The Evolution of Baseball

The Evolution of Baseball

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Baseball is a unique sport. Baseball is the only sport in which the defense has the ball. Pitchers have always had the advantage over the batters. Beginning around 1912, major changes gave the batter many advantages. Consequently, fan enjoyment has risen and owner profits have soared. These new advantages for the batter were an improvement but not enough to balance the scale between the pitcher and the batter. Former Red Sox second baseman Steve Rodriguez said, "Pitchers always have the advantage, knowing that it is nine players against one".[1] Besides, the batters who fail seven out of ten times are considered baseball's best.[2] Starting roughly a century ago, baseball changed in many ways in the batter's favor; however, baseball is and always has been ruled by the pitchers.

Baseball originated before the Civil War, evolving from a British game called Rounders. Rounders was a more simple game played in town squares in Great Britain. Stakes were used instead of bases and rather than balls and strikes, the pitcher just threw the ball to the "striker" until the "striker" hit the ball with a flat-sided stick. [3] The first organized baseball team in the United States to use similar rules to today's baseball was the Knickerbocker Club from New York, founded in 1837. Alexander Cartwright was an early member of the Knickerbocker Club and he is known to have written and finalized most of the rules of baseball.[4] After the Knickerbocker Club started, baseball became extremely popular. As a result the National League was formed in 1876. The National League contained eight teams; its rival, the American League, founded in 1901, also had eight teams. The first World Series was held in 1903. At the time there was much tension between the players in both leagues.[5] This is different from the Major League today because most players in the American League are not concerned about players in the National League until late in the playoffs. Despite how far the game has come, the dynamic between the pitcher and the batter has not changed much. Ever since the Knickerbocker Club started playing, the pitcher has always had the advantage over the batter.

The most important item in baseball is the ball itself. The baseball has changed, which has affected the game significantly. Currently, the baseball weighs five ounces, and is nine inches in circumference. It is wound with wool yarn, and is covered with two layers of cowhide, with a cork center. It was not until 1976 that cowhide was used on the baseball. From the time the Major League was first established until 1976, horsehide was used on the baseball. This was changed, because of the shortage of horses.[6] Today Major League games use sixty to seventy balls a game plus batting practice. [7] This is not how Major League baseball has always been. There was an era in baseball where only three to four baseballs were used per game. [8] This time frame was known as the Dead-Ball Era and took place from 1900 to 1919.[9] In this era, the pitchers had a massive advantage. There were numerous reasons; balls were over used, the balls were not strung as tightly, and the pitcher was able to dirty up the baseball. Because of these reasons, the ball simply did not go as far. On average, the leading home run hitter hit about fourteen home runs a year.[10] As mentioned before, pitchers were allowed to dirty the baseball, and it was encouraged. The more they dirtied the ball the harder it was for the batter. When the ball was dirty it would make very weird and unpredictable movements in the air, after being pitched. In other words, almost every pitch moved and acted like a knuckle ball. During the Dead-Ball Era, balls were not the same as they are today. The balls were not wrapped as tightly and there was usually a lump in the ball making it lopsided. Sometimes, the ball would be black with tobacco juice and licorice stains, and become sharp from sandpaper and various other objects.[11] This is commonly known as the spitball but is also referred to as, "the spitter", "wet one", or "unsanitary pitch". The spitball was banned from baseball after the 1920 season. This rule took affect after the 1920 season because of the Ray Chapman incident. On August 16, 1920 Carl Mays was facing Ray Chapman. Carl Mays dirtied up the baseball and threw the pitch. This pitch struck Ray Chapman in the head, killing him ten hours later. This is the only time that a player has died because of being hit by a pitch.[12] Sadly, eighteen pitchers still used the spitball but thankfully nobody else got seriously hurt. This rule became more enforced and the Major League was stricter about it after the 1968 season.[13]

