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Although I'm too young to remember baseball the way it was played in the spring of 1943, my father used to tell me about it. That was the year the major leagues opened the season with something called a "balata" ball. In fact, balata ball was one of the nicer things the players called it.
It was round and white and had the familiar, reassuring Spalding label, but it sure didn't act like an ordinary baseball. It did bounce, but not very much, and that was the problem. For the first two weeks of the season, a gruesome specter haunted the game: Modern baseball appeared to be on its way back to the pre-1920 dead-ball era. The national pastime, as happens at regular intervals, was imperiled.
As years go, 1943 was a pretty horrible one. For the Western democracies, it was the darkest time of the war. Most of Europe was occupied by the enemy and so was most of the South Pacific. But President Franklin D. Roosevelt had decreed that professional baseball could continue; it was good for the morale of the nation, he said. Still, there would have to be certain restrictions. Teams would have to find players among men too young, too old or too infirm for, or temporarily deferred from, the draft. New York teams could play twilight games but not evening games lest the arc lights become landmarks for enemy submarines. And the materials used for equipment could not be essential to the war effort. That, as 1943 fans soon discovered, was where the trouble started.
Though the casual baseball fan probably didn't realize it, the horsehide that Babe Ruth used to bash over fences had come from Belgium and France—where the also-rans of one weekend's tiercé might wind up at the boucherie à cheval a few days later. Major league baseball quickly found adequate supplies of Bolivian and domestic horsehide, so one problem—that of the ball's covering—was solved. But an even greater difficulty loomed: a shortage of rubber. Rubber is an essential ingredient of a baseball's core, and it always has been. The core is a cork composition that contains a small percentage of rubber, wrapped by two black rubber shells held in place by another rubber wrapping, which is traditionally red. But when the Japanese seized Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, the U.S. was cut off from its usual source of supply. About a ton of the stuff was required in the construction of a tank and about half that for a long-range bomber. So Uncle Sam banned the use of rubber in all items not essential to the war effort, and that included baseballs.
By the time Billy Southworth's St. Louis Cardinals had disposed of Joe McCarthy's Yankees in the 1942 World Series, the major leagues and A.G. Spalding & Bros, knew they faced a serious problem. Although some clubs still had a few bags of the 1942 balls around, inventories of traditional baseballs were low. A substitute for rubber would have to be found. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis asked Spalding to come up with something, preferably something with a little jackrabbit in it. Averages and slugging percentages had been in decline since 1939, a memorable year for bashing balls over the fences.
As occurs in most times of crisis, a committee was formed. On it were Landis, American League president Will Harridge, and Cincinnati general manager Warren Giles. These three wise men conferred with Spalding over various formulas for a new ball. Spalding did its best and really couldn't be faulted for the events that followed. On March 13, 1943, five weeks before Opening Day, the new ball was introduced to the press. It looked and felt like a real baseball, but it had a granulated cork center instead of the high-grade cork and rubber mixture, and there was no rubber shell or rubber wrapping around that core. Instead, to give it a little pop, there were two hard shells of a rubberlike substance inside the ball, hugging the core. One shell was red and the other black. For the first time, Americans heard the ominous word "balata," which was what the two shells were made of.
Balata was a non-strategic substance. It is very similar to rubber but lacks rubber's elasticity. Made from the dried juices of certain tropical trees, it was normally used in the manufacture of industrial gaskets and the insulation of telephone lines. Actually, most American sportsmen had already held balata in their hands without knowing it—the hard outer shells of golf balls were, and some still are, made of balata.
Warren Giles paid close attention to the development of the balata ball, and as the opening of the season approached, he was starting to lose sleep. For most of spring training—played in the North that year because of wartime travel restrictions—1942 baseballs had been in play, scruffy old ones whose use would save money and resources. But toward Opening Day, balata balls were used in two games between Giles's Reds and the Cleveland Indians. Over 21 innings, the two teams pounded out a grand total of one extra-base hit. Giles said nothing, crossed his fingers and prayed that what he had really seen was some unexpectedly good pitching. Yet, in his heart, he knew that wasn't so.
On April 21 the umpires shouted "Play ball!" And the 16 teams tried. Truly, they tried. The Cardinals, who had led the National League in almost all offensive categories in 1942, opened their season at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. They lost 1-0 in 11 innings. The next day they did a little better. They lost 1-0 in 10 innings. Witnesses were quick to focus on the problem. The new ball had the spunk and resilience of a croquet ball. It wouldn't go anywhere. Swat it and your hands stung for two minutes. It was like hitting a large stone. If the baseball of the pre-Ruth era was dead, this one was positively embalmed. It should have gone to war as a weapon.
"We knew something was wrong with it," Dodger infielder Frenchy Bordagaray recalled recently. "But we didn't know what."