Hockey is a contact sport. Football is a collision sport. Say what you will about basketball or soccer. When it comes to impact, just know baseball is at or near the top of the list.
Major league fastballs are almost always clocked at 90mph and higher, with more and more modern arms touching three digits on the radar guns. Shortstops can make the same claim. Only hockey slapshots approach that sort of velocity. And violence.
The ability of a thrown baseball to cause traumatic bodily harm in sports not involving motors or a jai alai xistera may only be surpassed by a hit baseball. (Obviously, the physics of cricket – baseball’s ancestor of sorts — are similar.) Dudes in white lab coats have calculated hit baseballs to travel 1.5 to 2.0 times faster than the pitches that were hit. Thus, it’s not uncommon for a slugger to launch a fireballer’s best heater at speeds of up to 200mph.
The physicists have calculated that the average force on a hit baseball is 10,000 Newtons – units of force – which equates to a mass of 1000kg, or just over a ton. This clearly has the potential to be lethal, and in rare tragic instances, it’s happened.
In 2007, Mike Coolbaugh, first base coach for the AAA Tulsa Drillers, was struck just behind the ear by a blistering line drive foul. It was on him so quickly, he had no chance to move and died on impact. This incident is why all professional base coaches now wear batting helmets.
It’s an absolute miracle no pitcher has suffered the same fate, although instances of cracked skulls and concussions are frequent enough to be concerning. Work continues on designing a practical helmet for hurlers to wear, but to date, a solution remains elusive.
A typical game will total over 200 balls hit and thrown. That’s around 200 chances, then, for significant injury to be suffered. And yet, this happens so infrequently that few players, coaches, or fans actually give much thought to the imminent risks.
Major league baseball, as we’ll see, has suffered only one fatality in its history. That’s a remarkable safety record, enough to consider what the game has done to protect its participants. Yes, helmets have been a conspicuous solution, but there are other, more subtle precautions that have been implemented over the years to minimize injuries of all kinds.
Here, then, is a list of five simple safeguards in baseball that have proven to be extremely effective protectors:
Short pants did not come to baseball as part of a fashion statement.
Instead, they were seen as a way to enable players in the early days to have more control over their movements. And this transition wasn’t as easy for them to accept as it seems.
The term knickerbocker originated as the name of a fictional character in Washington Irving’s History of New York. He personified the stereotypical Old Dutch traditions that survived New Amsterdam’s transition to New York as the English gradually exerted their ways on the city from 1664 onward. Among the items that identified with the term were short, baggy, knee-high britches that kids wore in the summer.
In fact, it was considered a rite of passage for young boys to graduate from knickerbockers to long trousers.
So when Alexander Cartwright’s New York Knickerbocker social club played history’s first documented baseball game in 1845, the men involved wore long trousers. After all, baseball was designed to be a man’s game that kids would naturally imitate.
But the baggy trousers of the time posed a problem. They often became tangled in fast-moving feet, with the trips leading to cuts, scrapes, sprains, and the occasional broken bones. With Cartwright’s Rule 13 refining the game by deleting the option to throw at and hit a runner between bases to register an out, fielders were aiming lower to facilitate tags at the bases. Clumsy trips could easily put heads into the line of fire more frequently.
Cincinnati’s Red Stockings – baseball’s first professional team – took it upon themselves to eliminate this issue by making knickerbockers and their trademark high red socks mandatory parts of their uniform.
This innovation eventually led to standardized uniforms in 1881. Out went white dress shirts, bow ties, and whatever other adornments players might have preferred. Team names and/or logos were added to jerseys in order to better identify teams. Belts and caps became mandatory. Cleats were already popular.
Baseball’s ‘look’ was thus initiated by grown men wearing knickerbockers without shame. Their acceptance of short pants for practical reasons may also be an underlying reason for the mistaken comment of baseball being a kids’ game played by men.
2. Double Lines Between Home Plate and First Base
Some baseball rules are designed to protect players from themselves.
