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June 3, 2008

You Could Look It Up

The Dual-Ball Era

by Steven Goldman

Two weeks ago, Joe Sheehan noted the offensive disparity between the two leagues this season:

The fall-off in offense in 2008 is notable, and the most interesting thing about it is the league split. While run scoring and the underlying indicators are higher in the National League, within a normal range of variation for those figures, there's been a large drop in the AL, driven by a drop in the number of fly balls hit and what happens when they are hit. Trends within the game that have nothing to do with performance-enhancing drugs, such as approaches to pitching and the distribution of playing time, are the most likely factors in this decline.

While it was possible that the early gap would prove to be an aberration, we haven't seen much convergence in the ensuing weeks. National League offensive levels have held steady, while the American League has picked up scoring only slightly. The DH league's slugging percentage remains under .400-in fact, it dropped from .398 in April to .396 in May. By way of comparison, the AL hasn't had a full season slugging percentage below .400 since 1992. So yes, we live in strange times.

In hunting for a cause of American League anemia, Joe ruled out tampering with the baseball:

It's worth mentioning the possibility of an externality here. Anytime numbers such as HR/FB or XBH/FB go a little haywire, the baseball is a potential issue. If the ball is deadened even a little, whether by chance or by choice, it would have an effect on those numbers above all others. The increase in groundballs being hit would not be affected, however, and with that being such an important part of the AL's downturn in offense, it's reasonable to say that a change in the baseballs is an unlikely cause for the drop in run scoring.

There was a time, though, when the leagues did expressly and publicly use differently-constructed balls, because of a disagreement on how aggressively to combat a period of inflationary hitting. That decision was undertaken in the 1930-1931 offseason. The first of those two seasons was the liveliest of all the lively-ball years. Offense had been trending upwards ever since the ball got frisky in 1920, but in 1930 baseballs were pinballs. In the senior circuit, the average hitter batted .303/.360/.448, and the typical ERA was nearly 5.00. Bill Terry of the Giants won the batting title at .401, banging out 254 hits. Nine other qualified hitters were above .360. Pint-sized Hack Wilson of the Cubs slugged .723 on a league-leading 56 home runs and set a single-season record with 191 RBI. On the pitching side, the Dodgers' Dazzy Vance led the league with a 2.61 ERA, but he was the only qualified pitcher under 3.00, and only four other pitchers, including the future Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell of the Giants, were under 4.00. Four of eight teams scored over 900 runs; the pennant-winning Cardinals scored 1004.

The explosion tended to annoy purists and old timers. One of these was the estimable manager of the Giants, John McGraw. Equally intelligent and combative, McGraw had been in the game since the nineteenth century, but he was also adaptive. Although legendary for his strategic insights during the "inside baseball" period of the early 1900s, he groused when Babe Ruth and the lively ball changed the game, then altered his tactics accordingly, shucking his bunters for power hitters. Nevertheless, the 1930 rabbit ball proved to be a hare too far for him, and McGraw began campaigning for rules changes to get scoring under control, even suggesting at one point that the pitching mound be moved closer to home plate to restore the balance between offense and defense.

"I don't care what the manufacturers of the ball used by the major leagues say," he complained. "It is lively, and every sensible baseball man knows it. Why, most of the pitchers are scared to death when they are sent to the mound. The home run slugging has taken the heart out of them. Here the season is only half over and more than 800 home runs have been made in the big leagues. Home runs are about as numerous as singles and they have revolutionized the game… Slugging dominates baseball. The scientific methods when I was a player have gone and it is too bad."

McGraw also advocated for keeping dirty balls in play: "So long as the ball remains inside of the playing field and isn't ripped or torn it should be kept in use." McGraw produced a baseball from 1916, and noted its loose cover and prominent seams. That ball, a kind of anti-rabbit test if you will, would soon produce offspring.

The American League was also easy on the hitters that year, but didn't exhibit quite as much generosity as the senior circuit. While NL hitters were scoring an average of 5.7 runs per team per game, their AL counterparts managed 5.4 on league-wide rates of .288/.351/.421. Just two teams were over 900 runs, but the Yankees, with 1062 runs, averaged nearly seven per game. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Al Simmons slugged over .700. Simmons won the batting title at .381; Gehrig and Ruth finished second and third with .379 and .359 averages, respectively. Ruth just missed a .500 on-base percentage, finishing at .493. Lefty Grove's 2.54 ERA led the league, but unlike the National League the entirety of the top ten was under 4.00.

The difference between the leagues, as well as McGraw's forceful voice in National League councils, helps explain the disparity in their reactions. After the season, both leagues voted to have the baseball altered for the 1931 season. The Yankees were the only team to withhold their vote, ironic given that for all their offensive potency, they hadn't come close to winning the pennant due to their pitching being the worst in the league; they finished 16 games behind the A's. By comparison, McGraw's Giants were robust competitors, trailing the pennant winners by only five games. The team's offense, which beyond Terry featured future Hall of Famers Freddie Lindstrom, Travis Jackson, and Mel Ott (we didn't say they were the best Hall of Fame choices, only that they were future Hall of Famers) was supported by a strong starting rotation fronted by Hubbell and Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons.

Both leagues requested that manufacturer Spalding make the stitching on the baseball more prominent, so as to help pitchers get a firmer grip, but the National League went a step further, ordering a thicker cover-here the 1916 ball, like the Maltese Falcon, becomes the stuff that dreams are made of, or maybe the stuff that sacrifice bunts are made of. "The lively ball has taken three great features out of baseball," McGraw had sighed at midseason in 1930. "I mean bunting, base-stealing, and long-distance throwing." It was also rumored that one or both leagues had made changes to the core of the baseball, but if this was true, the alterations were not publicized.

The changes had the desired effect. American League offense dropped to an average of 5.1 runs a game on rates of .278/.344/.396. The Yankees scored a thousand runs again and still didn't win. Over in the NL, offensive levels plunged even further, shedding more than a run per game, as rates decreased to .277/.334/.387, and "just" 4.5 runs per game per team crossing the plate. The Giants again finished second to the Cardinals. Perhaps paradoxically, McGraw's team bunted about two-thirds less often in 1931 than it had in 1930; even with the ball deadened, he knew he had to play the game that existed, not the game he loved.

Slowly dying of cancer and other ailments, McGraw would frequently be away from the team in 1931, and would retire from the game on June 2, 1932. With the Little Napoleon out of the way, the National League made another attempt to alter the action of the baseball-this time to put the life back into it. The monkeying with the ball was just getting started, and the leagues would not use the same ball again until the 1940s.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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