Juiced Balls as Conspiracy Theory
Home runs are up. They jumped up quite suddenly about two years ago, and have been going up steadily since. There has been a lot of discussion about the possible reasons why, but a juiced ball is the perennial favorite. Surprisingly, the perennial favorite explanation seems to be more or less the right one. I say “surprisingly” mostly out of cynicism about perennially favorite explanations, but also because MLB had previously come out with pretty good evidence to the contrary. And in fairness, I am using “juiced” loosely. It seems to be a combination of slightly higher elasticity,and slightly lower seams and smaller size cutting down on air resistance. The result is that fly balls are flying a few feet further. That ball that would have landed ten rows back now lands eleven rows back: who cares? But it matters a lot for that ball that would have been on the warning track, and is now over the fence. Hence the home run surge.
This, however, is not the topic of today’s sermon. Rather, it is the reflexive reaction that this is some sort of dark conspiracy, like Area 51 or the moon landings. Both of those linked pieces mention “conspiracy” and here is a piece directly on the topic. Any discussion of the ball being deadened or, more often, made more lively will inevitably come to the topic of the conspiracy behind the change.
It wasn’t always like this. A century and a half ago, baseball people talked about the dead or live ball a lot. Back then this was a policy discussion, with nothing mysterious or illicit about it.
A baseball consists of a more-or-less spherical core, wrapped with yarn or string, and with a leather cover sewn on. This has been true since the 1850s. Modern baseball construction is a fancied-up version of this but still fundamentally the same. Here is the rule from 1857, defining the size and weight of the ball and the materials used:
The ball must weigh not less than 6 nor more than 6 1/4 ounces avoirdupois; it must measure not less than 10, nor more than 10 1/4 inches in circumference; it must be composed of india-rubber and yarn, and covered with leather.
(The cognoscenti among you will have noticed that this is larger than the modern ball. Next time you are at Cooperstown, check out the balls in the 19th century room on the second floor. They are noticeably oversized to the modern eye. The ball was shrunk down to its modern size over the following decade or so. The reason is not entirely clear, but it is interesting that the final size is nearly identical to a cricket ball, which was long-established at that time. It may be that there is an ideal size for catching barehanded, as was the practice in both games. Cricket was an organized sport a century before baseball, and so had a head start at getting to the right size. But I digress.)
Notice also that the 1857 specifies that the core is “india-rubber” but doesn’t say how much. This matters a lot. The more rubber, the bouncier the ball. There was an extended discussion over the 1860s about how much rubber to use. One ideological position was that a good club, meaning a club that fielded well, would favor a dead ball, as it gave the fielders the opportunity to show their stuff. A lively ball would be favored by a poor club, meaning a poor fielding club, because any idiot can slug the ball (a defensible position given the pitching rules of the day), so a lively ball would equalize the two sides. At least this was the ideology of those who favored a dead ball. It is not clear that those who favored a lively ball shared the same theoretical basis. It may simply be that chicks dig the long ball, which is documented to at least 1885:
A Chicago paper publishes quite a romantic story concerning Ed. Williamson’s first meeting with the lady whom he married in St. Louis last winter. She was a New Orleans girl visiting with friends in Chicago; the champions were getting worsted in the game she was looking at, and Williamson, who was at the bat, was looked to to pull the coals out of the fire. He got the ball he wanted and sent it kiting. The result was three tallies by the other men and a home run for himself. Williamson made that home run straight into the girl’s heart. That night there was a reception to the club at the hotel, and she was presented to the home-runner. They looked into each other’s eyes, and the umpire Cupid cried out “One strike.” (The Sporting Life November 25, 1885)
Balls in the 1860s sometimes had as much as three ounces of rubber as their core. The manufacturers had to cheat by using a cork inner core to bring the average density of the ball down to within the rule. These were like playing with a superball. This goes a long ways toward explaining why scores routinely ran in the double–and occasionally triple–digits.
The trouble with these balls, apart from any ideological considerations, was that they were dangerous. A ball like this off the bat was a genuine hazard. The response was for 1871 to legislate that the core be one ounce of rubber. This, it was hoped, would result in the more desirable dead ball. This was an advertising point: The professionals use a dead ball, so you kids should use one as well–specifically, our product!
