Although I'm too young to remember baseball the way it was played in the spring of 1943, my father used to tell me about it. That was the year the major leagues opened the season with something called a "balata" ball. In fact, balata ball was one of the nicer things the players called it.
It was round and white and had the familiar, reassuring Spalding label, but it sure didn't act like an ordinary baseball. It did bounce, but not very much, and that was the problem. For the first two weeks of the season, a gruesome specter haunted the game: Modern baseball appeared to be on its way back to the pre-1920 dead-ball era. The national pastime, as happens at regular intervals, was imperiled.
As years go, 1943 was a pretty horrible one. For the Western democracies, it was the darkest time of the war. Most of Europe was occupied by the enemy and so was most of the South Pacific. But President Franklin D. Roosevelt had decreed that professional baseball could continue; it was good for the morale of the nation, he said. Still, there would have to be certain restrictions. Teams would have to find players among men too young, too old or too infirm for, or temporarily deferred from, the draft. New York teams could play twilight games but not evening games lest the arc lights become landmarks for enemy submarines. And the materials used for equipment could not be essential to the war effort. That, as 1943 fans soon discovered, was where the trouble started.
Though the casual baseball fan probably didn't realize it, the horsehide that Babe Ruth used to bash over fences had come from Belgium and France—where the also-rans of one weekend's tiercé might wind up at the boucherie √† cheval a few days later. Major league baseball quickly found adequate supplies of Bolivian and domestic horsehide, so one problem—that of the ball's covering—was solved. But an even greater difficulty loomed: a shortage of rubber. Rubber is an essential ingredient of a baseball's core, and it always has been. The core is a cork composition that contains a small percentage of rubber, wrapped by two black rubber shells held in place by another rubber wrapping, which is traditionally red. But when the Japanese seized Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, the U.S. was cut off from its usual source of supply. About a ton of the stuff was required in the construction of a tank and about half that for a long-range bomber. So Uncle Sam banned the use of rubber in all items not essential to the war effort, and that included baseballs.
By the time Billy Southworth's St. Louis Cardinals had disposed of Joe McCarthy's Yankees in the 1942 World Series, the major leagues and A.G. Spalding & Bros, knew they faced a serious problem. Although some clubs still had a few bags of the 1942 balls around, inventories of traditional baseballs were low. A substitute for rubber would have to be found. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis asked Spalding to come up with something, preferably something with a little jackrabbit in it. Averages and slugging percentages had been in decline since 1939, a memorable year for bashing balls over the fences.
As occurs in most times of crisis, a committee was formed. On it were Landis, American League president Will Harridge, and Cincinnati general manager Warren Giles. These three wise men conferred with Spalding over various formulas for a new ball. Spalding did its best and really couldn't be faulted for the events that followed. On March 13, 1943, five weeks before Opening Day, the new ball was introduced to the press. It looked and felt like a real baseball, but it had a granulated cork center instead of the high-grade cork and rubber mixture, and there was no rubber shell or rubber wrapping around that core. Instead, to give it a little pop, there were two hard shells of a rubberlike substance inside the ball, hugging the core. One shell was red and the other black. For the first time, Americans heard the ominous word "balata," which was what the two shells were made of.
Balata was a non-strategic substance. It is very similar to rubber but lacks rubber's elasticity. Made from the dried juices of certain tropical trees, it was normally used in the manufacture of industrial gaskets and the insulation of telephone lines. Actually, most American sportsmen had already held balata in their hands without knowing it—the hard outer shells of golf balls were, and some still are, made of balata.
Warren Giles paid close attention to the development of the balata ball, and as the opening of the season approached, he was starting to lose sleep. For most of spring training—played in the North that year because of wartime travel restrictions—1942 baseballs had been in play, scruffy old ones whose use would save money and resources. But toward Opening Day, balata balls were used in two games between Giles's Reds and the Cleveland Indians. Over 21 innings, the two teams pounded out a grand total of one extra-base hit. Giles said nothing, crossed his fingers and prayed that what he had really seen was some unexpectedly good pitching. Yet, in his heart, he knew that wasn't so.