The Dead-Ball Era was an era based on pitching. Not many players hit home runs. The hardest hitting team would hit an average of forty-three home runs a season while some pitchers achieved forty wins a season.[14] Seventeen pitchers got thirty wins in one season during the Dead-Ball Era.[15] After the Dead-Ball Era ended in 1919 only three pitchers got thirty wins in one season. Today it is extremely challenging to get twenty wins and only the best do so. The changing of the baseball caused other statistics to dramatically increase for batters and decrease for pitchers. This is shown when comparing the 1919 ERA leader to the 1921 ERA leader, which was the first year the anti-spitball rule took effect. In 1919 Walter Johnson led the American league with a 1.49 ERA and in 1921 Red Faber lead the American league with a 2.48 ERA. This is an increase of sixty-six percent in two years! For batters, the American League leader for home runs in 1919 was Babe Ruth with twenty-nine home runs. Two seasons later Babe Ruth led the American League with fifty-nine home runs.[16] After the anti-spitball rule was made, more home runs were produced and this is what fans loved seeing. This helped the owners make more money, which is their main objective. Many of the changes since 1912 were in the batters' advantage, in hope that the owners could add more offensive production, therefore generating more revenue. While very important, the changing of the actual baseball was not the only reason why batters statistics increased and pitchers decreased over the ensuing decades.

The second most important item in baseball is the bat, which is the main offensive tool. The bat has also changed a lot in the past century. In the first six years of Major League Baseball players were able to use any size, length, or kind of wood for each personalized bat.[17] In 1859 there was a rule that bats could not be above 2.5 inches in width. This was soon changed to 2.75 inches and then brought down to 2.61, which is what it is today. In 1869, the maximum length for a bat was forty-two inches. This maximum is still used today but most Major League bats are now thirty-three to thirty-four inches long. In 1893 there was a rule that the bats had to be round, before this, players used flat-faced bats for bunting.[18] Today in the Major League, the legal types of wood for bats are birch, ash and maple. The only weight limit in the Major League is that it can't be less than three and a half ounces lighter than the length.[19] Another change in the bat is that in 1912, baseball bats had very thin handles and a very long barrel.[20] A lot of new technology for bats has caused them to break more, but the ball goes farther. Every year the bat technology in the Major League improves, which increases offensive production. This is proven when examining the 1912 home run leader to the 2012 homerun leader. In 1912 Heinie Zimmerman was the home run leader with fourteen home runs. This past season the 2012 home run leader was Miguel Cabrera with forty-four home runs.[21] Not to mention, some players hit as many as seventy-three home runs in one season.[22] This shows the great impact of the changes in the bat.

A common rule violation in the Major League, that batters commit, is corking bats. This is done when a batter wants to gain an advantage over the pitcher illegally. In search of an advantage, this is key for batters because pitchers are unable to use this illegal enhancement. Corking bats in the Major League means to take a drill and then drill out the whole center part of the bat and then fill it with cork. Cork is a lot lighter than wood. Cork also has a very, rubbery kind of effect to it, so if something hits it, it will bounce off it more than if it hit a regular piece of wood. So, the batter is not losing any strength in the bat but is taking a lot of weight out.

Other than to just get an advantage there are two specific reasons why batters would cork their bat. Most people would think the point of it is to hit the baseball farther. The more common reason is to be able to use a lighter bat to improve bat speed. Usually older players would do so, to help keep up with the fastball. A former New York Met slugger, Ed Kranepool explained what corking a bat means. "Cut off the end of the bat and take the weight out of the bottom so the batter could swing the bat a little quicker." He also admitted that he never corked his bat, but other players would if "they just wanted a little edge."[23] Pete Tucci is the current owner and creator of Tucci Lumber who supplies many bats for many different Major League players. He was also in the Minor League for six years and he would never cheat in the game of baseball by either corking his bat or taking steroids. This is how he felt about players that cheat, "It didn't make the game fun for me because I always felt like I was at a disadvantage… it's a lot of money to put in front of players to potentially make and expect them to do the right thing."[24] What makes corking bats different than other cheats is that it is only available to batters. Also, many players like Pete Tucci are stuck in the Minor Leagues and might be motivated to try anything to move up. For that reason, sadly, corking their bat is always an option for batters who want to gain an advantage. Bob Bowman the CEO of MLB.com explains, "I think the temptation, which is not the case necessarily in the other sports because we're the only sport that runs our own minor league program".[25] This gives an extra incentive to cheat because the Major and Minor Leagues are linked, if the player performs well in the minors then he will be bumped up to the Major League. Obviously, when players cheat in any sport there is a great chance that they will get caught. When a corked bat is broken near the barrel, the cork in the bat is revealed. This leads to fines and suspensions.

