A while ago, I wrote a long piece about baseballs. That was back in those halcyon days (two years ago) when teams were only averaging an insane 1.2 homers per game and only striking out a ridiculous eight times per game.
Now, homers are up to 1.4 per game and strikeouts are closer to nine per game.
It isn’t just the baseball. There are fundamental changes in the way the game is being played … but, at the same time, it IS the baseball. There is no doubt that.
So here is the history of juiced baseballs, redesigned and updated for our time — the time of what might just be the most aerodynamic baseball in the game’s history.
Best I can tell, the earliest mention of a juiced or lively baseball comes from Deadball star and Hall of Famer Elmer Flick. He was a strange and wonderful character. Elmer’s father, Zachary Taylor Flick, was a farmer and Civil War veteran who was fascinated with flying. Zachary apparently attempted to create some sort of flying device years before the Wright Brothers.
In any case, Elmer Flick was super proud of his 1905 season. He only hit .308 that year. But in 1905, that was pretty amazing. It won him the batting title; only two other players in the entire league hit .300. The whole league hit .241.
The reason for such low averages? The baseball was a mess.
Back then pitchers spit on it, cut it, muddied them up, shined up one side of it to make the ball lopsided. Foul balls were returned into the game; the goal was to use one baseball for all 54 outs. By the end of games, as Flick wrote to sportswriter Red Smith, baseballs were shaped like eggs. Those baseballs would flutter like frightened moths.
Flick insisted THAT was baseball, the truest kind of baseball. In 1908, the entire American League slugged .304. In 1904, the entire league had a .294 on-base percentage. Yes, Flick loved that sort of baseball, when hits were rare gems and no-hitters were common occurrences (between 1904 and 1910 there were 18 of them).
And, Flick griped, it wasn’t the same at all after 1910 when “the manufacturers had substituted a torpedo for the baseball."
“If they had given me just three of these baseballs back in January,” Dr. Meredith Wills is saying, “I could have told them in five minutes that home runs would go up and that pitchers would have problems. It’s that obvious.”
Welcome to 2019. Meredith Wills is the perfect messenger for our time; she has been connected with baseball all her life. She was born on an Opening Day … and not just any Opening Day. She was born on the day that Henry Aaron hit the home run that tied him with Babe Ruth. Her father bought her a baseball bat that day and put it next to her crib. “I was 13,” she says, “before I was strong enough to lift it.”
So, yes, she always felt one with the game, even in her first life as a NASA funded astrophysicist, even in her next life as a data scientist.
Even so, Dr. Wills surely never expected to be here, taking apart baseballs, measuring the laces, studying the smoothness of the leather, trying to figure out how the game went off the rails.
In 2019, Major League batters are on their way to hitting 500 more home runs than they’ve ever hit in a season. That sounds kind of crazy, but it’s actually much crazier than it sounds. At this rate, hitters — as impossible as this is to believe — will hit 2,500 more than they hit five years ago. They will hit more home runs in 2019 than batters hit in 1991 and 1992 COMBINED.
And yes, even understanding that we are comparing apples and Studebakers, the Minnesota Twins and Los Angeles Dodgers might hit twice as many home runs this year as the 1927 Murderer’s Row New York Yankees did. Twice as many. And you might recall, Babe Ruth hit 60 homers that season, Lou Gehrig hit 47.
There are undoubtedly many factors in the home run detonation. We should certainly discuss workout regimens, hotter weather, launch angles, more aggressive hitters willing to strike out, faster fastballs, etc. But Dr. Wills wants all us to understand: The baseball is at the heart of it all. The baseball is different. The baseball is flying.
A year ago, she made waves by showing that the ball had noticeably thicker lace and writing that this had multiple effects on the game (more home runs, more pitcher blisters). A couple of months later, she wrote about how it happened.
