August 6th, 2014
With the rise of pitching (or decline in batting) capturing everyone’s attention lately–as if it had not been inevitable–I think it worthwhile to take the long view. History may exist for its own sake but, unlike art, it may also be useful. Before we lower the pitching mound, increase the pitching distance or the length of the basepaths, permit aluminum bats, or move in the fences, let’s buck up for a moment and realize that we have been here many times before … since the very dawn of the game. Here, modified only slightly, is the opening chapter of The Pitcher, which John B. Holway and I wrote in 1987.
THE EARLY DAYS: 1845-75
In the first survivng rules of baseball, drafted by William R. Wheaton and William H. Tucker for the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in 1845, Article 9 (the only one pertaining to the pitcher) read:
The ball must be pitched, not thrown, for the bat.
Only ten words, but how much they reveal about the humble origins of baseball’s pioneer players! First, we see that the pitcher came by his name from the underhand, stiff-armed, stiff-wristed pitch borrowed from cricket’s early days—a delivery much like that seen today at the bowling alley. Second, we see the disdain of the “gentlemanly” Knickerbockers of New York for the uncouth throw, which characterized the rival version of baseball that flourished in New England until the Civil War. (Indeed, the term pitcher has been a misnomer in baseball ever since the mid-1860s, when the widespread—though not yet legal—wrist snap transformed the respectable pitch into the lowly throw.) And third, we see that the pitcher was not required to throw strikes rather than balls (the former did not exist until 1858, the latter until 1863), but instead to pitch for the bat: In other words, he and the batter were not adversaries but very nearly allies, each doing his utmost to put the ball in play for the valiant barehand fielders. Of all the positions in the game’s original 1845 design, only right field was less demanding and less prestigious than pitcher.
That began to change in the game’s second decade, as pitchers realized that, despite the restrictions on their motions, they could muster considerable speed and, with no “called ball” system in place, could whiz fastballs wide of the bat for as long as fifteen minutes until the impatient batter finally fished for one. The former alliance of batter and pitcher was thus breached and the breach was soon to widen.
Jim Creighton, a seventeen-year-old pitcher for the amateur Niagaras of Brooklyn (all teams were amateur then), created a stir in 1858 with a pitch that was not only faster than any seen before but also sailed or tailed or climbed or dipped; the result was “fairly unhittable,” in the words of John “Death to Flying Things” Chapman, a contemporary star with the Brooklyn Atlantics. How did Creighton do it? By adding an imperceptible snap of the wrist to his swooping bowler’s delivery. The first baseball pitcher to impart spin to the ball, he was soon wooed away from the Niagaras by the Star of Brooklyn club, with filthy lucre no doubt the bait. Now he was baseball’s first professional, and by the following year, when the Excelsiors of Brooklyn offered him a still more lucrative deal, he had become baseball’s first great pitcher and the idol of the fans. Even twenty years after his last performance, observers of such worthies as Hoss Radbourn and Tim Keefe would say, “They’re fine pitchers, to be sure, but they’re no Creighton.”
That last performance, alas, came against the Unions of Morrisania on October 14, 1862, when the twenty-one-year-old Creighton sustained a rupture which a few days later proved fatal. He incurred the injury with heroic flair, after a mighty swing that produced one of his four doubles in the game. (Legend soon had him hitting a home run, like Roy Hobbs.)
The year after Creighton’s death brought the system of “called balls” to speed up the game, but inasmuch as the lone umpire stood in foul ground along the first base line, balls and strikes could not be accurately judged. Moreover, the batter could demand a pitch high in the strike zone (waist to top of shoulder) or low (waist to a foot or so above the ground) and the pitcher had to comply. The pitcher was therefore working with a batter-imposed strike zone that was theoretically half that of today (but in practice much the same, since the strike zone of the last thirty-plus years has effectively shrunk to the “low strike” definition of the 1860s).