On April 21 the umpires shouted "Play ball!" And the 16 teams tried. Truly, they tried. The Cardinals, who had led the National League in almost all offensive categories in 1942, opened their season at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. They lost 1-0 in 11 innings. The next day they did a little better. They lost 1-0 in 10 innings. Witnesses were quick to focus on the problem. The new ball had the spunk and resilience of a croquet ball. It wouldn't go anywhere. Swat it and your hands stung for two minutes. It was like hitting a large stone. If the baseball of the pre-Ruth era was dead, this one was positively embalmed. It should have gone to war as a weapon.
"We knew something was wrong with it," Dodger infielder Frenchy Bordagaray recalled recently. "But we didn't know what."
Giles knew what. His worst fears were confirmed. As he suspected all along, the ball was a dud, pronounced the deadest they had ever seen by managers South-worth of the Cardinals, Bill McKechnie of the Reds and Leo Durocher of the Dodgers. Dodger President Branch Rickey was straightforward when asked to comment about the ball. "Dead?" he said. "Why, that ball was dead at birth!" After his team lost to Cleveland 1-0 on Opening Day, Tiger manager Steve O'Neill declared, "Any club would be lucky to get two runs in a game with this new ball. It's deader than the one in use when I was playing." O'Neill had been a catcher for the Indians in 1911. So Giles, to a chorus of approval from players and managers, set about to gather evidence and get the balata ball out of play.
Up to the roof of Crosley Field went the G.M., carrying a bag with a dozen balata balls—now in use at all the ball parks—and another sack of good old 1942 Spaldings that had remained in the Reds' equipment room. Giles's head groundskeeper waited on the sidewalk below. Performing a task that could never have been in any general manager's job description, Giles started dropping baseballs off the roof. The groundskeeper carefully measured the bounces off the concrete pavement. On average, an old ball bounced 13 feet in the air. A balata ball bounced 9½ feet. Applying the findings of the great Crosley Field roof-to-sidewalk experiment, Giles judged that the balata ball was 26.9% less resilient than its predecessor.
On another front, sportswriter Hy Turkin of the New York Daily News took some balata balls to The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, where scientists sliced them, unraveled them and swatted them with wooden mallets. The verdict: 25.9% less resilience. The finding was remarkably similar to that from the Cincinnati test. And what did it mean in practice? Simply this: The monster 400-foot home run of 1942 was now the lazy 300-foot fly of 1943. Happy outfielders were easily reeling in what should have been goners.
But what could be done? Major league games resembled replays of the 1905 World Series, in which every game was a shutout.
The Reds and the Cardinals concluded a four-game series with six runs scored. Total. Combined. Eleven of the first 29 games played in the two leagues were shutouts, a record. Seven of those were "low hitters," with three safeties or fewer by at least one club. The Cardinals, the highest-scoring team in 1942, were batting .204, last in the league, after the first week of the season.
As of April 29 the National League was hitting .238, down from the 1942 average of .249. The falloff in hitting in the American League was even more dramatic—.257 to .210. One player who refused to succumb to the plague of anemic hitting was Stan Musial. The Man, off on a characteristic spring tear, was hitting .333. But even his best shots were staying in the park. In truth, Musial's sharp line drives over the infielders were all that kept the Cardinals' team average from resembling a feverish man's body temperature.
How about the American League, you ask? The league of DiMaggio, Greenberg and Williams? Forget those guys. They were off to war. Want to know who was leading the circuit in home runs on April 29? The entire New York Yankee team, that's who. The team had one home run. The St. Louis Browns had one, also. The other six teams didn't have any. The goose egg was everywhere.
Subtly, game strategy in 1943 began to change. Baseball wisdom now called for a base runner to go for every conceivable inch if a batter happened to get a hit. The runner, it was assumed, might not see another hit as a young man. Consider a game between the Phillies and Dodgers in Shibe Park. Phillie shortstop Glen Stewart—who, in fine Phillie tradition, entered the game with a career. 138 average from the lively ball era—led off by poking a single past the bewildered infielders. Up came third baseman Pinky May. May had occasional power. Very occasional—three home runs over the past four seasons. O.K.... light hitter...runner on first...sacrifice maybe?
