Home      Discussion      Topics      Dictionary      Almanac
Signup       Login
Dead-ball era

Dead-ball era

Ask a question about 'Dead-ball era'
Start a new discussion about 'Dead-ball era'
Answer questions from other users
Full Discussion Forum
The dead-ball era is a baseball
Baseball is a bat-and-ball sport played between two teams of nine players each. The aim is to score runs by hitting a thrown ball with a bat and touching a series of four bases arranged at the corners of a ninety-foot diamond...

 term used to describe the period between 1900 (though some date it to the beginning of baseball
Origins of baseball
The question of the origins of baseball has been the subject of debate and controversy for more than a century. Baseball and the other modern bat, ball and running games, cricket and rounders, were developed from earlier folk games....

) and the emergence of Babe Ruth
Babe Ruth
George Herman Ruth, Jr. , best known as "Babe" Ruth and nicknamed "the Bambino" and "the Sultan of Swat", was an American Major League baseball player from 1914–1935...

 as a power hitter in 1919. In 1919, Ruth hit a then league record 29 home runs, a spectacular feat at that time.

This era was characterized by low-scoring games and a lack of home runs. The lowest league run average in history was in 1908, when teams averaged only 3.4 runs scored per game.

Baseball during the dead-ball era

During the dead-ball era, baseball was much more of a strategy-driven game, using a style of play now known as small ball
Small Ball
In the sport of baseball, small-ball is an informal and colloquial term for an offensive strategy in which the batting team emphasizes placing runners on base and then advancing them into position to score a run in a deliberate, methodical way...

 or inside baseball
Inside Baseball
Inside Baseball is a strategy in baseball developed by the 19th-century Baltimore Orioles team and promoted by John McGraw. In his book, My Thirty Years of Baseball, McGraw credits the development of the "inside baseball" to manager Ned Hanlon. In the 1890s, this kind of play was referred to as...

. It relied much more on stolen base
Stolen base
In baseball, a stolen base occurs when a baserunner successfully advances to the next base while the pitcher is delivering the ball to home plate...

s and hit-and-run
Hit and run (baseball)
A hit and run is a high risk/high reward offensive strategy used in baseball.When the offense has a baserunner on first base , the runner on first breaks for second as the pitch is thrown...

 types of plays than on home run
Home run
In baseball, a home run is scored when the ball is hit in such a way that the batter is able to reach home safely in one play without any errors being committed by the defensive team in the process...

s. These strategies emphasized speed, perhaps by necessity. Teams played in spacious ball parks that limited hitting for power, and, compared to modern baseballs, the ball used then was "dead" both by design and from overuse. Low-power hits like the Baltimore Chop
Baltimore Chop
The Baltimore Chop was a hitting technique used by batters during Major League Baseball's dead-ball era which was an important element of John McGraw's "Inside baseball." Popularized by and named after the original Baltimore Orioles, the batter would intentionally hit the ball downward to the hard...

, developed in the 1890s by the Baltimore Orioles
Baltimore Orioles (19th century)
The Baltimore Orioles were a 19th-century American Association and National League team from 1882 to 1899. The club, which featured numerous future Hall of Famers, finished in first place three consecutive years and won the Temple Cup championship in 1896 and 1897...

, were used to get on base. Once on base, a runner would often steal or be bunted over to second base and move to third base or score on a hit-and-run play. In no other era have teams stolen as many bases as in the dead-ball era.

There are many examples from this era that show how much more emphasis was placed on speed than on power. Between and , there were 13 occasions when the league leader in home runs had fewer than 10 home runs for the season, and just four where the league leaders had 20 or more homers. Meanwhile, there were 20 instances where the league leader in triples
Triple (baseball)
In baseball, a triple is the act of a batter safely reaching third base after hitting the ball, with neither the benefit of a fielder's misplay nor another runner being put out on a fielder's choice....

 had 20 or more. Pittsburgh Pirates
Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pittsburgh Pirates are a Major League Baseball club based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They play in the Central Division of the National League, and are five-time World Series Champions...

 outfielder Owen "Chief" Wilson
Chief Wilson
John Owen "Chief" Wilson was a Major League Baseball player for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals .Born in Austin, Texas, Wilson was an outfielder with a strong throwing arm...

 set a record of 36 triples in 1912, a little-known record that is likely one of baseball's unbreakable records, as are the 309 career triples of Sam Crawford
Sam Crawford
Samuel Earl Crawford , nicknamed "Wahoo Sam", was a Major League Baseball player who played outfield for the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1957....

 set during this time.