What advantages did a pitcher of the earliest days have? First, he worked behind a line, and after 1865 within a box, that was only 45 feet from home plate. An 80-mile-per-hour fastball thrown by George “Charmer” Zettlein would reach the plate in 0.38 seconds, precisely the time it takes Justin Verlander to hurl 100-m.p.h. heat past a batter today. Second, with the pitcher’s box—which until its abolition in 1893 varied in width from twelve feet to four and in length from seven feet to three—the hurler might move pretty much as he pleased, permitting him a wide-angle crossfire or even a running start, as in cricket bowling. Third, he could record outs on one-bounce catches until 1864, on one-bounce fouls until 1883, and on foul tips at any point in the count until 1888; uncaught fouls were not to register as strikes until the next century. Fourth, even though the batter’s high-low option narrowed the strike zone and thus gave him an edge, a walk was awarded on nine misfires prior to 1876, and that number was not reduced to the current four until 1889. And fifth, once Creighton snapped his wrist, it was only a matter of time before the other spinning pitches—notably the curve, but also the drop (sinker), the rise, the in-shoot (screwball), and spitter—were invented.
The many claimants to creation of the curveball include Candy Cummings, Fred Goldsmith, Deacon White, Tommy Bond, Bobby Mathews, and college pitchers Charles Hammond Avery and Joseph McElroy Mann. The spitter is attributed to Bobby Mathews, but surely his version dropped less spectacularly than the reinvented wet one thrown most notably by Jack Chesbro and Ed Walsh.
The prohibition against the wrist snap and the throw (or bent-elbow delivery) was only rarely observed by the late 1860s, so in 1872 Henry Chadwick proposed that the wrist snap be legalized, and it was. At the same time, the requirement that the pitcher’s arm swing perpendicular to the ground was relaxed so as to permit, in effect, a below-the-hips throw not unlike that of Joe McGinnity or Dan Quisenberry. By 1875, Hartford’s Tommy Bond was living at the edge of the rule by throwing low sidearm with tremendous speed, paving the way for the batting decline of the late 1870s and the frantic series of rule changes in the 1880s.
Before these pitching innovations came about, the baseball games of the 1860s typically featured 35 or more combined runs per game, with scores of 60-100 runs not unusual. Many of these were unearned because of general ineptitude in the field, greatly abetted by a rock-hard ball of incredible resiliency. One player of the period recalled in later years that the ball was so lively that, if dropped from the top of a two-story building, it would rebound nearly all the way back up. Low-scoring games were such a rarity that the annual guides would feature a list of “model games,” defined as those in which the teams combined for fewer than ten runs.
In addition to the different pitching techniques, the late 1860s brought the famous dead ball and with it a sudden rush of low-scoring contests characterized by comparatively dazzling fielding. The fans and sportswriters were overjoyed with the new “artistic” game, at last a worthy rival to cricket. In a famous game of July 23, 1870, Rynie Wolters of the New York Mutuals shut out the “braggart” Chicago White Stockings; this whipping gave rise to the term Chicagoed, meaning shut out. (Prior to that game a few shutouts had been recorded—the first authenticated one, pitched by Creighton, on November 8, 1860—but never against so formidable a foe.)
On May 10, 1875, Chicago fell victim to Joe Blong of St. Louis in baseball’s first 1-0 game and to Boston’s Joe Borden in history’s first no-hitter on July 28 of the same year.
The opening season, 1871, of the National Association, baseball’s first professional league, produced six shutouts. Only five years later, the National League’s inaugural schedule of seventy games featured a whopping sixteen shutouts by St. Louis’ Grin Bradley alone.
THE RISE OF THE MAJORS: 1876-1900
Baseballs were now being manufactured in mass, with deplorable quality control: The dead ball was, by midgame, often the mush ball. The fans no longer considered low scores so remarkable. National League batting averages declined every year from 1877 to 1880, falling from .271 to an alarming .245. The number of strikeouts nearly tripled as pitchers perfected the curves and slants introduced only a decade before. The league ERA was 2.37. The fledgling circuit, which in those years included franchises in such marginal sites as Troy, Syracuse, Worcester, and Providence, was losing money and in big trouble.