The infielders crept in. So did the outfielders.
May slashed the ball to the power alley in left center. Stewart ran like the wind, around second, around third. He never stopped until he reached home plate, where Dodger catcher Mickey Owen was waiting for him with the balata. One out. But May, unaccustomed to luxury, never stopped running either. Owen threw the ball to Billy Herman, who was playing third. Herman tagged May. The Phillies had added a new dimension to baseball lore. Two batters, two hits and two outs. Never mind Billy Ball. This was balata ball.
A few days into the season, a beleaguered Spalding vice-president responded to public criticism of the new ball. The balata was not to blame, he said. The culprit was some nasty cold weather, combined with unexpectedly fine pitching by previously mediocre hurlers. But within days, Spalding had taken a second look at its balata concoction and admitted that the first shipment of baseballs "did not measure up to standards." Corrections were hastily ordered at the factory, and Judge Landis renewed his request for a bit of jackrabbit in the updated version. The problems, Spalding assured baseball, would be solved.
Well, almost. The American League chose to continue to use the dead balls until May 9, when all eight parks were to receive the improved balls. Meanwhile, in several National League parks, hundreds of 1942 baseballs were still in storage; equipment managers had simply not yet returned them to Spalding, as was customary. So out they came, setting off a new controversy: Could two different balls be used in one game? The rule book was scrutinized. There was apparently nothing against it. So the teams that had the '42 balls started slugging again, while the rest stayed mired in 1908-style baseball. In the first game in which the '42 ball was used, the Dodgers celebrated by thrashing the Phillies 11-4 at Ebbets Field. There were 23 hits. Across town, playing in a game that was entirely different, Spud Chandler of the Yankees came within one pitch of no-hitting the Senators. And so it went, though cynics noted that the Senators often had trouble hitting any kind of ball.
Two weeks into the season, National League president Ford Frick invited reporters to his New York office to introduce them to the "new" revised balata ball. This one substituted a synthetic rubber cement (which remained gummy and sticky) for the two hard balata shells within the ball. When dropped on the hardwood floor of Frick's office, the revised baseball drew smiles all around. It bounced twice as high as its predecessor, meaning it was almost half again as resilient as a 1942 baseball. Both leagues, delighted with the revision, agreed to begin using the balata again. The National League didn't have enough of the good old 1942 baseballs to last the entire season anyway. When the balata was put into play in the American League that Sunday, batters teed off for six home runs. Previously there had been nine home runs in 72 games. Landis, who was in Chicago at the time, was pleased, and said so. "I'm glad they've found out what's wrong. I think this will settle the whole matter."
As the season progressed, the controversy faded. The ball was revised and revised again until it became acceptably lively, although it was still not the jack-rabbit Landis wanted. But 1943 continued to be a very quirky year. More than once in that season, visiting managers, watching hometown pitchers mow down their troops, wondered if a balata pelota had been smuggled into play. Occasionally one was, but the ball was also a handy excuse for a poor game. O'Neill, a man fated to be tortured by the dead ball, caught the Philadelphia A's tossing balatas at his club in Shibe Park on June 1. He protested the game, a loss in the nightcap of a doubleheader. But Harridge disallowed the protest after discovering that the dreaded "cement clunker"—as sportswriters called it—had surfaced in the first game, too, uncontested and unnoticed by the Tigers, who had won that one 7-0. In the World Series the Cardinals played the Yankees, suggesting that whatever the makeup of the baseball, everyone had been victimized equally over the course of 154 games. In the end the best teams had won anyway.
Uncle Sam took the major leagues off the hook the following winter. By then synthetic rubber was being manufactured on a large scale in the U.S. and supplies were readily available. There was enough for tanks and airplanes and baseballs. Nineteen forty-four opened sunny and clear, with good, lively Spaldings in abundance. It was like the return of an old friend; hitting was back.
There was only one hitch, as someone noticed a few days into the season. There weren't that many good hardwood bats around. The wartime supply of wood and wood pulp was being diverted into more urgent uses, and, well...a good solid ash bat was suddenly damned hard to find. But professional athletes, like everyone else, had to learn to make do during war. And bats are an entirely different story.