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10/19/1999

It's October

Brian Trumbore suggested baseball as a break from the more
serious subjects of recent columns. Frankly, these days I pay
virtually no attention to the game, except in October. I admit too
that I haven''t yet figured out the intricacies of the wild card
system. Back when I was an avid fan, there were only 8 teams in
each league and no playoffs, just the World Series. Indeed, a
couple weeks ago, I told Brian I was sorry that his Mets were out
of it, only to have him tell me they still had a chance with 3 games
to go. Now they''re in the championship playoffs and I''ve again
caught baseball fever. Unfortunately, as of this moment, the Mets
are only a game from elimination. [Editor: We''ll see what
happens Tuesday].

Lest you think me unqualified to write about baseball, I do have
my varsity letter in the sport from Dickinson College, where I
have a lifetime batting average of .250. OK, I only played in
two games against Gettysburg but I did have one hit, a clean
single to center, in four official times at bat. However, I also
drew a walk and was hit by the pitcher so my "on-base" average
was a respectable .500. [Editor: He was top ten in Division III]
In my youth, I spent many hours listening to Byrum Saam
broadcasting the Philadelphia A''s games on our Philco radio. If
they weren''t playing at home, Byrum would recreate the game by
taking the simple ball, strike, hit and run info from the wire and
embellish that little bit of data to make it sound like a real ball
game. I didn''t know about this fabrication until many years later,
actually, this year!

We lived in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, about a hundred miles
from Philadelphia, and the highlights of the year for me were the
train trips to Philadelphia to see the last-place Phillies and A''s play
in Shibe Park, may it rest in peace. Later, as a grad student at Pitt
from 1946-1950, with Forbes Field (may it also RIP) right across
the street, I attended 40 or so games a year rooting for the
Pirates, another last place team. With Ralph Kiner and Hank
Greenberg in the lineup, the Pirates drew about 2 million fans in a
season of 72 home games. Contrast this with today''s often
virtually empty stands. Even a championship playoff game failed
to fill the seats in Atlanta last week.

It''s been said that pitching is 90% of the game. Yet, even up to
the early ''80s, doubts persisted that a curve ball really curves.
Earlier, there were articles with stop-action photos in such
magazines as Life and Look that showed conclusively that the ball
curved or didn''t curve. I could have told them from personal
experience that the curve ball was real. One day, armed with only
my half-size catcher''s mitt, I was tossing the ball back and forth
with our high school''s star pitcher. He didn''t tell me he was going
to throw a curve and the ball missed my mitt, hitting me squarely
between the eyes! I was knocked out and carried across the
street to regain consciousness (we didn''t have 911 then). After
coming to, I decided catching our pitcher was too hazardous,
pitched horseshoes for a while and went home without telling my
parents of the incident. The next day, my mother was quite upset
when she saw two of the most impressive black eyes you''d ever
want to see!

Since those days, there have been erudite articles in scientific
journals on the aerodynamics of the curve ball, explaining it on
the basis of spin, turbulence, lift etc. I don''t understand why there
was ever any question that a baseball can curve when no one
questioned that a truly gifted hacker like myself can make a golf
ball curve awesomely from one side of a fairway into the woods
on the opposite side! In essence, the curve ball, slider, screwball
and sinker are all thrown with a snap of the wrist that causes a
spinning of the ball at different orientations, just as a right-to-left
impact of the golf club imparts a sideways spin to the golf ball. In
the latter case, the result is a slice for the right-handed golfer due
to the higher air pressure on the left of the ball than on the right.
For the right-handed pitcher, the analogous pitch is the screwball,
thrown with a snap like turning a door handle counterclockwise.
All these spin combinations combine with gravity to cause the ball
to drop and/or curve, the effect exaggerated by the fact the
pitcher stands on the elevated pitcher''s mound. Some fastball
pitches seem to the batter to "sail". In this case my thought is
that the pitcher actually throws the ball off the ends of his
fingertips imparting a rotation such that the bottom of the ball is
rotating toward home plate, the top away from home plate. This
and the ball''s speed counter the effect of gravity somewhat and
the batter sees it as rising, even though the ball still falls, but less
than for the other pitches.

The knuckleball, in the hands of a professional such as Hall of
Famer Hoyt Wilhelm, is an awesome pitch. By taking all or most
of the spin off the ball, the knuckleball''s path to home plate
becomes dependent on the prevailing wind currents and hence is
unpredictable. Judging from some of the theories of knuckleball
behavior, the ball''s flight is influenced by the presence or absence
of turbulent versus laminar flow induced in part by the stitching
on the ball. I admit to being mystified by flow in general but it
seems that on the flight to home plate the ball can go in and out
of the two flow regimes several times with the effect being that
the ball "dances". It''s not too surprising to me that turbulence can
affect the ball''s flight, having been in situations where turbulence
caused very distressing effects on the flight paths of airplanes in
which I was a passenger! At any rate, the unpredictable path of a
knuckleball makes it quite hard to hit solidly. It also takes a
courageous and skillful catcher to handle a great knuckleball
pitcher.