To the rescue came Harry Wright, the organizer of the Cincinnati Red Stockings and “Father of Professional Baseball.” He perceived the threat as early as 1877 when, in the Boston Red Stockings’ final exhibition contest, he had the pitcher’s box moved back 5 feet. The following year, in a September exhibition contest against Indianapolis, he arranged for the game to be played with: a walk awarded on six balls rather than the nine that then prevailed; every pitch counting as either a strike or a ball, thus eliminating the “warning” call an umpire made when a batter watched a good pitch sail by; and complete elimination of restrictions on a pitcher’s delivery—he might throw any way he wished. In the winter prior to the 1880 season, Wright proposed a flat bat and a cork-centered lively ball. And in December 1882, by which time most of the above proposals had been tried and some instituted—the front of the pitcher’s box at 50 feet, the abolition of warning pitches, the walk awarded on seven balls, soon to be six—he proposed denying the batter the right to call for a high or low pitch and, most dramatically, a pitcher’s box of 56 feet—very much the pitching distance of today. (The pitching distance at that time was measured from home plate to the front of the box, or true point of delivery, while today’s distance is measured from the plate to the rubber, from which the pitcher’s front foot strides some 4 to 4.5 feet forward.)
Hitting revived briskly in 1881, the first year of the new 50-foot pitching distance, but soon slid back again. The rule makers continued their tinkering with the ball/strike count (raising the strike count to four for 1887–in effect raising it to former levels, since the old warning pitch had prevailed until 1880 and was granted with two strikes until 1881–and lowering the ball count to four by 1889); the length of the pitcher’s box (from 7 feet to 6 feet to, in the final adjustment before replacement by the rubber, 5.5 feet); the pitcher’s windup (banning the running start and, for 1885, the raised-leg windup); and, most important, the delivery itself.
Once Tommy Bond began to raise his sidearm delivery slightly above the waist in the mid-1870s, it was only a matter of time before “anything goes” became the standard. Pitchers’ motions were creeping up to a three-quarters, “from the shoulder” style in the early 1880s, and despite a few warnings, many balks, and even a few forfeits, the practice was well in place before the rule that permitted it in 1883. In 1884 the National League removed all restrictions from pitchers, permitting a full overhand delivery that benefited primarily Charlie Sweeney of Providence, whose record of nineteen strikeouts in a game was not surpassed until Roger Clemens struck out twenty 102 years later. The American Association, the rival major league of the day, held to the from-the-shoulder rule until a June 7 meeting in 1885.
In 1887 the rule makers granted the most controversial capitulation to the hitters: not only were four strikes allowed against only five balls (although, to be fair, the division of the strike zone into high and low regions was eliminated), but walks were to be counted as hits. The resulting proliferation of .400 batting averages was broadly ridiculed, and in 1888 an out was again based on three strikes, walks resumed their previous status—and batting averages resumed their decline, dropping a whopping thirty points in the National League and thirty-five in the American Association as strikeouts increased dramatically.
The slide in batting performance was finally arrested in 1893 by adoption, one decade after its proposal by Harry Wright, of an effective pitching distance of 56 feet. The box was eliminated in favor of a slab placed 60 feet 6 inches from home (rejected was a proposal that the pitcher’s position be midway between home and first, or about 63 feet 7 inches from home). Writers ever since have attributed the explosion of hitting in the mid-1890s to the ten-foot increase in the pitching distance, but in fact it was only a five-foot increase: The box of 1892 was 5.5 feet long, and the distance to home plate of 50 feet was measured from the front of the box; moreover, since 1887 the pitcher had to have his back foot in contact with the back line of the box. The old chestnut about the 60-foot 6-inch pitching distance being the result of a surveyor’s error in reading a blueprint has no basis in fact: The rule makers simply moved the pitching distance back five feet, just as they had done in 1881.
