With the baseball season under way, we can be sure that the Leagues’ commissioners will be watching their players closely, trying to spot signs of steroid abuse.
Long before there were performance-enhancing drugs, though, players were cheating by less sophisticated means. In the article “Dirty Baseball” from the April 11, 1946, Saturday Evening Post, broadcaster Ernie Harwell explains:
“Years ago, crafty pitchers discovered that a ball which is roughed up will jitterbug through the air and be very difficult to hit. Hence, they began to doctor the spheres. Some used saliva, some tobacco juice. Others scraped the covers of balls with sandpaper or rocks. A few even stuck phonograph needles into the balls, forcing their rotation off center.
“Under so many quack treatments, the game began to suffer. So the powwowers-that-be passed a rule forbidding such tactics. However, the officials, realizing that a new ball is hard to grip, did authorize the umpires to take off the gloss.”
Thus, for years, umpires in the American League rubbed all new baseballs with mud before the game.
“The man who supplies muck to club owners is ‘Lena’ Blackburn, former coach with the Philadelphia Athletics. ‘Lena’ dredges it from the Delaware River, which flows behind his home in Palmyra, New Jersey. One small can of it is enough for an entire season of ball massaging.”
Today’s baseballs are manufactured to allow a better grip. Both American and National Leagues use the same standard ball, 9 to 9.25 inches in circumference.
For those of you unfamiliar with the name, Ernie Harwell went on to become one of the great sportscasters in American history. He was the official voice of the Detroit Tigers from 1960 to 2002 and still appears on sports programs.