It turned out that not all balls were the same, even with one ounce of rubber. This brings us to the Haymakers of Troy, New York. They were enthusiastic adopters of the ethos of “anything to win.” It was widely suspected that this extended to obtaining counterfeit balls ostensibly from a reputable manufacturer:
[Athletic vs. Haymakers 6/28/1871] The Haymakers had presented what they claimed was a Van Horn dead ball, but it was quickly evidenced that the globule must have had a lively resurrection, for at the slightest tip it flew around in a manner that made it dangerous to handle. (Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch July 2, 1871)
This came to a head a few days later:
[Mutual vs. Haymaker 7/3/1871] The players were all on the ground by 2 ½ o’clock, and Mr. Chapman, of the Eckfords, having been agreed upon as umpire when the day was fixed for the match, nothing remained, apparently, but to commence the game. But Tony Hartman, the new president of the Mutuals, and Captain Ferguson, were seen in close confab, and afterwards Fergy and Craver put their heads together. It finally leaked out that there was a wrangle over the ball. The Haymakers insisted on using a Van Horn “dead” ball, and Ferguson, with the recollection of the Athletic-Haymaker match haunting him, urged the claimed of the red dead ball. But still, notwithstanding he had a dread of using the Van Horn ball, he could urge no valid excuse for refusing to play with it. It had about the same bounding power as the dead red when they were tried together, but it looked a trifle larger and felt heavier. It also had a peculiar feeling, a sort of hardness, which is not found in the dead balls usually made by the leading firms of this city. With no means to tell whether the ball was over weight or over size, Ferguson had no alternative but to accept.
The result confirmed Ferguson in the belief that the Van Horn ball was a fraud, and he determined to test. If. For this reason he insisted that it should be cut open, and after considerable opposition and much bad feeling on the part of the Haymakers and their friends, the ball was handed to the umpire, who proceeded to the covered stand in the rear of the catcher’s position, where, in the presence of Ferguson and Craver, the ball was dissected. Nothing especially alarming was found inside, but in the absence of a scale or measure to test the weight or size of the ball nothing could be done. The rubber was subsequently taken to a store, weighed and found correct. Singular enough, however, the yarn and cover were not weighed, and as the Trojans decidedly object to let Mr. Ferguson take the rubber away with him, there is no way of determining whether there was any foreign substance inside the rubber to increase its elasticity, or, if fact, anything about it of a satisfactory nature. From the manner in which it was batted it could not have been a “dead” ball, as alleged by the Trojans. (New York Clipper July 15, 1871)
The explanation that gradually dawned on them was that the amount of rubber was just one factor in the elasticity of the ball. The quality of the rubber, the yarn or string around the core, and the tension used to wrap it also mattered. It is one thing to mandate by rule the size and materials in a general way, but how do you mandate the tension of the yarn? The solution was to not even try. The modern rule is actually less specific than the 1871 rule:
The ball shall be a sphere formed by yarn wound around a small core of cork, rubber or similar material, covered with two strips of white horsehide or cowhide, tightly stitched together. It shall weigh not less than five nor more than 5¼ ounces avoirdupois and measure not less than nine nor more than 9¼ inches in circumference.
Rather than define the ball by rule, they went to defining it by contract. The National League contracted with a manufacturer for an official league ball in 1877, and this has been the practice ever since. This had several benefits, including bulk pricing (some manufacturers even bid below their cost for the marketing value) and the patronage opportunity (the National League adopted the Spalding ball; Spalding was also, coincidentally, the manager and later the owner of the NL Chicago Club). It also improved quality control, with all the balls coming from a single source. Rather than trying to incorporate the specifications in the rules, a league could simply discuss what they wanted with the manufacturer.