The hitting explosion produced, at its zenith in 1894, a league ERA of 5.32, a team batting average of .349 (for the fourth-place Phillies), and nearly twice as many walks as strikeouts. That such a boost could have been anticipated was demonstrated by a little-known experiment in the Players League of 1890. In its attempt to win fan favor through increased scoring, the rival major league moved its pitching box back 1.5 feet and, with the addition of a new lively ball, produced a batting average twenty points higher than those in the two established major leagues.
The 1890s were a hitter’s heyday. Pitchers throwing breaking pitches at the new distance tired more quickly than their predecessors of the 1880s had; staffs now typically featured three and sometimes four starters where two had sufficed in the 1880s and one had been enough in the 1870s. The pitcher’s craft was advancing, but refinement created a new level of physical exertion. The curveball of the 1890s was no longer the roundhouse or schoolboy curve that featured only a lateral break, and the better pitchers had learned to throw a slow ball (change-up) with the same motion as the fast one, making it just as taxing on the arm. Hoss Radbourn threw for 679 innings in 1884, but he would not have been able to do it in 1894, when no pitcher exceeded 450 innings.
In 1895 the bat was widened to 2.75 inches in diameter, and the foul tip (nicked backwards) was for the first time ruled a strike. As the former change benefited the batter and the latter the pitcher, the balance between offense and defense was maintained. The other notable new wrinkle of the 1890s was pitcher Clark Griffith’s introduction of the scuffed, or cut, ball; his practice was to bang the ball brazenly against his spikes. (In the 1920s, oddly, Griffith’s voice was one of the loudest against the spitball.) Griffith’s cut ball was significant primarily as a harbinger of the dead ball era to come, which might as aptly be termed the doctored ball era.
THE DEAD BALL ERA: 1901-19
Rule changes slowed in the 1890s—now was one of those anomalous times in major-league history when the battered pitchers needed a boost. And they drew considerable comfort from the ruling that the foul ball was a strike (NL, 1901; AL, 1903) and from the advent of such now illegal if not exactly defunct pitches as the spitball, shine ball, mud ball, emery ball, and cut ball as well as the legal knuckleball and forkball. In 1900, the National League batting average was .279, and walks exceeded strikeouts by 12 percent. One year later, the mark was .267, and strikeouts exceeded walks by 58 percent. Parallel figures mark the experience of the American League in the years surrounding its adoption of the foul strike.
A hitting famine took hold for the rest of the decade, with the grimmest year being 1908. Shutouts were common and extra-base hits scarce. Base stealing and the bunt were potent offensive weapons, but the home run was a freakish occurrence—more often than not, the league home run leader would have fewer than ten, and in 1908 the entire Chicago White Sox team, who contended for the pennant into the final week, had only three. The popularity of the game itself was not in jeopardy—indeed, 1908 may have provided baseball with its greatest pennant races in each league. Such pitchers as Christy Mathewson, Ed Walsh, Cy Young, and Walter Johnson had become heroes with stature equal to Ty Cobb, Nap Lajoie, and Honus Wagner. The game was fast, strategic, and exciting, and fans were delighted with the rivalry between the American and National leagues after a decade of NL domination. But the owners had long memories, and they worried what might happen if hitting did not pick up soon: the press had been grumbling about baseball becoming a dull duel between pitchers rather than a contest between teams.
