There is nothing in sport quite like a baseball, nothing so difficult to manufacture, nothing that engenders so much controversy. When hockey scores go into double digits, nobody questions the puck. When field goals fly over the crossbar from 60 yards out, no one examines the football. When golf balls are shanked or tennis balls faulted, there is no similar rush to judgment, either. But in baseball any deviation from the imagined norm is greeted with loud cries of "Live ball!" or "Dead ball!", as if the strength and skill of hitters, the guile of pitchers and the direction of air currents have no effect on the game.
Again this season the cry of "Live ball!" is being voiced in anguish by the pitchers, in joy by the hitters, in earnest by everyone. The controversy is even greater than usual because the balls, all 360,000 that will be used by the major leagues this season, have been manufactured by the Rawlings company. For the previous 101 years all baseballs were sold to the major leagues by Spalding.
In response to this outcry and to the marked increase in offensive productivity this season, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED commissioned the Haller Testing Laboratories of Plainfield, N.J. to examine the major league baseball. The results, along with those from other tests, reveal that the 1977 Rawlings ball is livelier than the 1976 Spalding, but not as lively as it could be under big league rules or as the ball has been in the past.
As the chart on page 24 shows, there has been an increase in every offensive category this season. It is especially apparent in the most popular lively-ball indicator—the home run—because last season's team average of 93.1 was the lowest in 30 years. At the present rate 3,031 homers will be hit in the majors this season, a team average of 117, the highest since 1973. Philadelphia's Mike Schmidt, who has been the big league home-run champ each of the last three years with 36, 38 and 38, predicts it will take 40 to 45 to win this season. No National Leaguer has hit that many since Willie Stargell's 44 in 1973, and no American Leaguer has done it since Frank Howard clouted 44 in 1970. Having hit only seven homers this season, Schmidt is off the pace, but 10 players have a good shot at 40, including Ron Cey and Reggie Smith of the Dodgers, Richie Zisk of the White Sox, Jeff Burroughs of the Braves, Graig Nettles of the Yankees and George Scott of the Red Sox.
And it is not just the established long-ball hitters who are prospering. Larry Bowa, who had four homers in his first seven seasons with Philadelphia, has two this year. After 223 previous big league at bats without a home run, Jim Essian of the White Sox has hit two in his 119 at bats in '77. St. Louis Relief Pitcher Butch Metzger has not hit any, but he has knocked four out in batting practice, which is four more than he clouted last season.
Teams are prospering as well as individuals. The Chicago Cubs smashed seven homers in one afternoon at Wrigley Field, and at Fenway Park, the Red Sox and Milwaukee hit 11 in one game. The Sox and Kansas City had nine in another. In a game in Atlanta, the Braves and Dodgers also belted nine.
Not everyone agrees that the ball is responsible for this barrage. Some people point to the generally agreeable spring weather (which, it is claimed, makes the batters looser), to the expansion of the American League and to chance.
True, there has been a decline in postponed games this year (from 47 to 26), but there has also been a concerted effort to get games in despite the weather. Often the conditions were better suited to ducks than to gophers. The dilution of pitching quality because of expansion has never been a satisfactory explanation, either. When the American League grew from eight to 10 teams in 1961 and the National did the same in 1962, home-run production rose 7% in one league but declined 7% in the other. Both leagues experienced huge increases when four teams were added in 1969, but that was also the year the mound was lowered and the strike zone shortened. As for this season, expansion certainly does not account for the 25% increase in home runs in the National League, which has the same 12 teams it had in 1976. Finally, Bud Goode, a professional statistics analyst, reports, "There is only one chance in 10,000 that this kind of increase could be an accident. I don't know the reason for the difference. I just know that there is a reason. It is not luck."
The strongest evidence suggests that the reason for the difference is the ball, which, oddly enough, has been produced by Rawlings before. Under an agreement with Spalding, Rawlings provided some of the balls in 1971 and '72 and most of them in '73. Spalding, which had manufactured the balls for both leagues since their inceptions in 1876 and 1901, got out of the business this year.
No matter who is turning them out, the balls should not be either "live" or "dead." After all, the ingredients have always been the same: a hide cover, 150 yards of fine cotton, 219 yards of gray and white wool and a cork core surrounded by black and red rubber. Consistency is supposed to be ensured through adherence to specifications for weight (5 to 5.25 ounces), circumference (9 to 9.25 inches) and resilience (a coefficient of restitution of 51.4% to 57.8%). However, as batting statistics and tests show, all balls are not the same, not only from year to year but also from box to box.
Rawlings' '77 model is livelier than the ball Spalding made in '76. But comparison with the Rawlings balls that were distributed under Spalding's label in 1971 through 1973 shows not much difference. During those three seasons, major league teams averaged 118 homers, compared with the projected 117 this season and the 105 in the last three Spalding years.
