Archive for Monday, April 6, 2015

Dead ball’ no more: homers a more frequent highlight of baseball

April 6, 2015

This is a big week in Kansas City, with the Royals opening the season as the defending American League champions. Boy, saying that seems strange to some of us who are long-time and loyal Royal fans. We have suffered through a lot of lean years and now we have hope for another exciting season like last year.

Most fans look forward to seeing a long homer that clears the fence or maybe lands in the fountain. There is nothing more exciting than a home run but that wasn’t always the case. There was a time a century ago when fans weren’t all that excited about long balls. No, they appreciated a different type of game that utilized speed and “small ball.”

In the early part of the 20th century, baseball was a much different game generally known as the “dead ball era,” and home runs were scarce. You have to be a real baseball fan to remember one of the heroes of the sport: James Franklin (Home Run) Baker. A third baseman, Home Run Baker was one of the most feared hitters of the time.

He played seven years for the Philadelphia As and six years for the Yankees and had a career total of 96 home runs. Baker sat out one season due to a contract dispute. For his time, he was a reasonably large player, standing 5-feet-11 inches tall and tipping the scales at 173 pounds.

It was interesting to note that Baker started playing for a semi-pro team at $5 per game, which would be about $130 based on today’s buying power.

He led the American League in home runs three times with totals that are underwhelming by modern statistics. In 1913, he hit 12 home runs and drove in 117 runs. His 1912 totals were 10 homers and 130 RBIs. While the RBI totals were impressive, his long balls certainly don’t seem to warrant the nickname “Home Run.” Yet by the standards of the time, he was by far the American League’s most feared long ball threat.

This was largely due to the “dead” baseball that was used. Simply, due to the construction of the ball, it was harder to hit a long distance. That meant the game centered around speed and bunts. One of the era's leading hitters supposedly described his batting success by saying: “hit them (the ball) where they (the fielders) ain’t.” I was surprised to read that pitchers or catchers normally led the league in errors because there was so much action around home plate.

Since owners were very financially frugal, often only one ball was used for an entire game. The ball was often dirty since the spit ball was legal. In addition, the ball became softer as the game wore on. I had to chuckle thinking that Salvadore Perez probably uses more balls in a game than old timers used in a season.

Games were much shorter in those days, often lasting less than two hours. When the fans started complaining about low scores, the big leagues changed to a ball with a cork center, which flew further, and home runs soon became popular. Babe Ruth and other sluggers soon revolutionized the fans’ view of the game.

“Home Run” Baker was a household name in 1914 but is now virtually unknown. After his playing career was over he served in local government, farmed and was active in other business. He was inducted to the Hall of Fame in the 1950s.

Yes, baseball has changed over the years. We now have modern, comfortable stadiums and tremendously talented players. For me one of the best advances is that nearly every Royals game is televised. There is no doubt that I will enjoy the season, and hopefully a World Series championship.

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