Hold a baseball in your hand. Feel its solid weight and smooth surface. Count its 108 careful stitches. Major League baseballs are hand-sewn in Costa Rica at a Rawlings factory that produces millions of baseballs a year.
What happens to those baseballs?
“The ball,” Rule 3.01 proclaims, “shall be a sphere formed by yarn wound around a small core of cork, rubber or similar material, covered with two strips of white horsehide or cowhide, tightly stitched together.” Fresh out of the box, they are much too slick to be handled immediately. So before they are put into play, according to Rule 4.01, the umpire must inspect that each one has been properly rubbed to remove its sheen.
This proper rubdown uses a special kind of dirt – Lena Blackburne mud, used by the MLB for almost eighty years. The special “magic mud” is a perfect natural mixture of dirt and silt, harvested every July from a secret location along the Delaware River in New Jersey, discovered by Philadelphia Athletics third basecoach Lena Blackburne in 1938. It only takes about five minutes to rub a dozen baseballs with the mud, a job usually left to the clubhouse attendants, who often prepare anywhere between six and eight dozen baseballs per game. The special mud is available for personal use at $25 for a half-pound container; professional teams can buy four pounds for $75. Come 2018, however, the “magic mud” may become just plain old dirt.
This year, Major League Baseball is considering a chemical with the same gripping effects as the silty mud but which will retain the bright whiteness of the ball. The perks of this? The ball may be easier to see, would require less preparation, and might inhibit pitchers from tampering with the ball. The drawbacks? No more mud. And no doubt some pitchers will be able to feel the difference.
Rawlings has only been the official manufacturer of baseballs for 40 years, since 1977. In the early days of baseball, pitchers used to make their own baseballs! Obviously that created quite a bit of variation in the size, shape, and softness of the ball. Nowadays, regulation baseballs are manufactured to a strict standard and weigh between 5 and 5 ¼ ounces and are 9-9 ¼ inches in circumference.
Pitchers are not permitted to tamper whatsoever with the ball, and Rule 6.02(c) provides a list of restrictions. According to these prohibitions, the pitcher may not:
- touch his mouth
- spit on the ball, hand, or glove
- rub the ball on his glove or uniform (though he may rub the ball between his bare hands)
- apply “a foreign substance of any kind
- damage the ball in any way
- throw a “spit ball,” a “shine ball,” a “mud ball,” or an “emery ball”
- possess any “foreign substance”
The penalty for violating the above prohibitions is serious: immediate ejection from the game and a 10-day suspension. There is the chance for exception, though: if the umpire decides the pitcher did not intend to “alter the characteristics of the ball” (for example, to make it grippier or harder to hit), the umpire can first warn the pitcher rather than immediately imposing the penalty.
According to Rule 6.02(c), the pitcher may not touch his mouth or lips while in contact with the pitcher’s mound. On chilly days, the pitcher may blow on his hand – but only if he has permission from both managers and the umpire before the game begins. If the pitcher violates this rule, the penalty is for the umpires to immediately remove the ball from play and issue a warning to the pitcher; any further violation will be called a ball, unless the batter is able to reach first base on “a hit, an error, a hit batsman or otherwise.” The League President may fine pitchers who are deemed “repeat offenders.”
The home team must have at least a dozen regulation baseballs on hand, according to Rule 4.01, but most Major League ballgames use between 6 and 10 dozen balls per game. Some pitchers are picky and request a new ball every few pitches – at an average of 140 pitches per game, that’s a lot of baseballs!
At the high school level, the ball must have the NFHS “authenticating mark,” but if these balls are not available, the umpire can still go ahead with “whatever baseballs are acceptable to both teams,” and the umpires should file a report with the state association. Unlike at the Major League level, the home team must provide three baseballs to the plate umpire at the start of the game and have at least two additional baseballs on hand.
Now picture the pitch, the swing, the ball flying through the air, flapping, its cover smashed off in one brutal hit. The players are bewildered. The batter himself is even surprised. What happens next?
Batter knocks the cover off the ball – literally!
Roy Hobbs did it in the 1984 movie classic, The Natural. With one mighty swing Hobbs separates ball and cover. By the time the defensive team returns the ball to the infield to show the umpire, it is an unraveled collection of string and yarn.
But it has happened in a Major League game, too. In a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 18, 2014, Martin Maldonado of the Milwaukee Brewers hit a routine groundball to third base. When Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez fielded the grounder, the ball was literally coming apart at the seams. He attempted to throw the ball to first but the flapping ball died in flight, and Maldonado reached on an infield hit.
Watch Maldonaldo hit the cover off the ball here:
The call by the umpires was an easy one since this situation is covered by Official Baseball Rule 3.01 Comment. “Should a ball come partially apart in a game, it is in play until the play is completed.”
However, if a ball is intentionally damaged by a player, the rules require the umpires to demand the baseball and remove the offender from the game, according to OBR 6.02(c)(2) through (6). To pitch with a defaced baseball is an illegal pitch. If a play follows a violation called by the umpire, the manager of the offensive team may choose to accept the play. Otherwise, with no runners on base, it is an automatic ball and if there are runners on base, it is a balk.
Lifespan of a Baseball
Think back to that Central American baseball factory. The “labor tag” of those hand-sewn baseballs is less than a dollar a piece, but if you want to buy one for yourself, one ball will cost you around $30. Between 90 and 120 balls are used per game in the MLB, and the average lifespan of a baseball is just a few plays, or eight pitches – about a week in total, including batting practice.
While it’s obviously important to maintain a strict standard for game-quality baseballs, we’re left wondering whether MLB is being too lax with letting players toss “spare” baseballs to fans. Or maybe, Rawlings ought to pay a living wage to the workers who build the balls – something MLB could easily afford. What do you think?