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It was not exactly the shot heard round the world; it was not even new. But Ted Williams said it and that meant, at least, that the battle again was joined.
"I know the ball is souped up," he said. "I asked Joe Cronin about it and he said, 'Oh, no, the ball's the same.' " The Washington manager's show of scorn was superb. He fell back full force in his swivel chair and growled, "Yeaaah, sure it's the same."
In Houston, site of that temple of constancy, the Dome (temperature 72°, humidity 50%, wind zero, always), there were not so many growlers in evidence as there were people staring, wide-eyed. Suspicions were first aroused this season when the Astros' Doug Rader and Jim Wynn fired shots down range about 475 feet and five levels up, the first ever to land in the distant yellow seats in left field. These were followed by a similar blast from the bat of Cincinnati rookie Bernie Carbo to right field, the first time those seats ever came under attack. The real eyebrow-raiser was another Carbo homer, 440 feet out of center field. Carbo hit it one-handed.
Sparky Anderson, the Reds' manager, did not think that any lightning had been added to the ball, but he confessed bewilderment. "The Dome," he said, "has always been the truest test when a guy socks one, and what's going on there has me surprised." His massive coach, Ted Kluszewski, who hit a few long ones himself in his time, used to say that improved bats were responsible for the booming home runs. Dave Concepcion, the Reds' 155-pound shortstop, disabused him of that theory when he one-handed a ball 375 feet. It is the ball, Klu says now.
The stories are not limited to Houston or the Reds. Nate Colbert of the San Diego Padres hurt his hand hitting a fly ball and was talking to himself as he jogged toward first base. Then, he says, "I heard some commotion. I looked up. The ball was in the seats." Little Luis Aparicio of the White Sox hit one with one hand, and Hal Lanier of the Giants had a 430-foot homer after having gone 0 for 3 (years, that is). National Leaguers hit 30 home runs in seven games on May 8, a record, and two days later both leagues added 46 in 14 games, another record.
To find out how alarmed, if at all, major-leaguers had become over the sudden fierceness of banjo hitters, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED polled the players, managers and coaches about the ball with the following results: 300 said the ball was friskier, 182 said it was not and 23 were not sure what it was doing.
Carl Yastrzemski of the Red Sox, who in mid-May hit a ball 480 feet, said, "Listen, today's athlete is better and stronger." But Lee Walburn, public-relations director for the Braves, who had played baseball in college, tried vainly for four years to hit a ball over the wall in Atlanta during batting practice. One day this season he hit two out of the park and four others that reached the outfield fence. Maybe today's public-relations directors are better and stronger.
"I think we're using two balls," said Charley Lau, a coach with Oakland, who demonstrated by holding a 1969 and 1970 ball in his hands and telling them apart, blindfolded.
"I definitely think there are two balls being used and that one is livelier," said Manager Al Dark of the Indians. "I'll bet there'll be 500 more homers this year than last." (With half of the season gone, there are 217 more.)
"What bothers me most," said Williams, "is that one day you use the new ball and the next day they bring out last year's ball. Sometimes they even mix 'em up in the same game. That doesn't make sense. I've seen enough hits that should be hump-back line drives go out of the park not to know there isn't a difference.