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kottke.org posts about baseball

How baseballs are made

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 10, 2013

I remember tearing baseballs apart as a kid and seeing the rubber core, but I guess I had forgotten that a baseball is mostly a leather-covered yarn ball. See also how footballs are made and homemade soccer balls. (via @marklamster)

Remembering Roberto Clemente’s 3000th hit

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 12, 2013

This story by Kevin Guilfoile about his aging father (who worked for the Pirates and the Baseball Hall of Fame) and the mystery of what happened to the bat that Roberto Clemente got his 3,000th hit with is one of my favorite things that I’ve read over the past few months.

[My father’s] personality is present, if his memories are a jumble. He is still funny, and surprisingly quick with one-liners to crack up the staff at the facility where he lives. He is exceedingly polite, same as he ever was. He is good at faking a casual conversation, especially on the phone. But if you sit and talk with him for a long time, he gets very anxious. He starts tapping his forehead with his fingers. “Shouldn’t we be going?” he’ll say. You tell him there’s no place we need to be, but 30 seconds later he’ll ask again, “Shouldn’t we be going?”

What happens to memories when they’re collapsed inside time like this? They don’t exactly disappear, they just become impossible to unpack. And so my father, who loved stories so much — who loved to tell them, who loved to hear them — can no longer comprehend them. The structure of any story, after all, is that this happened and then that happened, and he can’t make sense of any sequence.

That is the real hell of this disease. His own identity has become a puzzle he can’t solve.

Objects have stories, too. Puzzles that need to be solved. Like a pair of baseball bats, for instance, that each passed through Roberto Clemente’s hands before they passed through my father’s. One hung on my bedroom wall throughout my childhood. The other is in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

These objects never forget, but they never tell their stories, either.

Without a little bit of luck, we’d never hear them.

Or more than a little luck:

My father has lots of old baseball bats given to him by players he worked with over the years. He has Mickey Mantle bats from his years with the Yankees, and Willie Stargell and Dave Parker bats from his days with the Pirates. The one I always loved best was an Adirondack model with R CLEMENTE embossed in modest block letters, instead of the usual signature burned into the barrel. On the bottom of the knob, Roberto had written a tiny “37” in ballpoint pen, presumably to indicate its weight: 37 ounces. It also had a series of scrapes around the middle where someone had scratched off the trademark stripe that encircled all Adirondack bats. Former Pirates GM Joe Brown gave my dad this bat several years after Roberto died. For much of my childhood it hung on the wall of my bedroom, on a long rack with about a dozen other game-used bats.

My dad had been working at the Hall of Fame for more than a decade when, in 1993, his old friend Tony Bartirome, a one-time Pirates infielder who had become their longtime trainer, came to Cooperstown for a visit. Tony and his wife went to dinner with my folks and then came back to our house to chat. The only way to go to the first-floor washroom in that house was through my old bedroom, and on a trip there, Tony noticed that Adirondack of Clemente’s hanging on the wall.

Tony carried it into the living room. He said to Dad, “Where did you get this bat?” My dad told him that Joe Brown had given him the bat as a gift, sometime in the late ’70s. “Bill,” Tony said. “This is the bat Roberto used to get his 3,000th hit.”

My father was confused by this. “That’s impossible,” he told Tony. “The day he hit 3,000 I went down to the clubhouse, and Roberto himself handed me the bat he used. I sent it to the Hall of Fame. I walk by it every day.”

“Well,” Tony said. “I have a story to tell you.”

It’s a wonderful story, read the whole thing. Or get the book: the story is excerpted from Guilfoile’s A Drive into the Gap, available here or for the Kindle.

Long road to the majors

posted by Aaron Cohen   Nov 02, 2012

The stories of long time minor leaguers overcoming obstacles to make it to the big leagues are always heartwarming and Tigers pitcher Phil Coke’s story is no different. Minor league players are payed poorly, spend days on buses, and most players never make it. Coke, who pitched fantastically in the 2012 postseason until giving up the winning run in the last game of the World Series, had an interesting road to the majors, as well. He’s got an interesting take on why MLB teams, most of which are swimming in money, make it so hard for minor leaguers.

“It’s part of the psychological effort to find out how mentally tough you really are,” Coke said. “Can you still perform when the rent’s due and you’re out of money? It’s a crazy schedule too, one you’ve never played before. You’re playing every day. You go from not knowing what a weekend is to not knowing what day it is at all. You’re in a town for two to four days, then off on these very, very long bus trips. Your choices are read a book, sleep your face off, or banter and talk with teammates. You figure out who the sleepers are and who are the ones who pull all-nighters. I was drawn to those people. But being away from family, friends, having a life, it’s really tough.”

Vintage flannel baseball jerseys

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 02, 2012

Ebbets Field Flannels sells historic baseball jerseys made from “real 1950s-era wool blend baseball cloth”.

