PINNING DOWN THE VOODOO BALL

Big-league pitchers have nightmares about the baseball sewn in Haiti, but on that impoverished island it is a dream come true
August 26, 1973

It is a vision that appears to lonely, terrified men on the mound: Baron Samedi, a sepulchral figure in top hat and tails, dances crazily to the beat of native drums while a chorus of nymphets dressed in virginal white writhes around him. There are a motionless goat with candles burning at the tips of its horns and an entranced woman possessed by ancestral spirits. Off to the side a man sets his torso aflame and a token zombie or two sit in eerie silence.

Standing before the swirling, smoking scene, a priestess in a red bandanna mumbles an incantation over a boiling pot. The drums abruptly stop beating as she reaches inside the caldron and withdraws a small, round, white object. She holds it aloft, waving it in hypnotic arcs in front of the crazed assemblage. There are shrieks as she stabs it savagely with pins and needles. Baron Samedi, howling, bounces off into the banana trees. The virgins swoon. The zombies are deader than ever. The burning man simmers. The priestess finishes her knitting, then tosses the stitched white thing against the wall of her hut. She fields it on the short hop and addresses the goat in a lilting Creole dialect. "Well, kid," she says, "that's baseball."

That, at any rate, is about the way the pitchers see it as they heft the new baseball sewn in Haiti, land of voodoo. After nearly a full season of dodging line drives they are prepared to attribute magical qualities to the dread "Haiti ball." All 12 American League teams have higher batting averages this year than last, and 11 of them have hit more home runs. The league average is up nearly 20 percentage points. Lest this climb be credited solely to the introduction of the designated hitter, the pitchers point to the National League, where averages, scoring and homers have also increased. Two National League teams—Montreal and San Francisco—are hitting 25 percentage points higher than last year.

The hitters fall back on old chants to explain their rejuvenation. Some are "seeing the ball better" and others are "getting good wood on it." The pitchers blame it on the ball, which they regard as another manifestation of the international conspiracy against them. They have already endured lowered mounds, narrowed strike zones, shortened fences and designated hitters. Now they must contend with exotic sorcery.

There is not much agreement among the bewitched on what specifically is wrong with the voodoo ball beyond the fact that it is obviously hexed.

"The seams seem high on the Haiti ball," says Brewer Chris Short.

"The Haiti balls have lower seams," says San Diego's Bill Greif.

"The old balls felt like suede," says Phillie Jim Lonborg. "The new ones feel like shoe leather. No softness."

"You can't get a good grip on the ball from Haiti," says Cincy's Clay Carroll. "It's smoother and lighter, and the seams aren't raised, so you have trouble throwing breaking pitches. I've noticed the way they jump off the bat. They really fly out of the park. They must be wrapped a lot tighter than the old ball."

"The Haiti ball is like a rock," says Cleveland Pitching Coach Warren Spahn.

"It feels strange in your hands," says Dodger Claude Osteen.

"It's easy to tell the difference," says Red Sox Coach Eddie Popowski. "It's right on the label—'Sewn in Haiti.' "

This inscription represents the only fundamental difference between the Haiti ball and its domestic predecessor, according to Paul Collins, president of the Spalding Sporting Goods Company, which has manufactured baseballs since 1876. "The words are required by Customs," he said wearily. "As soon as we put them on the ball everybody got spastic. It's funny what a label will do. The same ball is used by both leagues. Only the label is different. But we can't even convince some people of that. The specifications set up by both leagues haven't changed in 50 years. There never has been a 'live ball' era or any other era, but any time you put something different on the ball, people go crazy. Next year we're going to cowhide from horsehide. We've been experimenting with it for years, and there's no difference except that cowhide is cheaper and more available. But just wait until the pitchers hear about that."

National League President Chub Feeney would concur. When he assumed office three years ago he found that his signature on the ball created a lively missile known by pitchers as the dread "Feeney Ball."

Major league baseballs are still manufactured in Spalding's sprawling plant in Chicopee, Mass. They are merely stitched together in Haiti, and then only out of peculiar economic necessity. The work in Chicopee, including the preparation of the cork and rubber center, winding the woolen yarn, the fashioning of horsehide covers and the application of latex cement to the wound ball, is done principally by machine. In one of modern technology's most embarrassing oversights, no machine has ever been developed that can effectively and economically stitch a baseball. This has always been the province of the seamstress, and competent baseball seamstresses are both expensive and scarce in this country.

"We can't find people willing to do that kind of work," says Collins. "Even if we could, it would cost us $3 an hour per stitcher here. In Haiti it costs us $3 a day. As it is, our baseball business is a losing operation, and without the Haiti deal I don't see how we could continue. I nearly have a stroke every time I see somebody hit a foul ball. To me that's money down the drain."

