Spitball Bearings: Baseball and the Unruly World

Thinner atmosphere at Coors Park in Denver explains a higher-than-typical frequency of home runs.

The historical museum in Clear Lake, Wisconsin (population 1,080) commemorates two hometown heroes: Gaylord Nelson and Burleigh Grimes. The former, a U.S. senator, championed pathbreaking environmental legislation and founded the first Earth Day. The latter, a Major League pitcher, was the last to legally spit on a baseball. Nelson agitated throughout his career for a popular recognition that the nation’s prosperity depended on the natural world. In his own way, Grimes already understood this. His success in the sport sprung from the chemical reaction between his saliva and the mucilage released by the slippery elm bark tucked into his cheek.

Baseball has always been more field research than lab science. From its varied fields of play to their permeable boundaries, it invites dynamism, instability, and messiness. As Major League teams face off in the playoffs this October in pursuit of this year’s World Series title, here’s a starting lineup of moments in which the sport’s vulnerability to, and dependence on, the material world have become especially visible.

  1. Flies’ Ball

New York Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain swarmed by midges in Cleveland, Ohio, October 5, 2007.

Late in their second playoff game of the 2007 postseason, the New York Yankees clung to a narrow lead over the Cleveland Indians and prepared to deploy their secret weapon: Joba Chamberlain, the rookie pitcher who had pitched phenomenally since his August 7 debut (giving up only a single run in nineteen appearances) and whom the Yankees had called upon sparingly to ensure he would be at full strength for a critical moment like this one. But as he headed to the mound in the eighth inning, it became clear Cleveland had its own advantage to press. A swarm of midges engulfed the field of play, especially lighting upon Chamberlain, spurring the Yankees trainer out to the mound with a can of Off! Chamberlain walked the first batter of the inning, struggling to get his pitches over the plate. Then he sent a pitch well wide of the strike zone and beyond the grasp of his catcher, who promptly jogged out to the mound with a second dose of bug spray. This was likely as ineffective as the first, because, as entomologist Dr. Jamin Dreyer of the University of Kentucky informs me, the repellent was likely concocted for mosquitos and not a non-biting insect like those in the Chironomidae family. If Chamberlain enjoyed a psychological benefit from the insecticide’s scent, it did not show. One batter later, he threw another wild pitch, this one reaching the backstop and allowing the tying run to score. The Yankees would lose in extra innings that night, and be booted from the playoffs two games later.

The midges would remember the night differently. As Dreyer explains, aquatic insects like to emerge at night and in the cool of the fall. With such brief lifespans, they would have been impatient to breed—hence the swarms. The lights of Jacobs Field likely enticed them and, once there, they were especially drawn to Chamberlain standing on the pitching mound because, as Dreyer has observed in his fieldwork, they tend toward the highest point in the landscape and toward high-contrast colors (like those of the Yankees road uniform). The reproductive frenzy continued, their numbers slowly falling and demographics shifting as female midges returned to the water to lay eggs. Eventually the field held only male bugs and New York Yankees.

Dreyer points out that the incident offers a yardstick by which to measure ecological health. Such a scene was much less common in mid-century Cleveland, when Lake Erie was declared “dead” and the Cuyahoga River was making incendiary headlines, but as Dreyer says, “Their swarms are coming back, especially more sensitive species like mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies.” Visiting teams beware.

  1. Synthetic Photosynthetic

Monsanto’s ChemGrass, later dubbed AstroTurf, debuted in Houston’s Harris County Domed Stadium in 1966.

In the winter of 2010, an ebullient press release announced that the Scotts Company, exclusive marketers of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide for home use, would become the “Official Lawn Care Company of Major League Baseball.” Finally, fans had the chance “to purchase grass seed and blends and fertilizers featured in some of the most iconic Major League ballparks.” Playing into the competitiveness that makes lawns the nation’s most intensively tended and treated landscapes, an MLB executive delighted that “now with the help of Scotts, our fans can challenge their local [teams] for the title of who has the ‘best lawn in the neighborhood.’”