But all of that was just a prelude to her study of the 2019 baseball. Here she found the ball to be shockingly different even from the last three or four years. She pointed to three new characteristics — flatter seams, smoother leather, rounder baseballs — that she says undoubtedly make the ball soar.
It’s all fascinating, and we could discuss any part of this. But there was somewhat else I wanted to talk to her about. a broader question.
How in the WORLD can Baseball after all the years and all the controversies and all the conspiracy charges still be so utterly baffled by the baseball?
The Ball Change
People tend to think of Deadball — baseball pre-1920 — as a time when the game used a different ball. That’s not exactly right. The game really did use a dead ball until 1910. It’s probably better to call that the Elmer Flick ball.
In 1911, though, Baseball made a dramatic and very public change to a new kind of baseball. The new ball had a rubber and cork center.
The game’s leaders did not hide their motivations: They wanted more offense. The game NEEDED more offense. Every game was looking the same. Attendance was in freefall. Most hitters did not share Flick’s nostalgia for hitting wet socks.
The new ball had an immediate impact. Runs skyrocketed in 1911. Ty Cobb hit .420 for Detroit. In Cleveland, Shoeless Joe Jackson hit .408. An outfielder named Frank Schulte hit an astonishing 21 home runs, the most anyone had hit since the new century began. For comparison’s sake, Schulte had led the National League in homers in 1910; he only 10 though.
How did people respond to the new baseball? Most loved it. A poem about the new ball appeared in papers across America:
What makes the fielders run so far?
The lively ball, the lively ball.
What makes the Boston Club run last?
The lively ball, the lively ball.
What makes the pitchers pant and blow?
What makes the base hit column grow?
What makes the swatter the whole show?
Why nothing but the lively ball.
But there were some who did not like it. You can guess. Right. The traditionalists. Ah baseball has always had ‘em. The American League had only been around for a decade, and already there were traditionalists braying about the old days. Where was the bunting? Where was the artistry? Cobb himself — who, remember, had just hit .420 (it was called .419 then before modern adjustments) — said ball was too bouncy to bunt and the game was the poorer for it.
"It is no longer a sport in which the pitcher holds the center of the stage,” Washington Star baseball writer J. Ed Grillo wrote. “The hard-hitting game, which heretofore was a rarity, has become an everyday occurrence ... The artistic end of the sport has been set back fifteen or more years, and from a sport which was scientific, base ball threatens to deteriorate to one in which brute strength will count more than anything else."
It wasn’t ONLY traditionalists who hated it, though. Pitchers did too. Cy Young became the first pitcher to offer what would become a familiar argument against livelier baseballs: Pitchers, he said, would get hurt. “The new ball, when hit back to the pitcher, goes so quickly, he said, “that he cannot get his hands up to stop it."
Pitchers and traditionalists — particularly Grillo and Cincinnati president August Herrmann — managed to win the day. After the 1912 season, both leagues announced they had numbed the ball. How did they do it? They didn’t say. But whatever they did, it worked. From 1913 to 1919, offense went dead again.
“Well, first off you have to understand something,” Dr. Wills is saying. “Until the home run committee last year, there was no such thing as aerodynamic testing for baseballs. Now you tell me: How in the heck are you going to make a baseball with no aerodynamic testing?”
We are discussing a puzzle: How is that golfball manufacturers and golf’s governing bodies know EVERYTHING about golf balls? The golf industry has spent hundreds of millions of dollars, probably even billions, studying the aerodynamics, adjusting the dimples, making the ball fly farther, land softer, spin more consistently, etc. Every few weeks, it seems, they release a new magical golf ball that will solve all the hackers’ woes.
Meanwhile, every other day, baseball leaders and manufacturers keep saying that the baseball is an unsolvable mystery.
“We think one of the things that may be happening is they’re getting better at centering the pill,” Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said. “In addition to that, there’s all these man-made issues, hand-stitched, where it’s stored after it’s made, where it’s stored at the ballpark, who puts the mud on the ball, how much mud they put on the ball, it’s really difficult to isolate any single cause.”
