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The Baseball

by Zack Hample

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


The Baseball by Zack Hample
© Vintage Books
Vintage Books, March 2011 (paperback)

We began playing baseball long before we could play in Little League. My brother and I played in the cow pasture (literally) - he was the Milwaukee Braves, I was the Yankees - and one year we gave our mother a catcher's mitt for Mother's Day because I needed one to catch my brother, the pitcher. We moved up in the age ranks and had some success in high school. We knew the game and we knew that the ball had 104 red stitches and that it was not made in America. We suspected that one of our rival high schools put their balls in the freezer before we played them because our team had some really big hitters. It was still the era of wooden bats, the NBC Game of the Week, and World Series games played in the daytime.

We lived baseball; we knew the game. But after reading this marvelous book, my knowledge of the ball, its construction, and the controversies surrounding it have expanded exponentially. For example, Rawlings uses one million square feet of cowhide, about 20,000 cows, to make a year's worth of baseballs. The leather covers nearly 1,000 feet of yarn and thread. Every cover is hand-stitched in a carefully monitored process that takes about 14 minutes.
Hample divides his book into three parts. The first, "Baseballs in the News," explains every fan's desire to catch a ball as a souvenir, tells of deaths caused by balls, and stunts, such as catching a ball dropped from an airplane. The second part deals with "Historical and Factual Stuff." This treats the evolution of the ball, how Rawlings makes it, and how it is stored, including the ever-fascinating Lena Blackburne Rubbing Mud. Part three explains "How to Snag Major League Baseballs," including what to do before you get to the stadium, during batting practice and the game, and after the game.

Even the casual fan knows that the biggest controversy related to the ball is determining whether or not it is "juiced," that is, if it is made differently so that it flies farther in order to create more homeruns and put more fans in the seats. This controversy began long before the modern spate of homeruns, even before Mantle and Maris, and even before Babe Ruth who hit more homeruns in one season than all the other teams combined. The first instance probably dates to 1867 when the Nationals of Washington used their own hopped-up ball to defeat teams by as much as 100 runs. The Nationals, incidentally, were experienced government employees. And, how does one combat a "juiced-up" ball? Why, one puts it into a freezer for short time to literally cool it down.
Hample's chapter on the evolution of the ball traces this controversy into modern times as he proceeds on a nearly yearly basis from about 1847 until today as he explains how the ball has changed. It has been heavier and lighter, larger (softball-sized) and smaller, different colors (neon yellow, red), and different materials. At one time the balls were so valuable that the winning team got to keep the ball. It could not have been much of a prize since the goal was to use only one ball during the entire game. Even foul balls were thrown back into play.

That is not the case today. Today, the typical lifespan of a major league baseball is fewer than six pitches. On average, each team needs at least 9,000 balls per season. Multiply by 30 teams and 270,000 balls are needed every year in the majors. Each ball has to be rubbed with Lena Blackburne's Mud (The source of which is a very closely guarded secret) before each game. Each team uses only 64 ounces of mud for their 9,000 balls, which amounts to about 7/1000 of an ounce of mud per ball. And even this minute amount can cause controversy since some balls are darker than others after being rubbed. Pitchers prefer darker while hitters prefer lighter.
If you have ever gone to baseball game and lamented your inability to catch or snag a ball, then this is the book for you. Zack is a champion ballhawk who has snagged more than 4,600 balls at 48 minor and major league stadiums across the country. The final section of his book explains what you need to do to ensure that you leave every game with a ball. His methods include simply asking a player for a ball, arriving early for batting practice, and looking around carefully after the game. He even explains how to turn your baseball glove into a retrieval device that will enable you to pick up a ball lying on the field - out of play, of course. Starting with Camden Yards in Baltimore, Hample provides a list of the ten best places to snag a ball. Finally, in his acknowledgments, he thanks the 1,167 players and coaches who have given him baseballs over the years.

This is a not-to-be-missed book about one of the tools of the game of baseball, the ball itself. Sub-titled "Stunts, Scandals and Secrets Beneath the Stitches," it provides the serious baseball fan with all the fun-filled and fact-filled information one could possibly wish about the ball in what reads like a lively and entertaining conversation. It is the perfect book for all the hot-stove leagues around the country.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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