IS THE BALL DEADER? HITTERS ARE DYING
On a recent Saturday the major league standings showed a record of remarkable futility on the part of half the batters in the National League. The scores for the day read:
San Francisco 3
New York 0
St. Louis 2
Los Angeles 1
Eleven hours and 21 minutes of baseball—and the hitters on the losing teams managed to produce exactly one run. In a baseball era when runs are cheap, it seemed, on the surface, a most unusual Saturday. But it was not. Things have been going pretty much that way all season. Batters are finding first base a tough place to reach and a lot of shrewd baseball men have been groping, not too successfully, for the reasons. "Either the pitchers are better than the salaries we're paying," said Dodger President Walter O'Malley, "or else the hitters aren't earning the contracts they hold."
This was a far call from two years ago when every time a pitcher threw a baseball he was likely to get it back at 120 mph, and tough old Early Wynn was heard to say of the rocketing ball: "I'm afraid to hold that thing in my hand too long. It might explode on me." At the end of that fearsome 1961 season, baseball's most honored record—Babe Ruth's 60 home runs—was surpassed by Roger Maris, and a score of other sluggers had a high old time hitting a baseball as it had never been hit before.
This year, however, it almost seems that they may never hit the ball that way again. The composite batting average for the National League is. 244, for the American League .247, only five and eight points higher than in 1909 and 1908, the worst years ever for batters. And that was a time when baseballs were loosely packed and freely spat-upon. Already this season there have been more shutouts (see box) in the National League than there were all last year. Shutouts for the American League are way up, too. Earned run averages are lower. Home runs are bearish. There are fewer walks this year, and games are shorter. Just last week Yankee Pitcher Ralph Terry threw 75 pitches in beating the Kansas City Athletics. "I don't know why the hitters aren't hitting," said the Giants' Don Larsen, "but I'll tell you this—I like it."
One reason the hitters are suffering is that the pitchers are bigger, younger, stronger and smarter than ever. But the two things that made the year of the pitcher come with such dramatic suddenness are: 1) a ball that seems less lively; 2) a bigger strike zone.
At the beginning of the season nobody was buying the notion that the 1963 ball was different. And even through July, as home run balls nestled into outfielders' gloves and people like Willie Mays hit .270, hardly anyone suggested that the Spalding factory was doing anything to make it less explosive. "That's a lot of bunk," said Rocky Colavito of the Tigers. "The ball's as lively as ever."
"I don't know anything about the construction of a baseball," said the Dodgers' Tommy Davis. "All I know is that when you hit it good it will go."
Edwin L. Parker, president of Spalding, does know about the construction of a baseball and he insists that the idea of a deader ball is ridiculous. "I don't contend that all baseballs are the same from year to year," Parker said. "The materials that go into a baseball—rubber, fiber, leather—are impossible to blend consistently. But I can tell you this. There has been absolutely no change in the manufacturing process at the Spalding factory—not in 1961, not now, not ever."
But baseball men insisted there was no change in the ball in 1961—and they were wrong. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED tested the ball then and found that it was livelier than in previous years. Last week, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED again had the ball tested, by Dr. F. A. Wallace, consulting, engineer of West Caldwell, N.J., and the Haller Testing Laboratories of Plain-field, N.J. The results indicate the ball is different than the one batters were hitting for so many home runs in 1961.
"The tests," wrote Dr. Wallace in his report, "made on a dozen American League and a dozen National League baseballs, all received in sealed cartons, were made in accordance with procedures outlined in the previous report." In those tests the ball was weighed and tested for compression and dropped from a specially constructed tower to determine rebound.
This year the tested balls proved lighter than in 1961. "A lighter ball," said Dr. Wallace, "is a deader ball." In the compression test, under a static load of 100 pounds, the 1963 balls were 3% softer. That, too, means a deader ball. But the most dramatic and most revealing test was for rebound. After 72 drops from a height of 26 feet 8 inches onto a steel-and-concrete platform (top, left), Dr. Wallace concluded that 5% of the old bounce is definitely not there. This means that a ball Roger Maris hit into the seats 400 feet away in 1961 would fall 20 feet short of the seats today.
