Evolution of the Ball

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Evolution of the Ball
Rawlings Sporting Goods Company

This article was originally published in the magazine Baseball Digest on page 67 of the July 1963 issue.

of the Ball

Condensed from the Rawlings Trade Digest

Evolution of the Ball, title image.png The wide tolerance in the size of baseballs prior to 1872 is best illustrated by a comparison with specifications after that date. The thin black line represents tolerances as set in 1872. The red area shows latitude in size permitted prior to 1872.

The rulemakers recently made the strike zone larger in an effort to aid the pitchers who are confronted with the task of earning a living in the day of the so-called "live" ball.

Actually the terms "live" and "dead" have been applied to baseballs for more than 100 years. The stir that arose in 1961 when Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and others were hitting home runs at a record clip was just one in a series of many "dead or alive" controversies that have occurred over the years.

The baseball has undergone very little change since the early days of the game, at least in the specifications prescribed in the rules. Basketballs, footballs, helmets, shoulder pads, baseball gloves and mitts and uniforms for all sports have undergone numerous changes in size, shape and appearance, but for nearly 100 years—since 1872—the baseball has weighed five ounces and measured nine inches in circumference.

There have been changes in the materials used in making baseballs, and there has been a marked improvement in the consistency of the final product. The yarns used, for example, are stored under controlled temperature and humidity conditions, and are wound under constant tension, thus eliminating soft spots and assuring uniformity.

Early baseball had melted rubber center. Ball of the 1840's weighed only three ounces and was very much "alive".

The early-day baseball was composed of a melted rubber center around which yarn was wound, and generally included a sewn-on cover. The weight of the ball was three ounces and because of its size and construction it was a much livelier ball than the baseball of today. Scoring of over 100 runs in a game was not too uncommon until, in 1846, the rules were amended to provide that the first team to score 21 runs was the winner. (It was not until 1857 that the length of a game was set at nine innings.) Pitching was underarm from a distance of 45 feet and the batter was out if a fielder caught the ball on the first bounce.

In 1854 the weight of the ball was increased to five and one-half to six ounces and the diameter to two and three-quarters to three and one-half inches (a variance in circumference from eight and five-eighths inches to 11 inches). Four years later, as a result of the larger and less lively ball, the "first bounce" rule was abolished. In 1860 the specifications were amended to provide for a weight of five and three-quarters to six ounces and a circumference of nine and three-quarters to ten inches. In 1872 the tolerances on the weight and circumference of the baseball were reduced to those of today. (five to five and one-quarter ounces in weight and nine to nine and one-quarter inches in circumference).

With the changes in weight and size of the baseball in 1854, 1860 and 1872, the ball became less lively and more uniform but there was still some variation in the composition of baseballs. The so-called "lively" ball did not disappear completely as the home run record for one team (140) established by the 1884 Chicago White Stockings withstood the assault of all teams until the 1927 Yankees, paced by Babe Ruth with 60, set a new mark of 158 home runs.

In the early years of organized professional baseball, beginning with the National Association in 1871, baseballs were noted for their lack of uniformity. As the home team was responsible for furnishing the ball, strategy entered into the determination of the type of baseball to be supplied. A team with a lot of batting power furnished a lively ball while a good defensive club could be expected to put into play a dead ball. One New York firm, in an effort to find favor with good fielding teams, claimed in an advertisement that "our professional dead balls... are made of all yarn without rubber and are the deadest balls made."

The cork center baseball was introduced in 1910. The new "live" ball led pitchers to develop a number of freak deliveries, most of which were outlawed in 1920.

Even at that early date, however, most baseballs were made of the same general ingredients as today go into the making of baseballs—rubber cores surrounded by tightly wound woolen yarn and covered with leather.

When the National League came into being in 1876 professional baseball reached "major league" stature for the first time. The rules concerning baseballs became more exacting and as a result the baseballs, particularly those used in the National League, and later in the American Association and American League, became more uniform.

An important change in the composition of the baseball was made in 1910 with the introduction of the cork center. The idea of a cork center has been traced back to 1863 when an Englishman by the name of Weeks patented a cork-center ball for cricket. The cork center was first used in baseballs about 1900, but this new construction was not satisfactory at first because the wool yarn swelled after the ball was made. This was eliminated by reducing the size of the cork center and putting a layer of rubber around it.