For forty years, there would have been no competing with the Houston Astros. Two months before the 1965 season, Astros head groundskeeper George Myers felt confident he could keep grass alive within the just-completed Harris County Domed Stadium. Myers’s sod had survived two frosts and was now sinking its roots into the field as he prepared to dote on it in the weeks before Opening Day. The stadium’s roof—which allowed the team to play through summer storms, and the city that bragged of being the “World’s Most Air-Conditioned” to enjoy climate-controlled baseball—was made of the acrylic glass Lucite, a creation of DuPont chemists trying to deliver on the company’s promise of  “better living through chemistry.” That season proved Lucite permitted into the stadium sufficient light for photosynthesis, but the light reflected in a way that routinely blinded fielders trying to catch fly balls. When the team elected to dull the reflectivity of the dome with paint, Myers’s grass died.

Failed by one technological marvel, Astros team owner Judge Roy Hofheinz turned to another. In the 1950s, the Ford Foundation became concerned with the poor condition of parks in American cities, and the declining physical fitness of children in those cities. It awarded grants to Monsanto, DuPont’s rival, to develop an artificial turf for a synthetic reclamation project in urban landscapes. When Hofheinz inspected the result, branded ChemGrass, he ordered three acres to put in his Astrodome.

George Myers took part in the installation of what writers and players would soon dub AstroTurf and then, as his grandson Steve Myers shares with me, steeled himself for a lifetime of being asked “How can you be a groundskeeper when there are no grounds to keep?” He did, however, cut it once more. When the field was resurfaced a few years later, Myers cut a swatch for himself and took it home to use as a bathmat.

  1. Squinting off into the Sunset

Baseball games at the west-facing Wahconah Park in Pittsfield, Massachusetts are routinely delayed when batters cannot see the pitch against the setting sun.

In the summer of 1919, the first baseball games were played at Wahconah Park, nestled in the Berkshires town of Pittsfield. In the WPA Guide to Massachusetts, the chapter on Pittsfield is titled “Power-Source and Playground.”  In this case, the former begot the latter. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, the town’s growth had been paced by its ever-expanding textile industry, which found ready use for Berkshires rivers and Berkshires sheep. It was on par with its more famous cousins to the east when William Stanley, Jr. moved his Electric Manufacturing Company there in 1890. Stanley had invented a commercially successful electric transformer, which enticed General Electric—the new company that had begun, in part, in Thomas Edison’s laboratory and was competing with Westinghouse to spread commercial electricity, and especially electric light, across the American landscape—to buy Stanley’s operation. The move created thousands of jobs in Pittsfield, more than enough to fill the towering wooden grandstand that rose up behind home plate.

GE brought fans to the park, but not light. The field would not be lit until after World War II. It was only then, when baseball games could first extend into the evening, that a problem appeared: the park faces west. While batters at all but one of the nation’s other ballparks could keep their eye on the ball with the setting sun safely behind them, those at Wahconah Park were blinded as the pitches shot by. To this day, games can be delayed on the most pleasant of evenings by nothing more than a lovely sunset. A park built by electricity is shorted out, temporarily, by natural light.

  1. The Crack of Bats and Bones

Emerald ash borer populations are nearing the woodlots managed for Louisville Slugger baseball bats.

Perhaps it will come as no surprise that the current craze among professional hitters for bats crafted from sugar maple was set off by a Canadian. In 1995, Sam Holman, a carpenter from Ottawa, responded to the rash of broken bats in the game by designing a kiln-dried bat made from his national tree because he knew that he “wasn’t going to make a better ash tree.” Holman spent the next five years doggedly persuading professional hitters, some of the planet’s most superstitious inhabitants, to set down the white ash bats that had been standard across the twentieth century and give maple a swing. He had convinced only a couple of hundred when Barry Bonds took a maple bat (and other novel substances) to the single-season home run record in 2001. After watching that record fall, Bonds’s fellow ballplayers felled, by proxy, millions of maple trees. Half of Major Leaguers had switched to maple by 2008. Today, nearly three-quarters have.

