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The baseball is to be spherical. It must be composed of a small cork core, followed by a layer of rubber, woolen, and cotton yarn, and covered with the two strips of horsehide or cowhide tightly stitched together at the seams. Its weight is to be between 5 and 5 1/4 ounces avoirdupois; the circumference must be 9 to 9 1/4 inches.
Baseball’s first half-century saw many changes in the ball. In 1845, it weighed 3 ounces. That was increased to a range of 5 1/2 to 6 1/2 ounces for the 1854 season. The present specs for weight and circumference were established in 1872.
Waste Not, Want Not
» Most modern clubs require dozens of balls per game. That’s what made June 29, 1929, a GM’s dream come true: the Cubs and Reds played a nine-inning game and used only one baseball.
The Lively Ball
Officially, the ball hasn’t changed very much since 1872. So how come Mark McGwire hit seventy homers and Sammy Sosa sixty-six during the 1998 season? The fact is the manufacture of the ball probably isn’t the answer.
On the other hand, earlier changes did have an impact. In 1910 the rubber center was replaced with cork, and in 1926 the cork was cushioned. And in both instances, there was, quite legitimately, much talk of a livelier “rabbit ball,” as the home run gradually came to be a commonplace event in that period (before that, league leaders had hit somewhere between eight and a dozen home runs).
But since then the only significant changes have been that during World War II synthetic rubber had to be used; in 1973 the place of manufacture was relocated to Haiti (the 108 stitches must be done by hand, and labor is cheaper there); and in 1974 cowhide (as well as horsehide) was authorized for use, since there wasn’t enough horsehide available for the quarter-million-plus baseballs the majors require each year. The most meaningful impact of these last changes was that the cowhide ball seemed to explode more often, which led to a bulletin to the umpires from the league office. The umps were told that in the event a ball broke into more than one part during a play, the largest part of the core was to be used to complete the play.
Yet, the baseball has been seen as a vehicle for change in the game, even though its changes, especially in recent years, do not explain the radical fluctuations in the delicate pitcher-hitter balance that are attributed to it. Several reported rebirths of the “lively ball,” which was widely discussed in the seventies, are instructive.
Consider the opinion of Ted Williams, then manager of the Washington Senators, when he said in 1970, “I know the ball is souped up. [But] I asked [American League president] Joe Cronin about it and he said, ‘Oh, no, the ball’s the same.’ ” The skeptical Williams added, “Yeah, sure it’s the same.”
Asked what he thought, Charlie Lau, then coaching at Oakland, said, “I think we’re using two balls.” Then, blindfolded, he correctly identified which was the 1969 ball and which was the 1970 ball.
Another change seems to have taken place when the manufacturer changed. Albert Goodwill Spalding was a major league pitcher, manager, and very successful businessman. His namesake company, A. G. Spalding, of Chicopee, Massachusetts, was the exclusive supplier of major league baseballs for a century, beginning in 1877 with the National League and in 1901 for the junior league. (Though the American League ball carried the A. J. Reach Company name, Reach was a subsidiary of Spalding.) Then, in 1976, the Spalding company withdrew because it said it could no longer make the ball profitably. Into the breach stepped the Rawlings Sporting Goods Company of St. Louis, to supply the big leagues with the more than 700,000 balls it needs each season.
Come opening day, controversy ensued. Much as Williams and the rest had asserted a few years before, in 1977 the talk again was of a livelier ball. Scientific tests conducted by the University of Missouri revealed that the “coefficient of restitution” of the balls was up only 1.3 percent from 1976 (translation: “The ball’s about the same, boys”). It was also true that Rawlings had been making balls for Spalding under contract off and on for half a dozen years. Still, lots of managers and pitchers complained about the “new” rabbit ball. It took philosopher George “The Boomer” Scott to put it all in perspective: “All the talk about the ball is a lot of bleep.”
As succinct and to the point as Scott’s observation was, it doesn’t quite explain why, by season’s end, the American League home run total had soared to 2,013 from 1,122 the previous year. Even the addition of two expansion teams (Toronto and Seattle) couldn’t account for that.
The (apparent) enlivening of the ball seems to be a cyclical thing, like the phases of the moon and managerial hirings and firings. In 1980 announcer Tony Kubek and others brought the subject up again, just as it has come and gone dozens of times over the years. While it is usually so much talk, talk, talk by sportswriters and ballplayers alike, we certainly have seen a number of happy-hitter seasons lately. In 1987, there were record numbers of homers hit, and in 1996, veteran manager Sparky Anderson took to calling an apparent rebirth of the lively-ball phenomenon “nitro ball.” And talk of the lively ball grew loud again in 1998 with the record-breaking race between Sosa and McGwire.
Only once, however, did a rule directly affecting the ball truly change the game. That was in advance of the 1920 season, and the lively ball era was the result–the very era, in fact, that characterizes the brand of baseball played ever since. That 1920 rule change didn’t change the ball itself, just the way it was used. It partially banned the spitter (there was a grandfather clause for active spitballers), and it banned the emery ball. Most important of all, however, it required that a clean ball be kept in play.
Lively ball or no, certain rule changes have improved batting averages. For example, the lowering of the mound in 1969 did deliver improved hitting statistics, and there have been other changes that contributed to baseball’s cyclical shifts. The pitchers seem to dominate for a few years, then the hitters seem to come back to life. Or at least there are statisticians who make a case for such ebb and flow. Until McGwire’s heroics, it usually seemed that reports of the births and deaths of lively ball eras were greatly exaggerated.
The Orange Ball
If Charlie Finley had had his way a decade or so ago, we really would be in another age–the “Orange Ball Era.” The ever-imaginative Oakland owner very much wanted to use an orange baseball. But even Bill Veeck, who loved to experiment, scoffed at the idea: “Back in the 1920s, when my dad was head of the Chicago Cubs, we thought of an orange baseball . . . in those days the male fans all wore white shirts and made a bad background for the hitters. So we came up with the orange baseball idea . . . But how many men these days wear white shirts?”
All of this is not to say that every ball that emerges from the Haitian heat is absolutely identical. In fact, everyone seems to agree that they aren’t, though the degree of variation is hotly disputed. Further, the conditions in which they are shipped and stored do affect them. How much effect humidity and temperature have on a baseball is suggested by a story Paul Richards told of his days as manager of the Orioles in the early sixties.
“We had a pregame home-run-hitting contest against the Yankees,” recounted Richards. “Luman Harris [a Baltimore coach] heated up one batch of balls and froze another. Mickey Mantle didn’t know it, but he had to swing at the frozen ones. He hit nothing but pop-ups. Then up comes Gus Triandos for us and he gets the hot balls. He hit them out of sight.”
The bottom line was drawn nicely by Dodgers pitching great Don Newcombe, who commented, “It was alive when I threw it but dead when I hit.”
To the Victor Go the Spoils
» In 1872, The Book declared that the winning team was to be awarded the game ball.
» In 1887, the rule was amended to read that the winning team was to get the last ball used in the game.
» It isn’t a formal part of the rules, but today balls involved with the most meaningful events end up in Cooperstown at the Baseball Hall of Fame — or in the hands of collectors.
The Lively Ball
This is, forgive us, a whole different ballgame, having nothing to do with the way the game is played. But let it be duly noted here that balls hit for legendary home runs do have at least an economic life after baseball. Two examples? The ball Babe Ruth stroked out the park for the first home run hit at Yankee Stadium was discovered by a nine-year-old New Jersey boy in his great-grammy’s attic a few years ago. It sold for $126,500 at auction. And that’s mere pin money compared to the $3,005,000 paid for McGwire’s Number 70. Go figure.