By Jonah Keri
Special to Page 2

For all the drama caused by the NBA's new ball, you'd think this was the first equipment change in the history of pro sports. The truth is, there have been more changes in balls, bats, pucks and pads over the years than boos heard at Knicks games this season.

With the richest tradition among the four major U.S. team sports, baseball can also claim the lead in the number of changes made to game gear. And no single piece of equipment can claim as many changes as that white, tightly stitched sphere at the center of the game.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, both the color of a baseball and the integrity of its stitching were an iffy proposition. The ball lacked the springy core now common in today's game. Umpires also didn't carry dozens of balls in their pockets, ready to be thrown to the pitcher the minute even a speck of dirt sullied the baseball's pristine shell. Instead, balls were smacked all over the park, covered in dirt, retrieved from the stands and allowed to stay in play until they resembled a misshapen, blackened oval. If that weren't enough, pitchers could doctor the ball with any foreign substance – spit, petroleum jelly, or Kenny Rogers brand mysterious brown goo. The result was the Deadball Era, a wasteland for scoring that made over-the-wall homers nearly impossible and ranked as the worst offensive period ever.

Major League Baseball made two moves to inject offense into the game, banning the spitball before the 1920 season, and prompting umpires to put new balls in play far more often. The moves had an immediate impact. Already the most feared slugger in the league after clubbing 29 homers in 1919, Babe Ruth smashed 54 the next season. The 1920s and early 1930s would become one of the greatest offensive eras in major league history.

Baseballs remained largely unchanged until World War II. The German occupation of France caused a shortage of available European horsehide. Rubber also became limited, as Japan controlled most of Asia's rubber tree plantations, which produced the bulk of the world's supply. With few other options, MLB turned to the balata ball in 1943. Made of balata and granulated cork, balata balls had a soft core that evoked memories of the discolored blobs used during the Deadball Era. The result was a year stuffed with low-scoring games; the lowly Cubs didn't hit their first homer until their 33rd game. The materials shortage lasted only one season, mercifully ending the balata experiment.

Charlie Finley
AP Photo / Charles Knoblock
Former Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley had the idea to use orange baseballs in the early 1970s.

The wackiest ball experiment came in 1973. Maverick Oakland A's owner Charles Finley tried to persuade Commissioner Bowie Kuhn to let his team use an orange baseball in a regular-season game. When Kuhn balked, Finley thumbed his nose at the league, unveiling the orange ball in an exhibition game against the Indians. The A's lost the game 11-5. But the ball got a surprisingly favorable reaction. Fans were better able to track the flight of the ball, umpires saw it better and hitters had an easier time picking it up out of the pitcher's hand.

Most recently, the Colorado Rockies have come under fire for their use of humidors to dampen the effect of hard-hit baseballs soaring through the thin air at Coors Field. Offensive levels have retreated in the past few years in Colorado, leading analysts to question whether the results are due to normal fluctuations, changes in Rockies hitters and pitchers, or the humidor making its mark. The humidor controversy has led to criticism of the Rockies and claims that the other 29 major league teams should be allowed the same latitude to fit their individual whims.

Few pieces of equipment have changed as much as baseball gloves. Nineteenth-century gloves looked like primitive, worn leather versions of modern weight-lifting gloves, with the fingers cut out and only a thin layer of protection to absorb the blow from a line drive. The original idea was for players to knock the ball to the ground with the glove, instead of catching it. Over time, players began to realize the advantage of having more padding and more surface area to make a catch. A few players stuck with smaller versions, though, especially second basemen who wanted easy transfer in and out of the glove – Joe Morgan won multiple Gold Glove awards playing with one of the league's smallest models.

Baseball bats have also come a long way. Early bats looked like glorified tree trunks, sometimes weighing more than 40 ounces, with thick handles. With home runs a relative rarity, using thick bats that could put the ball in play and hit 'em where they ain't was a viable strategy for many years. As power hitting came into vogue, hitters began to realize that a lighter weight could help generate more bat speed and thus more power. By 1920, the best hitters of the day were using bats that began to more closely resemble modern versions. Throughout most of the game's history, bats were made out of ash. In the last few years, some of the game's most prominent sluggers, from Travis Hafner to Barry Bonds, have started using maple bats with great success. Two things all bats now have in common: super-thin handles and big sweet spots, creating a whip-like effect as batters muscle through the hitting zone and drive the ball to all parts of the park.

