The baseball is the most perfect creation of human beings.
Before 1850, baseballs were home-made and from the three basic elements: a center, a layer wound cloth and/or string, and a cover.
The center was intended to make the ball “lively” and was usually made of rubber; pieces of rubber boots were a favorite material. In areas of the country where sturgeon swam, you could us a fish eye, about the size of a walnut as your spongy center.
Balls with rubber centers dropped from the height of 6 feet were known to bounce as high as 10-12 inches and could travel almost as far as modern baseballs; the fish-eye-center balls were as bouncy as the baseball used in the Dead Ball Era, 1900 to 1919.
During this Home-made Era, random scraps of cloth, year, or string were wound, as tightly as possible by hand, around the center and covered with pieces of leather that we hand sewn in a patchwork. Some were taken to a shoemaker for the stitching.
Most of the original organized games were in the New York City area, so two local men were the primary ball-makers until 1870: Harvey Ross, who played for the Atlantic Base Ball Club [Brooklyn] and a sail maker by trade, made baseballs in his home on Park Avenue [NYC], while John Van Horn, a member of the Union Club [Morrisania, N.Y.] made his over on Second Avenue [NYC] at his boot and shoe shop.
Covers were made from horsehide, occasionally sheep skin, until 1974, when MLB ruled that cowhide could also be used. In 1940 MLB allowed gloves to be made from horsehide or cowhide.
Until a college student invented the “figure 8” stitching pattern about 1888 to “form a more perfect union,” the cover was generally four pieces of leather.
Significantly the pre-Figure 8 balls’ stitches were even with the ball’s surface and did not provide the pitcher with a better grip. Also, the new Figure-8 pattern, with more prominent stitches created a universe of possible means to spin the sphere.
In 1880 Harry Wright held an exhibition game to promote two of his innovations, a cork-center baseball and square bats; thus, leaning toward balls and bats used in Cricket. The ball was deemed too lively in this pre-glove era and changed the delicate balance between offense and defense.
With the gradual evolution of gloves, by 1910 the cork-centered ball mass-produced by the Reach Company [owned by Spalding] and was accepted as the new standard.
The advantage of cork over rubber for the center was explained in Popular Mechanics magazine:
“The cork makes possible a more rigid structure and more uniform resiliency. It is said to outlast the rubber center balls many times over, because it will not soften or break in spots under the most severe usage.” [Reprinted, Washington Post, July 31, 1910]
The ball center was improved in 1925, when the A. J. Reach Company introduced the “cushioned-cork” center, described thusly:
“…a lathe-turned perfect sphere of live cork, surrounded by black semi-vulcanized rubber, which is vulcanized by another cover of red rubber.” [Port Arthur (Texas) News, October 25, 1925]
The recent kerfuffle about baseballs being too lively is nothing new to the game; the new “cushion-cork” ball set off a debate that the Reach Company tried to address in a Press Release:
“…while it has better balance, and greater wearing and enduring qualities…it is neither less lively nor more lively in play.” [Port Arthur (Texas) News, October 25, 1925]
A rule change ended the Dead Ball era. In February 1920, organized baseball banned “doctored” pitches, including: spit balls, scuffed balls, sanded balls and any other trick pitch.
And in the Dead Ball era, it was customary to use the same ball all game long. Even foul balls to the bleachers were routinely tossed back into play. [Source: Russell O. Wright]
In BUNTS, George Will speculated that the balls, made in Haiti, were livelier, because the people had more “pep,” once the dictator, Duvalier, was deposed:
“[The politically energized workers in ball factories in Haiti] worked with more pep, pulling the stitching tighter, thereby flattening the seams—and flattening curve balls. The smoother balls had less wind resistance to give them movement when pitched, or to slow the subsequent flight over outfielders.”
[George F. Will, Bunts, p. 245]
The “Too Lively Ball” argument continues today:
All 108 red stitches on Major League baseballs are all still stitched by hand, although ball consistency has improved with new technology – materials are now stored in temperature controlled facilities and balls are wound under constant tension to eliminate “soft spots” and guarantee a uniform surface.
Some seasons see a lot of home runs while others see pitchers locked in battle. So far this year , teams have scored the fewest runs per game (4.22) since 1992, when it was 4.12. Granted, the hot summer months where the balls soar through the humid air have yet to come, but it looks like the men on the mound have the upper hand.”
SEE a dissected baseball here:
“In the Big Inning” will appear here every FRIDAY.
A GAME OF INCHES, Peter Morris.
Russell O. Wright. Dominating the Diamond: The 19 Baseball Teams with the Most Dominant Single Seasons, 1901-2000].
“Evolution of the Ball,” Baseball Digest (July 1963); Peter Morris, A Game of Inches: The Stories Behind The Innovations that Shaped Baseball (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006); Josh Chetwynd, The Secret History of Balls (Penguin, 2011); Zack Hample, The Baseball: Stunts, Scandals, and Secrets Beneath the Stitches (Random House, 2011); Zachary D. Rymer, “The Evoution of the Baseball from the Dead ball Era Through Today,” Bleacher Report (June 18, 2013); 19th Century Baseball