Home runs haven’t increased, but the maiming of onlookers has. A player heading home from third base was punctured in the lung. A coach in the dugout had the nerves in his cheek severed. A woman in the stands suffered multiple skull fractures and ruptured arteries in her brain, spending weeks in constant pain. The culprit in these cases and others are the jagged shards of maple that scatter like shrapnel when the bat breaks upon impact with the ball. While a 2012 study found that maple bats were three times as likely as ash to crack in this explosive manner, the explanation is not solely a function of tree physiology. History matters, too. To meet the sudden demand for maple bats, lumber had to be harvested from generic maple stands, rather than from lots designed to grow well-tapered trees with straight grain, like the 8,500 forested acres of Pennsylvania and New York that Hillerich & Bradsy manages for Louisville Sluggers. Then this maple was fed into sawmills, which had been designed for ash. The maple’s grain became obscured during manufacturing, so that the orientation of the bat and that of the grain could differ to a degree great enough to dramatically weaken the strength of the wood.

Many call for a return to ash. But before long there will not be ash to return to. The emerald ash borer reached Pennsylvania in 2007 and the beetle is within a couple dozen miles from Louisville Slugger ash stands. So it remains unclear where in the nation’s forests harvesters can find the next generation’s baseball bats.

  1. Imperfect Game

Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Randy Johnson unintentionally kills a dove with a fastball in Tucson on March 24, 2001.

On March 24, 2001, Randy Johnson took to the field in a spring training game in Tucson, Arizona, carrying his reputation as one of the sport’s most intimidating pitchers. He stood 7’8” up in the air, only ten inches of which were made up by the pitcher’s mound. The extreme reach of his arms allowed him to release the ball as if he were a shorter pitcher using a tennis racket. The resulting velocity had helped him lead his league in strikeouts six out of the previous eight years and collect the Cy Young Award—given by voters to the league’s best pitcher—each of the past two years.

In the game’s seventh inning, this fearsome hurler fired a 95 m.p.h. fastball toward home plate. But before it could arrive in the catcher’s glove it struck dead a swooping dove, the bird of peace’s demise obscured by a cartoonish poof of feathers.

The sport’s most menacing pitcher slaughters a worldwide symbol of pacifism. What did it mean? Nothing, of course. “It was just one of those things,” Johnson told reports. We must force our storytelling minds to make peace with that fact. University of Toronto statistician Dr. Jeffrey Rosenthal put the odds at 1:13 million, presuming one hundred doves flew in the square kilometer around the diamond in random patterns. With roughly 800,000 pitches thrown each year in Major League Baseball, we could expect such a scene every fifteen or sixteen years. That means it is just about time for parks to post avian advisories.

  1. The Other Bombers

The Albuquerque Isotopes, a minor-league affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers, took their name from an episode of The Simpsons, though it also reflects the city’s ties to nuclear research.

American attitudes about nuclear power and atomic energy are characterized by ambivalence, with expressions ranging from jingoistic chest-thumping to fatalist gallows humor. This is the case even in the animated American city of Springfield, where The Simpsons writers have placed an incompetently staffed nuclear power plant alongside local sports teams proudly calling themselves for the Atoms, the Ice-o-Topes, and the Atomic Bombs. In a 2001 episode, Homer Simpson uncovers a plot to move the city’s baseball team, the Isotopes, to Albuquerque. The next year, residents of New Mexico’s largest city reached across the fourth wall, voting to name their new minor league baseball franchise the Albuquerque Isotopes.

“You can’t understand modern New Mexico’s development without understanding what happened here during World War II,” Dr. Kara Carroll, Albuquerque native and history instructor at Central New Mexico Community College, insists to me. Reflecting the shift, the previous minor league club, first organized in 1915, was named the Dukes, in honor of the Spanish viceroy who dispensed the first land grants in the colonial outpost.  A small city of only 26,000 residents in 1930 grew 1000% in the next thirty years, thanks to extensive federal investment, most visibly in the establishment of Sandia National Laboratories, which specializes in nuclear weapons research. Pride in the labs seems to have eclipsed pride in Spanish colonial heritage, with the Isotopes selling more branded merchandise in their first three months than the Dukes had in five years. “My Dad, who had never seen an episode of The Simpsons, thinks [the Isotopes’ name] is cool because it’s scientific,” Dr. Carroll says.

