Monday, March 29, 2010

At the Heart of a Baseball: A Global Story

We're a week away from the New York Mets home opener, and I've got baseball on my mind. I'm excited—with the season yet untapped, it's full of possibilities. (I've decided I'm not going to pay attention to assorted scouting reports that are predicting yet another doom and gloom season. Why give up before the first pitch?) While watching a Spring Training game, I realized I didn't know much about the namesake of the pastime, the baseball, itself. Sure, it's round; it's white with red seams; and it's a ball—you might be asking yourself, is there really more to it than that? But there is, Reader. Oh, there is.

Let's start with the composition of the ball. Of course, I could have Googled it—but where's the fun in that? So I unearthed my old lab kit and performed baseball surgery. Here's are the results:

 [Removing the seams. Naturally, since this was a process of deconstruction S wanted to be involved.]

First, the 108 stitches that comprise the seam had to be removed. The seam is hand sewn on every baseball (and MLB teams use approximately 600,000 balls a season combined!)—Steve Johnson of Rawlings, reported that the company worked for 10 years to mechanize the sewing of baseball seams without any luck:
Although China produces 80 percent of the world's baseballs, every single baseball pitched in the Major Leagues is made in a Costa Rican factory owned by Rawlings. There 1,000 baseball sewing experts start their day seated in front of a special vice holding a gooey baseball with a gluey leather cover wrapped around it. The leather is already punched with 108 stitching holes and is dampened to make it pliable.
Once the red waxed thread was gone, I peeled back the cowhide to reveal a layer of yarn. Cowhide was introduced in 1974 due to a shortage in horsehide. The leather is tested for 17 potential deficiencies in thickness, grain strength, tensile strength and other areas before being sewn onto the ball.

[Red wax thread, two strips of leather, and the first later of white yarn that make up a baseball.]

The first layer of the naked baseball (we're working from the outside-in to the core) is a layer of white poly/cotton finishing woolen yarn. There are four layers of wool and cotton windings that cover the core. After the first layer, the subsequent layers are varying gray and white woolen yarn of assorted grades. Why wool? Wool is naturally resilient and when compressed, the material can rapidly return back to the original shape. This property helps baseballs retain their shape even after being hit repeatedly during a game. Though the photos below don't show the ball's diminishing size with each layer removed, it was interesting to see how much wool actually makes up a baseball.

[Second layer: gray wool.]

[Third layer: white wool.]

[Fourth layer: grayish-brownish wool.]

The center of the ball is composed cork encased by a thin layer of red rubber. The rubber was easy enough to understand: it essentially made the ball, well, a ball. I tested this out to the delight of my cats who thought my bouncing the red core was an invitation to chase it about. They were none too pleased when I picked it up and proceeded with my surgical endeavors, revealing the cork center, known as the pill. The small, dense piece of cork perplexed me. Apparently, cork was selected as the core material in 1910 as one means of standardizing baseballs. Prior, the core was rubber. The change allowed for "livelier" baseballs, which I assume means that the cork center allowed for greater flexibility in delivery—it let the ball behave differently depending on how the pitcher released it. According to one source, the cork center had a tremendous effect on the game:
With the introduction of the cork center baseball in 1926, pitchers soon began to develop freak deliveries- shine ball, spit ball, emery ball, etc. Drastic changes were made in the rules in 1920 to outlaw these pitches. However, recognized "spit ball" pitchers were permitted to continue using their specialty for the remainder of their careers. Most successful of these, and the last to close his Major League career, was Burleigh Grimes, who pitched last for the Yankees in 1934.
To contend with these issues, the core was changed again: it was encased in rubber to become the modern pill that I held in my hand.

As I considered this small piece of cork, it occurred to me that in the seemingly simple baseball was a global history—which is interesting considering that baseball is labeled as an All-American sport. According to Real Cork, cork has been in use since at least 3000 BC in fishing tackle in China, Egypt, Babylon, and Persia. And evidence of cork being used for floats, stoppers, women's footwear, and roofing materials have been found in Italy dating the the 4th-century BC. Both cork and rubber come from trees, forests and plantations in Portugal, Spain and Italy for cork, and in Brazil, Ceylon, Borneo, the Malay Peninsula, India, England, and some African countries for rubber. The processes for use and refinement have been cultivated and handed down through the ages—including the idea for a cork center for a ball, which dates back to 1863 when an Englishman patented the cork center for cricket. [ Right: S reveals the core of the baseball.]

And let's not forget the tidbit from Steve Johnson: the labor that actually assembles the balls is located in Costa Rica. A "pro" can produce four to six balls in an hour.

[From cork core to leather, three components of a baseball.]

So, the next time you're at a baseball game, in between hot dogs and yelling at the umpire, consider what has gone into the tiny white sphere that's traveling at speeds of 98 mph. If you're an international reader, I invite you to dissect a ball from a sport you follow and see what connections you reveal.


  1. I used to do this as a kid. We have a lot of things in common! I love your work. --Maximus