Every hitter likes fastballs just like everybody likes ice cream. But you don't like it when someone's stuffing it into you by the gallon. That's how you feel when Ryan's pitching.
—REGGIE JACKSON, 1975
For baseball's first century there was no express way to clock pitches, though scientific devices sometimes were rigged to gauge speeds for promotional purposes. In Cleveland in 1917 a wire-and-steel contraption called a "gravity drop interval recorder" timed Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Smokey Joe Wood, some of the era's hardest throwers. They produced respective readings of 134, 127 and 124 feet per second. (A 95-mph fastball travels 139 feet per second.) In 1946 a photo-electric cell device built by the Army at Washington's Griffith Stadium clocked Feller at 98.6 mph in a promotional event that drew 31,000 fans, well above the hometown Senators' average. The cell measured Feller's fastball as it crossed the plate and entered the unit—not as it left his hand, the way today's radar gun does, which would have resulted in a higher reading.
Such machine testing was rare and inconsistent until 1973, when Michigan State coach Danny Litwhiler, a former major league outfielder, borrowed the radar gun used by campus cops and clocked his pitchers from inside a car parked behind the backstop. Police had been using the guns since at least the 1950s. Aimed at a moving object, they send a beam of electromagnetic waves that bounce off an object and back to the gun, which measures the frequency shift in the waves that return to calculate the speed of the object.
Litwhiler found the gun did not always give a reading on pitched balls, so he called CMI Inc., the Colorado company that manufactured it, and learned that it could be recalibrated to read smaller objects. Litwhiler made the adjustment, and that prototype is now in the Hall of Fame. Litwhiler made one more change. Radar guns at the time were powered through the cigarette lighters in cars. He asked the JUGS company, which produced pitching machines, to develop a battery-powered radar gun. Within a decade JUGS would become synonymous with pitch tracking, the guns standard issue for big league scouts.
Meanwhile, in 1974, Ryan was creating such excitement with his fastball for the California Angels that the team summoned technicians from Rockwell International to rig up radar timing devices and asked fans to guess the speed of his fastest pitch against the White Sox. Ryan reached 100.8 mph—in the ninth inning of a game in which he threw 159 pitches. Two weeks later he hit 100.9 mph. Ryan's pitches were clocked when they were about 10 feet from home plate, which subtracted as much as 6 mph to 8 mph from their peak velocity.
Are today's top throwers as fast as he was? "It's hard for me to say," says Ryan, 64, now president of the Rangers. "I don't doubt that every generation that comes along has guys who throw as hard as guys in my generation and before. We know more about mechanics and sports medicine, so I just think [hard throwers are] more available."
One year after the Rockwell test, in the spring of 1975, Michigan State played a tournament in Florida, and Litwhiler brought his gun. He called up Earl Weaver, the manager of the Orioles, who trained in Miami, and said, "I've got something to show you." Weaver loved the device. He used it on his pitchers, his outfielders and even a plane as it descended. "All of our scouts," Weaver recalls, "no matter who it was, they would always say, 'This guy throws as hard as [Jim] Palmer.' I once put the radar gun on one of them, and he threw about eight or nine miles an hour slower than Palmer."
Weaver used the gun as a managing tool. He liked knowing if one of his starters was losing velocity late in a game and might need to be pulled. He especially liked using the radar gun to ensure that Baltimore's pitchers kept a wide gap in speed between their fastball and their breaking pitches. "When [Mike] Cuellar threw his screwball a little too hard and it didn't break," Weaver says, "you could tell right away on the radar gun."
The Orioles and the Dodgers were two of the early radar gunslingers. In 1975, in a unique intersection of two of the most important developments in pitching, Tommy John operated a radar gun behind home plate at Dodger Stadium while recuperating from the first elbow-reconstruction surgery, the procedure that would come to bear his name. He would predict rallies when he saw a pitcher's velocity drop late in a game. By '78 nine teams were using radar guns, and by the early '80s the tool had become essential, especially for scouts. (John was replaced by Mike Brito, a scout who sported a Panama hat and smoked a cigar in his field-level box behind home plate in L.A., lending panache to the job.)