The Isotopes boast a highly credentialed fan base, with New Mexico home to one of the highest number of PhDs per capita. The federal labs help to create in New Mexico a demographic oddity as, at the same time, it also has one of the nation’s highest poverty rates. Both populations’ fates are bound to the atom. Indigenous communities and people of color have been those most often in harm’s way, but even those well-positioned in that economy face uncertainty. Talk of a government shutdown has many in Albuquerque on edge. “Even within our church,” Carroll says, “with so many engineers, we’re preparing for tithing to be way down. We have to figure out if we can pay the pastors.” Empty grandstands no doubt would accompany empty pulpits. A state so dependent on unstable isotopes must face the instability that brings.

  1. The Omniscient Statistic

One of the latest baseball statistics factors in air temperature. Perhaps the integration of more meteorological data awaits in the future?

There has been a strenuous effort for more than thirty years to turn baseball statistics into something more virtuous than lies and damned lies. Sabermetrics, according to the man who coined the term, is nothing less than “the search for objective knowledge about baseball.” The abbreviations of their new metrics have proliferated to rival those of the New Deal and have begun to become common parlance via popular works like Moneyball, the bestselling book turned Brad Pitt flick.

This year, sabermetricians have begun to resemble meteorologists. Baseball Prospectus, a pioneering organization in the field (and the springboard for political prognosticator Nate Silver) introduced a new statistic: Deserved Run Average (DRA). It is an ambitious attempt to judge a pitcher’s performance against “the average effect of…factors beyond the pitcher’s control” that put him at a relative advantage or disadvantage—from the handedness of a batter to the tendency of a particular umpire to call a strike instead of a ball. They term such factors “environmental,” and one is literally so: gametime temperature. “We’ve known for a while that temperature is linked to run-scoring,” DRA co-creator Jonathan Judge tells me. “I was pleased to have the DRA model confirm that in a reliable way.” Replacing ERA with DRA, Minneapolis pitchers no longer get credit for the effects of frigid Aprils, and Texas pitchers escape punishment for the hitting-friendly heat of Arlington summers.

Perhaps, as we move deeper into the age of “big data baseball,” parks will be outfitted with sophisticated weather stations, feeding real-time data into modeling software assessing player performances against fluctuations in wind, moisture, and temperature. Or teams will make an effort to sign players who have had the most success playing at temperatures typical in the team’s city. Or, just as likely, the careful calculations of sabermetricians will prove such efforts to be a waste of time.

  1. Where Records Vanish into Thin Air

The thin, dry air of Denver transforms what would be fly-ball outs at sea level into home runs.

On April 9, 1993, Major League baseball was played in Denver for the first time. The first Colorado Rockies batter to step to the plate hit a home run over the left field wall—a poetic flourish on a banner day for the Mile-High City. But in the years to follow, subsequent flourishes seemed to gild the lily. In 1996 the Rockies set what remains the record for the most home runs hit by a team in its home park. The list of league leaders in home runs during the Rockies’ first ten years features three Colorado sluggers surrounded by the now-infamous names Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa. By the turn of the century, the sanctity of baseball’s record book seemed threatened by not only performance-enhancing drugs, but a performance-enhancing park.

Altitude has long been the secret weapon of athletes in aerobic activities, explaining the success of Kenyan runners, the migration of aspiring Olympians to high ground, and the market for pricey contraptions like the Everest Summit II that deprive users of oxygen while they sleep. But to call baseball aerobic is too generous. The Rockies’ advantage manifests not in its players’ bodies but in the baseballs themselves. For every five molecules filling the air at sea level, Denver lacks about one. So curveballs curve less and fly balls fly farther. According to Dr. Alan Nathan, Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a ball hit 380 feet at Boston’s Fenway Park will sail 400 feet at the Rockies’ Coors Field, far enough to move from a fielder’s glove into a fan’s. And far enough to present baseball executives with several dilemmas, like how to keep Colorado batters from unfairly unseating the likes of Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron in the record book, or how to lure pitchers to play in Denver, or how to asses the careers of Rockies hitters when their names appeared on Hall of Fame ballots.

