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Thursday, March 17, 2011
Zack Hample shares odd baseball facts

By Patrick Hruby
Page 2

Zack Hample
Zack Hample has collected more than 4,000 baseballs. So he knows a bit about the horsehide sphere.

In his new book "The Baseball," ballhawk and previous Page 2 profile subject Zack Hample chronicles the history and evolution of his objet d'amour, offering legends, lore and the basis for some truly odd trivia questions.

For instance: Which Hall of Fame player once caught a ball dropped from a blimp? What part of the ball once came from dog food companies?

To answer those questions and more, Page 2 recently caught up with Hample:

Page 2: You wrote an entire book about the baseball. Why not, say, the bat?

Hample: Well, I have a strange fixation with baseballs. It's the object at the center of the national pastime. No other piece of equipment in baseball has changed as much. And I use it as a jumping-off point to explore other things in the game. You wouldn't get as rich and colorful a history writing about bats or gloves.

Is it true that fans who caught baseballs at games and refused to give them back once were considered criminals and thieves?

That is true. In fact, there was a time when it was considered unpatriotic to keep baseballs. Teams would donate baseballs to servicemen during the World Wars. You would get booed if you didn't give a ball back. And that's kind of strange, given that it's now sort of the ultimate American fan experience.

Any other reasons?

In the old days -- like the 1870s -- balls had to be completely handmade. There wasn't a standard method. They'd use old fishing line or string from a sock that they would wrap around anything they could find. A walnut. A rock. Even bullets! Those bullet balls really messed up player's hands. And they would cover up this stringy mess by cutting up some leather shoes and using the strips.

It took a long time to make a single ball. That made them valuable. There would be one baseball used for the entire game. So you had to give them back. Having a good, new baseball was almost unheard of -- if those balls were hit hard, they would be completely misshapen and lopsided. In the early days of professional baseball, the winning team would actually get to keep the ball. That was even written into the rule book. High stakes. There was also a rule that if the ball went missing, the game had to stop while the players went looking for it.

How and when did that change?

Eventually, technology made balls cheaper to produce. More than one were being used in games. It really started to change in about 1916 -- the owner of the Chicago Cubs realized that people were very interested in being able to go home with a souvenir. He was the first owner to allow that. It was a business move. He figured he would lose some money on a baseball, but gain more money through more people going to games and coming back.

Even after that, there were a lot of incidents with fans and owners and security up into the 1930s.

Charlie Sheen has -- to put it mildly -- been in the news lately. How is he connected to Bill Buckner?

[Laughs]. The famous ball that went underneath Buckner's legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series passed through a number of hands and eventually ended up at auction in the early 1990s. Charlie Sheen bought it. At the time, it was the most anyone had ever paid for a ball: $93,500.

An interesting side note is that Sheen outbid Keith Olbermann. Olbermann walked away at $85,000. Of course, now that ball wouldn't even crack the top 10.

Speaking of the top 10, Todd McFarlane set a record by buying Mark McGwire's 70th home run ball for more than $3 million. Will we ever see a ball sell for so much again?

Ever is a strong word. That's a long time. But I think it will be a while. The market was definitely at its peak in the late 1990s. Even when Barry Bonds then broke McGwire's record, that ball didn't sell for nearly as much. [Editor's note: $517,500.] The economy had something to do with it. Also, the steroids controversy and the two guys who caught the ball battling in court. That kind of tainted the whole hobby.

It would be interesting to see how much A-Rod's 800th home run sells for. But the steroids thing hangs over that, too. And for a lot of people, he's not a likeable person. If the economy changes and you have a superstar that everybody really loves, then maybe it could happen.

You discuss "foul ball hitters" in the book. What does that term mean, and why does it matter?

Way back in the day, foul balls didn't count as strikes. So, basically, a batter could intentionally hit one foul after another as a strategy to wear out the pitcher or wait for the pitcher to mess up and groove one. The most extreme case in is 1897, when a guy named Billy Hamilton -- who's actually in the Hall of Fame -- hit 27 foul balls in a row.

Another Hall of Famer, Luke Appling, was known to be the master of foul ball hitting. He drove pitchers crazy. There's a great story in the book where Dizzy Trout got so upset that he threw his glove at Appling and told him to "foul off that!"

What is the connection between foul balls and Lynyrd Skynyrd?

It's because of a foul ball that [the] world has Lynyrd Skynyrd! It was 1964, a youth baseball game, a teenager at bat named Ronnie Van Zant. He ripped a foul ball out of play. It hit another kid in the head. Bob Burns. Burns had a friend named Gary Rossington that was also there. Burns was briefly knocked out. The three became pals after that and started recording jam sessions. They later became members of Lynyrd Skynyrd. It's just one of those chance moments in history.

Can a foul ball bring down an airplane?

That's another fun story from the book. In World War II, at a South Pacific army base, there was a foul ball hit out of the park. A tiny plane was coming in for a landing right next to the stadium. A two-person plane. It hit the plane, crashed through the windshield, hit the pilot in the face and knocked him out. The passenger in the back seat had no flying experience, but knew enough to lunge forward and grab the controls and pull them back. The pilot eventually came to and was able to land the plane at a nearby base.

What's the greatest height someone has caught a baseball from?

