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THEY'RE KNOCKING THE STUFFING OUT OF IT
Larry Keith
June 13, 1977
While the batters have a ball and pitchers are bawling, tests show that the new baseball is certainly no turtle
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June 13, 1977

They're Knocking The Stuffing Out Of It

While the batters have a ball and pitchers are bawling, tests show that the new baseball is certainly no turtle

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UP, UP AND...GONE

A comparison of hitting in both leagues in the first 616 games (through June 2) of the 1977 season with the hitting in the same number of games in 1976. The batters, obviously, are having a ball.

BA

SLUG. PCT.

RUNS

HITS

DOUBLES

TRIPLES

HOMERS

1976

.256

.366

5,198

10,786

1,686

333

762

1977

.266

.402

5,519

11,187

1,943

350

1,033

% increase in '77

4

9.8

6

3.7

15.2

5.1

35.6

There is nothing in sport quite like a baseball, nothing so difficult to manufacture, nothing that engenders so much controversy. When hockey scores go into double digits, nobody questions the puck. When field goals fly over the crossbar from 60 yards out, no one examines the football. When golf balls are shanked or tennis balls faulted, there is no similar rush to judgment, either. But in baseball any deviation from the imagined norm is greeted with loud cries of "Live ball!" or "Dead ball!", as if the strength and skill of hitters, the guile of pitchers and the direction of air currents have no effect on the game.

Again this season the cry of "Live ball!" is being voiced in anguish by the pitchers, in joy by the hitters, in earnest by everyone. The controversy is even greater than usual because the balls, all 360,000 that will be used by the major leagues this season, have been manufactured by the Rawlings company. For the previous 101 years all baseballs were sold to the major leagues by Spalding.

In response to this outcry and to the marked increase in offensive productivity this season, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED commissioned the Haller Testing Laboratories of Plainfield, N.J. to examine the major league baseball. The results, along with those from other tests, reveal that the 1977 Rawlings ball is livelier than the 1976 Spalding, but not as lively as it could be under big league rules or as the ball has been in the past.

As the chart on page 24 shows, there has been an increase in every offensive category this season. It is especially apparent in the most popular lively-ball indicator—the home run—because last season's team average of 93.1 was the lowest in 30 years. At the present rate 3,031 homers will be hit in the majors this season, a team average of 117, the highest since 1973. Philadelphia's Mike Schmidt, who has been the big league home-run champ each of the last three years with 36, 38 and 38, predicts it will take 40 to 45 to win this season. No National Leaguer has hit that many since Willie Stargell's 44 in 1973, and no American Leaguer has done it since Frank Howard clouted 44 in 1970. Having hit only seven homers this season, Schmidt is off the pace, but 10 players have a good shot at 40, including Ron Cey and Reggie Smith of the Dodgers, Richie Zisk of the White Sox, Jeff Burroughs of the Braves, Graig Nettles of the Yankees and George Scott of the Red Sox.

And it is not just the established long-ball hitters who are prospering. Larry Bowa, who had four homers in his first seven seasons with Philadelphia, has two this year. After 223 previous big league at bats without a home run, Jim Essian of the White Sox has hit two in his 119 at bats in '77. St. Louis Relief Pitcher Butch Metzger has not hit any, but he has knocked four out in batting practice, which is four more than he clouted last season.

Teams are prospering as well as individuals. The Chicago Cubs smashed seven homers in one afternoon at Wrigley Field, and at Fenway Park, the Red Sox and Milwaukee hit 11 in one game. The Sox and Kansas City had nine in another. In a game in Atlanta, the Braves and Dodgers also belted nine.

Not everyone agrees that the ball is responsible for this barrage. Some people point to the generally agreeable spring weather (which, it is claimed, makes the batters looser), to the expansion of the American League and to chance.

True, there has been a decline in postponed games this year (from 47 to 26), but there has also been a concerted effort to get games in despite the weather. Often the conditions were better suited to ducks than to gophers. The dilution of pitching quality because of expansion has never been a satisfactory explanation, either. When the American League grew from eight to 10 teams in 1961 and the National did the same in 1962, home-run production rose 7% in one league but declined 7% in the other. Both leagues experienced huge increases when four teams were added in 1969, but that was also the year the mound was lowered and the strike zone shortened. As for this season, expansion certainly does not account for the 25% increase in home runs in the National League, which has the same 12 teams it had in 1976. Finally, Bud Goode, a professional statistics analyst, reports, "There is only one chance in 10,000 that this kind of increase could be an accident. I don't know the reason for the difference. I just know that there is a reason. It is not luck."

The strongest evidence suggests that the reason for the difference is the ball, which, oddly enough, has been produced by Rawlings before. Under an agreement with Spalding, Rawlings provided some of the balls in 1971 and '72 and most of them in '73. Spalding, which had manufactured the balls for both leagues since their inceptions in 1876 and 1901, got out of the business this year.

No matter who is turning them out, the balls should not be either "live" or "dead." After all, the ingredients have always been the same: a hide cover, 150 yards of fine cotton, 219 yards of gray and white wool and a cork core surrounded by black and red rubber. Consistency is supposed to be ensured through adherence to specifications for weight (5 to 5.25 ounces), circumference (9 to 9.25 inches) and resilience (a coefficient of restitution of 51.4% to 57.8%). However, as batting statistics and tests show, all balls are not the same, not only from year to year but also from box to box.

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