Was the ball juiced?

Posted: Dec 30, 2001 12:00 AM

When Mark McGwire had his incredible 70-home run season in 1998, nobody thought that his record would be broken just three years later. Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs lasted 34 years, until Roger Maris broke it by one home run in 1961 and then held the record for another 37 years. But Maris' mark has been topped six times within the past three years by Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds.

Spectacular increases in home runs have often raised the question: Has the ball been juiced up to travel farther, in order to increase the number of home runs? That question was raised back in 1961, when Roger Maris hit 61 home runs, and it was raised even earlier when Babe Ruth first ushered in the era of big home run hitters in the 1920s. For a long time, the period before 1920 has been referred to as the "dead ball" era and the period after 1920 as the "lively ball" era.

There was stronger statistical evidence of a sea-change in home run hitting before and after 1920 than in more recent times. From 1900 to 1920, only three batters hit 20 or more home runs in a season and none hit 30. Moreover, each of these three batters did it only once during that era. But, during the 1920s, half a dozen players hit 40 or more home runs in a season, with Babe Ruth doing it eight times.

This dramatic change in home run production in both major leagues was long regarded as proof positive that the ball had been changed. But a closer look suggests that it was batting styles that changed. It was not the existing sluggers who suddenly started hitting many more home runs. It was the new sluggers, with new batting styles, who began hitting unprecedented numbers of home runs in the 1920s.

None of the established batting stars of the years before 1920 -- Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Joe Jackson, Eddie Collins -- hit as many as 20 home runs in a season during the decade of the 1920s. Some of the old-timers had big seasons in the 1920s, but that did not include big home run totals.

Eddie Collins topped .330 five times during that decade but never broke into double digits in home runs. Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, between them, hit over .350 seven times during the 1920s, but Speaker's highest home run total was 17 and Cobb never exceeded 12. Neither did Shoeless Joe Jackson. And they were all hitting the same ball that Babe Ruth was hitting.

The top hitters of the past continued to hit as they always had -- choked up on the bat and going for contact, rather than swinging for the fences. It was the new players, who grabbed the bat down at the end of the handle like Ruth, who began hitting the ball out of the park with greater frequency.

Those who hit 40 or more home runs during the 1920s either began their careers in that decade (Lou Gehrig, Mel Ott, Chuck Klein) or reached their peak then (Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Cy Williams). If it was the ball that was responsible for the big surge in home runs, then the old and the new batting stars alike would have seen dramatic increases in homers. But that was not what happened.

When Roger Maris broke Ruth's home run record in 1961, it was during the first year of baseball's expansion beyond the 16-team limit that had existed since the beginning of the century. With expansion teams stretching the pitching thin, many batters had banner years. But the three top pitchers all had earned run averages under 3.00 in 1961, while throwing the same ball as the rookie pitchers who were rushed into the big leagues and the washed up pitchers who were able to hang on with expansion teams.

The most recent escalation of home run hitting has come at a time of bigger players and smaller ball parks. Not only have the new stadiums been built with shorter distances to the fences, older parks like Yankee Stadium have been remodeled to bring the fences closer. It used to be 415 feet to the left field bullpen in Yankee Stadium, but it is not that far to dead centerfield in most of the major league parks today. None has the 461 feet to the centerfield wall that Yankee Stadium had during the careers of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle.

You can never prove a negative, so those who want to believe that the ball has been juiced can continue to believe that. But the evidence is against them.