Was there really a 'dead ball' era in baseball?

It’s always been believed that prior to 1920 baseballs were manufactured in such a way that ‘deadened’ their response off the bat. That is, the energy imparted to a pitched ball by a swung bat was partially absorbed by the loosely wound interior of the ball and therefore not converted to kinetic energy. Because of this the ball could not fly as far and therefore there was less power hitting in the game.

But is there any actual evidence (other than anecdotal) this is true? When Babe Ruth came along and began transforming baseballs into souveniers it changed the game immensely. But are we taking something away from him by saying that it was a ‘juiced’ ball that helped him hit those home runs? Or was it just that he defined a new approach to hitting that led to more home runs and therefore more runs scored?

I have a half-remembered thought of a recent article I read someplace that stated that the changes in the ball in the early 1920’s wouldn’t have had the sort of effect that would account for the change in offense. And I remember a quote from Ty Cobb that went something like, “If I’d have known that home runs would cause such a fuss I’d have hit more of them.” Clearly Cobb thought it was an approach issue and not an equipment issue.

So am I mad or is yet one more baseball traditional belief on the ropes?

I always thought that it was more of a change in the ballparks than anything else. Most early ballparks didn’t even have fences, and if they did they were monstrously deep. I think the urban ballpark did more than anything to create the “live ball” era.

there was never any such thing as a “Dead ball.” The ball was not changed in 1920 (I am sure the quality of manufacturing improved over time, but not all at once.) Players started hitting more home runs because

  1. They started trying. Prior to Ruth, players simply didn’t swing for the fences like they did after Ruth. As evidence I submit the fact that in Ruth’s early years of homer-swatting, home runs for most players didn’t increase significantly.

  2. They did make an effort to keep cleaner balls in play, which increased all aspects of offense. A clean ball without scuffs is obviously a lot easier to hit.

  3. Baseball did build some more homer-friendly parks around that time.

It appears to be at least partly attributed to the ball:


Here we go, the second question seems to bring it all together:


According to baseball-reference.com

In 1919 the entire American League hit 240 home runs with a .359 slugging percentage
In 1920 the league hit 369 home runs with a slugging percentage of .387

In 1919 the entire National League hit 207 home runs with a slugging percentage of .337
In 1920 the league hit 261 home runs with a slugging percentage of .357

Babe Ruth
1919 29 home runs in 130 games
1920 54 in 142 games

George Sisler
1919 10 home runs in 132 games
1920 19 home runs in 154 games

Rogers Hornsby
1919 8 home runs in 138 games
1920 9 home runs in 149 games
1921 21 home runs in 154 games

Ty Cobb
1919 1 home run
1920 2 home runs
1921 12 home runs

And pitcher Walter Johnson
1916-1919 gave up a total of 5 home runs, struck out 725
1920-1923 gave up a total of 29 home runs, struck out 456

Johnson’s totals are skewed because he only pitched in 15 games in 1920, but I think the trend holds true. There was something going on all over baseball, and it can’t just be ascribed to Ruth deciding he liked the long ball.

I’m not a baseball historian, so I don’t know if there were any rule changes in the 1919-1920 era. But it’s clear that something happened between those two years. It doesn’t take anything away from Ruth’s accomplishments, because it seems to me that he continued to dominate the game.

Follow-up question: When did the rules stop allowing dirty, soaking-wet balls to continue to be used over and over again?

It’s indisputable that there really was a “dead ball era” in baseball – the game before the early 20s was quantifiably different in many ways. What’s questionable is whether the ball itself was the primary, or even a major, factor in that.

There are lots of factors inextricably tangled together in this question. In the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, James makes a pretty compelling case that the ball itself played little or no role in the change in the game, attributing the offensive explosion to a combination of factors, including:
[li]The example of Babe Ruth, who did things at the plate previously believed impossible;[/li][li]The reaction to Sam Chapman’s death, the result of being hit in the head by a pitch from Carl Mays. The measures adopted included a ban on the spitball (with a grandfather clause for pitchers already in the majors) and an effort to put new, whiter balls in play once the ball became dirty;[/li][li]The discovery by the owners that fans liked home runs and more scoring, helping the game overcome the mistrust engendered by the gambling and game-fixing scandals of the late teens. Had they not needed to restore fan interest in the game, they might have taken measures to curb in increase in offense.[/li][/ul]

James acknowledges that the ball probably played a part; there was a slight change in the composition of the yarn used in balls once WWI was over, though the powers that be insisted at the time that the ball was essentially the same. The real difference was probably a side-effect of the Chapman incident: with new balls constantly in play to ensure visibility, balls didn’t get pounded to a soggy pulp in the course of a game, and probably did carry farther – not as a result of how they were made, but how they were used. In 1925, a new ball was introduced that probably was slightly more resilient than the previous one, but it didn’t result in dramatically higher offense.

There are numerous anecdotes about Cobb determining that he was going to go out in a particular game and hit home runs just to prove that he could do it if he chose to. They’re probably true, just as it’s true that Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn, and probably Keith Hernandez and Don Mattingly, could have hit a lot more homers if they’d approached batting that way.

chriszarate: while outfield depths of 500 ft or more were common in turn-of-the-century ball parks, by about 1910 they were pretty much a thing of the past. While certain new ballparks had an effect on certain teams and players (the opening of Yankee Stadium, for instance), they weren’t that much of a factor in the rise of offense in the 1920s.