Besides swinging at a deader ball, the hitters are having their troubles protecting a strike zone that the rules committee made bigger last winter. How much bigger? Not very much, really. Officially, the top of the strike zone was raised from the letters on the uniform to the top of the shoulder. Actually, the umpires are calling the high pitch somewhere in between. Still, the top has been raised enough to start the batters thinking, a thing most hitters should never attempt. "I'm afraid now to take a high pitch," says Philadelphia Catcher Clay Dalrymple. "I start saying to myself, 'What's a strike and what isn't?' By the time you get through mulling it over, the ball is by you."
"Just one call on a high strike can affect a hitter for days," says Houston's All-Star Relief Pitcher Hal Woodeshick. "I've seen a lot of them swinging at bad balls this year. It must be what you call a psycho effect. The batters get behind on the count and you've got em."
"The new strike zone is helping the pitchers, all right," said Phillies Manager Gene Mauch. "The batters are panicking on that high pitch. They don't know whether to swing or not."
Most players agree, too, that the strike zone is bigger, not only up and down but also crosswise. "They're cornering us to death," says Kansas City's Gino Cimoli, in bitter recollection of the many times umpires have called strikes this year on pitches close to the edge of the plate. Cimoli's manager, ex-Pitcher Ed Lopat, agrees. "The umpires seem to be giving the pitchers the edge on inside and outside pitches as well as high and low."
The same thing is happening in the National League. Johnny Edwards, Cincinnati's fine young catcher says: "The umpires have widened the plate a little—more than ever before." Though much of this may sound like the perennial grumping of low-average hitters and low-standing managers, the fact is that there have been 1,000 fewer bases on balls this season.
While the rulemakers and baseball manufacturers have added three inches and 5% to the pitcher's happy life, the burden is still on the pitchers to throw the deader ball through the bigger strike zone. As of last week, they were doing it uncommonly well, and in the case of a flock of strapping youngsters they were doing it superbly. "Look 'em over," urges Dodger Lee Walls with the gusto of a used-car salesman. "The new young pitchers are all tall, strong and big. The man who hits .280 against these people will get a raise." No doubt he will. Chicago Outfielder Floyd Robinson, the last man in the elite top 10 batters in the American League, currently has an average of .286.
Walls is also right when he says pitchers today are younger and bigger. Prime example is 6-foot-6, 240-pound reliever Dick Radatz of the Boston Red Sox, who is known fondly as Monster by fans, Moby Dick by teammates. Last year, age 24, Radatz won nine games, lost six and had a 2.23 earned run average—handsome figures, to be sure, but nothing like this year. Thoroughly cured of an intermittently sore arm and with a better idea where his awesome fast ball is going, Radatz has already won 12 games, saved six more and appears larger and more unattractive to batters as the season goes on. In Cincinnati 6-foot-2, 200-pound Jim Maloney won 17 games and lost only three. The Cubs' Dick Ellsworth, 23 years old and 6 feet 4 inches tall, has a current ERA of 2.07, and he seems sure to win 20. At the beginning of the season the Yankees were wistfully hoping that Jim Bouton, 24 years old and with only one year on the varsity, might partially solve some of their bullpen problems. Injuries forced the Yankees to make a starter of Bouton and he has won 14 games in this capacity. It is also fair to include Sandy Koufax, 6 feet 2, 200 pounds and, at 27, as good as a human being can become at winning baseball games. Imposing as they are, these are only a few of the three or four dozen young brutes who are persecuting major league batsmen. "Pitching is too tough anymore," says Cardinal Shortstop Dick Groat, though he himself has stood up handsomely (.336) to the monsters. "Used to be you could count on one or two good pitchers each series, and get at least one lamb to help the batting average. Not anymore."