Wooden implements used in other sports also have evolved – some of them aren't even made of wood anymore. Years ago, only wooden hockey sticks would do. Today's sticks are often made of fiberglass, or hybrid materials. The blade of the stick has gone from the old-timers' perfectly straight preferences to a Justin Verlander-caliber curve over the years. NHL officials have been mostly lax in policing stick curves. But the issue came to a head in the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals. Up 1-0 against the Montreal Canadiens and ahead late in Game 2, the Los Angeles Kings looked poised to take a stranglehold on the series. But the Canadiens asked the referee to check the curve on Marty McSorley's stick. The stick was ruled illegal, McSorley drew a late penalty, and Montreal rallied to win the game and eventually the series. Though McSorley went on to score 10 points in the series, Kings fans to this day have never forgiven his transgression, and Habs fans have never stopped thanking him.

Hockey pucks remained mostly the same through much of the game's history – until the Fox network came along. Hoping to captivate new and novice fans who had trouble following the fast-moving puck during NHL games, Fox developed FoxTrax, a specialized puck that, thanks to internal electronics, glowed on TV screens, making it easier for fans to track during telecasts. The puck would start emitting a blue glow on the screen when struck by a hockey stick. When the puck traveled faster than 70 miles per hour, a red tail would shoot out the back of the puck. A Fox survey found that seven out of 10 viewers liked the new puck. But more seasoned fans and purists roundly criticized it. FoxTrax lasted less than two-and-a-half years, from the 1996 All-Star Game to the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals, before its glowing ember burned out forever.

Garth Snow
AP Photo / Kathy Willens
Garth Snow used his large pads to stifle opposing snipers for years. No word on whether he still dons the equipment in his new role as the Isles' GM.

As in many sports, hockey players have grown bigger, stronger and faster over the years. That has led to major upgrades in padding, from shoulders to shins. Goalie pads became a major source of controversy in recent years. Seeking to cover more of the net, goalies began stretching the limits on rules prohibiting excessive pad width. Former NHL goalie turned New York Islanders GM Garth Snow looked like Garth the Abominable Snowman given the size of his "legal" pads (wink, wink).

One of the most fascinating exhibits at the Hockey Hall of Fame is the display of goalie masks. It seems incredible now that goaltenders once dared to face whistling slapshots with nothing protecting their faces, but that was the case for decades. Enterprising equipment makers tried to get legendary netminders such as Gump Worsley, Terry Sawchuk and Jacques Plante to wear their masks. But the goalies complained that fogging and poor light reflection led to impaired visibility. Plante would later experiment with his own design for a primitive mask, and the idea finally stuck. Today, goalie masks are a work of art, with goaltenders having their headgear custom-made to reflect their teams, their personalities, or even their nicknames.

Football has also seen a big progression in the size and durability of players' pads. Considering that the average nose tackle weighs about 100 pounds more today than he did 50 years ago, this is probably wise. Football helmets have also undergone a massive transformation, from the flimsy leather model worn by Red Grange 80 years ago to the heavily fortified headgear worn today.

The balls used in the NFL have also been a source of debate at times. The old NFL ball resembled the college ball, with a fatter contour and stripes spanning either nose. The ball became more streamlined over the years, enabling teams to expand the passing game.

Its color rarely changed, though – except for the white football experiment of the 1940s and '50s. Rawlings first manufactured the ball for widespread use in 1940, advertising the product as "Football for Night Play." The All-America Football Conference used the white football extensively from 1946 to '49. But the ball didn't hit the big time until Sept. 16, 1950. That night, the Cleveland Browns made their NFL debut, playing their season opener against the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles at Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia. The game was considered one of the landmark events in NFL history. But Browns quarterback Otto Graham wasn't impressed by the white ball used in the game. "I didn't like it," Graham recalled. "The white ball had two black stripes on it. The paint they used was slick and my thumb fell right on that spot whenever I gripped the ball. It was very slippery. It was not a good ball to throw. Your accuracy was affected immensely by it." So what will be the fate of the NBA's new ball? Will it gain widespread acceptance like the goalie mask, graphite-shafted golf clubs and tennis rackets, breakaway rims and thin-handled baseball bats? Or will it go the way of orange baseballs, white footballs and glowing pucks, reaping so much criticism that it falls off the face of the sports map? The answer could come down to who's more powerful: the commissioner, or the game's most marketable player.

Jonah Keri is a regular contributor to Page 2 and the editor and co-author of "Baseball Between the Numbers." You can reach him at jonahkeri@gmail.com.




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