Actually it has been five years since a major league ball was stitched in the continental United States. Before Spalding reached an agreement with Haitian industrialist Harry Tippenhauer, the sewing was done in Puerto Rico. Rising labor costs there soon compelled a move elsewhere. For three years Tippenhauer's Precision Manufacturing Company stitched all Spalding balls except the major league model. By January of this year it was decided Tippenhauer had enough stitchers of big-league caliber to make the move out of the bushes. Now every ball purchased by the National and American leagues has been sewn in his Port-au-Prince plant.

For that matter, the cheerful Haitians are keeping most American baseball manufacturers in stitches. With 10 factories employing about 3,000 workers, they have almost sewn up the business. In a country with an unemployment rate of about 45%, stitching is a bona fide boon to the economy. The Haitian government, at least nominally presided over now by Jean Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, the rotund 22-year-old son of the late, largely unlamented Papa Doc, is assiduously wooing the baseball crowd even though the game is not played in the French-speaking country.

"Bonjour, nous avons des visites," Rolf Tippenhauer calls out to the pretty black women seated at the long tables before the balls of yarn that may soon become home runs. Rolf, a tall, caramel-colored man of 34 with Harry Belafonte good looks, manages the Port-au-Prince plant for his father Harry. "Bonjour," the women reply with apparent affection.

Outside, on a rutted rocky road, old women in tattered clothes cook over open fires. The baseball girls are neat and clean in fresh dark green skirts and light green blouses with the PM of Precision Manufacturing stitched on the pockets. They work with amazing speed, arms flailing outward like breaststrokers, sewing as many as 260,000 baseballs in a month. There is no air conditioning, but large overhead fans blow down on them as they sit in rectangles of sunlight created by slits in the tin roof. They seem content, even happy, with this monotonous work. The swiftest among them can earn $35 to $50 every two weeks, a handsome income by Haitian standards.

The 350 women sew in three rooms, each representing a different quality of ball. In the "Big League Room" the top 83 stitchers work with delicate precision preparing the balls that, according to complaining pitchers, are too perfect, too smooth, too well knit.

On the wall of the room a large blue and gold Spalding banner hangs alongside a portrait of Papa Doc, the "president for life" until his death two years ago at 64. Haiti seems a happier place with the old man gone. It is poor still, and troubled, but gayer without the hulking "Tontons Macoutes" bogeymen Papa Doc hired as secret policemen.

Although the game is played on either side of them in the Dominican Republic and Cuba, the Haitians do not know a baseball from a grapefruit. Rolf Tippenhauer, nevertheless, bounces one in his hands as he talks. It is his product, not a plaything. "The girls don't really know what they are making, only that it is something used in a game played in the United States," he says. "I have never seen any baseball except on television in Puerto Rico, where I worked for a time. Actually, I am only managing the plant to help my father out. I am an architect, educated at the University of Geneva and the National University of Mexico. But we are proud here of our baseballs. We check them all before shipping them back to Chicopee and they check them again there. Everything is done to specification. These people who complain...." And he fingers the seams himself, as if contemplating a hard slider. "It must be all in the head."

At 72 Harry Tippenhauer is as tall and erect as his son. He is a Haitian aristocrat of German descent, a man of property, a manufacturer, a builder, an engineer, a college professor, a maker of baseballs.

"If Spalding sent us the materials we could make the entire ball, not just sew it," he said over a beer in the bar of the picturesque Grand Hotel Oloffson. He is black, but he looks Prussian, a black uhlan. "There is, as you can see, no shortage of labor here. Quite the contrary. But I suppose the major leagues want to maintain certain controls. Still, we work very closely with Spalding. They can terminate our contract with six months' notice."

That evening Harry escorted a group of visiting American sporting goods representatives to a "voodoo show" in the wooded outskirts of Port-au-Prince. The air was heavy from the afternoon rain and there was only the slightest breeze. But Tippenhauer, ever dignified, and his guests wore business suits. The drums could be heard as the car turned up the narrow road toward a clearing where the show would be staged. A tall woman passed, balancing a large basket on her head, and goats skittered along the side of the road. There was a scent in the air, a mustiness that hung over the trees.

The show was a dramatized—and highly stylized—reproduction of a voodoo ceremony, really not much like the secret rituals of the natives. It involved dozens of dancers and a goat. One by one women in white were carried from the stage, apparently entranced as a witch doctor, or "hougan," pranced about their prostrated forms swigging rum and spewing it into the night air. The goat stood by, candles burning from its horns, like a loyal but bored spaniel.

Then Baron Samedi appeared—the voodoo keeper of the grave, the black prince of darkness. He was a small, agile man in a ridiculously large top hat who called to mind early Ed Sullivan. Intended to be fearsome, he was merely comic. When he danced off into the night the crowd, mostly American tourists who paid $4 a head, moved solemnly toward the road. Harry Tippenhauer smiled a businessman's smile. "These are American sports people," he said, introducing his guests.

"That was a hell of a show," said one of the visitors. "Really good. Harry here is an old friend. Fine businessman. My company? Why, we make footballs."

That, as Baron Samedi himself might say, is a whole new ball game.

ILLUSTRATION

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)