Giles knew what. His worst fears were confirmed. As he suspected all along, the ball was a dud, pronounced the deadest they had ever seen by managers South-worth of the Cardinals, Bill McKechnie of the Reds and Leo Durocher of the Dodgers. Dodger President Branch Rickey was straightforward when asked to comment about the ball. "Dead?" he said. "Why, that ball was dead at birth!" After his team lost to Cleveland 1-0 on Opening Day, Tiger manager Steve O'Neill declared, "Any club would be lucky to get two runs in a game with this new ball. It's deader than the one in use when I was playing." O'Neill had been a catcher for the Indians in 1911. So Giles, to a chorus of approval from players and managers, set about to gather evidence and get the balata ball out of play.
Up to the roof of Crosley Field went the G.M., carrying a bag with a dozen balata balls—now in use at all the ball parks—and another sack of good old 1942 Spaldings that had remained in the Reds' equipment room. Giles's head groundskeeper waited on the sidewalk below. Performing a task that could never have been in any general manager's job description, Giles started dropping baseballs off the roof. The groundskeeper carefully measured the bounces off the concrete pavement. On average, an old ball bounced 13 feet in the air. A balata ball bounced 9½ feet. Applying the findings of the great Crosley Field roof-to-sidewalk experiment, Giles judged that the balata ball was 26.9% less resilient than its predecessor.
On another front, sportswriter Hy Turkin of the New York Daily News took some balata balls to The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, where scientists sliced them, unraveled them and swatted them with wooden mallets. The verdict: 25.9% less resilience. The finding was remarkably similar to that from the Cincinnati test. And what did it mean in practice? Simply this: The monster 400-foot home run of 1942 was now the lazy 300-foot fly of 1943. Happy outfielders were easily reeling in what should have been goners.
But what could be done? Major league games resembled replays of the 1905 World Series, in which every game was a shutout.
The Reds and the Cardinals concluded a four-game series with six runs scored. Total. Combined. Eleven of the first 29 games played in the two leagues were shutouts, a record. Seven of those were "low hitters," with three safeties or fewer by at least one club. The Cardinals, the highest-scoring team in 1942, were batting .204, last in the league, after the first week of the season.
As of April 29 the National League was hitting .238, down from the 1942 average of .249. The falloff in hitting in the American League was even more dramatic—.257 to .210. One player who refused to succumb to the plague of anemic hitting was Stan Musial. The Man, off on a characteristic spring tear, was hitting .333. But even his best shots were staying in the park. In truth, Musial's sharp line drives over the infielders were all that kept the Cardinals' team average from resembling a feverish man's body temperature.
How about the American League, you ask? The league of DiMaggio, Greenberg and Williams? Forget those guys. They were off to war. Want to know who was leading the circuit in home runs on April 29? The entire New York Yankee team, that's who. The team had one home run. The St. Louis Browns had one, also. The other six teams didn't have any. The goose egg was everywhere.
Subtly, game strategy in 1943 began to change. Baseball wisdom now called for a base runner to go for every conceivable inch if a batter happened to get a hit. The runner, it was assumed, might not see another hit as a young man. Consider a game between the Phillies and Dodgers in Shibe Park. Phillie shortstop Glen Stewart—who, in fine Phillie tradition, entered the game with a career. 138 average from the lively ball era—led off by poking a single past the bewildered infielders. Up came third baseman Pinky May. May had occasional power. Very occasional—three home runs over the past four seasons. O.K.... light hitter...runner on first...sacrifice maybe?
The infielders crept in. So did the outfielders.
May slashed the ball to the power alley in left center. Stewart ran like the wind, around second, around third. He never stopped until he reached home plate, where Dodger catcher Mickey Owen was waiting for him with the balata. One out. But May, unaccustomed to luxury, never stopped running either. Owen threw the ball to Billy Herman, who was playing third. Herman tagged May. The Phillies had added a new dimension to baseball lore. Two batters, two hits and two outs. Never mind Billy Ball. This was balata ball.