Honestly, Manfred sounds a bit like a kid trying to bluff his way through a science essay.
Baseball is more than a $50 billion business, and the baseball is at the center of the game. You would think they would know EVERY SINGLE THING about the ball. And yet the leaders seem as shocked as anybody about the home runs flying out this year.
“I think baseball is like the dog that caught the car,” Dr. Wills says. “They’ve been trying to change the ball forever. Trying to make the leather smoother. Trying to make the ball rounder. Trying to create the ‘perfect’ baseball. And now they’re getting closer and closer to their idea of perfection, and they have no idea what to do.”
The end of Deadball
One of the most overwhelming -- and misunderstood -- revolutions in baseball history happened between 1918 and 1921. Scoring went up from 3.63 to 4.85 runs per games, home runs tripled, batting averages skyrocketed from .254 up to .291. Even the recent home run explosions pale by comparison.
So what happened at the end of Deadball? The narrative generally builds around two transformative events: The spitter was outlawed and Babe Ruth began swinging for the fences.
But something else happened. After Ray Chapman was killed by Carl Mays’ pitch in 1920, the baseball was changed. There was no warning by the leagues, no announcement about it. But everyone knew it had happened The new ball was called “The jackrabbit baseball.”
From the Sporting News, July 7, 1921:
Charley Hollocher is out of the game with a broken nose. Charley Deal has just recovered from the same sort of an injury, and Johnny Kelleher was hit in the eye early this spring and still bears the scar. This is what the lively ball has done for the Cub team ... the lively ball that has made infielders duck and afraid to tackle mean grounders. I have seen them actually side step balls this season.
Sportswriter Joe Vila added this:
"Hitting a home run in the days of sane baseball rules was an unusual feat. Now it is a daily incident and a joke. Safe to say that a large majority of baseball fans would be gratified to learn that the magnates had decided to supplant old-fashioned slugging matches with exhibitions of clever pitching, brilliant fielding and scientific batting. Do away with the lively ball!"
Baseball executives insisted that they had not changed the baseball … foreshadowing the next 100 years of statements out of commissioner’s offices. American League president Ban Johnson was particularly insistent, and he lashed out against any sportswriter who said the league had purposely altered the ball and the game.
So, if the ball wasn’t changed, why was it soaring? Johnson had a couple of choice theories. First, he said, manufacturers were able to secure "good yarns," that were unavailable during World War I. These good yarns, he explained, could be wound tighter which would obviously make the ball travel farther.
He was not dissuaded from his theory even when physicists explained that a ball with tighter yarn would actually be heavier and would, in fact, be LESS aerodynamic.
The other Ban Johnson theory is somehow even less scientific, but it’s fun! He said the rubber core surrounding the baseball's cork was uneven. And so, when hitters hit the ball where the rubber was thicker, it would, as one reporter wrote, "send the ball streaking away in sensational fashion."
In June of 1921, Chicago Cubs president William Veeck -- father of the more famous baseball executive Bill Veeck -- became the first known person to introduce what we are going to call: “Science time!” He cut open the 1920 and 1921 baseballs and tried some primitive experiments to find the difference.
He didn’t find what he was looking for. Instead he found that the baseballs were all very different, it didn’t matter the year. He came away with an insight that baseball has held onto for 100 years.
"It remains a mystery," he told reporters.
“I actually like the idea of baseballs being different,” Dr. Wills says. “I think it’s pretty cool that baseballs are the only balls in the world — maybe cricket balls, I don’t know — that are handmade. It’s of the great charms of the game is that every single baseball in the world is handmade. Little League baseballs are stitched by hand. The souvenir ball you buy at the ballpark is stitched by hand. The baseballs they use in Japan are stitched by hand.