The discussions over the merits of a live versus a dead ball continued through the 1880s. Baseball was changing rapidly at that time with the transition from underhand to overhand pitching and, not coincidentally, the increasing effectiveness of curve balls. These changes hurt the offense, which was generally considered undesirable. A long series of rules adjustments resulted: tweaking the number of balls for a walk, moving the pitcher back a few feet, various restrictions to his delivery, and so on. Advocating a livelier ball was a perfectly mainstream position to take:
…the question of improving the batting was alluded to, and Captain Anson was emphatic in the declaration that, in his opinion, the surest way to accomplish that end is to return to the lively ball. He favors putting an ounce and a half to two ounces of suspender rubber in each ball, so that it may be as lively as the once popular “Bounding Rock.” He is opposed to making any radical changes in the game, and so far as he is personally concerned he sees no especial demand for any scheme to improve batting. He appears to be able to hit the ball with great regularity season after season, which he says is due to the fact that he takes good care of himself and keeps his eye on the ball as long as possible. (The Sporting Life October 17, 1888)
The idea was not adopted. That fall they instead lowered the number of balls for a walk from five to the modern four, and changed the rule so that a caught foul tip was no longer an out. (This last was actually a more conservative version. The original proposal was to eliminate all foul fly outs.) The rules makers were reflexively conservative, favoring the smallest change that might achieve the desired effect. Adding rubber to the ball would have been a far more radical change–not because juicing the ball was beyond the pale of polite discourse, but because the effect of doing so was anticipated to include undesirable features. Had they decided to try it, the change would have been codified in the rules for everyone to see. The notion that this was a shameful act to be done in secret would have seemed bizarre.
Nowadays many people assume that were MLB to change the ball in order to achieve some desired end, of course it would be done secretly. Why is this? What changed? That answer, I think, is instead that baseball stopped changing. The game had changed rapidly since the 1850s. It was perfectly normal to ask each year how the rules were different. People might oppose a specific change, but there was no sense that the rules were sacrosanct and any change should be resisted. Even changes with huge ramifications were on the table. But by 1890 this period of change was winding down.
When did “modern baseball” begin? It’s a mug’s game to try to answer that question. (Not that this means I won’t happily try…) The traditional answer is 1901, but that is more because of the founding of the American League than anything to do with the rules. SABR uses 1893, because that is when the pitcher was put at his modern distance. Even that is something of an outlier. By 1890 the rules were essentially in their modern form, with just a few tweaks to come later. Clubs had pitching rotations. Catchers wore mitts, and most fielders wore gloves. They knew about the hit and run, and those dirty tricks we associate with John McGraw ten years later were in fact already well known and in use. Baseball in 1890 looked more like baseball in 1910 than it did baseball in 1870, or even 1880.
Then when the 20th century hits, the substantive rule changes come nearly to a halt. Try to list any important changes from 1904 onward. What do you get? The abolition of the spit ball is the main candidate until the lowering of the pitcher’s mound in 1969 and the institution of the designated hitter. These are not nothing, but they don’t compare to changing the number of balls and strikes from one year to the next. Nowadays, any rule change will be controversial merely by virtue of being a change, before the discussion even addresses its merits.
This rules stability resulted in some illusions about baseball history. It now has a timeless feel. We can imagine that comparing the statistical records of Ty Cobb and Pete Rose, or Hughie Jennings and Craig Biggio, is a meaningful exercise. This is nonsense, but the reasons are subtle contextual changes to the game more than changes to its codified rules. The ball is a big part of this illusory stability. We can hardly compare the batting records of a modern player with one from a century ago if they were batting balls with different physical characteristics. Think of the sanctity of the historical record! So if the Powers That Be are going to change the ball, of course they will do it in secret.
So what do I think is actually going on? I think that the consistency of manufacturing specs has never been all that great. The second article I linked to above, about MLB’s report on the ball, notes that MLB has specs, but they are pretty broad. Look at a graph of historical home run rates and it is pretty spiky, albeit less so than the past two years. So a new yarn winding machine comes on line, and it winds just a smidgeon tighter, or the calibration on the old machine goes a little off. Everything is still within specs, so no one at the factory cares.
All this shrouding in mystery is silly. Suppose The Powers That Be decide that more home runs is just what the doctor ordered, and shoot off an email to the factory with instructions to crank up that tension. I may disagree with the goal, but I am totally fine with the method to achieve that goal. There is no need for secrecy: put out a press release and give people something to talk about.