Academic journal article Base Ball

The Legend of the Lively Ball

Academic journal article Base Ball

The Legend of the Lively Ball

Article excerpt

What makes the fielders run so fast?

The lively ball, the lively ball.

What makes the Boston Club run last?

The lively ball, the lively ball.

What makes the pitchers pant and blow?

What makes the hit column grow?

What makes the swatter the whole show?

Why nothing but the lively ball.

What makes the fielder's tongue hang out?

The lively ball, the lively ball.

What makes the rooters rave and shout?

The lively ball, the lively ball.

What makes our suppers all so late,

The patient weary housewife wait

Until the clock shows half-past eight?

Why nothing but the lively ball.

-"The Lively Ball," by Roe; The Sporting News, June 15, 1911

Two of our national pastime's most famous legends involve lively baseballs: (1) In 1911 the A.J. Reach Company introduced a ball with a new cork center which inadvertently made the ball livelier, and (2) the Dead Ball Era ended in 1920 due to the surreptitious introduction of the so-called rabbit ball.

Is there any truth in either of these legends?

In order to place them in their proper perspective we must first review the history of "dead" and "lively" balls. It may be surprising to modern fans, but the lively-ball controversy dates all the way back to the 1850s and '60s. In those early days pioneers such as Daniel Adams, John Van Horn, and Harvey Ross meticulously handcrafted each individual baseball.

Handcrafted Baseballs

Daniel Lucius Adams, a physician, was one of the original members of the New York Knickerbockers. In memoir published in The Sporting News on February 29, 1896, Dr. Adams related that in the late 1840s he personally made all the baseballs used by most of the clubs in the New York City area. Adams had volunteered to furnish baseballs as a courtesy to the clubs because "no one could be found to make or cover a ball." He, at some point aided by an unnamed Scotch saddler, provided this service for six or seven years. With a pronounced scarcity of baseballs, it was no wonder the clubs demanded that a single ball survive the entire match. Constructing baseballs was strictly a sideline for Dr. Adams, but he significantly advanced the state of the new art.

In 1859, John Van Horn, a player on the Baltic Base Ball Club of Brooklyn, was recruited by his club to craft baseballs on a paid basis. A shoemaker by trade, he worked and resided in lower Manhattan, near Houston Street. As early as 1854 his little shop was located at number 33, Second Avenue, and it remained at this address for more than twenty years. Initially, Van Horn produced only fifty to sixty balls a year, completely alone, one ball at a time. The labor-intensive process limited the volume of balls that could be fabricated by an individual. Nonetheless, the Van Horn ball proved successful and its reputation grew rapidly. By the early 1860s the Van Horn ball had captured the majority of the considerable New York trade.

Van Horn made the cores of his baseballs by cutting old rubber shoe soles into strips and forming them into crude spheres which weighed as much as four ounces. (The Ross dead ball, on the other hand, was said to contain less two ounces of rubber.) This mass of rubber was then heated so that it melted and fused together. He next wrapped the rubber sphere with cotton yarn until it was the proper size, and then stitched on a leather cover. Sheepskin was the material of choice for covers until c. 1870 when it was replaced with the much more durable horsehide. The finished ball was about ten inches in circumference and weighed more than six ounces. Although Van Horn was a highly skilled craftsman, no two balls were exactly identical. This variability problem was compounded by the fact that the technique of fusing rubber strips to form a core produced an irregular and unpredictable degree of liveliness from one ball to the next. This difficulty was not overcome until the late 1860s when a method for molding a spherical rubber core was devised. …

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