Despite their speed, teams struggled to score during the dead-ball era. Major league cumulative batting averages ranged between .239 and .279 in the National League and between .239 and .283 in the American League. The lack of power in the game also meant lower slugging averages and on-base percentages, as pitchers could challenge hitters more without the threat of the long ball. The nadir of the dead-ball era was around and , with a league-wide batting average of .239, slugging average of .306, and ERA under 2.40. That year, the Chicago White Sox
Chicago White Sox
The Chicago White Sox are a Major League Baseball team located in Chicago, Illinois.The White Sox play in the American League's Central Division. Since , the White Sox have played in U.S. Cellular Field, which was originally called New Comiskey Park and nicknamed The Cell by local fans...

 hit three home runs for the entire season, yet they finished 88–64, just a couple of games from winning the pennant.
There were some complaints about the low-scoring games, and baseball looked to remedy the situation. In , Ben Shibe
Ben Shibe
Benjamin Franklin Shibe was an American sporting goods and baseball executive who, along with his sons John and Tom, was half-owner of the Philadelphia Athletics of the American League from 1901 until his death. He is credited with the invention of the automated stitching machinery to make...

 invented the cork
Cork (material)
Cork is an impermeable, buoyant material, a prime-subset of bark tissue that is harvested for commercial use primarily from Quercus suber , which is endemic to southwest Europe and northwest Africa...

-centered ball, which the Reach Company—official ball supplier to the American League
American League
The American League of Professional Baseball Clubs, or simply the American League , is one of two leagues that make up Major League Baseball in the United States and Canada. It developed from the Western League, a minor league based in the Great Lakes states, which eventually aspired to major...

 (AL)—began marketing. Spalding
Spalding (sports equipment)
Spalding is a sporting goods company founded by Albert Spalding in Chicago, Illinois, in 1876 and now headquartered in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The company specializes in the production of balls for many sports, but is most-known for its basketballs...

, who supplied the National League
National League
The National League of Professional Baseball Clubs, known simply as the National League , is the older of two leagues constituting Major League Baseball, and the world's oldest extant professional team sports league. Founded on February 2, 1876, to replace the National Association of Professional...

 (NL), followed with its own cork-center ball. The change in the ball had a dramatic impact on both leagues. In , the American League batting average was .243; in 1911, it rose to .273. The National League saw a jump in the league batting average from .256 in 1910 to .272 in . happened to be the best season of Ty Cobb
Ty Cobb
Tyrus Raymond "Ty" Cobb , nicknamed "The Georgia Peach," was an American Major League Baseball outfielder. He was born in Narrows, Georgia...

’s career; Cobb batted .420 with 248 hits. Joe Jackson
Shoeless Joe Jackson
Joseph Jefferson Jackson , nicknamed "Shoeless Joe", was an American baseball player who played Major League Baseball in the early part of the 20th century...

 hit .408 in 1911, and the next year Cobb batted .410. These were the only .400 averages between and . In , however, pitchers started to regain control, helped by a serendipitous invention by minor league pitcher Russ Ford
Russ Ford
Russell William Ford was a Major League Baseball pitcher during the dead-ball era of the early 1900s.- Emery Ball :...

. Ford accidentally scuffed a baseball against a concrete wall, and after he threw it, noticed the pitch quickly dived as it reached the batter. The emery pitch was born. Soon pitchers not only had the dominating spitball
A spitball is an illegal baseball pitch in which the ball has been altered by the application of saliva, petroleum jelly, or some other foreign substance....

; they had another pitch in their arsenal to control the batter, aided by the fact that the same ball was used throughout the game and almost never replaced. As play continued, the ball became more and more scuffed, making it increasingly difficult to hit as it moved more during the pitch as well as more difficult to see as it became dirtier. By run scoring was essentially back to the pre-1911 years and remained so until 1919.

Such a lack of power in the game led to one of the more ironic player nicknames in history. Frank Baker
Frank Baker
John Franklin "Home Run" Baker was an American third baseman in Major League Baseball from 1908 to 1922, and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955. As a member of the famed $100,000 infield, Baker helped the Philadelphia Athletics win the 1910, 1911 and 1913 World Series...