Another strange pitch was the blooper ball or "eephus" pitch used
by the Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher Rip Sewell, who introduced it in
1943 during the course of winning 20 games. This pitch, which
Sewell used sparingly, was effective to a large extent due to the
surprise factor. The batter is expecting a pitch in the 80-100 mph
range and is coiled up ready to react to it. Then this blooper
comes along, thrown as high as 18-20 feet in the air, dropping
sharply over the plate, and the batter''s timing is way off. I once
saw Sewell throw a blooper to Eddie Miller of the Cincinnati
Reds. Miller was so disgusted that he reached out, grabbed the
ball in midair and threw it back to Sewell! It was called a strike
by the ump. In the 1946 All-Star game, Ted Williams hit two
home runs, one off a Sewell blooper. I believe that Sewell up to
that point had claimed that nobody had ever hit his blooper ball
over the fence. Incidentally, Williams hit his 521st and last home
run in his last at-bat in the last game of his last season. This was
in contrast to our knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm, who hit his only
home run in the first at-bat of his career.

The "spit ball" and other pitches employing foreign substances
have been illegal since the 1920s. An exception was made when
the rule was invoked by grandfathering "recognized" practitioners
of the spit ball art. The last "legal" spit ball pitcher, Burleigh
Grimes of the Yankees, retired in 1934. However, when I was in
Pittsburgh, I once sat in the barbershop next to Preacher Roe of
the Brooklyn Dodgers. He seemed a nice enough fellow but after
his retirement confessed that he had used the spit ball to
advantage during his career. I personally would be too fastidious
to want to throw such a disgusting pitch! Better to use a more
sanitary product such as Vaseline. Vaseline, of course, could be
hidden nicely in a pitcher''s hair, under his cap, etc., the supply
refreshed in the dugout when the pitcher''s team was at bat. And
what about the technology behind the spit and Vaseline balls? It
seems that the reason for their effectiveness was (hopefully, not
is) that the ball slides off the pitcher''s fingers without imparting
the usual spin. Thus a fastball can be thrown with a knuckleball
effect and the added unpredictability makes the pitch even harder
to hit.

Another big argument for the baseball purist is the question of the
construction of the baseball itself. In this era of the Sosas and
McGwires, with home runs pouring out of the various plastic
stadiums, it''s not the first time the question of whether the ball is
''livelier" has arisen. Since 1872, the year following the founding
of the National Association of Professional Baseball Players, the
baseball has measured 9 inches in circumference and weighed 5
ounces. Surprisingly, according to the Rawlings Sporting Goods
Company Web site, truly lively balls were employed in the first
half of the 19th century, when the ball weighed only 3 ounces and
a hundred runs per game was not uncommon. In fact, in 1846
they changed the rules so that the first team to score 21 runs was
the winner. That was the year of the first matched baseball game
between the New York Knickerbockers and the New York Nine
in Hoboken, New Jersey. The Knickerbockers were organized by
Andrew Cartwright, a New York City surveyor who laid out the
diamond with most of the distances used today. In 1857, the 9-
inning game was instituted but, as was the case previously, the
batter was out if the ball was caught on the first bounce. In 1858,
with a heavier ball in play, the first-bounce rule was eliminated.
The baseballs were still not very uniform in the early days of
professional play, even though the dimensions and weight were
the same. The home team supplied the game balls and the choice
of a relatively dead or lively ball was a matter of keen strategy,
dependent on the hitting and fielding talents of the home and
visiting teams.

In October, the crack of the bat against that old horsehide cover
brings back many fond memories. But it shouldn''t. I just found on
the Rawlings Web site that cowhide replaced horsehide 25 years
ago. Is nothing sacred? Now I read that the Astrodome has
hosted its last baseball game. Good riddance. Baseball was meant
to be played outdoors on grass, not indoors on Astroturf! I nearly
cried when I entered a building in Pittsburgh and found a plaque
denoting the location of home plate in long-gone Forbes Field.
After finishing this piece, I plan to print out and read Brian
Trumbore''s week in review while sitting on a gift from my wife''s
late brother Cop, my treasured Forbes Field usher''s chair.

Allen F. Bortrum



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-10/19/1999-      
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Dr. Bortrum

10/19/1999

It's October

Brian Trumbore suggested baseball as a break from the more
serious subjects of recent columns. Frankly, these days I pay
virtually no attention to the game, except in October. I admit too
that I haven''t yet figured out the intricacies of the wild card
system. Back when I was an avid fan, there were only 8 teams in
each league and no playoffs, just the World Series. Indeed, a
couple weeks ago, I told Brian I was sorry that his Mets were out
of it, only to have him tell me they still had a chance with 3 games
to go. Now they''re in the championship playoffs and I''ve again
caught baseball fever. Unfortunately, as of this moment, the Mets
are only a game from elimination. [Editor: We''ll see what
happens Tuesday].

Lest you think me unqualified to write about baseball, I do have
my varsity letter in the sport from Dickinson College, where I
have a lifetime batting average of .250. OK, I only played in
two games against Gettysburg but I did have one hit, a clean
single to center, in four official times at bat. However, I also
drew a walk and was hit by the pitcher so my "on-base" average
was a respectable .500. [Editor: He was top ten in Division III]
In my youth, I spent many hours listening to Byrum Saam
broadcasting the Philadelphia A''s games on our Philco radio. If
they weren''t playing at home, Byrum would recreate the game by
taking the simple ball, strike, hit and run info from the wire and
embellish that little bit of data to make it sound like a real ball
game. I didn''t know about this fabrication until many years later,
actually, this year!

We lived in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, about a hundred miles
from Philadelphia, and the highlights of the year for me were the
train trips to Philadelphia to see the last-place Phillies and A''s play
in Shibe Park, may it rest in peace. Later, as a grad student at Pitt
from 1946-1950, with Forbes Field (may it also RIP) right across
the street, I attended 40 or so games a year rooting for the
Pirates, another last place team. With Ralph Kiner and Hank
Greenberg in the lineup, the Pirates drew about 2 million fans in a
season of 72 home games. Contrast this with today''s often
virtually empty stands. Even a championship playoff game failed
to fill the seats in Atlanta last week.

It''s been said that pitching is 90% of the game. Yet, even up to
the early ''80s, doubts persisted that a curve ball really curves.
Earlier, there were articles with stop-action photos in such
magazines as Life and Look that showed conclusively that the ball
curved or didn''t curve. I could have told them from personal
experience that the curve ball was real. One day, armed with only
my half-size catcher''s mitt, I was tossing the ball back and forth
with our high school''s star pitcher. He didn''t tell me he was going
to throw a curve and the ball missed my mitt, hitting me squarely
between the eyes! I was knocked out and carried across the
street to regain consciousness (we didn''t have 911 then). After
coming to, I decided catching our pitcher was too hazardous,
pitched horseshoes for a while and went home without telling my
parents of the incident. The next day, my mother was quite upset
when she saw two of the most impressive black eyes you''d ever
want to see!

Since those days, there have been erudite articles in scientific
journals on the aerodynamics of the curve ball, explaining it on
the basis of spin, turbulence, lift etc. I don''t understand why there
was ever any question that a baseball can curve when no one
questioned that a truly gifted hacker like myself can make a golf
ball curve awesomely from one side of a fairway into the woods
on the opposite side! In essence, the curve ball, slider, screwball
and sinker are all thrown with a snap of the wrist that causes a
spinning of the ball at different orientations, just as a right-to-left
impact of the golf club imparts a sideways spin to the golf ball. In
the latter case, the result is a slice for the right-handed golfer due
to the higher air pressure on the left of the ball than on the right.
For the right-handed pitcher, the analogous pitch is the screwball,
thrown with a snap like turning a door handle counterclockwise.
All these spin combinations combine with gravity to cause the ball
to drop and/or curve, the effect exaggerated by the fact the
pitcher stands on the elevated pitcher''s mound. Some fastball
pitches seem to the batter to "sail". In this case my thought is
that the pitcher actually throws the ball off the ends of his
fingertips imparting a rotation such that the bottom of the ball is
rotating toward home plate, the top away from home plate. This
and the ball''s speed counter the effect of gravity somewhat and
the batter sees it as rising, even though the ball still falls, but less
than for the other pitches.

The knuckleball, in the hands of a professional such as Hall of
Famer Hoyt Wilhelm, is an awesome pitch. By taking all or most
of the spin off the ball, the knuckleball''s path to home plate
becomes dependent on the prevailing wind currents and hence is
unpredictable. Judging from some of the theories of knuckleball
behavior, the ball''s flight is influenced by the presence or absence
of turbulent versus laminar flow induced in part by the stitching
on the ball. I admit to being mystified by flow in general but it
seems that on the flight to home plate the ball can go in and out
of the two flow regimes several times with the effect being that
the ball "dances". It''s not too surprising to me that turbulence can
affect the ball''s flight, having been in situations where turbulence
caused very distressing effects on the flight paths of airplanes in
which I was a passenger! At any rate, the unpredictable path of a
knuckleball makes it quite hard to hit solidly. It also takes a
courageous and skillful catcher to handle a great knuckleball
pitcher.

Another strange pitch was the blooper ball or "eephus" pitch used
by the Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher Rip Sewell, who introduced it in
1943 during the course of winning 20 games. This pitch, which
Sewell used sparingly, was effective to a large extent due to the
surprise factor. The batter is expecting a pitch in the 80-100 mph
range and is coiled up ready to react to it. Then this blooper
comes along, thrown as high as 18-20 feet in the air, dropping
sharply over the plate, and the batter''s timing is way off. I once
saw Sewell throw a blooper to Eddie Miller of the Cincinnati
Reds. Miller was so disgusted that he reached out, grabbed the
ball in midair and threw it back to Sewell! It was called a strike
by the ump. In the 1946 All-Star game, Ted Williams hit two
home runs, one off a Sewell blooper. I believe that Sewell up to
that point had claimed that nobody had ever hit his blooper ball
over the fence. Incidentally, Williams hit his 521st and last home
run in his last at-bat in the last game of his last season. This was
in contrast to our knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm, who hit his only
home run in the first at-bat of his career.

The "spit ball" and other pitches employing foreign substances
have been illegal since the 1920s. An exception was made when
the rule was invoked by grandfathering "recognized" practitioners
of the spit ball art. The last "legal" spit ball pitcher, Burleigh
Grimes of the Yankees, retired in 1934. However, when I was in
Pittsburgh, I once sat in the barbershop next to Preacher Roe of
the Brooklyn Dodgers. He seemed a nice enough fellow but after
his retirement confessed that he had used the spit ball to
advantage during his career. I personally would be too fastidious
to want to throw such a disgusting pitch! Better to use a more
sanitary product such as Vaseline. Vaseline, of course, could be
hidden nicely in a pitcher''s hair, under his cap, etc., the supply
refreshed in the dugout when the pitcher''s team was at bat. And
what about the technology behind the spit and Vaseline balls? It
seems that the reason for their effectiveness was (hopefully, not
is) that the ball slides off the pitcher''s fingers without imparting
the usual spin. Thus a fastball can be thrown with a knuckleball
effect and the added unpredictability makes the pitch even harder
to hit.

Another big argument for the baseball purist is the question of the
construction of the baseball itself. In this era of the Sosas and
McGwires, with home runs pouring out of the various plastic
stadiums, it''s not the first time the question of whether the ball is
''livelier" has arisen. Since 1872, the year following the founding
of the National Association of Professional Baseball Players, the
baseball has measured 9 inches in circumference and weighed 5
ounces. Surprisingly, according to the Rawlings Sporting Goods
Company Web site, truly lively balls were employed in the first
half of the 19th century, when the ball weighed only 3 ounces and
a hundred runs per game was not uncommon. In fact, in 1846
they changed the rules so that the first team to score 21 runs was
the winner. That was the year of the first matched baseball game
between the New York Knickerbockers and the New York Nine
in Hoboken, New Jersey. The Knickerbockers were organized by
Andrew Cartwright, a New York City surveyor who laid out the
diamond with most of the distances used today. In 1857, the 9-
inning game was instituted but, as was the case previously, the
batter was out if the ball was caught on the first bounce. In 1858,
with a heavier ball in play, the first-bounce rule was eliminated.
The baseballs were still not very uniform in the early days of
professional play, even though the dimensions and weight were
the same. The home team supplied the game balls and the choice
of a relatively dead or lively ball was a matter of keen strategy,
dependent on the hitting and fielding talents of the home and
visiting teams.

In October, the crack of the bat against that old horsehide cover
brings back many fond memories. But it shouldn''t. I just found on
the Rawlings Web site that cowhide replaced horsehide 25 years
ago. Is nothing sacred? Now I read that the Astrodome has
hosted its last baseball game. Good riddance. Baseball was meant
to be played outdoors on grass, not indoors on Astroturf! I nearly
cried when I entered a building in Pittsburgh and found a plaque
denoting the location of home plate in long-gone Forbes Field.
After finishing this piece, I plan to print out and read Brian
Trumbore''s week in review while sitting on a gift from my wife''s
late brother Cop, my treasured Forbes Field usher''s chair.

Allen F. Bortrum