“One of the goals of Rawlings and baseball is uniformity. They don’t want the baseball to be different. But I think that’s a mistake. I actually like the idea of variation. Remember how in the 1970s, pitchers would get a new ball and then discard it because it didn’t feel right. And they would get another one. I think that was great. Why do they all need to be the same? Bats aren’t all the same. Gloves aren’t all the same. Ballparks aren’t all the same. Why do the balls need to be all the same?”
Pitch and Duck
The craziest offensive season in baseball history was 1930. That year, the National League -- the whole league -- hit .303 and slugged .448, both records that likely will never be broken.
That year, Bill Terry hit .401 and 10 other players hit .350 or better. Hack Wilson set the National League record with 56 home runs. He also set the RBI record at 191; that’s still the record. Chuck Klein scored 158 runs, still the National League record. Kiki Cuyler scored 155 runs (second-most in NL history). Al Simmons scored 152 runs.
People — pitchers in particular — began complaining about the baseball early in that season. Former Giants pitcher Al Demaree dubbed it "The new lively ball," to differentiate it from the lively ball of the 1920s.
"The new 'lively ball," he wrote, "which I understand is even more lively that the so-called 'lively ball,' makes a pitcher feel like he is in front of a machine gun."
The traditionalists were panicked. Connie Mack thought the new ball could ruin the game. Legendary manager John McGraw went on a personal question to get the leagues to "manufacture their own baseballs so that they could have constant supervision over the product."
One of my favorite lines about the 1930 ball, though, came from Babe Ruth.
"It's my humble opinion,” Ruth wrote, “that the so-called 'lively ball' is just about the best alibi for a lot of inferior pitchers that was ever heard of. "
The Griffith Test
After Deadball, there was a longstanding belief that the American League baseball had more juice (or less drag, as we might say now) than the National League ball. This was supposed to help explain why the biggest home run hitters — Ruth, Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg, et. al — were American Leaguers.
In 1938, Washington Senators president Clark Griffith decided to find out.
First, he attempted a live experiment. He brought in an American League slugger (Jimmie Foxx) a National League slugger (Chuck Klein) and an International League slugger (King Kong Keller, who was 21 and was still a season away from joining the Yankees). Griffith then had a Baltimore minor leaguer named Johnny Wittig to pitch both American and National League baseballs to them.
The results? Come on, you can't get results from a test like that — inconclusive doesn’t begin to describe it. The hitters cracked a total of 18 home runs but showed no preference for either ball. Griffith’s takeaway actually came from Wittig who said the National League ball was better because the stitches were slightly raised and, as such, easier to spin.
Griffith then approached Dr. H.L. Dryden, chief of mechanics and sound at the U.S. Bureau of Standards and challenged him to invent a way to test baseballs. So Dryden did. He created a testing protocol where an air gun fired a wooden projectile (representing the bat) directly at the baseball. Dryden took this gadget out to Griffith Stadium in Washington and tested both American League and National League baseballs.
Wouldn’t you have LOVED to be there? The first ball was sent sailing out of Griffith Park. Only two legends — Dryden’s Baseball Testing Device and Josh Gibson — ever hit a ball out of Griffith Park.
"We've got to tame the machine down," and alarmed Dryden shout, "or it will bankrupt us." He had only brought a few baseballs for the test.
The final results? You bet: Inconclusive! Dryden thought it POSSIBLE that the AL balls went a little further, but it was such a slight difference that he couldn't prove it. He also said that the stitches and covers made little difference. For him, the ball's carry came down to the core and the core was the same for both baseballs.
"The science of the home run," Dryden said, "is hard to pin down. Give me the baseballs, and I can prove almost anything. The emphasis should be on the batter, not the ball."
Here’s one of the fundamental problems of baseball engineering: Nobody is entirely sure of the goal. I mentioned golf before: Golf manufacturers know the aspiration. They want the ball to fly farther. They want the ball to fly straighter. Every gain, no matter how slight, is a step into the future.
