It was not exactly the shot heard round the world; it was not even new. But Ted Williams said it and that meant, at least, that the battle again was joined.
"I know the ball is souped up," he said. "I asked Joe Cronin about it and he said, 'Oh, no, the ball's the same.' " The Washington manager's show of scorn was superb. He fell back full force in his swivel chair and growled, "Yeaaah, sure it's the same."
In Houston, site of that temple of constancy, the Dome (temperature 72°, humidity 50%, wind zero, always), there were not so many growlers in evidence as there were people staring, wide-eyed. Suspicions were first aroused this season when the Astros' Doug Rader and Jim Wynn fired shots down range about 475 feet and five levels up, the first ever to land in the distant yellow seats in left field. These were followed by a similar blast from the bat of Cincinnati rookie Bernie Carbo to right field, the first time those seats ever came under attack. The real eyebrow-raiser was another Carbo homer, 440 feet out of center field. Carbo hit it one-handed.
Sparky Anderson, the Reds' manager, did not think that any lightning had been added to the ball, but he confessed bewilderment. "The Dome," he said, "has always been the truest test when a guy socks one, and what's going on there has me surprised." His massive coach, Ted Kluszewski, who hit a few long ones himself in his time, used to say that improved bats were responsible for the booming home runs. Dave Concepcion, the Reds' 155-pound shortstop, disabused him of that theory when he one-handed a ball 375 feet. It is the ball, Klu says now.
The stories are not limited to Houston or the Reds. Nate Colbert of the San Diego Padres hurt his hand hitting a fly ball and was talking to himself as he jogged toward first base. Then, he says, "I heard some commotion. I looked up. The ball was in the seats." Little Luis Aparicio of the White Sox hit one with one hand, and Hal Lanier of the Giants had a 430-foot homer after having gone 0 for 3 (years, that is). National Leaguers hit 30 home runs in seven games on May 8, a record, and two days later both leagues added 46 in 14 games, another record.
To find out how alarmed, if at all, major-leaguers had become over the sudden fierceness of banjo hitters, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED polled the players, managers and coaches about the ball with the following results: 300 said the ball was friskier, 182 said it was not and 23 were not sure what it was doing.
Carl Yastrzemski of the Red Sox, who in mid-May hit a ball 480 feet, said, "Listen, today's athlete is better and stronger." But Lee Walburn, public-relations director for the Braves, who had played baseball in college, tried vainly for four years to hit a ball over the wall in Atlanta during batting practice. One day this season he hit two out of the park and four others that reached the outfield fence. Maybe today's public-relations directors are better and stronger.
"I think we're using two balls," said Charley Lau, a coach with Oakland, who demonstrated by holding a 1969 and 1970 ball in his hands and telling them apart, blindfolded.
"I definitely think there are two balls being used and that one is livelier," said Manager Al Dark of the Indians. "I'll bet there'll be 500 more homers this year than last." (With half of the season gone, there are 217 more.)
"What bothers me most," said Williams, "is that one day you use the new ball and the next day they bring out last year's ball. Sometimes they even mix 'em up in the same game. That doesn't make sense. I've seen enough hits that should be hump-back line drives go out of the park not to know there isn't a difference.
"We cut some balls apart—old ones and new ones—and this year's ball wanted to explode. I think it's the wool. What else can cause a ball to swell up like that? Maybe not more wool, but different wool. I'll bet that's what it is. Trouble is, baseballs aren't finely tuned. They're different. When I played, sometimes you'd hit one that really took off and another time you'd hit one that felt good and it wouldn't go anywhere.
"This spring we never found any such thing as a 'soft' ball, but yesterday I came across a batch so soft I couldn't believe it. I was shocked. Feel this ball. Squeeze it." Moderate fingertip pressure moved the cover of the ball. "Now feel this ball," Williams ordered, taking one from another batch. "Bear down on it. It's hard as a brick, right?"
Hoyt Wilhelm of the Braves dissected some balls, too, some a few years old and some brand-new. "The ball is harder now," he said. "Old balls are not wound as tight and you can unwind them a thread at a time. The ones today have a rubbery glue inside. You can't unwind them, but you can peel off the glue and ball it up in your hand.
"We get a lot of balls thrown to us in the bullpen after they've been hit hard or for homers. There was a time not long ago when you could see where the bat had hit the ball. It wasn't unusual to get a ball that had been knocked one-sided. Today you never see that. There was a time when some pitchers could loosen the covers, but nobody can loosen them now."
Other players and coaches conducted their own experiments. Some said they saw glue oozing out of the seams. Some noticed balls that were oily, hard, soft, heavy, light, small, medium and large. There were numerous complaints about the stitching, that it was raised on some balls and almost hammered down on others.
