Somewhere, probably in Baltimore, a mad physicist is tinkering with a new design for the baseball. The present official one is certainly flawed: it soars like a homing pigeon when a pitcher is in a losing streak and falls like boiled linguini when a slugger is in a slump. But tinkerers everywhere would be advised to let well enough alone in view of the events surrounding the debut of the ill-starred balata ball of 1943.
It was introduced with a patriotic flourish in America's second spring of World War II to answer the austerities imposed by war. The Office of Price Administration had listed rubber as a war-priority product, and that left it up to A. G. Spalding & Bros., the manufacturer of baseballs for both major leagues, to come up with a workable substitute. A researcher suggested balata, a product from the milky sap of the South American bully tree, a member of the sapodilla, or tropical evergreen, family. When heated, the sap crystallizes into a flexible substance like gutta-percha, the early golf ball material.
Spalding decided on a formula for the baseball core that involved the use of cork and balata, plus two layers of balata between the core and the yarn winding. Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis appointed a three-man committee to assess every specification. When all the work was done, the balata ball looked like the real article—the right size, weight and shape. And then they took it out to the old ball game.
Nobody noticed much at the season opener in Washington on April 20. Washington defeated Philadelphia in an unspectacular game, 7-5. But in Cincinnati it was something else. Warren Giles, then general manager of the Reds, had charged that the balata ball was a disaster, and he was about to prove it.
As a member of the National League's specifications committee, Giles had first been puzzled by the poor performance of the balata balls in preseason play. Puzzled and a bit sore. The committee, he said, was told that the 1943 ball had more hop in it than its predecessor. But, as Giles told the press, "We played a couple of exhibition games against the Indians and both teams got only one extra-base hit in 21 innings." He added: "Maybe they used ground baloney instead of balata and cork."
With the help of Groundkeeper Matty Schwab, Giles staged a demonstration of the behavior of the balls, which, scientific considerations apart, must have been grand fun. The two climbed to the grandstand roof at Crosley Field with an armload of 1942 and 1943 baseballs. They then dropped them to the street pavement 50 feet below to see how high they would bounce. The bounce of the older balls averaged 13 feet, the 1943 balls only 9½ feet—a reduction of 27%. Giles' point was clearly established.
The balata ball was defended by Lou Coleman, a Spalding vice-president, who said: "Give it time. It hasn't had a fair test." American League President Will Harridge agreed and insisted that, test or no test, the ball would have to do. There was a war on.
The fair test took place the very next day. Four major league games were played and all of them were shutouts. A total of 11 runs was scored by the winners. There were only 42 hits by all eight teams. There were two 1-0 contests: Cleveland's victory over Detroit, in which Jim Bagby outpitched Tommy Bridges, and a Cincinnati-St. Louis duel between the Reds' Johnny Vander Meer and Mort Cooper for the Cards, an 11-inning affair won by the Reds.
Things got no better on Thursday with three shutouts in six games. The Yankees beat the Senators 5-4 in the afternoon's highest-scoring affair. The big thrill was an actual home run by Joe Gordon, the only one hit in the season's first 11 games. Arthur Daley of The New York Times said of the Dodgers' 5-2 win over the Giants: "Supposedly, the jackrabbit ball was to have returned this season. If so, it was not apparent to the naked eye. Ottie [Mel Ott] took a full-bodied cut at one pitch and it dropped soggily at Dixie Walker's feet for a hit. Later Ducky Medwick got a double that had as much speed, life and resiliency to it as a grapefruit falling off a kitchen table."
Giles demanded that Landis call a new meeting of the committee and the commissioner agreed that the balata ball did seem to be below specifications. He was certain Spalding would want to make whatever revisions were needed. Coleman finally conceded the defect. "A layer of rubber cement is applied between layers of wool," he explained. "Under war conditions this cement is made from reprocessed rubber. The cement...in recent shipments has proved of inferior quality. Instead of providing resilience, the cement hardened to the point where the wool was affected." Brooklyn General Manager Branch Rickey put it better: "That new ball was dead at birth." Coleman hastily promised that a suitably bouncy ball would be ready for use in two weeks.
The problem for the teams was what to do in the meantime. National League President Ford Frick authorized the use of 1942 balls, which was fine for those teams that could find them. For the others, there was something of a scramble. The Pirates had used up every one of their 1942 balls in spring practice, and the Cardinals, with a supply of the old balls at the end of the 1942 season, had dutifully returned them to Spalding when plans for the balata were announced. And by now there was some residual distrust of any ball; President William F. Benswanger of the Pirates said he thought the 1942 ball would turn out as dead as the new one. But the National League teams managed to get their hands on enough to carry them through.
Harridge and his American League refused to follow the Frick policy, however, saying: "We've had no formal complaint in our league about the so-called dead ball and until we do we will keep playing with the 1943 model." So American League batters were stuck with the balatas until the first corrected shipments were put into play on May 9. That was a day of agony and ecstasy. Both Pitcher Bill Dietrich and Third Baseman Dick Culler of the White Sox were struck by batted balls and had to leave their game with the Tigers, victims of what must have seemed like rabbit punches. Batters smiled, pitchers seethed. Getting their first lick at the new balata, the Yankees leveled the Athletics 13-1. Even the A's must have been glad to have a ball with more bounce to the ounce.