#TBT: The origins of the shift

So you've probably heard that back in the day Cleveland Indians manager Lou Boudreau shifted against Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams, moving his second baseman out to shallow right field and moving his third baseman to the other side of second base. Pretty much what we see today.

I'd always thought Boudreau was the first manager to shift against Williams. But then I read this on thenationalpastime.com, from July 23, 1941:

"Although Lou Boudreau is usually credited for implementing the shift on pull-hitter Ted Williams, White Sox manager Jimmy Dykes becomes the first to employ the defensive alignment against the Red Sox outfielder, who foils the plan when he goes 2-for-5, including a double, in Boston's 10-4 loss to the Pale Hose at Fenway Park. The Chicago skipper will abandon the strategy when 'the Kid' collects four hits in ten at bats in the two-game series."

I don't know the sourcing on that, but it's interesting that history has remembered the Boudreau shift but not the Dykes one. Ben Bradlee Jr.'s biography of Williams, "The Kid," also mentions the Dykes shift, although it wasn't quite as extreme as Boudreau's, with the third baseman playing where the shortstop normally plays. Bradlee's book quotes Williams as yelling, "Dykes, you crazy son of a bitch, what the hell are you doing?" upon seeing the shift. Bradlee includes footnotes, and he got that anecdote from Mike Vaccaro's "1941." Vaccaro's book doesn't include footnotes, so I'm not sure of his sourcing.

Anyway, it appears Jimmy Dykes had the first shift on Williams, on this date in 1941.

I recently heard MLB Radio play an old segment from "This Week in Baseball." Mel Allen talked about another kind of shift Kansas City Royals manager Whitey Herzog employed against Jim Rice, another Red Sox slugger, in May 1978.

Rice entered the series hitting .364/.394/.703 and had gone 16-for-29 with eight extra-base hits in his previous seven games. So, umm, he was pretty hot.

Herzog's idea? Four outfielders! And not just a fourth outfielder with an infielder playing deep, but four outfielders aligned like a softball team, fanned out across the outfield. For this one, we have evidence:

Herzog used the shift twice in the first game of the series on May 8. Plate umpire Mike Reilly was so confused he called time to count the Royals' defensive players, making sure Herzog hadn't snuck an extra fielder into the game. Rice asked, "Is that legal?"

"I've been looking at the box scores in the paper and seeing how he's hitting the ball," Herzog would say. "I was going to do it in the first inning and didn't. Then after that double I said, 'That’s it.'"

Rice flied out and then reached when an infield popup fell for a hit. "It didn't bother me," Rice said. "No matter what they do, they can only put nine guys on the field."

The next night, Herzog used the shift twice more and Rice singled and flied out, before hitting a game-winning home run in the seventh inning with a runner out.

On May 14, Thomas Boswell wrote a piece in the Washington Post on Rice. It began, "Boston Red Sox slugger Jim Rice was abruptly introduced last week to one of the oldest, yet most currently fashionable strategies in baseball -- the drastic defensive shift."

Boswell continues:

"Since the days when Connie Mack stationed his players with a subtle motion of his scorecard, every conscientious team has 'studied the hitters' and considered defensive positioning an art.

"But in recent years, it has also become a science, and a surprisingly unpredictable one.

"'The Rice Shift is an eye-catching version of what many teams are doing,' said Ray Miller, Baltimore pitching coach. 'We chart what every pitch is, where it is and where it is hit.

"'In the old days, people thought only a few hitters had major tendencies. Now it seems like almost every hitter does. And not just little ones, like, 'Play him a step to right.'

"Drastic defensive shadings are now the rule, often with one to three key players, rather than a whole team, shifting toward one side. Defenders are popping up where they have never been seen before.

"Opposing outfielders, for instance, play Baltimore's Al Bumbry to hit the ball down both foul lines. Shortstops will practically stand behind second base when the Orioles' Ken Singleton bats left-handed, while everyone else plays straight away."

Boswell's piece mentions John Mayberry, a Royals slugger whose career went into a tailspin, in part because of the shifts against him. It also says, according to the Red Sox, Williams started hitting to left field in 1948 and got 70 of his 188 hits to left. It mentions that teams would employ big shifts against Willie McCovey and Boog Powell.

In other words, the shift has been around a long time.