But this isn’t true of baseball, and that’s because baseball isn’t aiming for the future. Baseball aims for the past. What so many people want in a baseball is to feel that it is the same general ball used by Willie Mays, Johnny Bench, Dale Murphy, Ryan Howard and Mike Trout. People want a baseball to connect Justin Verlander and Bob Feller, Bob Gibson and Max Scherzer.
So a baseball that flies farther and cuts through the air more effectively — a more perfect baseball, if you will — is not the goal.
Or is it? Look, we can’t just overlook that in 2014, Baseball went through a terrible offense slump, the lowest scoring season in almost 40 years. Home runs were at their lowest point since the first George Bush had been in office. Meanwhile games were longer than they’d ever been and, yes, attendance was down, etc.
The reason there have been so many conspiracy theories about the ball is that the timing of the home run eruption seemed so ideally timed.
And yet, Dr. Meredith Wills, who has studied this as closely as anyone, doesn’t seem to think there was any grand plan. She actually has this sneaking suspicion that her article last year on the drying process Rawlings used might have motivated them to try something new, leading to this year’s baseball craziness.
That would be the opposite of a grand plan.
“I think they’ve just been trying a hit-and-miss thing,” she says. “Science tells you a little bit, so I think Rawlings just opened Pandora’s box, and foolishly said, ‘let’s try this,’ without knowing what the heck it might mean.”
“Do you really think,” I ask, “that this could just happens? I mean, golf spends impossible sums of money every year to make the ball more aerodynamic? Do you think it’s possible that baseball could have made a more aerodynamic baseball by accident?”
She pauses to think about this one.
“It’s a great question,” she says. “But I think when it comes to the baseballs, they’ve just been throwing things against the wall to see what sticks.”
“Maybe I’ve lost my stuff.”
In 1949, batters hit 130 or so more homers than they ever had before. And then came 1950: Batters went crazy. They hit 369 more homers than they had in ‘49. The ball was again at the center of the conversation … to the point where there was some serious talk about putting a net in front of the mound to protect pitchers from line drives.
"It's absolutely necessary," Tigers manager Red Rolfe said, "for it would be dangerous for batting practice pitchers without one. ... "You can't tell me that the ball isn't more resilient than it was as recently as a year ago."
"Maybe I've lost my stuff," Bob Feller said, "but the ball seems to be going father for fellows who never hit before."
"I've got a new name for the game," Yankees manager Casey Stengel said. "Let's call it helium-ball instead of baseball."
Unsurprisingly, the most outspoken person about the “new ball” was Ty Cobb, the ultimate traditionalist. You might remember he bashed the new baseball even after hitting .420 with it. He was sure that this 1950 baseball was the ruination of all things.
"The lively ball has eliminated the value of one run, use of the squeeze play, sacrifice, hit and run and base stealing,” he wrote. “It also has eliminated the importance of pitching effectiveness. Baseball is a game to be played in the confines of the fences. Today, the outfield is not a proper part of the defense."
If this sounds familiar, yep, Cobb in 1950 was making the “we need more balls in play” argument that is so prominent today. But Cobb made another point: He said the new ball would lead to more arm injuries for pitchers:
"I think the palm ball, slider, screwball, sinker and other unorthodox pitches of today are a contributing factor to the great number of sore arms pitchers suffer today. Take your all-time pitching standouts and they practically all used nothing more than a fastball, curve and change of pace."
But was the ball really different in 1950?
Science time! There were numerous experiments done on 1950 baseballs. The one that stands out: Ralph Nottingham of Brush Development — a Cleveland testing laboratory — dropped four baseballs from a roof 120 feet high to see how high they bounced off the concrete. That sounds like one of those experiments you do just because it sounds REALLY fun.
Anyway, he found that the 1949 and 1950 baseballs bounced almost exactly as high.
