The game stays the same even as baseballs change
But though they may look similar on the surface, the makeup of those balls has changed throughout history.
In 2021, big league baseballs were to be deadened slightly to lesson a historic power surge the game has recently witnessed. This development harkens back to a period more than eight decades ago when the National Pastime made a similar attempt to remove the “rabbit” from the ball.
Sponsor a Page
Online Collection Page Sponsorship
For only $5 a year, you can have your name displayed on an artifact page within our online collection. You can even add a message – a note about the item, a favorite baseball memory or a tribute to a family member or friend.
The new NL ball, with five strands in the seams instead of four, was expected to result in a year of improved pitching and tighter games, while in the AL, the Yankees led the chorus to keep the status qua and retain the livelier ball.
“The new ball will give the pitchers a better grip,” said NL President Ford Frick, “but it will not impair the possibility of long hits if the ball is hit right.”
Future Hall of Famer Joe Medwick, in 1938 still a slugging leftfielder with the Cardinals, said before the start of the season: “I’m going to take my same cut at the ball and let my batting average rest on that. If I hit it, it might not go as far, but it will go just as straight.”
Another pair of future Hall of Famers – Jimmie Foxx and Chuck Klein – tested the NL’s new deadened balls at January 1938 trial at Oriole Park in Baltimore.
“I don’t think the dead ball will hurt the .340 hitters in the National League as much as the .275 players,” Foxx said. “I look for a difference of 20 points for the light men but only four or five for the sluggers.”
Added Chuck Klein: “If you like a ‘whooshy’ ball – that’s okay. I like the old ball – but it doesn’t make much difference.”
Ty Cobb, elected to the Hall of Fame in 1936 as part of the institution’s first class, praised the NL for adding one more stitch to the seam of the sphere.
“It means more close games. More close games mean more excitement for the crowd. It means better pitching and more base running,” Cobb said before the start of the season. “Anybody would rather watch one of those 2-1 or 3-2 games even if it is on a sandlot, than a 12-1 game, even if played in a World Series.”
Prior to the start of the 1938 season, future Hall of Famer Clark Griffith, the owner of the Washington Senators and the winner of 237 big league games at the turn of the century, wanted a government agency to test the new NL balls.
“I’ve worked out an arrangement with the Bureau of Standards to test the so-called National League dead ball and the so-called American League rabbit ball,” Griffith said. “This experiment will be a mechanical one. Machines will do all the slugging and nobody will do any pitching.”
In March 1938, the Bureau of Standards report said its tests on liveliness of “dead” and “live” baseballs showed “no difference of any practical significance.”
“Some National League balls are more lively than some American League balls and some are less lively,” said the bureau, summing up the situation.
In fact, while the AL loop remained relatively consistent from 1937 to 1938, batting .281 both seasons while its homer total rose from 806 to 864, any changes in the NL circuit were negligible, as the batting average went from .272 in 1937 and decreased to .267 the next year, while the homer totals went from 624 to 611.
After the 1938 season, the NL, whose new ball wasn’t as dead as the manufacturers promised, announced it intended to keep it in play. Also, AL President William Harridge said that its teams would conform to the specifications of the NL ball, but made clear it wasn’t aimed at toning down the home run power of a New York Yankees team coming off three straight World Series titles.
While there has been wild speculation over the recent decades about changes to the baseball – claims big league baseball has consistently denied – even back on 1939, a longtime executive with Spalding, who manufactured the balls at the time, vehemently refuted any speculation on unconfirmed alterations.
In a letter to New York Times sports columnist John Kieran, Spalding’s Julian W. Curtiss wrote:
“I note that one of your correspondents is still talking of the ‘lively baseball’ and a little comment of your own would indicate that you hold the same opinion. Now, sir, won’t you please believe me when I say that as far as I know the only thing in baseball that has not changed in many years is the baseball itself. In liveliness and construction there has been practically no change in 28 years.
“The American League officials asked me to attend their meeting recently and I gladly did. I made the statement then as I have made it here, and Connie Mack, who was on hand, backed me up and said, ‘Mr. Curtiss, you are quite right.’ I have been closely associated with the making of the ball since 1885 – in fact, I really have had charge of it – and I ought to know something about it.”
Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum