The Spitter and the End of the Deadball Era Synopsis, Part 2
Pitching has gone through three periods. First came the pitchers who developed the fastball and curve. Then came along the spit-ballers [sic]. Finally there were the trick pitchers such as Russell Ford with his emery ball. They have barred all that and we are back at the beginning again. It is going to take the pitchers of today some time to develop the curve to its full efficiency again.
1920 was the first year of what has become known as the Lively Ball Era. After a transitional year of 1919, batting averages and home runs began to rise dramatically. A number of factors drove this change, and most of them had nothing to do with the ball itself.
First, the ban on trick pitches (and on new spitballers) helped hitters enormously. They no longer faced balls with unpredictable paths, including the danger of an out-of-control trick pitch hitting them. Then there was the paucity of good off-speed pitchers. For years, sandlotters and minor leaguers had been "playing with" trick pitches, rather than developing a curve ball and change of pace, what the New York Evening Telegram called "legitimate pitching devices" (July 8, 1920). It would take years for pitching to catch up.
Then there was the ball itself-not its composition or interior, but its cover. After the tragic death of Cleveland's popular star Ray Chapman, umpires were instructed to keep fresh, white balls in play at all times. Chapman was hit in the head by a pitch thrown by Yankees' submarine pitcher Carl Mays and may have had a hard time picking up the darkened ball. Hitters would no longer face a dirty, grimy ball, as the owners agreed to spend more money putting balls in play. While there is not a lot of specific data on the numbers, the September 1925 issue of Baseball Magazine noted that the National League used 43,224 balls in 1924, as opposed to only 14,772 in 1916. That's a lot more bright targets for hitters than they had in the past.
And then there was Babe Ruth. This era was ushered in more by "lively bats" than by lively balls. Ruth revolutionized the game by swinging from the end of the bat and for the fences. The "Inside Game" of small ball-playing for one run with a walk, bunt, steal and sacrifice-was giving way to the long ball, as other mimicked Ruth's style.
It is not surprising that the lowest earned run averages of the Lively Ball Era came in its first year. Hitters were learning a new style of batting, and pitchers were learning a (practically) new pitch, the curve ball.
|National League||American League|
|2 nd Lowest ERA 1920-1939||3.34||(1933)||3.98||(1923)|
|3 rd Lowest Era 1920-1939||3.78||(1921, 1928)||4.02||(1926)|
New York pitcher Hugh McQuillan complained that the lively ball was making "bums out of pitchers" (New York Herald Tribune, June 21, 1925), yet talented pitchers with great control-like Grover Cleveland Alexander and Walter Johnson-continued to excel. And, after a dearth of good spitball pitchers in the 'teens, a generation of great ones blossomed in the 1920s:
Coveleski, Faber, Grimes, Quinn, and Shocker
With the 1920 ban on new spitballers, these men had the added benefit of throwing a pitch that hitters rarely saw and had little opportunity to prepare for.
Fans loved the new style of play, with more scoring and home runs, Attendance climbed dramatically in the 1920s, to an average of more than nine million a year, compared to less than six million in the 'teens.
There is very positive evidence in the jammed ballyards that the multitude finds the cruder, more robust, freer walloping game of the present more attractive. And in baseball, more perhaps than any other sphere, the majority rules.
Baseball Magazine , July 1923
More later on the ball itself. Just how lively was it in the 1920s? Synopsis, Part 3 will address this subject.