, one of the best players of the dead-ball era, earned the nickname of "Home Run" Baker merely for hitting two home runs in the 1911 World Series
1911 World Series
-Game 1:Saturday, October 14, 1911 at Polo Grounds in Manhattan, New York-Game 2:Monday, October 16, 1911 at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-Game 3:Tuesday, October 17, 1911 at Polo Grounds in Manhattan, New York-Game 4:...

. Although Baker led the American League in home runs four times (1911–1914), his highest home run season was 12, and he finished with 96 home runs for his career.

The best slugger of the dead-ball era was Philadelphia Phillies
Philadelphia Phillies
The Philadelphia Phillies are a Major League Baseball team. They are the oldest continuous, one-name, one-city franchise in all of professional American sports, dating to 1883. The Phillies are a member of the Eastern Division of Major League Baseball's National League...

 outfielder "Cactus" Gavvy Cravath
Gavvy Cravath
Clifford Carlton "Gavvy" Cravath , also nicknamed "Cactus", was an American right fielder and right-handed batter in Major League Baseball who played primarily for the Philadelphia Phillies...

. Cravath led the National League in home runs six times, with a high total of 24 for the pennant-winning Phillies in and seasons of 19 home runs each in 1913 and 1914. Cravath, however, was aided by batting in the Baker Bowl
Baker Bowl
Baker Bowl is the best-known popular name of a baseball park that formerly stood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States. Its formal name, painted on its outer wall, was National League Park. It was also initially known as Philadelphia Park or Philadelphia Base Ball Grounds.It was on a small...

, a notoriously hitter-friendly park with only a short 280 feet (85.3 m) distance from the plate to the right field wall.

Factors that contributed to the dead-ball era

The following factors contributed to the dramatic decline in runs scored during the dead-ball era:

The foul strike rule

The foul strike rule was a major rule change that, in just a few years, sent baseball from a high-scoring game to one where scoring any runs were a struggle. Prior to this rule, foul balls were not counted as strikes: thus a batter could foul off a countless number of pitches with no strikes counted against him, the exception being on bunt attempts. This gave an enormous advantage to the batter at that time. In 1901, the National League adopted the foul strike rule, and the American League followed suit in 1903.

The ball itself

Before 1921, it was common for a baseball to be in play for over 100 pitches. A ball would be used until it started to unravel. The early baseball leagues were very cost-conscious, so fans would have to throw back balls that had been hit into the stands. The longer the ball was in use the softer it would become, and hitting a heavily-used, softer ball for distance is much more difficult than hitting a new, harder one. There is also the argument that the ball itself was softer to begin with, making home runs less likely.

The spit ball

The ball was also hard to hit because pitchers could manipulate it before a pitch. For example, the spitball
A spitball is an illegal baseball pitch in which the ball has been altered by the application of saliva, petroleum jelly, or some other foreign substance....

 pitch was permitted in baseball until 1921. Pitchers often marked the ball, scuffed it, spat on it, or did anything else they could to gain an advantage over the ball's motion. This made the ball "dance" and curve much more than it does now, making it more difficult to hit. Tobacco juice was often added to the ball as well, which discolored it. This made the ball difficult to see, especially since baseball parks did not have lights until the late 1930s. This made both hitting and fielding more difficult.

Ballpark dimensions

Many ballparks had big dimensions, such as the West Side Grounds of the Chicago Cubs
Chicago Cubs
The Chicago Cubs are a professional baseball team located in Chicago, Illinois. They are members of the Central Division of Major League Baseball's National League. They are one of two Major League clubs based in Chicago . The Cubs are also one of the two remaining charter members of the National...

, which was 560 feet to the center field fence, and the Huntington Avenue Grounds
Huntington Avenue Grounds
Huntington Avenue American League Base Ball Grounds is the full name of the baseball stadium that formerly stood in Boston, Massachusetts and was home to the Boston Red Sox from 1901-1911...

 of the Boston Red Sox
Boston Red Sox
The Boston Red Sox are a professional baseball team based in Boston, Massachusetts, and a member of Major League Baseball’s American League Eastern Division. Founded in as one of the American League's eight charter franchises, the Red Sox's home ballpark has been Fenway Park since . The "Red Sox"...