Just because fielders can’t peg runners with a ball to register a putout anymore – again, thank Cartwright’s Rule 13 – that doesn’t mean runners won’t get pegged.
The route most traveled, of course, is home to first. While there are rules delineating the path of a runner between all bases – Rule 7.08; basically, it’s within three feet on either side of the baseline – that particular segment has even more exacting parameters.
It’s covered by Rule 6.05(k):
[The batter is out when …] In running the last half of the distance from home base to first base, while the ball is being fielded to first base, he runs outside (to the right of) the three-foot line, or inside (to the left of) the foul line, and in the umpire’s judgment in so doing interferes with the fielder taking the throw at first base, in which case the ball is dead; except that he may run outside (to the right of) the three foot line or inside (to the left of) the foul line to avoid a fielder attempting to field a batted ball … Comment: The lines marking the three-foot lane are a part of that lane and a batter- runner is required to have both feet within the three-foot lane or on the lines marking the lane. The batter-runner is permitted to exit the three-foot lane by means of a step, stride, reach or slide in the immediate vicinity of first base for the sole purpose of touching first base.
In so doing, the runner is going to be well out of the line of fire for any ball in play near the plate.
3. The Warning Track
It seems like such an obvious idea, but the concept of a warning track separating the field from solid objects like walls and seats is the second-most recent safety item in this list.
Baseball mandated that warning tracks be installed in all parks during the All-Star break on 12 July 1949. Prior to that, some yards had running and/or bicycle tracks near fences from time to time, but their purpose was for those activities. Old Crosley Field in Cincinnati installed a slightly sloped outfield near the wall – it’s the inspiration for the same distinctive feature in center field at Houston’s new Minute Maid Park – but visiting players disliked it and other teams refused to follow along.
There’s little doubt Brooklyn’s Pistol Pete Reiser was the poster boy for warning tracks. He broke into the majors – literally – in 1940, and while players before him crashed into walls and spilled into seats, Reiser took it to another level. Accounts have him leaving games seven times in his career with broken collarbones or dislocated shoulders. The irascible Leo Durocher, who witnessed the likes of Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle, and Mays, called Reiser the best player he’d ever seen. Comparing him to Willie Mays in his autobiography, the Lip wrote, “Willie Mays had everything. Pete Reiser had everything but luck.”
Initially, warning tracks were required to be at least 10 feet wide and composed of something other than grass. The rationale, of course, is for the fielder to notice a difference beneath his feet so he’s aware of what’s ahead. Straight on, that’s only 2-3 strides, but most trips to the wall are diagonal, so there should be sufficient warning.
To be certain in this tech-driven era, baseball has added one other condition. The material composing the warning track must be of a substance that can be heard. In other words, before any key play at the wall, there’s got to be a crunch sound at crunch time.
Warning tracks now have their own section in the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), the definitive authority for contractors who don’t want to get sued for shoddy work. Just flip the manual to ASTM F2270 – 12 Standard Guide for Construction and Maintenance of Warning Track Areas on Athletic Fields. It calls for the player to be able to “sense a change in texture from the regular playing surface …”
Attention to detail continues to be honed. The Baltimore Orioles, for example, have installed a track composed of a natural material – crushed stone – that ‘breathes’ better than the conventional polymers most parks use. Among other advantages, the natural material doesn’t retain heat an unnatural level. So, apparently, ballplayers may still crash into Camden Yards walls, but at least they’ll be more comfortable until they get there.
2. The Pine Tar Rule
One of the more infamous moments in MLB history occurred on 24 July 1983, when Kansas City Royal and future Hall of Famer George Brett slammed a two-out, two-run homer in the top of the ninth at Yankee Stadium to seemingly take a 5-4 lead. Instead, he was called out, and the Royals lost the game.
Umpire Tim McClelland ruled Brett had too much pine tar on his bat. Rule 1.10(c) states that bats can be treated with any substance that will improve the grip, but it must not extend any farther than 18 inches from the handle. Brett’s bat was measured and shown to have pine tar up to 23 inches away. Thus, it was an illegal bat, he was out, and the homer was nullified.