Ethiopian Clowns

The Clowns were baseball’s answer to the Harlem Globetrotters. Players entertained the crowd with various comedic antics, including “shadowball”, where they would go through a warm-up routine with no baseball. When the team joined the Negro American League, they dropped the “Ethiopian” moniker and played straight baseball.

(via @tcarmody)

Bo Jackson 30 for 30

posted by Aaron Cohen   Oct 01, 2012

I missed this when it was announced in August, but there will be a third series of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary films, and one scheduled to air in December will feature Bo Jackson.

A close look at the man and marketing campaign that shaped his legacy. Even without winning a Super Bowl or World Series, Bo redefined the role of the athlete in the pop cultural conversation. More than 20 years later, myths and legends still surround Bo Jackson, and his impossible feats still capture our collective imagination.

Good excuse to post this (again?):

(via @sportsguy33)

Melky Cabrera’s fake website

posted by Aaron Cohen   Aug 19, 2012

San Francisco Giant Melky Cabrera recently tested positive for a banned substance and received a 50 game penalty per MLB’s rules. Prior to receiving the suspension, Cabrera made an attempt, new at least in the world of sports, to get off without punishment.

The New York Daily News has discovered that in an effort to beat the rap on his 50-game suspension, Melky and his “associates” devised a scheme that included purchasing a website for $10,000, making this website appear to sell a fake product and pretending Melky purchased and used the product, unaware that it contained a banned substance. Ohh, this close.

Cabrera offered the website as evidence during his appeal and the scheme devolved into comedy in short order.

The relativistic baseball

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 11, 2012

XKCD is answering “hypothetical questions with physics” once a week and the first installment is just flat-out delightful: What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% the speed of light?

The ideas of aerodynamics don’t apply here. Normally, air would flow around anything moving through it. But the air molecules in front of this ball don’t have time to be jostled out of the way. The ball smacks into them hard that the atoms in the air molecules actually fuse with the atoms in the ball’s surface. Each collision releases a burst of gamma rays and scattered particles.

These gamma rays and debris expand outward in a bubble centered on the pitcher’s mound. They start to tear apart the molecules in the air, ripping the electrons from the nuclei and turning the air in the stadium into an expanding bubble of incandescent plasma. The wall of this bubble approaches the batter at about the speed of light-only slightly ahead of the ball itself.

All science writing should (and probably could!) be this entertaining. (via @delfuego)

2012 map of baseball player hometowns

posted by Aaron Cohen   Jun 21, 2012

If you’ve ever wondered if any Major League Baseball players come from your favorite city, this is the map for you. See also the 2011-2012 NHL Player map. The maps are by Mike Morton, and I’m fascinated by the fact the NHL had players from both Africa and Brazil, while MLB did not. (via @jonahkeri)

Unusual photos of 19th century baseball players

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 11, 2012

From the NYPL’s digital collection, a selection of odd photos of baseball players from the 19th century.

19th Century Baseball

Baseball gloves used to be a lot smaller:

19th Century Baseball 02

BTW, the site I got this from is fascinating…on the front page right now are posts about patent drawings of mazes and puzzles, slave bells, and a shoe-leather map of a cow’s hide.

The cup of coffee club

posted by Aaron Cohen   May 31, 2012

Rick Paulas has a deep look in the Awl at baseball players who, regardless of how long their professional careers were, only played in one Major League Baseball game. They’re in an interesting spot, possessing great enough talent to get them to the pinnacle of their profession but not enough to keep them there (though military service, luck, and injuries also play a role in some cases).

Some players performed poorly in their one game, others did…better.

On the final day of the 1963 regular season, John Paciorek had a hell of a career. The 18-year-old started in right field for the Houston Colt .45s — two years away from trading in the handgun for the Space Race-influenced “Astros” moniker — and had a perfect day at the plate: three-for-three, two walks, three RBIs and four runs. Nagging back injuries meant he’d never have a chance to blemish that perfection.

By the math in the article, 5.5% of all major leaguers ever have only played in one game. I can’t decide if that’s more or less than I would expect.

Life magazine’s best pictures

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 23, 2012

Taken by some of the world’s most iconic photographers, a selection of the best photographs ever published in Life magazine from 1936 to 1972. Here’s a photo of Mickey Mantle from 1965:

Mantle

The caption reads:

In one of the most eloquent photographs ever made of a great athlete in decline, Yankee star Mickey Mantle flings his batting helmet away in disgust after another terrible at-bat near the end of his storied, injury-plagued career.

Mantle was only 33 when that photo was taken but he’d already had 13 extremely productive seasons under his belt and his last four seasons from ‘65 to ‘68 were not nearly as good.

Do attractive athletes make more money?

posted by Aaron Cohen   Aug 19, 2011

In discussing whether Jeff Francoeur was worth the 2 year contract extension granted by the Royals, Jonah Keri wondered if Francoeur scored a more lucrative contract because he was handsome. Turns out, he probably did. As longtime Kottke acolytes, you already knew this phenomenon applied to regular people.

