An Accident Waiting To Happen

     The national pastime, the game we know as baseball, has always had one constant. A pitcher attempts to take a baseball, and by hook or by crook, throw it by an opposing batter. On the average between 200 and 250 pitches are thrown during each game. Now that comes out to over a quarter of a million pitches thrown over the course of a season!! And if you want to be a real stat head, probably over 50 million balls have been pitched since the founding of the National League in 1876. If you count the National Association from 1871-1875....well...that's a lot of horsehide!!

     So why is it that over the course of all these years that only one Major League Player has ever been killed by a pitched ball? My firm belief is that the conditions had to be just right for a tragedy of the magnitude of the Mays/Chapman Incident to happen. Was it inevitable or was it a case of the stars aligning just right (or wrong)?

     The era before 1920 was known as The Dead Ball Era. It was definitely a time that favored the pitcher. Most games started and finished with the same ball, unless the ball was hit out of the park for a home run. Even foul balls were returned and used! A ball had to be literally in tatters for an ump to heave it out. By the middle innings of a game the ball took on a black look. Covered in tobacco juice and dirt! The ball became soft and out of round. Also it was much easier to "take a pitch" in the ribs when the ball was in that condition. Beanings were not uncommon though, and the tactic of giving a player "a close shave" was as much a part of baseball back in that time as it is today. To make things even tougher for batters, baseballs of that time were wound very loosely by the manufacturers. It was a time of great pitchers, Young, Mathewson, Johnson, Plank, Alexander, Brown, Waddell. The batters were also at a major disadvantage because of the many "illegal" pitches that hurlers were serving up like the spit ball, the emory ball, and the shine ball.

     In an interview Frank "Home Run" Baker said: "I believe I hit nine one year, eight another and eleven another year. And they called me Home Run...... Well you know we had a dead ball to hit. We didn't have that live ball like you have today. And we didn't have the white ball to hit either, we had a black ball. First of all, it's a whole lot different hitting that black ball on a dark evening than hitting a white ball. And we had a spit ball to go up against. And the emory ball such as Russell Ford used to use. And another number of pitches that you don't have today."

     In April 1917, the U.S. entered World War I. As with all wars, there is always a shortage of materials. When it came to baseball, this was no exception. Since the standard yarn that was used for baseball winding was now being put to use to help the "doughboys keep the world safe for democracy" baseball manufacturers had no choice but to use an inferior, cheaper yarn for the standard National and American League spheres. It was found that the inferior yarn made the baseballs even more loosely wound than before.

     To make up the difference, the machines that wound the baseballs were set so that the yarn would be wound tighter. Here's where it starts to get interesting. The Great War ended on November 11th, 1918, but the flow of high quality raw materials back into the private sector was a slow process. High quality yarn was not made available for the 1919 season. When the baseballs made with the old, high quality yarn were finally manufactured again, there was a noticeable difference in the feel of the ball. The baseball winding machines continued to wind the yarn with the new, tighter settings. Why no one ever decided to go back to the old settings remains a mystery! But when the new "lively ball" first was shown at the end of the '19 season many pitchers became very nervous at the thought of serving up the new product!
Cy Young commented, "When I had a chance to take a gander at that lively ball shortly before the '20 season began, my first thoughts were that I was sure glad I was retired."

     Major changes happened within the rules of the game. On December 10th, 1919 the National League voted in favor of banning the spit ball's use by all new pitchers. Then on February 9th, the Joint Rules Committee banned all foreign substances or other alterations to the ball by pitchers, including saliva, talcum powder, paraffin and the shine and emory ball. American League clubs were allowed to name two pitchers per team to continue to use the spit ball while National League clubs were to name all their spit ball hurlers. And no new pitcher would be able to start throwing the spit ball after the beginning of the 1920 season. All these factors along with the fact that batters did not wear protective headgear really made a recipe for disaster.

     So now the conditions were set. There was a new, jackrabbit ball, trick and freak pitches were banned. The only recourse for pitchers who did not throw or were not allowed to continue to throw trick pitches was to throw inside to "keep the batter honest."