February 18th, 2014
I sort of fell into this subject on Facebook earlier today in response to a woodcut I posted of Amos Rusie’s drop ball. With his legendary fastball, I suggested, why would he ever need to throw a drop? Walter Johnson pitched almost his entire career throwing one pitch. When Walter Johnson came along in 1907, writers seeking to compliment the young fireballer called him “another Rusie.” As Mike Gershman wrote in Total Baseball, “Baseball paid Rusie the ultimate compliment in 1893 when it changed the rules because of him. The mound was moved back from 50 feet to 60 feet, 6 inches, and several authorities claim the change was intended to make Rusie’s heat less intimidating. (Rusie’s first catcher, Dick Buckley, padded his glove with a thin sheet of lead to help absorb the impact of Rusie’s hummer.) The Indianan led the league in strikeouts five years out of six and won 30 games or more four years in a row.”
In 1892 the pitching distance was truly only five feet shorter than that of today, because before the introduction of the slab, from which the 60’6″ distance is taken, the pitcher threw from a box, the front of which was 50 feet from the plate but the back line was five and a half feet further, creating an effective distance of 55’6″. In that last year of the old distance, which had been in force since 1880, the Hoosier Thunderbolt may have been, from the batter’s perspective, the fastest pitcher ever.
Let’s try a math exercise: Rusie’s 95 mph–my approximation; his pitches were never clocked, but Connie Mack said he was as fast as Johnson or Bob Feller–speedball of 1892, thrown from 55’6″ (the back-foot distance) would have arrived at the plate in 0.400 seconds. A modern pitcher throwing 95 mph from 60’6″ would reach the plate at 0.434 seconds. A modern pitcher throwing at 100 mph would reach home plate at 0.413 seconds. If Rusie threw routinely at 95 mph (as opposed to a peak mark like Aroldis Chapman’s 105) he was, from a batter’s viewpoint, the fastest ever, Q.E.D. (Yes, Chapman’s fastest-ever pitch arrived at the plate in 0.393 seconds, but that is a reliever’s apple to a starter’s orange.)
To such musing my friend Rod Nelson replied, “how long for the fastest fast-pitch softball to reach the plate?” This interested me because in men’s fast-pitch leagues the pitching distance is 46 feet, only one foot longer than baseball’s original pitching distance, first specified in 1857. Let’s say, I replied, that a pitcher could maintain a 95-mph pace, as above. (Eddie Feigner’s peak of 104 is an anomaly, like Chapman’s 105 above.) That 95 mph windmill pitch would arrive at the plate in 0.330 seconds (though the ball is bigger and theoretically easier to hit). Imagine Jim Creighton Of the Brooklyn Excelsiors of 1860 pitching, with a straight arm and no windup–let’s say for argument–an 80 mph fastball at the 45 foot distance (which was really a 50 foot distance from the back foot, and is thus calculated). His ball would have arrived at the plate in 0.426 seconds–faster to the plate than the modern pitcher at 95 mph.