With the Oakland A’s Pat Venditte getting so much attention this spring, you’d think it was the first time that an ambidextrous pitcher came close to making the major leagues. It would go along with Oakland’s reputation as a quirky organization. But simple research shows that Venditte merely is the most recently successful in a long line of ambidextrous pitchers, although few have gotten to The Show.
Switch-pitching is not unheard of at lower levels. Friends of mine remember seeing former New York Yankees great (curiously, the team that drafted Venditte) and current Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly as a youth in Indiana, when he threw right-handed one day and left-handed the next. A Google search reveals somewhere every year a “unique” guy who can throw with both hands. There’s even a website devoted to the phenomena as if they are UFO sightings.
But the most amazing article I found on switch-pitching was written 100 years ago this month and published in the New York Times. It mentions several players not listed in the switch pitching website– including, and I’m quoting here, “the famous Larry Corcoran,” as one of a handful of players who threw with both arms.
Most of the players mentioned in the Times article injured one arm and began throwing with the other (including the “famous Corcoran”), but the first man, Owen Keenan, pulled a Mattingly for the Youngstown, Ohio team in 1885 by throwing both ends of a July 4th doubleheader and winning both, first as a lefty and then as a righty. The article concludes that “the ambidextrous hurler is more or less a myth. The pitching game is too strenuous for any kind of an arm but the good natural wing.”
The idea of changing throwing hands every batter, as Venditte has done, did not occur to those players and indeed only came about in this era of specialization. The only pitcher to throw with both hands in the same MLB game is Greg Harris of the Montreal Expos, who did it once in 1995 in the final game of his career.
The era of specialization and Venditte’s desire to get the best matchup has even brought about a special rule. One night in the minor leagues Venditte saw the batter stepping in one side of the box and flipped his glove to the other side. The batter, confident in his switch-hitting abilities, stepped to the other box. Venditte changed glove hands. The batter changed boxes. This went on for several minutes and is fascinating to watch on YouTube. After this incident, a rule was passed saying that the pitcher cannot change throwing hands in the middle of an at-bat. I’m serious when I say “after this incident.” The rule was adopted the next day. Once a pitcher declares and steps on the rubber, he is a righty or a lefty for that entire sequence, and the batter can then choose his side. It is known as the Venditte rule.
The only exception is if the pitcher hurts his arm in the at bat for one reason or another. But then he is forbidden from using that arm for the rest of the game. It’s similar to replacing hurt players in the post-season. Sure, you can do that, but you forfeit the hurt player for the rest of the series. It’s a Rodney Dangerfield/Al Czervik Caddyshack kind of thing.
The idea of throwing with both hands has been around for as long as people have been throwing things. If Venditte does finally make the major leagues with the A’s, and it seems likely to happen, then perhaps it will signal a new era of specialization, meaning that teams won’t just have a LOOGY, (Lefty One-Out GuY) but a BHOOGY (Both Hands One-Out GuY).
I only hope that when Venditte makes his major league debut, the A’s make sure Greg Harris is there. If one of Owen Keenan’s descendants could be found that would take the cake. With both hands. Better have some wings there as well.