There is, of course, no reason why pitchers—like swimmers, pole vaulters and other athletes whose feats are more measurable—should not have improved over the years. The mystery is why it has not come sooner. Pitching was 75% of baseball even before Connie Mack said so long ago.
But for some odd reason, any fine-looking athlete with other assets besides being able to throw hard usually was given large amounts of money not to pitch. The theory was, all that talent should be producing every day instead of one in four. Recently, however, baseball men have begun to listen to their tired but truthful cliché, and the pitching prospects are getting the biggest money of all. Bob Garibaldi, for example, was handed $150,000 to leave college and pitch for the San Francisco Giants.
Now, once a boy is signed as a pitcher, he stays that way. "The trend," said Cardinal Third Baseman Ken Boyer, "was to convert young pitchers to other positions—like Stan Musial and myself. Bob Gibson and Ray Sadecki, for instance, can handle a bat well and probably could have made it at some other position. That's changed. Good-hitting pitchers are nice to have around, but you don't go making them into outfielders now."
Besides being permitted to practice their trade, today's young pitchers are lovingly schooled in its finer points. Gathering around TV sets as small children, they get a long, hard look at the best pitchers in baseball. Later, as Little Leaguers, they play on beautifully kept diamonds under mother-hen managers, and by the time they are 12, they can reach for a rosin bag with the professional aplomb of Whitey Ford. After that comes PONY League, Babe Ruth League, high school, maybe college, baseball camps, baseball clinics and the minors. "I had no idea of what a change-up was when I first came to the major leagues," said Howie Pollet, once the jewel of a superb Cardinal pitching staff and now a St. Louis coach. "I go to clinics for 14-year-olds and they're not only working on changeups but sliders and curves—at 14 years old, for crying out loud. It took me years to learn these things." Today the rookies are arriving in the majors with everything learned. Twenty-two-year-old Ray Culp, for example, has pitched four shutouts for the Phillies this year and won 10 games with a degree of poise and an assortment of pitches that has amazed rival batters.
"He struck me out with a fast ball, a changeup and two different speed curves," said a batter recently. "A few years ago, with a rookie, I could have laid back and waited for his fast ball because that would be the only thing he could get over the plate."
Culp is not the only rookie with a veteran's savoir-faire. "In my day pitchers had two pitches they could control," said Ed Lopat. "Now they have three, four, sometimes five. Batters don't get to see the fast ball in those 2-and-0 and 3-and-0 situations. It's always a breaking ball—a curve, a slider, a screwball, a knuckler.
"Pitchers got smart about four or five years ago," Lopat went on. "It was a case of self-preservation. The rules favored the hitters, and pitchers simply had to do something about it. They did. They began to really study the art of pitching. They worked at and mastered new pitches. They perfected their control. These pitchers have now matured. But remember this. The majority won't reach their peak for another four or five years."
This is bad news indeed for the hitters, thinking and otherwise, who are already being high-pitched, cornered, psyched, dead-balled, bullied and just generally struck out. Since baseball is a game of averages, in which everything eventually balances out, the day may not be too far off when the technique of the big, young hitters, of whom there are quite a few, catches up with that of the big, young pitchers. Batters and umpires, too, will adjust to the new strike zone. Ball and strike calls will become more consistent, and when the hitters learn what is and what is not a strike, they will be looser and quicker with the bat than they are in these uncertain times. Until that day arrives, however, the sluggers are inclined to agree with Pittsburgh's Donn Clendenon. "Man," he says, "I'm just trying to survive."
Edward Tierce of the Haller Testing Laboratories measures the rebound of a 1963 ball.
Upper limit of strike zone—as it was in 1961 season, as it is supposed to be in 1963 and as the umpires are really calling it—is shown on Outfielder Frank Howard of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Official high strike
Actual high strike
Old high strike
Jim Bouton, the Yankees' 24-year-old emergency starter, has won 14 games.
Philadelphia's fine rookie Ray Culp came to the majors at 21, but he has a veteran's poise and gets 200 pounds behind a variety of pitches.