Most changes to Major League baseball are done by the Major League itself. Although, this is not always the case, one change in baseball that was not done by the MLB was the shortening of the outfield fence distances. Each team's owner shortened their ballpark's outfield fence distances. Because of this, today's outfield fence distances are much closer than a century ago. An example of this is Fenway Park. In 1912 Fenway Park opened and its center field fence distance from home plate was 488 feet.[26] Today the Fenway Park center field fence distance is 420 feet.[27] This subtraction in distance has been done all over the league, in most stadiums, and in all parts of the fence. The owners moved the fences in to make more money. The owners knew they would make more money because fans love home runs and when there are more home runs, fans will buy more tickets to games. After all, baseball is not the fastest moving game, especially when there are few home runs. This changed when the fences were pushed in. The owners understood that by giving a new advantage to the batters, they would increase fan enjoyment and make more money. This also meant once again, batters statistics increased and pitchers statistics decreased. In 1912 the total amount of home runs in the Major League was 443.[28] In 1912 there were sixteen teams in the Major League. Today, in 2012 the lowest sixteen teams in the home run category in the Major League hit 2,240 home runs.[29] This is just one of the many categories where, batters statistics dramatically increased by bringing the fences in. Also resulting in more income for owners.

Another large change in professional baseball is that the pitcher's mound was lowered in 1969. Major League baseball reduced the height of the mound from fifteen inches high to ten inches high.[30] This relatively small change dramatically made the pitcher's appearance less intimidating to the batter. This is important because, a big part of baseball is mental. For example, when a pitcher is standing five inches higher, it affects how the batter thinks. A higher mound grants the ball access to come out of the hand harder and faster. This extra velocity is a result of the pitcher using the mound for momentum. More momentum can be added to the arm, the higher the mound is. This is because the higher the release point is, the larger the force of gravity, therefore putting more force on the ball.[31] In other words, if there are two balls thrown at the same speed from mounds at different heights, then the ball thrown from the higher mound will pass the plate faster. Thus, as a result of the mounds being lowered, the batter now has more time to react to the pitch, compared to batters who played before 1969.

The final change in baseball that specifically gave batters an advantage is the creation of the designated hitter. This change, however, only altered the game for the American League. The point of making the designated hitter was another way to increase the revenue of Major League. Again, fans like action and when the Major League added another pure hitter it resulted in more hits and offensive production. By adding the designated hitter in the American League, it created a new challenge for the pitcher. This happened in 1973 and transformed the American League.[32] The designated hitter made batters' careers longer and made the American League much stronger offensively than the National League.[33] Today in the National League when the pitcher is up to bat, the result is almost always a bunt or an out. Therefore, this rule created another batter for the pitcher to face. This caused batting statistics to increase and pitchers to become more tired and get relieved earlier in the game. This is recognized when given the total amount of hits in the American League in 1972, (one year before the DH), and 1973, (the first year using the DH). In 1972 the American League had a total of 14,751 hits. Just one year later, in 1973 the American League had a total of 17,193 hits.[34] This is a rise of 2,442 hits in just one season. This is a perfect example of the dramatic impact of the designated hitter.

In summary, baseball is and always has been a game ruled by pitchers, although it has changed a lot in the batters' favor in an attempt to even the game out. Baseball has evolved in areas of equipment, field changes, and the addition of the designated hitter. New advances of the baseball and bat cause the ball to travel farther and not be as unpredictable as it was in the Dead-Ball Era. Notable field changes included the outfield fence being brought in and the mound being lowered. Finally, the addition of the designated hitter gave the pitcher a new challenge in the American League. Most of these changes in the batters' favor were a result of the owners profit incentive. This was because fans like offensive action. John Thorn, official Baseball Historian says, "it is unlikely to return to a time like the Dead-Ball Era with poor offensive production".[35] Basically, because the Major League and its owners have changed so much to encourage offensive production, going back to a low offensive era is doubtful. The future of baseball overall, however, remains very interesting. New York Times reporter, Tyler Kepner said, "it's fun to watch and see it all unfold, but I wouldn't say that it's always going to stay the same".[36] With this being said, maybe someday, the batters who get out seven out of ten times, might not be considered the game's best. Only time will tell, but for now, baseball remains a pitcher's game. Baseball connects all Americans and will always be known as America's favorite past time. Besides, baseball is like life. When the player is expecting a fastball, he gets a curve.

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