Once upon time, baseball tried openly to juice the ball

More home runs were hit in the majors this season than in any other season in history.

And with that comes talk of a juiced baseball.

At midseason, Brad Ziegler  told USA Today the ball makes every park seems like it’s Colorado. Mets  reliever Jerry Blevins wonder how fellow Mets hurler Jacob deGrom found opposite field home run power.

Boston ace David Price said everyone in the game is suspicious.

Now as homers fly out of the park in the World Series, the Astros’  Justin Verlander and Dallas Kuechel are unequivocal that the ball has extra kick.

It’s on old issue masquerading as a new story.

The ball was suspected of being juiced in 1961 and in 1970 and in 1987,

Even hitters like Ted Williams and Pete Rose complained at times.

We heard more complaints about the ball from 1994 to 2005, though now we are pretty certain  it was the players who were juiced.

I am always skeptical of the charges of juiced baseball (which MLB and the manufacturer always deny) for two reasons.

  • Talk about the baseball seems to only come up when the hitters are doing well, particularly hitting more home runs. There are never widespread complaints about the ball when the pitchers are dominating.
  • The second reason is I remember when the baseball actually was juiced. This is a long forgotten chapter in baseball: 1-X and X-5 experimental baseballs used in spring training in 1969 and 1970.

After the 1968 season, when scoring fell and the American League batting average slumped  to a record-low .230, baseball decided it needed a little more offense in the game. The strike zone was narrowed to its 1963 portions, and the mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10 inches.

The next spring, Spalding, then the maker of all major-league baseballs, concocted a baseball that had 10 percent more bounce, the 1-X. It was used one day a week during  spring training.

As I recall, the result was comical. A ball with 10 percent more bounce doesn’t just carry a warning-track fly  over the fence. Odd things happen, such as harmless singles drop in front of  outfielders, bounce over their heads and turn into  doubles. The 1-X was like playing baseball with a super ball.

So Spalding went back to the drawing board and came up with the X-5. which had about 5 percent more bounce. It was used for a couple dozen games in spring training in 1970. Balls that batters didn’t “get all of” became home runs,  but the real problem was that balls hit at infielders were rockets. Leo Durocher complained that using the X-5 on artificial turf would get someone killed.

Bowie Kuhn called off the experiment for players safety. Which really says something. This was an era when ear flaps on batting helmets were optional, there was no padding on outfield walls, and the sport was transitioning from grass fields onto cement surfaces topped with thin layers of rubber and plastic, a move that would prove an orthopedic nightmare.

Player safety was not a priority.

What was high on the list was getting more zip in the game, making it more appealing to a new generation.

Baseball spent most of the 1960s putting on pitching duels while watching as it was eclipsed by the NFL. So I think if the powers that be in the game would have gladly and openly used a livelier ball if one was viable.

But the X-5 was too far.

1970 showed an uptick in offense anyway, hence suspicions about the baseball. But that offensive surge faded the next season.

Hey, if it worked, wouldn’t baseball have continued doing it?

In 1970 Sports Illustrated had a lab look at the baseballs; it had used the same lab in 1961. The lab found the 1970 and 1961 balls similar. It had found the 1961 ball  had more bounce than 1953 balls. Spalding, then the maker of all baseballs (Rawlings has the duties now) said nothing had changed in any of those years.

The lab also found there was a variance from ball to ball in any year, And that humidity made a huge difference.

Now Colorado has a humidor, and Arizona plans to use one.

But I doubt you will see anyone cooking the baseball in parks where it’s hard to hit homers.

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