With the introduction of the cork-center baseball in 1910 pitchers soon began to develop freak deliveries—shine ball, spitball, emery ball, etc.—to offset the "lively" ball. Drastic changes were made in the rules in 1920 to outlaw these pitches. However, recognized "spitball" pitchers, 17 in all, were permitted to continue using their specialty for the remainder of their careers. Most successful of these, and the last to close his major league career, was Burleigh Grimes, who pitched last for the Yankees in 1934.

In 1931 the center of the ball was again changed when the cushioned cork center made its bow. The cushioned cork center, still in use, consists of a small sphere of composition cork which is molded to a layer of rubber. The first layer of black rubber is made up of two hemispheric shells. The two openings where these shells meet are sealed with a cushion of red rubber and a layer of red rubber surrounds the entire center.

There have been no further changes in the specifications of baseballs but, as pointed out before, humidity and temperature controls, and more exacting manufacturing procedures have led to greater consistency.

The present physical specifications of a baseball (five to five and one-quarter ounces and nine to nine and one-quarter inches) date back to 1872. In 1878 when the first Official Baseball Guide was published the rules covering the baseball were as follows:

Section 1. The ball must weigh not less than five nor more than five and one-quarter ounces avoirdupois. It must measure not less than nine nor more than nine and one-quarter inches in circumference. It must be composed of woolen yarn, and shall not contain more than one ounce of vulcanized rubber in mould form, and shall be covered with leather, and to be furnished by the Secretary of the League.

Section 2. In all games, the ball or balls played with shall be furnished by the home club, and shall become the property of the winning club.

Section 3. No ball shall be played with in any championship game unless it is furnished by the Secretary of the League.

Section 4. When the ball becomes out of shape, or cut or ripped so as to expose the yarn, or in any way so injured as to be unfit for fair use, a new ball shall be called for by the umpire at the end of an even innings, at the request of either captain. Should the ball be lost during the game, the umpire shall, at the expiration of five minutes, call for a new ball.

The first change in the official rules in regard to the baseball was made in 1883 when the umpire was authorized to introduce a new ball when needed rather than to wait until the end of an even "innings." In 1886 the umpires no longer had to wait for five minutes to put a new ball into play after a ball had been knocked out of the park or lost. In 1887 the home team was required to furnish two new balls at the start of the game and additional balls as needed. At the same time the rules were amended so that the winning team was awarded only the last ball in play. In 1896, with the game continuing to grow in stature, the home team was required to have at least a dozen balls on the field for each game.

In 1897 a measure against the doctoring of baseballs was added to the rules:

In the event of a ball being intentionally discolored or otherwise injured by a player, the umpire shall, upon appeal of the captain of the opposite side, forthwith demand the removal of that ball and shall substitute another new ball and impose a fine of $5.00 upon the offending player.

When the pitching rules were revised in 1920, the rules in regard to the baseball were supplemented to recommend the use of a soft dry cloth to remove the gloss from each new baseball. This provision mained in the rules until 1943, although the use of such a cloth had become obsolete previously by the use of soil to remove the gloss.

The cushioned cork center baseball, which made its bow in 1931, is still in use. While baseball specifications have changed little since 1872, construction has now reached a peak of uniformity.

In 1949 the official baseball rules were completely reviewed by a special committee and a number of revisions were made including the shortening of the rule on the baseball as follows:

The ball is to weigh not less than five nor more than five and one-quarter ounces avoirdupois, measure not less than nine nor more than nine and one-quarter inches in circumference and is to meet the approved resiliency standards.

Eliminated from the rules were provisions such as the one awarding the last ball in play to the winning team, the providing of sufficient baseballs for use in the game, etc. Such requirements were now considered automatic and no longer needed to be outlined in the rules.

One provision of the new rules — the reference to the "approved resiliency standards" — needed clarifying as no such standards had ever been set. This provision was eliminated at the rules meeting in December, 1954, and at the same time the composition of the baseball was more clearly defined. The rule put into effect for 1955, and still in existence, is as follows:

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 horse-hide, tightly stitched together. It shall weigh not less than five nor more than five and one-quarter ounces avoidupois and measure not less than nine nor more than nine and one-quarter inches in circumference.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was legally published within the United States (or the United Nations Headquarters in New York subject to Section 7 of the United States Headquarters Agreement) before 1964, and copyright was not renewed.

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