Through it all, A. G. Spalding & Bros. Inc., which has the sole right to make major league baseballs, has maintained, "The ball is the same as it was 40 years ago." Bill Sovey, vice-president in charge of manufacturing at the Spalding plant in Chicopee, Mass., said, "When hitters are hitting, people complain that the ball must be hopped-up. When pitchers dominate, people say the ball must be deader. We make about 30,000 dozen balls a year for the major leagues. We constantly check weight and circumference. Our contract with the leagues specifies what the ball is to be made of and we conduct in-process inspections of balls as well as of incoming materials. All parts of the ball are the same since the cushioned-cork center was adopted in 1926."
Maybe so. But in 1961 a study commissioned by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED reported that the balls tested that year were "heavier, bouncier, firmer" than balls that had been examined in other tests eight years earlier. And in 1963 The Haller Testing Laboratories of Plainfield, N.J. reported to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED that the major league baseballs it bounced and pummeled that year were 5% deader and considerably lighter than those of 1961.
Recently, Haller conducted new and more extensive tests for this magazine. A total of 102 balls—51 from each league—was obtained from big-league teams' supplies of game balls. The balls were weighed, measured, bounced (to study the liveliness of their rebound), bisected, unraveled, X-rayed, baked and wetted down. The tests all boiled down to one fact: if there is anything consistent about a major league baseball, it is its inconsistency. In all of the ball sports, there probably is no piece of equipment as complicated to manufacture or as far-ranging in its performance as the baseball. The variation in liveliness of the balls studied was astonishing—14.5% between the dullest and friskiest. In terms of distance, with all other factors being equal, this could mean a difference of 58 feet (on a 400-foot drive) between a lively and a dull ball.
Concern over the low-scoring 1968 season led the majors to ask Spalding to make a peppier ball for experimental purposes. The result was the 1-X with, supposedly, 10% more bounce than the "regular" ball. The added 10% nearly turned the 1-X into a lethal weapon. It was replaced this spring with the X-5, 5% more lively than what Spalding described as "the good old ball that hasn't changed since 1926." Even that small increase was too much and the X-5 was abandoned. There is no chance, incidentally, that the experimental balls were somehow mixed into batches of regular balls. They were stitched with red and blue cord; all regulars are red.
Spalding will not say how it made the 1-X or X-5, other than to admit the cores were rebuilt. According to the company, all balls are made of identical components: the core, consisting of a cork center surrounded by two black rubber halves encased in pink rubber; a midsection, composed of 369 yards of four different types of cotton and wool; a coating of cement; and a horsehide shell, held together by 108 stitches. Machines do all of the work except for the stitching and the molding of the core.
For all of the precision of the manufacturing process, there were remarkable physical differences in the 102 balls tested this season by Haller. There was a 9% difference between the heaviest and lightest balls, three of which were too light by league standards, 21 of which were too heavy. The cores of 15 balls—five low, five medium and five high re-bounders—were weighed. The difference in weight between the lightest and heaviest cores was even greater than for the whole ball, 13%. This discrepancy, however, did not seem to have a significant effect on the bounce of the ball. There was a mere 1/10th-gram average difference in weight between the cores of the highest and lowest bouncers.
Deviations in the thickness of the pink rubber were plainly visible when balls were cut in half, with that layer being thin in some spots and almost 50% thicker in others. Also discernible on the outside of one pink section was a long, bulky, crinkly protuberance that somehow passed "in-process" inspection.
As a number of big-leaguers noticed, glue was almost nonexistent on older balls (1967-68) that were examined along with the 102 new balls. Some of the 1970 balls have a layer of cement so thick that it can be peeled off in halves like skins from oranges. Dave Antes, who was in charge of the tests made by Haller Laboratories, says, "There was no uniform layer of glue on the balls. The glue impregnated the ball to different thicknesses. On some balls there was as much as a quarter inch of glue. When peeling off this sublayer, much of the yarn came off with the glue on some balls while on others very little stuck fast." Antes spotted something else that might help explain why some balls are a bit livelier than others. "On six of the first nine 1969 balls there was no glue on the outside of the core," he said. "All six of the 1970 balls had glue on the core."
In other tests, the balls were measured for diameter, examined for compression, density and specific gravity and X-rayed. There was less contrast in diameter than in any other area of testing, and the balls also held up well under compression tests. Haller found, too, that balls baked in a 212° oven for 24 hours lost 12 grams and gained 5.8% in vigor. Thus a ball that might normally be hit 400 feet would travel an extra 23 feet. Subjecting balls to excessive humidity—24 hours in a steam-filled "moist room"—caused them to pick up 11 grams and lose 17.4% of their bounce—or 70 feet. This is why baseballs "carry" better or worse in certain ball parks.