So in midseason of 1910, the National League introduced the new cork-centered ball (developed for cricket in 1863, rejected by baseball in 1882). Both leagues agreed to its use in the World Series that year and during the regular 1911 season. The result was a mild boost in batting averages but a marked increase in extra-base hits—notably home runs—and run scoring. But was the cork-centered ball truly that much more lively than the rubber-centered ball of old? Did it have a higher coefficient of resiliency? In 1911, one oldtimer noted astutely:
It isn’t the cork center that makes the ball lively and causes so much hitting; it’s the fact that the pitchers find the ball too hard to curve with their former skill. You see, the cork center is so large that twine has to be wound more tightly than formerly and when the cover is sewed on the ball is like the one used in cricket. It is like wood and the pitchers in gripping it between the thumb and fingers find that the surface does not give. You can make a soft ball curve almost at will. Anybody who knows will admit that. But the hard ball, such as the big leagues are using now, is far different. The pitchers can’t get the old breaks and shoots, and as the ball necessarily cuts the plate straight and fast the good batsmen kill it. You’ll find that all the best pitchers are having trouble this year and most of them will tell you that the old curves are impossible. The ball used two years ago was just soft enough near the surface to permit a tight grip, and that meant plenty of effectiveness.
This observation applies equally well to later, still more lively versions of the baseball. The bane of pitchers is not the rabbit at the center of the ball, but the nature and tightness of the twine or wool that wraps around it, and the elevation of the stitching. The rest of the decade continued to be dominated by pitchers such as Russ Ford with his emery ball, Eddie Cicotte with his shine ball, and legions of pitchers with spitballs, Ed Walsh being paramount.
The cork-centered ball may have been more lively, but its joie de vivre was certainly diminished by the fifth inning or so, for in these days only two or three balls might carry the teams through an entire game.
By the mid-1920s—surely due in some measure to Ray Chapman’s fatal beaning—stained or mutilated balls were taken out of play; a batter could request a fresh baseball; and the teams no longer insisted upon the return of foul balls (sample figures: the NL of 1919 used 22,095 baseballs; in 1924 it used 54,030). And those foreign-substance pitches were banned. And Babe Ruth, who had sounded the death knell of the dead ball era when he hit 29 homers for the Red Sox in 1919, came to New York. And the lively ball, whose existence at any point in history is still denied by everyone connected with Organized Baseball, hit the American League. (What made the heart of the 1920 ball race was the use of Australian wool, unavailable during World War I, and the tighter winding made possible by new machinery. An official of the Reach Company, manufacturer of AL baseballs, later admitted that the winding would be periodically tightened or loosened as requested.)
THE RUTHIAN ERA: 1920-41
Daring the dead ball era, the National League batted over .270 only once and the American League only in its first two years as a major circuit, when pitching quality was marginal. Beginning in 1920, NL batters hit over .270 every year until 1933, and AL batters did so every year until 1941. From 1919 to 1921 alone, home runs doubled; by 1930, they had nearly doubled again. In 1919 the National League’s leading slugger, Hi Myers, had a slugging average of .436; in 1930, the entire league slugged at a .448 clip. In 1919 the National League had no .350 batters, the American League four; in 1930 they had twenty. Perhaps most incredible, the top-hitting team in the NL of 1919 was the second-place New York Giants, who batted .269; in 1930 the Phillies hit .315 and finished last as their shellshocked hurlers permitted 7.7 runs per game.
The Dark Age for pitching had set in: Pitchers found themselves short on ammunition and ideas, as they had in 1893—but now it would take them a long time, far longer than ever before or since, to resume their historic advantage.
Was the batting truly so awesome or the pitching so awful? Probably neither. This was an extraordinary period during which several forces combined to give the offense the sort of overwhelming superiority it had enjoyed in the mid-1890s. A whole generation of strongboys, their path illuminated by Ruth, was learning the joys of fencebusting. The push-and-poke attack, advancing runners one base at a time, went the way of the dodo almost overnight. And the pitchers, shorn of much of their arsenal, were caught unprepared for the new offensive—they simply fired those fastballs a bit faster and resignedly watched them rocket by their ears.
A fastball and a curve (the latter almost never thrown when behind in the count, except by the great ones) used to be enough to get by when the ball was dead and the outfielders could play shallow. Now the ball was, comparatively, a grenade, and every man in the lineup could hurt you—no more opportunities to pitch around strong batters and coast whenever you had a three-run lead. The plan of pacing oneself to go nine innings, a la Christy Mathewson, was becoming passe; relief pitchers were becoming respectable. Indeed, the advent of such relief specialists as Firpo Marberry, Mace Brown, and Johnny Murphy was the principal strategic innovation of the Ruthian era.
The great pitchers of the dead ball era were gone or, like Walter Johnson and Grover Alexander, in decline. Stars like Lefty Grove, Dizzy Dean, Dazzy Vance, and Bob Feller came along, but most of the pitchers of the twenties and thirties were pretty straightforward chuckers, daring the big boys to hit their best. Their stuff was probably no worse than that of the bulk of dead ball pitchers, but the consequence of their mistakes was far greater. New pitches? The slider may have been created in the mid-1920s by George Blaeholder of the Browns or Tommy Thomas of the White Sox, but its era of impact was yet to come. The knuckler o[ Dutch Leonard was not new, and its glory too was in the distance. The screwball of Carl Hubbell had of course been used by Mathewson (the fadeaway) and with less celebrated effect by a handful of nineteenth-century pitchers. Paul Richards, a great student of pitching and architect of the dazzling Orioles’ staffs of the 1950s and 1960s, once said:
Pitchers are much better than they used to be. The oldtimers only remember the outstanding ones. They forget about the soft touches who couldn’t hold a job today. Let’s go back to the 1930s, and that means we’re actually talking about the modem era. Most of the pitchers threw a fastball and a curve. That was it. There were some cute ones around, too, but they weren’t the stars. Even some of the stars had a curve that was nothing special and today they couldn’t make it with just the pitches they had.
When Richards spoke of cute ones, he may have had in mind Ted Lyons or Tommy Bridges. Some say Bridges had the best curve ever seen. And Richards’ curveless wonders might have included Red Ruffing, Dizzy Dean, and a bevy of other notables, including Hall of Famers.
But the pitchers’ debacle of this period cannot be blamed entirely on their penchant for meeting power with power. The ball was livened and deadened, league by league, as the owners scrambled to attract the scarce dollars of Depression era fans. The NL ball was juiced in 1921, one year later than in the AL, when senior circuit officials saw how the fans liked the home-run heroics of Babe Ruth in the rival league. Certainly it was inflated further for the bruising 1930 season, then deflated the following year as homers declined mysteriously from 892 to 492. By 1933 the National League’s ERA had come down by 33 percent; Carl Hubbell managed one of 1.66, a level not seen in either league since . . . 1919.
From 1931 to 1942, the American League was the hitters’ circuit. Its ERA reached a high of 5.04 in 1936 (the only time a league ERA has ever exceeded five runs except for 1894) and stayed over 4.00 every year from 1921 to 1941, barring a 3.99 mark in 1923. Yankee fans may have loved the carnage their batters in particular wrought, but these were not classic years in baseball history.
Nor in truth were the next four, but they laid the groundwork for the period many observers feel was the game’s greatest, the 1950s.
THE CLASSIC PERIOD: 1942-60
Baseball during World War II (1942-45) may have been inferior to that played immediately before and after, but the reason was not just the manpower shortage, which was not severe until 1944-45. The shortage of wartime materials forced baseball manufacturers to use an inferior grade of wool that produced a dramatically softer, deadened ball. Home runs in the American League, for example, plummeted from 883 in 1940 to 401 in 1946; league batting averages dipped below .250 for the first time since 1917, when another war for America had just commenced.
The marathon batting orgy of the twenties and thirties was over, and pitching seemed poised to reassert the dominance it had enjoyed in the early years of the century; even the return of stars like Williams, Musial, and DiMaggio from the service for the 1946 season failed to boost overall batting. But 1947 was a year of momentous change: Jackie Robinson broke the color line, television became a force. Of less obvious but more immediate impact, the ball was livened again. Home runs jumped by an incredible 62 percent, and, not surprisingly, complete games declined and saves increased (in the AL, by a whopping 45 percent). The fans loved it.
