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"It feels strange in your hands," says Dodger Claude Osteen.
"It's easy to tell the difference," says Red Sox Coach Eddie Popowski. "It's right on the label—'Sewn in Haiti.' "
This inscription represents the only fundamental difference between the Haiti ball and its domestic predecessor, according to Paul Collins, president of the Spalding Sporting Goods Company, which has manufactured baseballs since 1876. "The words are required by Customs," he said wearily. "As soon as we put them on the ball everybody got spastic. It's funny what a label will do. The same ball is used by both leagues. Only the label is different. But we can't even convince some people of that. The specifications set up by both leagues haven't changed in 50 years. There never has been a 'live ball' era or any other era, but any time you put something different on the ball, people go crazy. Next year we're going to cowhide from horsehide. We've been experimenting with it for years, and there's no difference except that cowhide is cheaper and more available. But just wait until the pitchers hear about that."
National League President Chub Feeney would concur. When he assumed office three years ago he found that his signature on the ball created a lively missile known by pitchers as the dread " Feeney Ball."
Major league baseballs are still manufactured in Spalding's sprawling plant in Chicopee, Mass. They are merely stitched together in Haiti, and then only out of peculiar economic necessity. The work in Chicopee, including the preparation of the cork and rubber center, winding the woolen yarn, the fashioning of horsehide covers and the application of latex cement to the wound ball, is done principally by machine. In one of modern technology's most embarrassing oversights, no machine has ever been developed that can effectively and economically stitch a baseball. This has always been the province of the seamstress, and competent baseball seamstresses are both expensive and scarce in this country.
"We can't find people willing to do that kind of work," says Collins. "Even if we could, it would cost us $3 an hour per stitcher here. In Haiti it costs us $3 a day. As it is, our baseball business is a losing operation, and without the Haiti deal I don't see how we could continue. I nearly have a stroke every time I see somebody hit a foul ball. To me that's money down the drain."
Actually it has been five years since a major league ball was stitched in the continental United States. Before Spalding reached an agreement with Haitian industrialist Harry Tippenhauer, the sewing was done in Puerto Rico. Rising labor costs there soon compelled a move elsewhere. For three years Tippenhauer's Precision Manufacturing Company stitched all Spalding balls except the major league model. By January of this year it was decided Tippenhauer had enough stitchers of big-league caliber to make the move out of the bushes. Now every ball purchased by the National and American leagues has been sewn in his Port-au-Prince plant.
For that matter, the cheerful Haitians are keeping most American baseball manufacturers in stitches. With 10 factories employing about 3,000 workers, they have almost sewn up the business. In a country with an unemployment rate of about 45%, stitching is a bona fide boon to the economy. The Haitian government, at least nominally presided over now by Jean Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, the rotund 22-year-old son of the late, largely unlamented Papa Doc, is assiduously wooing the baseball crowd even though the game is not played in the French-speaking country.
"Bonjour, nous avons des visites," Rolf Tippenhauer calls out to the pretty black women seated at the long tables before the balls of yarn that may soon become home runs. Rolf, a tall, caramel-colored man of 34 with Harry Belafonte good looks, manages the Port-au-Prince plant for his father Harry. "Bonjour," the women reply with apparent affection.
Outside, on a rutted rocky road, old women in tattered clothes cook over open fires. The baseball girls are neat and clean in fresh dark green skirts and light green blouses with the PM of Precision Manufacturing stitched on the pockets. They work with amazing speed, arms flailing outward like breaststrokers, sewing as many as 260,000 baseballs in a month. There is no air conditioning, but large overhead fans blow down on them as they sit in rectangles of sunlight created by slits in the tin roof. They seem content, even happy, with this monotonous work. The swiftest among them can earn $35 to $50 every two weeks, a handsome income by Haitian standards.