commander of the Caribbean Sea Frontier, will be remembered by SPORTS
ILLUSTRATED readers for his acerbic analysis of baseball rules in the February
4 issue. Here he applies himself to a different controversy and comes up with
some astonishing conclusions.
Connie Mack once
said that pitching is between 50% and 90% of a pennant-winning baseball club.
You might think, therefore, that the major league clubs would be well aware of
all the facts of life about pitching and all the angles that affect it. But
they are blissfully ignorant of one of the major facts—namely, that the air
around us is even more changeable than the sea and that routine variations in
the atmosphere can make Whitey Ford a cousin to a last place club on the same
day that they enable a bullpen pitcher to throw a no-hitter at the Yanks.
We are all aware
of the daily changes in weather and can feel differences in temperature and
humidity. But we can't feel changes in the most important quality of the air
from a pitcher's point of view: its density. In fact, most people don't even
know what density means. They think the air is dense when it's foggy, although
just the opposite is true.
Density means the
actual weight of a cubic foot of air, and it depends on the temperature,
barometric pressure and relative humidity. Change any one of those factors and
you change the density of the air. A good average figure for the density in
Chicago during August, for instance, is just under two pounds per cubic
Note that I say
"average." A cubic foot of water weighs 62.4 pounds every day in the
year unless you freeze it or turn it into steam. But the weight of a cubic foot
of air can easily vary by 15% during the baseball season and often changes by
5% from one game to the next.
So what? If it's
cold or damp we put on a coat. The barometer changes so slowly that we don't
feel any crackling in our ears, as we do in an elevator. We go on about our
daily business and nobody knows or cares whether the air he is breathing weighs
1.8 pounds per cubic yard or 2.1 pounds.
But a baseball
coming up to the plate at more than 100 feet per second and several hundred
revolutions per minute can tell the difference in density right away. When
density is high, the ball will dodge coyly under Mickey Mantle's murderous
swing, leaving three base runners stranded. If the density is low, the ball
spins round and round but can't get its teeth into anything to help it break,
so Mickey belts the poor little cripple out of the park. Whenever this happens
the pitcher comes in at the end of the inning bellyaching that "the curve
hung up"—which, of course, is exactly what happened. But if anybody on the
club understood about air density they wouldn't have had a curve ball artist
trying to pitch on that particular day.
It is strange
that no one has gone into this business of air density yet, because all
ballplayers know instinctively that it's air resistance that makes a curve ball
break. Everyone who ever played in Denver knows you can't get a good break on a
curve ball in the thin air up there at 5,000 feet above sea level, and that
batting averages in that league don't mean a thing. The hitters never see
anything but fast balls which go a mile if you get any wood on them. Of course,
the idea that an invisible, colorless gas like air has density is a rather
difficult one to grasp, and I suppose you can't blame the baseball brass for
not knowing too much about it. But there are plenty of people in this country
who know all about it—aeronautical engineers and fliers. They know because
their daily bread and their necks depend on it.
amount of money is spent each year on aerodynamic research. There are huge
batteries of wind tunnels all over the country running tests on models of
planes and missiles to find out how the full-scale jobs will fly. The reason
why a plane flies—whether it's an open cockpit sport plane or a supersonic jet
interceptor—is the same as the reason why a curve ball breaks. It's the
reaction of the air to any object moving through it at high speed.
There are whole
libraries full of the technical reports which aeronautical scientists have
compiled over the past 50 years. Buried in an obscure corner of these libraries
you can find one on the so-called Magnus effect. This tells about the
"lift" forces generated by a spinning object with a curved surface
moving through the air. It explains why a curve ball breaks and a golf ball
hooks or slices. Any pitcher will tell you that the break on his curve ball
depends on the speed of the pitch and the amount of spin he puts on it. Most
pitchers don't know that it also depends on the density of the air.