There’s another stat that suggests the dead ball was a reality. Look at the number of assists outfielders used to get, compared to the assists even strong-armed outfielder record today.

Tris Speaker holds the record for assists by an outfielder, and NO outfielder today stands a chance of coming close to that. In fact, Speaker once pulled off two unassisted double plays in the same season!

Do you think that’s because Tris Speaker had a cannon for an arm? That he threw harder than Roberto Clemente or Dewey Evans? No! It’s because the ball didn’t travel as far in Speaker’s day, so outfielders didn’t play very deep. Speaker played a VERY shallow center field. So shallow, in fact, that he wasn’t much farther from second base than the shortstop.

Babe Ruth WAS a tremendous power hitter, and even with livelier balls, he was STILL hitting more (and longer) homers than anybody else. But the ball DID make a difference.

There’s also a conspiracy theory that the ball was changed on purpose (and from a rubber core to a cork one, too), to try to restore public interest in the game after the Black Sox gambling scandal. Unfortunately for this theory, that didn’t come to light until after the 1920 season. But never mind, the other part of the theory is that the Lords of Baseball conspired to get Babe Ruth out of Boston and into MLB’s premier media market.

There have been some tests that show the yarn to be wound up to its maximum spec tension, not the midrange, since the 1994 strike. Messrs. McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds are grateful, no doubt - perhaps the 1920-1994 period will someday be called the “Medium Ball Era”, and today will somehow not be called the “Steroid Era”.



I haven’t studied the issue enough to know whether you’re right or wrong (or at all, for that matter), but I’d be careful about using OF assists to buttress an argument that the ball didn’t go as far in those days. The overwhelming majority of OF assists consist of the fielder throwing out a runner attempting to advance. I suspect that if you were able to do a sufficiently detailed analysis (which might not even be possible) you’d find that the decline resulted from a lot fewer runners attempting to advance an extra base on balls in play. Why? Think about it for a minute. In an environment where runs are precious, hits are few, and homers almost non-existent, it’s a good percentage play to try to advance as far as you can on any ball in play, even at the risk of being thrown out. As a batter, you’re more likely to try to advance to second on a clean single if you know there’s only a slight chance of more than one subsequent hitter getting a hit, and almost no chance that he’ll hit a home run. Likewise, as a runner on first, you’re more likely to go full-bore for third on a single to right, regardless of how fast you are or how good the right fielder’s arm is, when you think that there’s less chance of being advanced to third by another hitter.

After 1920, however, batting averages soared, and more players were hitting more home runs. Once that happened, the emphasis shifted from getting on base and advancing as far as you can on any opportunity, to getting on base and then not getting thrown out before someone else can drive you in. When nearly every player on the team has a one-in-four-or-better chance of getting a hit, and there’s at least a possiblility for most of them to hit a homer, advancing an extra base is no longer worth the risk. Obviously, it took a while for this change to fully take root, but take root it did, as anyone familiar with baseball in the 1950s or the managerial style of Earl Weaver will attest. Outfield assist totals from the first two decades of the twentieth century were higher than now for the same reason American bison kill rates were higher in the nineteenth century than now – there were lots more opportunities.

I’ll give you that outfielders probably played shallower overall than today, partly so that they’d have a better chance of throwing out base runners, who were much more likely to be trying to advance extra bases back then, as mentioned above. However, the fact that so many writers and players mentioned Speaker and how shallow he played is, to my mind, evidence for how unusual his positioning was, even for his time – people don’t talk so much about something that everyone else does as a matter of course.

I think a lot of it had to do with the ball, or more specifically, the condition of the ball. It was very common after the pitcher had finished his warmups for the ball to be bounced from infielder to infielder, and at least one of them would spit tobacco juice/licorice on it. By the end of a game the ball would literally be black.

Nitpicking a bit here, but it was Ray Chapman who was killed by Carl Mays’ pitch, not Sam.

There was a lively ball of sorts introduced in 1911, but it was withdrawn the next year.

The deadball era is generally used more to describe the style of play rather than the resiliency of the ball. There was more stealing, bunting, and other one-run techniques prior to 1920.

Doh! Thanks. I was trying to hurry up and get that written and posted in between crises here, and had a brain fart. At least I didn’t claim it was Ben Chapman (though if it hadda be someone, you probably could’ve done worse than Ben).

The “Dead Ball” era started arround 1901-02 when the rules were changed to count foul balls as stikes (the current system). That and varrious trick pitches like the spitter, the scuff ball, emery balls ect. were not only legal, but wide spread. And as mentioned earlyer they typicaly would play a whole game useing only one or two very dirty balls that would get harder and harder for a batter to see.

After the 1919 Blacksocks scandal the leauges were faced with dwindleing attendence. Babe Ruth had begun to spark fan excitement with his upercut swing and homerun totals. So the leauges decided to outlaw alot of the tricks pitchers played on the ball. They did it gradualy, if you were a pitcher who made the bigs prior to the rule change you could keep on throwing the spitter, Burleigh Grimes was the last pitcher to legaly throw a spitter and he retired in '37. The next year (1920)saw the Ray Chapman tragedy and the use of clean balls.

Combine clean balls, stricter rules for pitchers and new batting philosophy and you had the end of the dead ball era. There were wide spread allegations of a juiced or “rabbit” ball that flew further, but for that time I don’t find the evedence compelling. I do have my suspicions about the balls used today, but that’s another thread.