This may be the season of the lively ball, but in Cincinnati it is much more the year of the lively bat. The stick in question is a two-pound, three-ounce black bludgeon with a thin handle and a thick, forbidding barrel. It belongs to the Reds' Leftfielder George Foster, who at the end of last week had struck 46 homers, driven in 133 runs and produced a .313 batting average with it. There was' not a bat in baseball with statistics close to those.
Although hitting and scoring have increased significantly in both leagues this season, individual sluggers—except for Foster—have not been fattening their totals all that much. His imposing numbers leave him virtually without competition for the major league titles in home runs and runs batted in. His nearest pursuers are Boston's Jim Rice with 38 homers, and Philadelphia's Greg Luzinski with 119 RBIs. That would seem to indicate that Foster's prodigious performance has been less the result of a juicier ball than of the singular blend of strength and skill with which he swings his black bat.
Just how formidable Foster has been is best shown by the company he may soon be keeping. Only four National Leaguers—Hack Wilson, Johnny Mize, Ralph Kiner (twice) and Willie Mays, who was the last in 1965—have hit 50 home runs in a season, and only six—Rogers Hornsby, Wilson (twice), Mel Ott, Chuck Klein, Joe Medwick and, most recently, Tommy Davis in 1962—have driven in 150 runs. Wilson of the Cubs was the only one of them to accomplish both feats in the same season (1930). At his present pace, Foster is almost certain to hit 50 or more homers, and he has a good shot at 150 RBIs.
With other sluggers far behind him and the Reds all but out of the race in the National League West, Foster is like a record-seeking distance runner who has lapped the field. He must run the rest of his race against the clock—or, in this case, the calendar. But Foster claims that he will not be concentrating on statistics between now and Oct. 2. He believes his preoccupation with them sent him into a tailspin at the close of last season, when he felt he needed to win the Triple Crown to become the National League's Most Valuable Player. As a result, he pressed too hard during the final month and finished with nothing but the RBI title. He doesn't have that problem this year; he could stop hitting today and still be the front-runner for the MVP award. Only a second-place finish by the Reds, a virtual certainty because they were 11½ games behind the Dodgers at the close of last week, stands in his way. The baseball writers who select the MVP usually lean to the star of a championship club.
"I get my satisfaction from within," Foster says. "If it doesn't happen this year, it could happen next year or the year after that. Some players make the mistake of setting limits on themselves. They hit 30 homers, and they're happy about it. But I'm not that way. I'm not elated by what I have done this year, because I don't know what I'm really capable of."
But while Foster is attempting to keep calm, his teammates, including Pete Rose, Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan, who are not easily impressed, are agog over his performance. "George is bleeping awesome," says Rose. "He makes me feel inadequate," says Bench. "I've never seen anything like this," says Morgan. No one on the Reds has. Though three of them have been MVPs in recent seasons, none has had a season to match Foster's. In an April game against Atlanta he had two home runs, seven RBIs and scored five runs. During a 14-game stretch in June he drove in 30 runs. He has hit two or more homers in eight games. Only once has he gone as many as three games without a hit. Foster never cools off, he merely simmers.
It took a few years for the pot to come to a full boil. As recently as 1973 Foster hit only .262 with 15 home runs in Indianapolis. He did not become a big league regular until two years ago, when Rose moved to third base so the 26-year-old Foster could play left field. "I could've told them to go to hell when they asked me to do it," says Rose, "but I felt George would help the team." The rest, as they say, is history. The Reds won the World Series in '75 and '76 with Foster hitting .300 and .306 and 23 and 29 home runs. This season he has improved so dramatically that Manager Sparky Anderson says, "Bench, Rose and Morgan are great players, but George has reached the point where he doesn't have to take a backseat to anyone. He's coming up to No. 1 fast."
Rose understands this better than most. Of the crowd reaction during recent batting practices, he says, "I used to think people cheered me pretty good when I went up to hit, but you should hear the excitement George causes now when he steps into the cage."
Although a proven .300 hitter, Foster is far better known for his slugging. "His homers are spectacular," says Bench, perhaps recalling Foster's two 450-foot blasts to the opposite field this June in Philadelphia. No other right-handed batter has ever hit even one like that at the Vet. "When he hits one, there's no doubt. It's just a matter of waiting for it to come down," says Ted Kluszewski, the Cincy batting coach who was himself a big bopper. "Foster can call on a dual source of power. Guys like me hit home runs with brute strength. Others like Henry Aaron did it with quick hands. George has both."
Part of Foster's advantage may be his body structure. He is proportioned like a heavyweight through the chest and shoulders, the better for those Kluszewskian muscle shots, but slims down to a 31-inch waist and narrow hips, which helps him get his body around quickly for those Aaronian wrist clouts. In fact, Foster is built like his top-heavy bat. Give the bat a lantern jaw and long mutton-chops and you would have real trouble telling the two apart.
But physical assets are only one of the reasons for Foster's success. Few players have his ability to adjust their stances to different kinds of pitching. He crouches low against a sinkerballer, stands erect against a pitcher who throws higher deliveries and moves deep in the box against a fastballer. Like most good hitters, he has learned to swing slightly down on the ball. Perhaps most important is his attitude. "In the long run I'm different from other players because of my inner strength," Foster says. "I'll never lose my dedication." Or, as Rose puts it, "George has way more than average pride."
This pride can express itself in unusual ways, including Foster's reluctance to steal bases. Anderson believes that this may prevent him from becoming one of the game's elite.
"George has reached the point where he needs to ask himself, 'How great do I want to be?' " says Anderson. "He's totally conquered the hitting part of baseball, but I want him to become a more complete player. If he wants to, he can become a well-rounded star like Aaron, Mays and Clemente. And one of the most important things he's going to have to do is be more outgoing on the bases. He should be stealing 40 a year."
Foster has stolen only five bases this season. "To do something well you have to have confidence in it," he says. "I don't relax when I get the steal sign; I'm thinking about the possibility of getting hurt or worrying that the other team has stolen the sign and knows I'm running. If I can get to the base without sliding, fine." Pride, apparently, doth go before a fall.
Dirty uniform or not, Bench is willing to grant Foster superstar status right now, but he does not think Foster will be accorded that distinction outside of Cincinnati unless he opens up—not on the base paths but in the clubhouse. "On the field George is of superstar quality," says Bench. "The players are aware of this, even if the fans aren't. Public relations have a lot to do with making a player a star. Recognition has come late for him, and he is just starting to break through the aura that surrounds some of the other players on the team. George isn't as outgoing as some of us, so he doesn't always get as much attention as he should."
This is why you are never likely to see Foster on television telling America that a man wants to smell like a man. He is shy and reserved and has little use for the glamour that comes with being a successful athlete. While Bench signs autographs and joshes with strangers, Rose makes his TV commercials and Morgan keeps his mouth motoring, Foster quietly goes his own way. And his path does not lead to any bars. He spends much of his spare time reading the Bible.
"George is not a sinner like the rest of us," says Bench. "You want to know who he took to Hawaii for that Superstars TV show?" says Rose incredulously. "His mother!" Says Morgan, "A man with George's good habits should hit 50 home runs."
All of which does not mean that Foster is humorless. Recently he has taken to explaining that his home-run output has increased "because balls that used to bounce off the walls are now bouncing off the seats." His black bat, he once proclaimed, was intended to integrate the bat rack. That may have been true, but these days it is segregating Foster from the rest of the hitters. They have been relegated to a class that is definitely separate, but certainly not equal to the one to which Foster belongs.
Foster is almost sure to become the first hitter since Willie Mays in 1965 to blast 50 home runs.