Even in those formative years, authorities on the game warned the practice of hitting fungoes should be limited to coaches. Henry Chadwick, one of baseball’s earliest proponents, claimed “The weakest batting is shown when the batsmen indulges in fungo hitting,” according to the Art of Batting. Others agreed that the practice was bad for training a batter’s reflexes: “While watching some of our freshmen practicing ‘fungo’ batting the other afternoon it occurred to me that it was about the worst kind of practice a batsman could imagine in training his eye in batting,” a writer claimed in the March 3, 1886 edition of The Sporting Life. “It trains the eye to meet the ball in batting it in a manner which never occurs in actual play. It ought to be prohibited on every well regulated ball field.”
For starters, we should clarify just what we’re talking about when we say fungo bat. Longer, lighter and thinner than a regulation bat (but a larger barrel), a fungo bat is typically 35 to 37 inches long, and weighs between 17 and 22 ounces. As David Allison wrote in the June 1978 edition of Country Journal, “A fungo bat looks to be a cross between a baseball bat and a broomstick.”
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It is not clear why pregame infield fell out of favor in the majors. Today, coaches hit balls to infielders and outfielders during batting practice. Most players go at it leisurely, lobbing balls back in or across the diamond. That rankles old-school players like Jerry Kindall, a former major league infielder who coached Arizona to three N.C.A.A. titles before retiring in 1996.
Fungo bats are typically only used by coaches, to consistently place grounders and pop flies to their fielders for practice purposes. And with a fungo bat in their hands, some coaches can pull off wicked accuracy – as one story goes, the late California Angels player and coach Jimmie Reese once shot an 82 on an 18-hole golf course using nothing but a putter and a fungo bat.