So the rule makers fanned the flame, lowering the strike zone in 1950 from the top of the shoulder to the armpit and raising it from the bottom of the knee to the top—the first mandated change in this area since 1887. As a result, home runs soared again, to a new high—but oddly, so did strikeouts. The die was cast for the rest of the decade: batters would swing from the heels, forsaking batting average for power, and pitchers—many of them newly armed with the slider, or “nickel curve,” as Cy Young disparagingly termed it—would keep them off balance. The strikeout-to-walk ratio, which had been roughly 1:1 since the introduction of the lively ball in 1920, was nearing the 2:1 (and higher) ratio of the 1960s. Despite the plentiful home run (in 1954, National League teams averaged 158 homers, the game’s highwater mark until 1986 when American League teams averaged 164 four-baggers), batting averages and bases on balls declined, testifying to the advancing skill of the pitchers and the managers who discovered the bullpen. The scoring level in 1960 was lower than that in 1950, and batting was already on its downhill slide to the vanishing point of 1968: the year of the pitcher.
THE EXPANSION ERA: 1961-
Only Commissioner Ford Frick did not know it. He saw the prodigious slugging in the American League’s expansion year of 1961: Colavito, Gentile, Killebrew, Cash, Mantle, and Maris plus a Yankees’ team that hit 240 homers. He was particularly irked that a low-average hitter like Maris could break the cherished home run mark of Babe Ruth. After the National League’s expansion and increased run production in the following year, he said: “I would even like the spitball to come back. Take a look at the batting, home run, and slugging record for recent seasons, and you become convinced that the pitchers need help urgently.” He saw fit to rescue them by restoring the old strike zone that had been reduced in 1950.
Whoops! Strikeouts rose, walks declined; batting averages fell to the mid-.240s in both leagues, reaching the lowest combined level since 1908, and the woeful New York Mets batted .219, the lowest in NL annals since 1908. The batters were in disarray, and in the seasons that followed they would scurry into full retreat. Young strikeout artists—Gibson, Marichal, Koufax, McDowell, Chance, McLain, and others—dominated. New stadiums favoring pitchers, such as Shea, Busch, and Dodger stadiums, replaced older parks that were hitters’ havens—the Polo Grounds, Sportsman’s Park, the Coliseum. The forkball and the knuckler, two pitches that had been around for generations, were revived with devastating effect; every kid pitcher seemed to hit the big time with a slider in addition to his curve and fastball, and such firemen as Larry Sherry, Roy Face, Ron Perranoski, Lindy McDaniel, and Dick Radatz had years when they seemed unhittable.
Baseball officials were becoming concerned that the grand old game appeared stodgy to fans of the sixties, that professional football was capturing the hearts and minds of America. The events of 1968 helped convince them. In the National League Bob Gibson had an ERA of 1.12, including thirteen shutouts. The American League had a batting champion who hit .301, surpassing his nearest rival by eleven points; five pitchers with ERAs under 2.00, with one of them, Denny McLain, winning thirty-one games; a league batting average of .230, with the once proud Yankees hitting .214. Paul Richards recommended setting the pitching distance back another 5 feet, to 65 feet, 6 inches.
This was rejected, but the remedies of 1969 were almost as radical. The strike zone was reduced again, to the region of 1950-62. The mound was lowered to a maximum height of 10 inches from the 15 inches that had prevailed since 1903. In all likelihood, the ball was juiced again. Scoring was boosted by about 15 percent in each league, and homers (adjusted for the expansion to twelve-team circuits) jumped by about 30 percent. The lowered mound flattened out wicked curveballs and sliders and took the hop off all but the elite of fastballs. The strike zone change was of little significance in itself, but at about this time, without an explicit rule change, the top of the strike zone mysteriously came down not from the shoulders to the letters but to the midriff. By 1987 the high strike would become defined in practice as anything above the belt buckle.