With some justification, Mike Kavanaugh, a spokesman for Rawlings, can say, "We're not making a rabbit ball. Maybe the other people were making a turtle ball." Kavanaugh is careful not to mention "the other people" by name, but his intent is obvious and Spalding realizes it. "We could make a ball your 2-year-old son could hit out of the park," says Spalding's Doug Grote. "Faster is not necessarily better."
According to Grote, Spalding stopped manufacturing major league baseballs because it was losing money on them. Rawlings, on the other hand, claims it will show a profit in the first year of its 10-season contract, because the balls are wound and bound in Haiti, where the minimum wage is $1.30 a day. Spalding only had the seams stitched in Haiti.
Tests conducted by Rawlings and for the two leagues by the University of Missouri-Rolla show that the current ball could be a lot livelier than it is and still meet major league specifications. The coefficient of restitution was adopted by the majors in the 1960s as a measure of maximum and minimum resilience. The "ideal" ball, when shot from an air gun against a wooden target 30'3" away, is supposed to rebound at 54.6% of its original speed. There is a tolerance of plus or minus 3.2%. In the Rawlings and Missouri-Rolla tests, the 1977 ball was rated at 51.4% and 52.1%—low, but within the tolerances. The 1976 Spalding ball was below specification in both tests, with rebound speeds of 49.5% and 50.8%. Neither ball approached the maximum allowable speed of 57.8%.
The series of tests conducted for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED was more extensive than the others, enabling comparison to be made with balls from different eras, as indicated in the chart on page 25. Haller Testing Laboratories was established in 1927, and its primary business is testing and inspecting engineering materials. In 1963, '70, '73 and '77 Haller also analyzed baseballs, duplicating tests by other engineers on the 1952, '53 and '61 balls. This year's sample was composed of 85 new Rawlings balls randomly selected from the supplies of each of the major league teams. The tests were conducted by Rasheed Ahmed, a native of India, who has a master's degree in civil engineering from Rutgers. Just for the record, Ahmed says he has played baseball in India but that he prefers cricket.
Ahmed tested the balls for resilience (bounciness), compression (hardness), weight and diameter, and visually inspected the cores. Each ball was dropped three times from 26'8" onto the same steel plate embedded in concrete that was used in Haller's previous tests. The low average bounce for a single ball was 7.97 feet, and the high average was 9.06 feet. The average for all 85 balls was 8.46. Like the Rawlings and Missouri-Rolla tests, the Haller analyses indicated that the new ball is only moderately lively.
High resilience does not mean a ball will automatically fly out of the park; other factors come into play. But it is true that of the balls tested since 1952, the bounciest (1961) and least bouncy (1952) were indeed the ones that produced the most homers (152 per team in '61) and the fewest (106 in '52). By those standards, the Rawlings '77 ball is not being hit for all it is worth. It is the third liveliest among the balls that have been tested, but it is being hit for home runs at a rate that exceeds only 1952's among the test years.
The 1977 ball did show a bounce variance of 12%, meaning that on the average one new Rawlings might travel 12% farther than another when the same force was applied. And even though Rawlings claims to have better quality control than its unnamed predecessor, Haller did find that 12 balls—14% of those tested—were either too heavy or too light to meet major league standards. Another ball, which Rawlings had supplied to the Padres, didn't even contain the required 45 yards of white wool.
Results of the compression tests confirm the suspicion, widely held among players, that the Rawlings ball is "harder." Under 100 psi of pressure, a random sample of three balls "gave" an average of .125 inch, indicating that the '77 ball is the firmest ever tested.
The differences between the new Rawlings and old Spalding balls are also apparent to Dominick Pasquerello, a butcher from Plainfield, N.J. Every time it has tested baseballs, Haller has asked Pasquerello to slice open the balls, so that the labs could examine the interiors. Surrounded by legs of lamb, loins of pork and sides of beef in the 37° temperature of his meat locker, Pasquerello was recently again dissecting baseballs. After slicing up a number of them, he declared over the whine of his band saw, "These balls are harder than the other ones." Pasquerello was absolutely right, of course, and he did not even need an upper-deck home run to tell him so.
It is not hard to unravel why sluggers like Boston's Boomer Scott are headed for their first 40-homer season since 1973. It is the livelier ball.
In SI's tests, balls were dropped 26'8" to a steel and concrete plate. Here a ball that bounced off the plate heads toward the average height, 8'5½".
As the players suspected, the compression test proved that the Rawlings ball is especially hard.
Pasquerello got down to the meat of the debate when he said the balls were harder to slice up.
No wonder the ball on the right was smallest. It lacked the required 45 yards of white wool.
Ahmed, who prefers cricket to baseball, bounced, squeezed, measured and tore the guts out of balls.