Hook slide has gone by the wayside
Wills popularized evasive maneuver that Robinson made famous
Master of the hook slide, Maury Wills revolutionized baseball in 1962 with a record 104 stolen bases, exceeding the total of every team in the Majors except his Dodgers.
The diminutive shortstop's National League Most Valuable Player Award was notable in that teammate Tommy Davis, Willie Mays and Frank Robinson all produced huge, MVP-worthy seasons.
Ty Cobb, whose record 96 steals in 1915 had endured for 47 years, inadvertently had a voice in Wills' remarkable ascension to stardom after spending 8 1/2 seasons riding Minor League buses.
"My last game in the Minors [for Triple-A Spokane in 1959] was in Phoenix," Wills recalled. "I had a good game, stole two bases. Flying the next day to Milwaukee [for his June 5 debut against the Braves], I picked up a newspaper -- you always want to read about your good games -- and there was a quote in the story from Ty Cobb. He'd been at the game, and he said he liked the way I slid. He said it was the same slide he used.
"When I had a chance, I looked at some film of him sliding, and he was right. We had almost exactly the same slide. That meant a lot to me, having Ty Cobb, the legend, compliment me as I was going to play my first Major League game."
Like Cobb, who was famous for coming in spikes high and taking out infielders, Wills perfected the hook slide, pulling his body away from the potential tag and clipping the corner of the bag. It is rarely seen now, and even when you think you're seeing one, it's not necessarily the real article.
"It's usually a guy trying to avoid a tag, and it just looks like a hook slide," said Davey Lopes, who succeeded Wills as the Dodgers' leadoff catalyst, making good use of his wheels on the basepaths. "A real hook slide is hard to do, very hard. You just don't see it any more.
"Maury used to fade away with his hook slide, and he did it from both sides. More guys did it in the old days. Jackie Robinson used to hook slide. I never even tried it. I'd have broken an ankle the way I slide -- late, straight and hard."
Wills spent years perfecting his hook slide, reaching the Majors at 26.
"I'd get down low and give them nothing," Wills said. "They'd reach down, and I'd have my foot on the corner of the bag."
Wills was caught stealing only 13 times in 1962. He paid a tab physically with severe bruising in his legs, resorting at times to a rare headfirst slide to spare further pain.
"They'd have brought a knee down and broken my collarbone," he said, when asked why he so rarely went headfirst.
In a way, Jackie Robinson made the hook slide famous. He used it frequently to avoid tags.
"Jackie Robinson made this slide," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said during Spring Training, after his second baseman, Neil Walker, scored a run with a hook slide. "It was the Jackie Robinson hook slide for years, and then it disappeared and went the way of the dinosaurs."
Pete Rose's famous crunching of Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game was a hit, not a slide. No one approached Robinson's hook slide for impact until Boston's Dave Roberts went headfirst into second base in Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series.
After Roberts narrowly beat the throw, the Red Sox rallied to stay alive. The rest is hysteria, New England style.
The game is constantly evolving, with changes both subtle and dramatic. Nowhere is this more evident than in the art of sliding, where the feet are yielding increasingly to extended arms and full-body landings.
"All these guys know what to do now is headfirst slides," said Lopes, first-base coach of the Dodgers and arguably the game's most respected authority on baserunning. "I'd say 90 out of 100 are headfirst. That's how the game's progressed."
Rickey Henderson, the man most directly responsible for popularizing the headfirst slide, was one of a kind.
"The Man of Steal," as he came to be known as the game's all-time base thief, was more than a game-changer as the greatest leadoff man in history. He was the first to make consistent use of the headfirst slide, his flamboyance reaching into cities, towns and villages across the land.
"Rickey was my favorite player growing up -- how else was I going to slide?" said Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, one of the game's most consistently effective basestealers. "I'd say I go in headfirst about 90 percent of the time. I feel like I get there faster that way."
Chase Headley, the Padres' third baseman, keeps telling himself to slide feetfirst after missing 39 games last season with a fractured left pinkie, the result of a headfirst slide. But his body doesn't always listen and cooperate.