The height is 800 feet -- it was ball dropped from a blimp. It was a Cubs catcher named Gabby Hartnett. This happened in 1930. The Cubs were in L.A. for a preseason game. He's a Hall of Famer as well. Hall of Famers were cool back then. Derek Jeter would never try that. Not that I can blame him. At the 1939 World's Fair, a former major league catcher named Joe Sprinz tried to do the same thing. He got his glove on the ball, but the force smashed his glove into his face. His lips were cut up pretty badly. That was the last time a player attempted that.

I would personally love to try to break that record. I'd probably wear protective gear.

Before the invention of radar guns, how were pitch speeds timed?

The best story happened with Bob Feller in 1940. He was very young then, just 21 years old, but already well established. A superstar. Everybody thought he threw harder than anyone ever.

The police blocked off a street. Two targets were set up. Like head-to-toe paper easels with nothing behind them. Feller was in the middle of the street. A motorcycle drove past him and attempted to drive through one of the targets.

Feller's job was to time his pitch so he released it exactly as the motorcycle flew past and aim it at the other target. They think the motorcycle was going 86 miles per hour. Feller released the ball a little late, but his pitch kind of gained on the motorcycle.

They did a bunch of calculations and unofficially declared that Feller's pitch traveled 104 miles per hour.

What are the most and least realistic foul ball scenes in a movie or TV show?

The least realistic -- it's hard to say. "Sesame Street" did a whole scene with puppets. If you want to nail them on a technicality, you could. But it's so damn cute. So I'd have to go with "Sex and the City." A 1999 episode called "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." It's an embarrassment to the national pastime. The set was bad. Bad terminology. I can name all the reasons, but the biggest offense is that in one of the establishing shots, it shows the women sitting 600 feet from home plate in Yankee Stadium. The upper deck. No one is going to hit a foul ball there. Us baseball purists take offense.

The Most realistic was "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." A beautiful scene. And probably the most famous foul ball scene, too. John Hughes, the director, did a great job of taking actual game footage and blending it with his own footage. It was seamless. A big problem in most shows and movies is that the extras don't follow the flight of the ball, don't flinch or lunge to catch it. They stare off into space or do nothing. But "Ferris Bueller" looked like the real deal.

Which part of the baseball once came from dog food companies?

That would be the cover of the ball. Back in the days when it used to be horsehide. Dog food was actually made with horsemeat, but the company couldn't feed the hide to dogs. They had leftover material. The baseball manufacturers were like, "Perfect, we'll take that off your hands." Today, that's a little bit disturbing. But horsehide was used as the official cover of baseballs through the 1973 season. Back in the 1800s, it was sheepskin. Now, it's cowhide.

What is the most unusual baseball ever produced?

Let me think. Probably if you go back to the 1870s, when pitching duels and fielding were in vogue. So manufacturers were making dead balls on purpose. They also were experimenting with the color of the cover. They made the balls red. They felt it would reduce glare in the air and make the ball easier to catch. In the papers, they would advertise red, dead balls. Try saying that fast.

What is the most juiced baseball ever produced?

In 1969, MLB experimented in spring training with a livelier ball. The "1X." It was suppose to be 10 percent more lively. They used these balls during a New York Mets-Detroit Tigers game. They definitely were livelier, and the ball was never adopted. They thought it was too much.

One interesting side note: In 1949, the son of a ball manufacturer basically admitted that the family company was playing with the resiliency of the ball -- making it lively some years, toning it down in others. There wasn't rigid oversight or regulations back then. The whole world was like that. You could get away with all sort of shenanigans.

You visited the Rawlings baseball factory in Costa Rica. What's the strangest or most surprising thing you learned about the production of baseballs?

The thing that really intrigued me was the whole thing about invisible ink. There are about 350 employees whose job is to hand stitch the baseballs. Each employee has their own number code and their own stamp at their work station. All the balls get that number code.

The next step, the balls all get dumped into the same barrel, then taken to an inspection room where they look for very specific and subtle flaws. If they find something wrong with a ball -- like one of the stitches is a bit too loose -- they put it under a black light. Then they put a sticker on the ball right next to the spot of the flaw and send it back to that employee and ask them to fix it. It's such a beautiful level of detail.

Did a humidor save the Colorado Rockies?

You know, it may have. The context there is that the Rockies are playing a mile above sea level. Thinner air. Less air resistance. So the ball travels eight to 10 percent farther. Also, the air is much drier. So the baseballs were drying out and becoming a little bit harder and lighter. They would just explode off the bat. It was a hitter's paradise.

Eventually, Colorado figured out the issue and had to do something to prevent the baseballs from drying out and hardening. So they started throwing baseballs in a humidor. It's like a big walk-in refrigerator that isn't cold. There are dozens of boxes of balls. It's just meant to keep the balls uniform and not crazy.

It has made a huge difference. They played seven seasons without the humidor, and the Rockies and their opponents combined for 13.8 runs per game. In the next seven years of using the humidor, that average dropped to 11.4 runs per game. It saved the competitive balance in Denver. Now it's baseball as it's meant to be played.

Of course, I know a number of ballhawks out in Denver that are not too happy. But it had to be done!

Patrick Hruby is a freelance writer and ESPN.com contributor. Contact him at PatrickHruby.net.


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