Rawlings' '77 model is livelier than the ball Spalding made in '76. But comparison with the Rawlings balls that were distributed under Spalding's label in 1971 through 1973 shows not much difference. During those three seasons, major league teams averaged 118 homers, compared with the projected 117 this season and the 105 in the last three Spalding years.
With some justification, Mike Kavanaugh, a spokesman for Rawlings, can say, "We're not making a rabbit ball. Maybe the other people were making a turtle ball." Kavanaugh is careful not to mention "the other people" by name, but his intent is obvious and Spalding realizes it. "We could make a ball your 2-year-old son could hit out of the park," says Spalding's Doug Grote. "Faster is not necessarily better."
According to Grote, Spalding stopped manufacturing major league baseballs because it was losing money on them. Rawlings, on the other hand, claims it will show a profit in the first year of its 10-season contract, because the balls are wound and bound in Haiti, where the minimum wage is $1.30 a day. Spalding only had the seams stitched in Haiti.
Tests conducted by Rawlings and for the two leagues by the University of Missouri-Rolla show that the current ball could be a lot livelier than it is and still meet major league specifications. The coefficient of restitution was adopted by the majors in the 1960s as a measure of maximum and minimum resilience. The "ideal" ball, when shot from an air gun against a wooden target 30'3" away, is supposed to rebound at 54.6% of its original speed. There is a tolerance of plus or minus 3.2%. In the Rawlings and Missouri-Rolla tests, the 1977 ball was rated at 51.4% and 52.1%—low, but within the tolerances. The 1976 Spalding ball was below specification in both tests, with rebound speeds of 49.5% and 50.8%. Neither ball approached the maximum allowable speed of 57.8%.
The series of tests conducted for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED was more extensive than the others, enabling comparison to be made with balls from different eras, as indicated in the chart on page 25. Haller Testing Laboratories was established in 1927, and its primary business is testing and inspecting engineering materials. In 1963, '70, '73 and '77 Haller also analyzed baseballs, duplicating tests by other engineers on the 1952, '53 and '61 balls. This year's sample was composed of 85 new Rawlings balls randomly selected from the supplies of each of the major league teams. The tests were conducted by Rasheed Ahmed, a native of India, who has a master's degree in civil engineering from Rutgers. Just for the record, Ahmed says he has played baseball in India but that he prefers cricket.
Ahmed tested the balls for resilience (bounciness), compression (hardness), weight and diameter, and visually inspected the cores. Each ball was dropped three times from 26'8" onto the same steel plate embedded in concrete that was used in Haller's previous tests. The low average bounce for a single ball was 7.97 feet, and the high average was 9.06 feet. The average for all 85 balls was 8.46. Like the Rawlings and Missouri-Rolla tests, the Haller analyses indicated that the new ball is only moderately lively.
High resilience does not mean a ball will automatically fly out of the park; other factors come into play. But it is true that of the balls tested since 1952, the bounciest (1961) and least bouncy (1952) were indeed the ones that produced the most homers (152 per team in '61) and the fewest (106 in '52). By those standards, the Rawlings '77 ball is not being hit for all it is worth. It is the third liveliest among the balls that have been tested, but it is being hit for home runs at a rate that exceeds only 1952's among the test years.
The 1977 ball did show a bounce variance of 12%, meaning that on the average one new Rawlings might travel 12% farther than another when the same force was applied. And even though Rawlings claims to have better quality control than its unnamed predecessor, Haller did find that 12 balls—14% of those tested—were either too heavy or too light to meet major league standards. Another ball, which Rawlings had supplied to the Padres, didn't even contain the required 45 yards of white wool.
Results of the compression tests confirm the suspicion, widely held among players, that the Rawlings ball is "harder." Under 100 psi of pressure, a random sample of three balls "gave" an average of .125 inch, indicating that the '77 ball is the firmest ever tested.
The differences between the new Rawlings and old Spalding balls are also apparent to Dominick Pasquerello, a butcher from Plainfield, N.J. Every time it has tested baseballs, Haller has asked Pasquerello to slice open the balls, so that the labs could examine the interiors. Surrounded by legs of lamb, loins of pork and sides of beef in the 37� temperature of his meat locker, Pasquerello was recently again dissecting baseballs. After slicing up a number of them, he declared over the whine of his band saw, "These balls are harder than the other ones." Pasquerello was absolutely right, of course, and he did not even need an upper-deck home run to tell him so.