Brett exploded out of the dugout in a rage, charging straight at the 6-foot-6 McClelland. Cooler heads buffered the chance of contact; had they not, the ump mused later, “I’d probably own the Kansas City Royals right now.”
The incident caused such a stir that MLB actually softened the rule after the season. Now, if a foreign substance on a bat exceeds the 18-inch limit, the umpire merely tells the batter to go get a ‘legal’ bat. And if the excess is discovered after the ball was put in play by the batter, the play will stand.
As pine tar is used to help the batter get a better grip, one would assume this is allowed for the safety of the other players and fans nearby. A flying bat can cause serious harm. Ironically, though, the intent of the 18-inch rule – adopted in 1955 – is to protect the batter.
The farther up a bat pine tar is applied, the greater the chance of it rubbing off on the ball. As Gaylord Perry or any other foreign-substance artist will attest, pitchers can do amazing things with something like that. In this case, a mere smudge of pine tar could enable a pitcher to gain a firmer grip, which in turn can make it easier for him to get unnatural movement on his pitches. This is why spitballs were banned in 1920.
Clearly, a pitched ball with enhanced movement can be a hazard to a batter’s health if gets away and runs high and tight. Batting helmets can only offer so much cushion.
1. Baseball Rubbing Mud
To this day, only one player has ever been killed during the course of a game.
Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman was at the plate, facing Yankee sidewinder Carl Mays on 17 August 1920. It was the top of the fifth inning in the late afternoon on a New York day that made it difficult for a batter to see the ball, especially after a pitcher had done his bit to darken it further.
There were no rules about foreign substances then, and hurlers took full advantage. Spit, tobacco juice, and dirt were all common travelers accompanying the ball. Sandpaper, fingernails, and spikes were often used to cut the ball’s surface. All of these not only created unnatural movement, they also darkened the ball. Stadiums didn’t have lights until 1935, so batters were at a strong disadvantage under that day’s conditions.
By all accounts, Chapman never saw the pitch that clocked him in the left temple. The ball simply got away from Mays, but he thought himself fortunate when he heard a loud crack. It sounded like the ball got the end of Chapman’s bat. He saw it trickling slowly back toward the mound. The twilight affected his vision, too. Mays fielded it and fired to first baseman Wally Pipp for what he believed was an out.
But Chapman was still at the plate, dazed. He then collapsed, with blood streaming out of his ear. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, but the damage was irreversible. Within 12 hours, Ray Chapman was dead.
Foreign substances on baseballs were banned from the game after that season. As well, umpires have been required ever since to remove dirty or scuffed balls from a game. However, this created another problem. The sheen of a new ball made it almost as difficult to control.
Finding a substance that would remove the sheen without cutting or darkening a ball took years to discover. In 1938, Philadelphia Athletics coach Russell ‘Lena’ Blackburne joined the search. Near his home in Burlington County, New Jersey – just outside of Philly – he came across a silt-textured mud on the banks of a local tributary to the Delaware River. It proved to be so compatible with baseball’s desires that by 1950, virtually every professional league and college conference was using it.
A cottage industry was born. Prior to every game, MLB umpires are required to rub down six dozen balls – it’s a result of Rule 3.01(c) – and they do it with Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud only. There is no substitute. Except for the umpires. They’ve long since delegated this responsibility to their clubhouse attendants.
This remains a family-owned business, and they keep the exact location of their mud harvesting a closely guarded secret. Three generations of Blackburne descendants and in-laws have learned how to scrape only the best mud from there – 1000lb a year – and let it sit for a winter before packing and shipping it out. The product is best described as having a feel similar to chocolate pudding blended with cold cream, and any discoloration of the baseball is indiscernible.
It’s notable that MLB was so satisfied with the effectiveness of Blackburne’s rubbing mud that batting helmets weren’t made mandatory until 1971, with the addition of earflaps on at least the side facing the pitcher being required in 1983.
And so it is that baseball’s greatest safety measure is one of nature’s simples substances.