Let us doff our baseball caps to the man who made the home run king – sort of – in the early days of major league baseball (before it was capitalized).
John Franklin “Home Run” Baker was crowned many years ago as the quintessential long ball hitter in the “dead ball” era of baseball that ended in 1919. Although he never hit more than 12 four-baggers in a season, and ended with a career total of 93, he was the American League home run leader four years in a row (1911-1914).
The reason modern fans tend to giggle at the accomplishments of Mr. “Home Run” is that in 1920, the lords of baseball decided to juice up the ball, both to create more fan entertainment and to make folks forget about the 1919 Black Sox scandal.
That change in the ball – replacing its rubber core with one made of cork – was part of the change, but just as important was use of the ball. In the early days of big league ball, one ball might be used for the whole game. The more it got used, the dirtier and softer in became, making it harder to see and hit for distance. A rule change requiring that a new ball be used whenever the ball in play got dirty had a big impact.
In 1920, Babe Ruth hit 54 home runs, and followed that up with 59 the next year. Fans loved it, and the emphasis in baseball went from “small ball” (walks, hit-and-run plays and stolen bases) to hitting for power.
This trip down memory lane appears today in this column because of the recent announcement that Major League Baseball (capitalized this time) would “deaden” the ball in an effort to keep from reducing a game to just another home run derby. In 2019, for example, the teams knocked the ball out of the park 6,776 times, a new record. New records are being set for strikeouts, too.
However, don’t expect the ghost of Mr. Baker to make a return appearance. According to the Los Angeles Times, the difference in the “new” ball may only mean a couple of less feet of travel, turning a 333-foot home run in the 331-foot fly-out.
The gods of big league ball have often tweaked the game in an effort to restore competitive balance. After the 1968 season in which pitchers gained overwhelming dominance, the mound was lowered, which made hurlers less terrifying and resulting in more hits.
This reining in the ball is probably a change for the good. Now, if only we could speed up the game itself with pitch clocks, limits on pitching changes and trimming extra innings, we might see more eyeballs on the TV coverage and more fans in the stands.
Pete Zarustica writes “Sports Monday.” He believes that in his baseball/softball days he may have hit three or four home runs.