On Opening Day, lots of people will be paying attention to the game of baseball. But not too many will be paying attention to the ball itself. We take it for granted that the little leather-covered sphere will curve when it’s supposed to and fly out of the park when it’s smacked hard enough.
In the early days, pitchers usually made their own baseballs, winding yarn around a rock or walnut in their own distinct patterns to confound batters. Even when the balls became more standardized in the late 1870s with a rubber core and a leather cover cut in the traditional figure eight pattern just like balls today, the early baseballs would usually fall apart by the end of the game. They also differed from modern baseballs in that they were considered “dead.”
Actually, they were probably just considered normal, but after the introduction of the “live” ball, they needed some way to describe the distinction.
In 1910 someone put lightweight cork in the center of the ball instead of solid rubber. That made the ball much more “lively,” hence the term “live” ball. It seemed to make the game more lively, too, because batters could suddenly hit the ball much farther. The number of .300 hitters in the major leagues tripled the first year after the introduction. The cork filled ball was secretly introduced during the World Series of 1910. (What I couldn’t find out was whether it was secretly introduced for the use of only one team.)
While the inside of the baseball was important, the outside received a lot of attention as well. Pitchers frequently experimented with different means of roughing up baseballs to increase their grip and confuse hitters with erratic movement. In addition to scratching, scraping and even cutting the ball, they’d also rub it with everything from tobacco juice to licorice to spit. But dirt was probably the most common substance. This made the baseball hard to see, and by the end of the game it was so beat up it was hard to predict as well.
In 1920, shortstop Ray Chapman was hit in the head by a pitch and died from the concussion. Witnesses said he made no attempt to move out of the ball’s path, as if he couldn’t see it. After that, Major League Baseball began requiring umpires to replace the ball whenever it grew dirty and banned the use of spitballs.
So pitchers had to find a new way to make the baseballs less slick without making them brown. In 1938, a third base coach named Lena Blackburne discovered the “perfect” mud in a New Jersey swamp. Sold as Blackburne’s Rubbing Mud, it was soon used by all major league teams AND is still used today, still harvested from a secret location in New Jersey. A half pound “personal size” jar costs $24, which gives the phrase “cheap as dirt” a whole different meaning.
While there have been some changes over the intervening years such as the use of different types of wool to wind around the core, the basic ball itself has changed surprisingly little over the last 100 years. In 1974 they did switch from using horsehide to cowhide instead, much to the relief of Mr. Ed but the consternation of the Chick-Fil-A cows. And MLB just recently started experimenting with a new tackier surface on baseballs that won’t require the use of rubbing mud. Pitchers given the new bright white non-muddied baseballs thought they looked weird. For the sake of Blackburne’s—and tradition—I hope the new baseballs don’t catch on.
For all those of you happy to see the return of the”Boys of Summer,” Happy Opening Day!
Happy Regular Monday to everyone else!
Much of the information in the article came from Schrader’s Little Cooperstown as displayed at the St. Petersburg Museum of History.
Since I am a history geek, my first sightseeing stop in any new town is the local history museum. In St. Petersburg, Florida, I was happy to find that it was near my hotel, but not so happy to see that the museum was not much bigger than a corner hot dog stand.
The museum had only six listed exhibits, and the first one was the world’s largest collection of autographed baseballs. That’s right, a whole room full of the same item. That sounded about as exciting as visiting the canned food aisle at the grocery store.
But I had to go through that exhibit to get to the room with information about history of the town, which is what I had come to see. So considering this to be the equivalent of visiting the world’s largest ball of twine, I headed into Schrader’s Little Cooperstown.
I ended up spending more time there than anyplace else in the museum. It was fascinating. I hope you find this brief history of the baseball as interesting as I did.