, which was 635 feet to the center field fence. The dimensions of Braves Field
Braves Field
Braves Field was a baseball park that formerly stood on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, Massachusetts. The stadium was home to the Boston Braves National League franchise from 1915–1952, when the team moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin...

 prompted Ty Cobb
Ty Cobb
Tyrus Raymond "Ty" Cobb , nicknamed "The Georgia Peach," was an American Major League Baseball outfielder. He was born in Narrows, Georgia...

 to say that no one would ever hit the ball out of it.

The end of the dead-ball era

The dead-ball era ended suddenly. By 1921, offenses were scoring 40% more runs and hitting four times as many home runs as they had in 1918. The abruptness of this dramatic change has caused widespread debate among baseball historians, and there is no consensus among them regarding the cause of this transformation. Six popular theories have been advanced:
  • Changes in the ball: This theory claims that owners replaced the ball with a newer, livelier ball (sometimes referred to as the "jackrabbit" ball), presumably with the intention of boosting offense and, by extension, ticket sales. This theory has been denied by Major League Baseball. The yarn used to wrap the core of the ball was changed prior to the 1920 season, although testing by the United States Bureau of Standards
    National Institute of Standards and Technology
    The National Institute of Standards and Technology , known between 1901 and 1988 as the National Bureau of Standards , is a measurement standards laboratory, otherwise known as a National Metrological Institute , which is a non-regulatory agency of the United States Department of Commerce...

     found no difference in the physical properties of the two different types of balls.
  • Outlawing of the spitball: The spitball
    A spitball is an illegal baseball pitch in which the ball has been altered by the application of saliva, petroleum jelly, or some other foreign substance....

    , a very effective pitch throughout the dead-ball era, was outlawed at this time as well. This theory states that without the spitball in the pitcher's arsenal, batters gained an advantage.
  • More baseballs per game: The fatal beaning
    "Beanball" is a colloquialism used in baseball, for a ball thrown at an opposing player with the intention of striking him such as to cause harm, often connoting a throw at the player's head...

     of Ray Chapman
    Ray Chapman
    Raymond Johnson Chapman was an American baseball player, spending his entire career as a shortstop for Cleveland....

     during the 1920 season led to a rule that the baseball must be replaced every time that it got dirty. With a clean ball in play at all times, players no longer had to contend with a ball that "traveled through the air erratically, tended to soften in the later innings, and as it came over the plate, was very hard to see."
  • Game-winning home runs: In 1920, Major League Baseball adopted writer Fred Lieb
    Fred Lieb
    Frederick Lieb was an American sportswriter and baseball historian. He and his wife Mary were especially close to Lou Gehrig. Walter Brennan's character in the movie The Pride of the Yankees was loosely based on him...

    's proposal that a game-winning home run with men on base be counted as a home run even if its run is not needed to win the game. Owners attempted (but failed) to eliminate the intentional walk (succeeding only in changing the rules to mandate that the catcher be within the catcher's box when a pitch is delivered)‚ and it was decided that everything that happened in a protested game would be added to the game record. (From 1910 to 1919‚ records in protested games were excluded.)
  • Babe Ruth: This theory alleges that the prolific success of Babe Ruth hitting home runs led players around the league to forsake their old methods of hitting (described above) and adopt a "free-swinging" strategy designed to hit the ball hard and with an uppercut stroke, with the intention of hitting more home runs. Critics of this theory claim that it does not account for the improvement in batting averages from 1918–1921, over which time the league average improved from .254 to .291.
  • Ballpark dimensions: This theory contends that the cause of the offensive outburst was changes in the dimensions of the ballparks of the time. Accurate estimates of ballpark sizes of the era can be difficult to obtain, however, so there is some disagreement over whether the dimensions changed at all during this time, let alone whether the change led to an increase in offense. A related fact here is that a rule change enacted for the 1920 season for the first time ruled balls that were hit over the fence in fair territory but ended up foul before landing to be ruled fair, and home runs, rather than foul balls. This rule change greatly pleased hitters for both New York City teams, who had had many "hooking" home runs called foul in the Polo Grounds
    Polo Grounds
    The Polo Grounds was the name given to four different stadiums in Upper Manhattan, New York City, used by many professional teams in both baseball and American football from 1880 until 1963...