These innovations resuscitated hitting for a while. Whereas in 1968 there had been only six .300 hitters, 1969 produced eighteen; where 1968 saw only three men with 100 RBIs, 1969 brought fourteen; the number of forty-plus home-run hitters rose from one to seven. But by 1972 the pitchers had adjusted, and batting in both leagues slid back to near-1968 levels. In the American League particularly, the situation was grim: home runs (on a team-average basis) hit their lowest level since 1949 and batting averages dipped below .240 yet again.
The response this time was the designated hitter. It produced a tilt back toward the batters, inasmuch as pitchers now had to face nine true batters rather than eight. (How remarkable an achievement was Nolan Ryan’s strikeout record of 383 that season. If he had faced pitchers in the nine-hole of the lineup, he might have added sixty more Ks.) Not only did the d.h. produce more scoring, it also produced more complete games, as managers no longer needed to pinch-hit for a starter who trailed in a low-scoring game. This tendency, however, was short-lived: AL pitchers completed 33.5 percent of their starts in 1974, but only 15.7 percent a decade later (although this was still higher than the 11.6 percent figure for the NL).
Strangely, hitting perked up in the National League at about the same time, without benefit of the d.h. Could the new cowhide ball, manufactured in Haiti, have had something to do with it? Or was it the incredible shrinking strike zone? (Consider how sharp today’s pitchers must be in comparison to their mates of, say, the 1920s, when the strike zone printed in the rule book corresponded to the strike zone during the game.) In any event, the pitcher/batter war seemed a standoff in the late seventies and early eighties, as batters fattened up on the new flock of breaking-ball cuties while older hard-stuff stars like Seaver, Palmer, Carlton, and Ryan continued to shine. Some of the newcomers—Soto, Guidry, Richard, Morris, Valenzuela—threw hard and made their marks, but the general opinion in baseball was that if the fastball was the pitch of the sixties and the slider the pitch of the seventies, the mixed bag of curve and change, cut fastball and split-finger fastball, would dominate the eighties. Then along came Dwight Gooden and Roger Clemens and Mark Langston, and we stopped hearing about the death of the fastball.
Nonetheless, the split-finger fastball was the sensation of the 1986 season. Popularized by relief pitcher Bruce Sutter in the early eighties, it had been invented back in 1908 by Bert Hall, who called it a forkball, and later was employed by Tiny Bonham, Roy Face, and Lindy McDaniel. For all of them it served as a dry spitter, an offspeed sinker that batters would beat into the ground or, in the case of Sutter, who threw it harder than the others, fan on. The gospel of the split-finger fastball was spread in the 1980s by Roger Craig when he was pitching coach of the Detroit Tigers, whose staff fell in love with the pitch.
It seems anyone whose fingers were long enough to throw the pitch added it to his repertoire. But one of Craig’s disciples, Mike Scott of the Houston Astros, threw it harder than anyone and transformed it, in 1986, from a freakish change-up to the greatest menace batters had faced since the hard sliders of Lyle, Guidry, and Carlton a decade earlier. The pitch thrown by Sutter had a bit of a screwball tail to it, but its primary trait was its drop; Scott’s split-finger pitch sailed and swooped unpredictably at some 85 m.p.h.—and sunk, too.
In the second half of 1986, carrying over to the National League Championship Series, Scott’s pitch was as nearly unhittable as any ever seen on a diamond—as discouraging as Ryan’s fastball, Carlton’s slider, Koufax’s curve, Wilhelm’s knuckler, Walsh’s spitter, Creighton’s blue darter. Was this the end for the batter? Of course not; he would adjust, even if it would take a little help from his friends.
Offenses revived in the mid-1990s and home runs proliferated. And then the pitchers came up with something new.