"It's such an instinctual thing, you don't think about it," Headley said. "I'm trying to make an effort to go feet first, but sliding feet first is even harder on your body, in my experience. I actually feel it's less wear and tear with the headfirst slide when you execute it right."
Headley recognizes the difficulty in mastering the hook slide, but questions how effective it is.
"You'd think, logically, that you'd want to get your body to the bag with the hand [headfirst] or with your leg on the straight-in slide," he said. "That's the most direct path."
There is a clear consensus that sliding headfirst into home is risky business. The old-school method is to drive through the catcher's shin guards hard, feetfirst.
Increasingly popular is the slide-by maneuver. The runner swipes the plate with a hand as he hurls himself, feet first, through the batter's box.
"I've been using that, like a lot of guys," the Angels' Torii Hunter said. "You don't give the catcher anything to tag.
"I still prefer sliding feetfirst. If I go headfirst, it's going to be at second. The third baseman can drop his knee in front of the bag and block you."
Rangers superstar Josh Hamilton lost 36 games early in the 2011 season with a non-displaced fracture of the humerus bone near the right shoulder. It came as the result of a headlong slide into home plate on April 12 at Detroit. It bothered him, to varying degrees, all season.
Sure enough, there was Hamilton, early this season, going headfirst into first base trying to beat a throw. After management expressed its displeasure, Hamilton visibly halted another headfirst dive into first and stayed upright through the bag, grinning as he headed to the dugout.
Point made, point taken.
Wills was caught stealing only 13 times when he made 104 heists in 1962. He paid a tab physically with severe bruising in his legs, resorting at times to a headfirst slide to spare further pain.
Asked why he so rarely went in headfirst, Wills said: "They'd have brought a knee down and broken my collarbone."
Wills, employed by the Dodgers at age 79, climbs into uniform and teaches young players how to slide, old-school style, in Spring Training.
"You'll see guys get it right, sliding comfortably feetfirst," Wills said. "Then they get in a game and go back to headfirst."
One of his pet students, Dee Gordon, is trying to erase a mental block against sliding feetfirst.
"I tried it and got thrown out," Gordon said. "Headfirst just feels natural for me. But I know it can be dangerous."
Henderson was 23 when he smashed Lou Brock's stolen base record with 130 in 1982. Lopes had seen Omar Moreno and Frank Taveras slide headfirst for the Pirates several years before Henderson made it popular.
"Rickey slid feetfirst and headfirst, whatever felt right," said Lopes, his teammate in Oakland. "Rickey was a special case, just so strong. I never saw him get hurt sliding.
"Moreno and Taveras were the first speed guys I recall going in headfirst in the late '70s. Brock slid like I did -- late and hard. The quickest route is straight to the bag."
Rose also had a penchant for flying on his chest, dirt flying, into bases. In Lopes' view, "Charlie Hustle" did that "because he couldn't run."
It is Lopes' contention that sliding headfirst does not provide the split-second advantage many players believe it does.
"You watch a lot of headfirst slides, and they're very long," Lopes said. "If I'm getting one more stride in going feetfirst, I'm going to get there faster.
"It's a matter of what you find comfortable. But I will say this: if you continue to do headfirst slides, it's likely going to come back to bite you in the butt."
What pains Lopes is watching kids with undeveloped bodies emulating their heroes in sliding headfirst -- dangerously so.
"Look at all the injuries to young kids sliding headfirst before their bodies are mature enough to handle it," Lopes said. "There have been kids paralyzed doing it. That's the thing that worries me, kids copying the big leaguers and getting seriously hurt."
An Oakland native who attended Encinal High School in nearby Alameda, Rollins was drawn to Henderson.
"Rickey changed everything," Rollins, the 2007 NL MVP, said. "His impact was tremendous on young kids playing the game. When I started playing, I was feet first. I didn't go headfirst until high school.
"If you think about it, it just makes sense that going in headfirst, hand extended, is the quickest, most direct way to get there. In the sprints at a track meet, you don't see guys going into the tape feet first, do you?"
If you're old school, you probably believe that if it was good enough for Cobb, Robinson, Wills and Brock, sliding feet first is the way to go.
If you're new school, you most likely bow to the Cooperstown shrine of Rickey Henderson and dive in headfirst.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.