Paul Richards, general manager of the Braves, recalls a somewhat similar experiment about 10 years ago when he was manager of the Orioles. "We had a pregame home run-hitting contest against the Yankees," Richards says. "Luman Harris heated up one batch of balls and froze another. Mickey Mantle didn't know it, but he had to swing at the frozen ones. He hit nothing but pop-ups. Then up comes Gus Triandos for us and he gets the hot balls. He hit them out of sight."
Spalding is aware of the effect temperature and humidity can have on balls, and controls both during manufacture and storage. There are no controls, however, once the balls leave the factory—and it is often six to seven months later that the balls are used. They are not tested in any way before a game nor is their date of manufacture stamped on them. Most clubs buy from 150 to 300 dozen at a time (which, at 10 dozen per day, is a one to two months' supply) and keep them in a wide variety of storage crannies. Before the game, five dozen balls are taken to the umpires' room, where they are rubbed with a special dried mud and placed in a ball bag. A determined man no doubt could intrude himself into the process and substitute a batch of hot balls, but there is no evidence that this has ever happened. And since all balls get mixed together in the ball bag, which is kept on the field, it would be impossible, without marked balls and the connivance of the plate umpire, to slip the lively balls to one team and the duds to another.
Baseball's protestations to the contrary—and few officials ever admit that the quality of the ball has been changed, purposely or not—the ball has been livened and deadened in the past with direct effects on the season. In 1953, for instance, the ball was found to be 8% more lively than in the previous season, and there was an 18% increase in home runs. In 1931, by contrast, the National League voted to deaden the ball, which apparently had been hyperactive in previous seasons; the league batting average declined 26 points and the number of home runs hit was almost half the 1930 figure.
The late Fresco Thompson of the Dodgers, a member of the rules committee, said 16 years ago, "We have had considerable doubletalk from the manufacturers as to the composition of the baseball and its resiliency." It was not until 1951—after a then-record 2,073 homers the year before—that it finally was written into Rule 14, Section 1 that "The ball...shall meet approved resiliency standards." And it was not until 1955 that the rule stated, "The ball shall be a sphere." Change, except in the quality of the baseball, comes slowly in the sport.
Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn insists that the ball being used in 1970 is the same as last year's, that all the balls undergo stringent testing and that they are uniform. Doubtless, since they say so, this is the way he and the Spalding people would like things to be. But in this imperfect world, one does not always get what he wants. The Haller tests for bounce showed that about 36% of the balls examined were within one inch of the overall average of 8'3". They would be considered consistent. But about 64%, of the balls were inconsistent. The most consistent ball was the National League 1970 with only a 5.2% variation. The next most consistent was the 1969 NL ball (10.8%,); the AL 1969 (10.9%) was almost the same. The AL 1970 (12.1%) was least consistent. Eleven of the highest-rebounding balls were from the American League, 13 of the lowest rebounders were NL 1969, many of which are still in use. This does not mean that age dulls all balls, because seven of the 15 leading bouncers were manufactured in 1969. Finally, the average bounce of a 1970 ball in either league was three inches higher than its counterpart in 1969.
It is hard to believe that anybody purposely tampered with the baseball. But it is obvious that at certain times something does happen that cannot be ascribed merely to "cycles," a favorite baseball shibboleth. For instance, high humidity during a game will curtail the flight of batted balls, yet already this season there was an abundance of home runs in three doubleheaders despite humidity readings that ranged between 76% and 80%. On May 24 the Giants and Padres hit seven in Candlestick Park, the same day on which the Indians and Yankees had 11 in Cleveland. And on June 2 in Milwaukee, after an all-day drizzle, the Brewers and Indians hit seven. One possible solution to this paradoxical outburst: the umpires must have been handed some lively batches of balls on those days. In a day that prides itself on quality control and in a sport that loves to chortle out that timeless cliché, "it's a game of inches," there are some extraordinary variations in the ball.
And now an awful truth dawns in the age of love and hair and belief in simple things. Put aside those years when somebody may have just added a shot of glue to put some new life in the old horsehide. Take only a normal year, and then ask, was it normal? Was there ever a normal year or a normal baseball? What of Bobby Thomson's pennant-winning home run in 1951? Would it have gone into the seats if he had hit a deader ball? This is not to say he did not hit a dead ball. He might have hit one, just as he might have hit a lively one. Did Al Weis of the Mets get a lively ball when he homered in the seventh inning of the fifth game of last year's World Series to tie the score against the Orioles? And what about Gabby Hartnett's Homer in the Gloamin' that "vanished" in the twilight and helped give the Cubs the 1938 pennant?
It is better not to think of such things, or there will be no faith left anywhere. But, Baseball, isn't it time to open the doors at Chicopee and see, possibly, if you can't get more equal bounce to the ounce?