The Year After the Year of the Pitcher
We talked about how, after the 2014 season, there was a hankering for more offense. This was even truer in 1969. We now look back on the 1968 “Year of the Pitcher” with nostalgia and a bit of wistfulness. That was Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA season! That was the year Denny McLain won 30! That was Luis Tiant’s absurd season! There were so many 1-0 games, and what is better than a tight 1-0 game, right?
Wrong. Nobody liked it then. Attendance was win freefall. Teams averaged 14,217 per game in 1968, same as 10 years earlier, two thousand fewer than 20 years earlier. The game was in real trouble, or at least that’s what the executives seemed to believe.
So for 1969, there were a bunch of rule changes. Mound lowered. Strike zone tightened. And during spring training, baseball openly tried a livelier baseball. How did they make the ball livelier? They didn’t say. But nobody liked the livelier baseball much, and so it was shelved. National League president Warren Giles explained:
"We tried to pep up the hitting without changing the ball. We felt changing the ball would make home runs easier and then everybody would swing for home runs and that would have an adverse effect on hitting."
Then the season began, and offense was up, and people started talking about how leadership was lying and that they definitely HAD used the livelier ball.
"Take my word for it," Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn announced as the season began, "the one we're using today is the standard ball."
Nobody took his word for it.
"I know the ball is livelier than it was last year," pitcher Sam McDowell said. "I can tell when I take batting practice because I've hit home runs one-handed."
"I sure think it is livelier," said Ted Williams, then managing Washington.
"I'm beginning to believe there's a difference," Frank Robinson said. "You just see too many balls go too far."
Science time! Kuhn decided to create baseball's first set of standards for the resiliency of baseballs. Up to that point, the only rules about the baseball were:
The weight shall be between 5 and 5 1/4 ounces.
The circumference shall be between 9 and 9 1/5 inches.
No, that’s it.
Kuhn announced that baseball must have a set of "bounce standards." This proved a shocking declaration — not because people disagreed but because they were stupefied that baseball did not ALREADY HAVE a set of bounce standards. How was that possible?
"Golf has had bounce standards for years,” United Press wrote. “So have basketball and tennis, among the big sports. Football is less dependent on bounce than the shape of a ball but insists, nevertheless, on a standard inflation pressure.*
"I'm really amazed baseball hasn't done something like this long before this," PGA Tour commissioner Joe Dey said."
*Michael Schur might see this paragraph, think of Deflategate, and go into a blackout rage.
By the way, baseball did not actually create a set of bounce standards in 1969. The rules about baseballs stayed the same.
From Spalding to Rawlings
This year will almost certainly not have the biggest home run jump in baseball history. It also won’t be 1950 or 1930 or even 1969.
No, the biggest difference came in 1977.
Biggest home run differences from year to year (non-strike seasons):
1977 — 1,409 more
1959 — 1,124 more
2019 (projection) — 1,111 more
1993 — 992 more
2015 — 723 more
2016 — 701 more
1987 — 645 more
1961 — 602 more
1973 — 568 more
2017 — 495 more
Seeing 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2019 on this list should tell you something.
But back to 1977. There was expansion that year, so that has something to do with the massive change. But the baseball was at the center of it all. That was the year MLB officially changed from Spalding baseballs to Rawlings baseballs.
The funny thing is Spalding and Rawlings were part of the same company. And, this is confusing, Rawlings had made baseballs for MLB before but had done so under Spalding’s name. Like I say, it’s a bit baffling.
What was not baffling was how bad the baseballs were from 1974-76, when Spalding handled things. Players loathed the Spalding baseball. "Like hitting a dead fish," one batter said.
Home run totals showed they were right. In 1976, fewer home runs were hit per game than at any point since the end of World War II. That was the year Graig Nettles led the American League with 32 home runs (he was the only player in the AL to hit 30; three National League players hit 30).
The baseball was of such poor quality that a legend build around Dave Parker when he hit a line drive over the second baseman's head that exploded into a mess of yarn, not unlike Roy Hobbs hit in "The Natural." But 1974 AL MVP Jeff Burroughs was not impressed. He said that he had knocked the cover off the ball four or five times.
