania Dutch soul because it seemed such a waste, all that space and only two players in it at a time. He divided the cage into five sections, put in five home plates and turned the batters so that they were hitting along the short axis of the cage instead of the long one. He put five pitcher's mounds outside the cage at the proper distance from the home plates and cut holes about the size of a strike zone in the side of the cage. Now five pitchers can throw through the holes to five batters simultaneously. The balls the batters hit are contained in the cage, except those they hit straight back through the holes. From Ty Cobb on down, batters have been told that the best way to sharpen their timing is to try to hit the ball back to the pitcher. Litwhiler's batters get their kicks when they hit through the holes and out of the cage. Thus, with no nagging from their coaches, they automatically try to do the proper thing—hit line drives up the middle.

Here is Danny's mirror, a startling thing to see on a baseball field. Litwhiler remembered that Ted Williams used to swing a bat in front of a hotel bedroom mirror to detect flaws in his swing. Pitchers cannot do the same thing because they cannot get a true idea of their pitching motion without actually throwing a ball. And you can't throw a ball at a mirror. Litwhiler remembered the TV commercial about the invisible shield that stopped baseballs and golf balls, and he remembered the glass window in the astronauts' space capsule which obviously had to withstand great pressure. He asked Pittsburgh Plate Glass if they could make what he had in mind. Hmmm, said PPG, and shortly Litwhiler had a piece of clear, hard glass six feet high, three feet wide and three quarters of an inch thick. A mirror manufacturer coated the glass to turn it into a mirror, and Danny added a felt-and-plywood backing, framed it and mounted it on a heavy iron stand. Then he threw a baseball at it. The ball bounced off as though it had hit concrete.

Baseballs have been bouncing off the mirror for two seasons now and it sparkles on, untroubled, unscratched, un-marred. Litwhiler uses the mirror to show his pitchers how they can telegraph a curve or a fast ball, how they can fall off balance as they deliver a pitch, how they can develop a rhythmic sameness to their pitching motion. He turns them sideways and has them practice pick-off moves to the bases. The pitchers see themselves as the batter or base runner sees them, and they begin to understand what they are doing and why.

Here is Danny's bunting bat, a regular bat that is sliced in half lengthwise, except for the handle, for use in bunting practice. An ellipse cut out of the bottom between the handle and what remains of the hitting surface reminds the batter to keep his hands away from the business end of the bat when he bunts. The half-watermelon hitting surface makes the batter lift the bat and bunt down at the ball, which is the proper way to do it. (If you bunt with the top half of a regular bat you pop up. If you bunt with the front surface the bunt rebounds too quickly to the infield and invites a double play.)

Litwhiler is always asking, always learning. This spring he went down to the training camps and asked Luke Appling, a recognized genius at hitting to the opposite field, how he did it. "Easy," Appling said. "You stand against a fence and swing." Appling stood no more than a foot or so from the side of a batting cage, facing it, and swung his bat hard. His hands had to stay close to his chest as he swung so that the bat would not hit the cage. When he tried it away from the cage his hands stayed close to his chest and his wrists did not break in the swing of the bat until they were in front of his body. Litwhiler tried it when he got back to Florida State and then took batting practice with his players. "I hit the ball on a line over the scoreboard in right field," Danny says. "I never in my life hit a ball like that to right, not even in the majors." Now the Appling Technique for Opposite Field Hitting is a part of the Litwhiler coaching method.

With his intelligence, his years of working with young players, his extraordinary knowledge of baseball, his major league experience, his humor, his stories, his sense of public relations, Litwhiler would be an ideal manager for a major league team. He was asked what he would do if he were offered such a job. "Oh, I wouldn't want to leave here," he said. "I like this college atmosphere. It's a good way to live." He smiled. "Of course, I could ask the president of the university for a leave of absence, to get my doctorate in baseball. Then I could come back here after I got fired."


UNBREAKABLE MIRROR reflects Danny Litwhiler (right) and star Florida State Pitcher Al Beccacio, whose legs appear in foreground.