One solution, deployed by the Rockies beginning in 2002, is to store baseballs overnight in a humidor. The moisture softens the ball, reducing the transfer of energy from the bat when it is struck. Home runs in the years since have been down between 20-25% from where they were previously.

While variables can undermine record-keeping, they also help produce knowledge. “The low air density at Coors has been a real research opportunity,” Dr. Nathan explains to me. “I personally have gotten a lot of mileage out of quantifying the Coors effect on the aerodynamics of both pitched and batted balls as well as quantifying the effect of the humidor.” Sabermetricians (see #7) have developed novel tools, like “park factors,” to compare player performance without a stadium’s quirks skewing the data. Rather than muddying our understanding of the game, the complications of altitude have made it more sophisticated.

  1. Shaking off a Loss

The third game of the 1989 World Series, between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics, was postponed when 6.9 magnitude earthquake rocked the Bay Area.

Herman Melville (the author, under a pseudonym, of a poem about baseball) described nature as “supplier of that cunning alphabet, whereby selecting and combining as he pleases, each man reads his own peculiar lesson according to his own peculiar mind and mood.” Fans of baseball, from its players to its poets, are prone to cobbling together random events into “peculiar lessons.” The seduction of narrative leads to the notion that this or that player is “clutch,” that this or that team has “momentum,” that this or that franchise is “cursed.”

In 1989, Sam Miller, at the tender age of nine, had already fallen into one such pattern of thought. His San Francisco Giants had not won the World Series since the franchise moved from New York in 1958. “I had already developed the sense of victimhood that fans get when their favorite team has never won the big one,” he recounts to me. But the Giants’ resounding victory over the Cubs that October to win the pennant gave him “for the first time a sense of importance and empowerment, as the Giants—and, by extension, because I was obviously such a crucial part of the franchise, myself—were… just four good games away from winning a title.” Even losses in Games 1 and 2 of the World Series did not dampen his spirits, as Game 3 would be played on the Giants’ home field. “I remained optimistic, and as excited for that game as I’d ever been,” remembers Miller, now editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus.

But before Willie Mays had a chance to throw the ceremonial first pitch of that game, seventy miles south, in the Santa Cruz Mountains, a fault plane slipped, producing the largest seismic shockwaves to hit San Francisco since 1906. That the World Series happened to be in town and featured both of the Bay Area’s teams was a life-saving coincidence.  With over 60,000 people in Candlestick Park and many more in front of televisions, traffic on the Nimitz Freeway was unusually light when a thirty-foot portion collapsed. For this reason, and because those around the world watching the pre-game coverage saw the first tremors hit in real time, baseball became a feature of the disaster’s story.

But the reverse was also true, at least for fifth-grade Giants’ fans. “The earthquake froze the series in that moment,” Miller says. “But the moment didn’t freeze. It got bleaker, and over the course of the two-week delay, the optimism became realism. I had nothing to focus on but the way that the A’s had badly outplayed the Giants thus far.” He adds, “It also didn’t help that the world around me was literally crumbling—that every day I saw pictures of damaged bridges and buildings, or video of rescuers pulling bodies from the Nimitz, or walked over brick rubble from our toppled chimney.” The disaster had dimmed his outlook to a degree that he did not need to wait to see his team beat in the next two games. “It felt like a formality,” he recalls. “Wait’ll next year, I might almost have said.”

Brian Hamilton is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison writing a dissertation entitled “Cotton’s Keepers: Black Agricultural Expertise in Slavery and Freedom.” He is also the lead author of Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day: The Making of the Modern Environmental Movement. TwitterContact.

Dave Hamilton (illustrator) is Creative Director at Exploration Summer Programs and a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. He lives with his family in Boston, where he and his brother, Brian, have learned only too well about the vagaries of nature and baseball.

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