"The ball we used was a disgrace to the game," Burroughs said.
Enter Rawlings (same company!) who promised to bring back quality to the baseball. But what did that mean? What is a quality baseball? Before the ‘77 season even began, Seattle coach Don Bryant did a little Science Time! He cut up some baseballs and found "the center of the old ball was pure cork. The new one is a cork and rubber mixture. When I bounced them, the new one bounced twice as high."
Players and managers fought about the new baseball all year. Sparky Anderson said the 1977 ball was entirely different while while Johnny Bench said it was exactly the same. Tommy John said the balls were different, teammate Ron Cey said they were the same.
Home runs skyrocketed, yes, but that was mostly because home runs were so down in 1976. The number homers hit per game — .87 per team — was right in line with what hitters had averaged in the 1950s and into the ‘60s. Rawlings insisted they were simply taking the game back to its glory days.
"We did envision this kind of controversy," Rawlings PR director Mike Kavanaugh said. "Because the other people (Spalding) were making a turtle ball. ... We are not making a livelier ball. We are making a better ball."
"There's this animal called 'coefficient of restitution,'" he said. "That means when you take the initial velocity and compare that to the rebound velocity, the rebound velocity has to be a certain percentage of the initial velocity."
Kavanaugh might have used the word "velocity" a bit too much there, but there’s something comforting about hearing someone talk confidently about the baseball and not act like it’s all some inexplicable enigma.
"Our ball meets big-league specifications," he said. "It is true that within those specifications you can doctor the balls, wind them tighter. We simply think our ball is fair."
There was a minor home run jump in 1982 and on NBC, Tony Kubek railed repeatedly that the ball was juiced. I bring this up only to mention one more edition of: Science time! NBA and New York University combined for a test involving a metal ram striking a baseball on a team. Physics professor Robert Brandt tested 12 baseballs and said the five of them had higher coefficients of restitution than the standard. He said this made it likely that baseballs were somewhat livelier “but I wouldn't stake my scientific reputation on it."
"The Moon Could Be In the Wrong Place"
At this point, I hope you’re seeing what I’m driving at: Baseball has been fighting this fight forever. Remember 1987? That was probably the most famous baseball controversy before this one — that was the year guys like Ozzie Virgil, Larry Sheets, Brian Downing, Matt Nokes, Mike Pagliarulo, Wally Joyner, Cory Snyder and so many others hit home runs in earnest. Even Wade Boggs, who so famously abstained from homers, banged 24 of them.
"I think some of the balls, instead of having one rabbit have three or four rabbits," said Bert Blyleven, who had set a record one year earlier by allowing 50 homers in a season.
"I do believe the ball is juiced up," Pete Rose said. "I've seen more tape-measure home runs this year than ever before. I've seen more opposite field home runs."
"I saw check swings go to the wall," Jack Morris said.
"They're going to have to raise the insurance rates on pitchers," said a Kansas City scout named Tom Ferrick.
Some people, as usual, thought the lively ball explanation was a copout.
"There is one thing that explains the unusual power better than the lively ball theory," Pete Pascarrelli wrote. "Lousy pitching."
"It could be anything from the atmosphere, the deterioration of the ozone later to sloppy pitching," pitcher Jerry Reuss said. "Or it could be hitters are just stronger."
"The moon could be in the wrong place," pitcher Bill Gullickson said.
Whitey Herzog played Science Time! He cut open a 1986 and 1987 baseball, pulled the cores and dropped them both from eye level. He said the 1987 core bounced at least 12 inches higher.
"It's like a superball," he said. "I've done it 100 times, and every time it's the same thing."
USA Today went deeper. They engaged Haller Testing Labs to drop 116 baseballs from numerous years 26.8 feet on to a steel slab.
