Today in Baseball History: ‘Balata ball’ threatens a new Dead Ball Era

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Even casual students of baseball history know that the game has experienced a number of episodes on which changes in the baseball — some intentional, some perhaps accidental — have had radical impacts on the offensive environment.

There was the Dead Ball Era which, suddenly, turned into the Live Ball Era in 1920. A lot of people can readily cite 1930 — the year the National League introduced its so-called “rabbit ball — or 1977, when a change in ball manufacturers from Spalding to Rawlings led to an offensive spike. There was another offensive spike in 1987 that has never proven to be the product of an alteration in the ball, but many have long assumed something was up. And, of course, we’ve spent an awful lot of time recently talking about the construction, composition, and aerodynamic qualities of baseballs which have led to an unprecedented surge in home runs over the past few years.

A lot of people are unaware, however, of a time when not only did Major League Baseball change the composition of the ball, but they did so quite publicly, with everyone knowing about it, and that change led to a massive downturn in offense. Yep, it happened in 1943, and the new ball even had a name: the “balata ball.” On this date in 1943, National League President Ford Frick tried to reassure the world of baseball that everything was just swell. Nothin’ to see here.

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By 1943, Major League Baseball had already seen many of its top stars leave the diamond for military service, but it was about to lose more than just Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Bob Feller. It was about to lose the most important piece of equipment in the game: the balls themselves.

The core of a ball is made out of rubber and the United States’ main source of rubber was in the Dutch East Indies, which had been taken over by Japan. Between that and the fact that rubber was an essential commodity for the war effort — tank treads and airplane tires need a great deal of it — the folks at Spalding were not going to get their usual allotment for the National Pastime.

The solution: a rubber substitute called “balata,” which is made from the dried juices of tropical trees and which, at the time, was used in the making of industrial gaskets and the insulation for telephone lines. The new ball, quickly dubbed the “balata ball” was introduced at a press conference toward the end of spring training in 1943. Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, NL President Ford Frick, and AL President Will Harridge all claimed that the ball was functionally identical to the regular baseball used through the end of the 1942 season.

Except . . . it wasn’t. Not by a long shot.

Almost immediately it became apparent to players and managers that the ball was deader than vaudeville. It didn’t carry. It actually hurt batters’ hands when they made contact. But it wasn’t all anecdotal. The ball’s deadness played out in the early season numbers.

The Reds and the Cardinals opened the season with four-game series in which six total runs were scored. Eleven of the first 29 games played in the two leagues were shutouts, and in seven of those games there were three or fewer hits by at least one of the clubs.

After the first week of the season the defending World Series champ St. Louis Cardinals — who were baseball’s highest-scoring team in 1942 — were batting .204, and that’s with Stan Musial in the lineup. By the end of the season’s first week the National League was hitting an aggregate .238, down from the 1942 average of .249. The American League was hitting .210, down from .257 the year before. The Yankees had two home runs as a team, the St. Louis Browns had one and the rest of the American League had . . . zero. Combined.

Not long after the season began an executive from Spalding claimed publicly that there was nothing wrong with the baseball. Rather, he claimed, the low offense was a function of cold and wet weather combined with uncommonly good pitching. Everyone knew better, though. The knew better because at least a couple of tests of the balata ball proved how dead it was.

Warren Giles, then the general manager of the Cincinnati Reds, took a dozen balata balls and a dozen regular balls left over from 1942 to the roof of Crosley Field. He dropped them off the roof, one-by-one, and had a groundskeeper measure how high they bounced off the sidewalk below. The old 1942 balls bounced an average of 13 feet. The balata balls bounced nine and a half feet, or around 26% less than the regular balls. Meanwhile sportswriter Hy Turkin of the New York Daily News took some balata balls to some scientists who dissected some and conducted resiliency tests on others. They determined that the balata balls had about 25.9% less resilience. Kudos to Giles for figuring out more or less the same thing as the scientists with way less work.

Either way, it was impossible at this point for Major League Baseball and its leagues to pretend that the balata ball was not a dead ball. Spalding sent that executive out in front of reporters again and he admitted that, upon further investigation, the initial batch of balatas “did not measure up to standards.” Changes to the ball were ordered. On May 4, 1943, Ford Frick demonstrated the new balata ball to reporters by bouncing it on his office carpet and claiming that everything was all better.

And, eventually, it was.

For a week or so American League teams continued to use their supply of the old balata balls. Some National League teams used the new ones and others used caches of 1942 baseballs they had planned to send to batting practice or to the minor leagues. As a result, for several days in early May you might have one game that was a 1-0 pitcher’s duel consisting of well-struck balls that, somehow, only traveled 300 feet, and two games elsewhere where the ball was flying out of the park. There was no small amount of chatter about whether this was all fair, but the problem worked itself out as soon as the supply of old balatas and 1942 balls ran out. As the year went on, managers would make comments to the press about “the old ball” if their teams hit poorly, but as the months passed they said it with their tongues increasingly in their cheeks. By the time the Yankees beat the Cardinals in the World Series that October, the controversy was mostly forgotten.

And the problem was completely eliminated for the 1944 season. Due to the needs of the war effort, large-scale manufacturing of synthetic rubber had come online in the previous year, with enough readily available for both military and civilian use. The players were still off fighting the war, but the baseballs had come marching home.


Also today in baseball history:

1871: Bill Lennon becomes the first catcher to throw a runner out trying to steal second. It takes place in the very first major league game ever played. I wonder if anyone stopped and said “hey, wait . . . can he just do that?”

1944: For the first time in the city’s history, black fans are allowed to buy grandstand seats in St. Louis. The Browns and Cardinals are the last major league teams to integrate seating, having previously required black fans to sit in the bleachers.

1966: Willie Mays hits his 512th career home run, surpassing Mel Ott for the all-time National League home run record.

1968: The Simon and Garfunkel song “Mrs. Robinson” debuts on the Billboard Top 40. Joe DiMaggio is reportedly displeased with the lyric, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you” and considers a lawsuit before deciding against it. A few years later he and Paul Simon would meet in a restaurant. Simon described their encounter in an article he wrote for The New York Times after DiMaggio’s Death:

“What I don’t understand,” he said, “is why you ask where I’ve gone. I just did a Mr. Coffee commercial, I’m a spokesman for the Bowery Savings Bank and I haven’t gone anywhere.”

I said that I didn’t mean the lines literally, that I thought of him as an American hero and that genuine heroes were in short supply. He accepted the explanation and thanked me. We shook hands and said good night.

1975: Houston Astro Bob Watson scores what is calculated to be Major League Baseball’s one millionth run of all time.

1989: Barbara Bush, wife of President George H.W. Bush, becomes the first First Lady to throw out a ceremonial first pitch at a regular-season major league game before a Yankees-Rangers contest at Arlington Stadium in Texas. Her son, George W. Bush, had just become the managing general partner of the Rangers a couple of weeks before.

1998: After a year-long investigation, Major League Baseball clears Albert Belle in a gambling investigation. Belle admits to losing $40,000 betting on basketball, football, and golf, but MLB clears him of ever having bet on baseball. 


(Thanks to Noel Hynd’s wonderful story about the balata ball from the May 13, 1985 issue of Sports Illustrated for inspiration)