1963 baseball: 8.31 feet
1970 baseball: 8.26 feet
1973 baseball: 8.34 feet
1977 baseball: 8.46 feet
1987 baseball: 8.39 feet
Roger Haller, who did the test, said that it was proof that the 1987 baseballs bounced "just about as high as the balls tested in 1977, if anything they were a little deader."
My favorite scientific home run experiment that year came from Philadelphia outfielder Greg Gross, who tested the ball's resiliency by hitting his first home run in nine years.
"If there was any doubt about the lively ball," he said, "I guess me hitting a home run dispels it."
Where’s the Juice?
Now, most people tend to attribute baseball’s home run surge of the 1990s to PED use. This isn’t the time or place to go into that whole thing, but there are two things worth noting.
While most people think that things blew up in 1994 because so many players — Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, Tony Gwynn, Ken Griffey Jr., Matt Williams, etc. — had crazy seasons, in truth the big jump was 1993. As mentioned above, there were 1,000 more home runs hit between from 1992 to 1993, a jump of .17 per game, third highest in baseball history.
Most people at the time blamed new baseballs.
"If that's a home run,” Sparky Anderson grumbled after watching an opposite field homer from Gary Gaetti, “I've got to stop working in baseball and go into something else."
"The materials we use, the manufacturing process, the standards we use -- it's all exactly as it always has been," said Scott Smith, the PR director.
"The ball hasn't changed," said former ballplayer Ted Sizemore, who worked for Rawlings.
Now, it was time for Baseball commissioner Bud Selig to do what commissioners have been doing since the dawn of the game: He announced a fact-finding mission to figure out what the heck was happening with the baseball.
"I'm hearing about the ball everywhere I go," he said. "When people say, 'What about the ball?' I want every bit of empirical data we can find as to how the baseball is produced. Is it different or not different?"
Empirical data? Oh yeah: Science time! Jim Sherwood, a physics professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, was brought in to test 2,000 baseballs. He, like basically every other person in baseball history, found the results inconclusive. The ball seemed to be the same. In 2000, after Sherwood opened the baseball research center, he again tested the balls. Again he found the ball to be essentially the same.
"We test and re-test," Sherwood said. "That's all we can do."
Let’s assume that the baseballs are different in 2019. It’s hard to assume anything else. What can be done about it? Can Baseball deaden the balls for next year? And if it can, should it and by how much?
“I don’t think it’s an easy answer,” Dr. Wills says. “Do you want to go back to the 2018 baseball? The 2017 ball? Stop smoothing the leather? Get rid of the current dying process? I don’t know. The quest for the perfect baseball is quixotic thing because what IS the perfect baseball?”
Let’s finish with a story: In 2011, the Nippon Professional Baseball League asked its ball manufacturer, Mizuno, to make a ball similar to the Rawlings ball. Widen the seams. Use a similar pill. Etc. They thought this would help Japan when playing in international competition like the World Baseball Classic.
Unfortunately, the Mizuno ball was Generalissimo Francisco Franco dead. Nobody could hit it. The league hit 700 fewer home runs in 2011, the first years of the new ball. The next year, the total went down again. It was a disaster.
So the NPB quietly asked Mizuno give the ball more bounce. The key word is “quietly.” They didn’t want anyone to know what they were doing.
"We thought it would cause confusion if we let it be known," NPB secretary Kunio Shimoda told the Bangkok Post.
Mizuno did the job … did it too well, in fact. Home runs jumped 40 percent. That was more than anyone wanted.
"Our understanding was that it would be a matter of fine-tuning," Shimoda said.
And, suddenly, there was a scandal. Everyone KNEW that there was something different about the ball, but league officials kept denying it. Finally, they could deny it no longer. People were angry; they felt duped. Players were angry -- they had been paid based on the performance using the old ball.
Kato resigned at the end of the season.
"I caused a lot of problems," he said, "over the ball."
You would think that baseball executives would have learned this lesson by now: You mess with the ball, you get the horns.