To put this result in perspective, we found that a “good-looking” quarterback like Kerry Collins or Charlie Frye earned approximately $300,000 more per year than his stats and other pay factors would predict. Meanwhile, quarterbacks like Jeff George and Neil O’Donnell, who, sadly, were not found to have very symmetrical faces, suffered an equivalent penalty.

Poor, poor, Neil O’Donnell. Did you ever wonder if good looking people get paid more because they’re better at what they do? Eli Cash’s follow up to Wild Cat and Old Custer tackles this question. “Well, everyone knows attractive people get paid more. What this book presupposes is… maybe they deserve it.”

Baseball symphony

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 29, 2011

Music critic Anthony Tommasini goes to a baseball game at Yankee Stadium and treats the game as a musical piece.

For all the hubbub of constant sound it is amazing how clearly the crack of a bat, the whoosh of a pitch (at least from the powerhouse Sabathia), and the leathery thud of the ball smothered in the catcher’s mitt cut through the textures. And if the hum of chattering provides the unbroken timeline and undulant ripple of this baseball symphony, the voices that break through from all around are like striking, if fleeting, solo instruments.

The most assertive soloists are the vendors. My favorite was a wiry man with nasal snarl of a voice who practically sang the words “Cracker Jack” as a three-note riff: two eighth notes on “Cracker,” followed by a quarter note on “Jack,” always on a falling minor third. (Using solf`ege syllables, think “sol, sol, mi.”) After a while I heard his voice drifting over from another section, and he had transposed his riff down exactly one step.

The Xbox version of Dock Ellis’ LSD-fueled no-hitter

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 11, 2011

In 1970, professional baseballer Dock Ellis, who was good at pitching baseballs, threw a no-hitter while under the influence of LSD. In 2011, professional blogger A.J. Daulerio, who isn’t so good at video game baseball, attempted to throw a no-hitter while on LSD…playing a customized Dock Ellis in MLB 2K11 on Xbox.

But by the fourth game I started to pick up tendencies in all the batters. Jason Bartlett swung at first-pitch changeups. Will Venable couldn’t hit the palm ball. In fact, most of these free-swinging Padres couldn’t hit Dock’s funky palm ball. I threw it often. But by then, also, the first acid distractions entered: the TV flickered; the cracks in the wall started to move; the hand soap started to breathe — those sorts of things. Plus I was drawn to the outdoor garden between innings. Rain was near, I sensed.

Best penalty kick ever

posted by Aaron Cohen   Aug 07, 2010

I’ve been meaning to post these since the beginning of the week. Here’s Ezequiel Calvente’s penalty kick for Spain from a U19 game against Italy. He runs up to kick with his right foot, but just before making the kick, Calvente pushes the ball into the other side of the goal with his left foot. Fantastic.

And a bonus amazing sports play. Spiderman in center field.

(Thanks, Dave and Jonah)

Fidel Castro playing baseball

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 15, 2010

False: Fidel Castro was recruited to play professional baseball in the United States. True: after taking over Cuba in 1959, Castro played in a few exhibition games with his fellow revolutionaries.

Cubans know that Fidel Castro was no ballplayer, though he dressed himself in the uniform of a spurious, tongue-in-cheek team called Barbudos (Bearded Ones) after he came to power in 1959 and played a few exhibition games. There was no doubt then about his making any team in Cuba. Given a whole country to toy with, Fidel Castro realized the dream of most middle-aged Cuban men by pulling on a uniform and “playing” a few innings.

Here’s Fidel pitching in one of those games:

Fidel Castro pitching

Here’s more information about Fidel’s baseball career. (via slate)

Bill Simmons on sabermetrics

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 06, 2010

Bill Simmons has finally accepted the gospel of sabermetrics as scripture and in a recent column, preaches the benefits of all these newfangled statistics to his followers. The list explaining his seven favorite statistics in down-to-earth language is really helpful to the stats newbie.

Measure BABIP to determine whether a pitcher or hitter had good luck or bad luck. In 2009, the major league BABIP average was .299. If a pitcher’s BABIP dipped well below that number, he might have had good luck. If it rose well above that number, he likely had terrible luck. The reverse goes for hitters.

(via djacobs, who has an extremely high VORF)

Baseball play of the year

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 06, 2010

We’re only a game or two into a long baseball season, but you might not see a better play all year than this one. Here’s a YouTube embed, although I don’t know how long it will last.

From the Babe to Matsui

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 06, 2009

Larry Granillo explores how the Yankees’ World Series victories have been covered by the New York Times through the years.

The New York Yankees, the Microsoft of baseball

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 27, 2009

Greg Knauss on how the New York Yankees are like Microsoft.

But, wait… Two-thousand was — the last time the Yankees managed to win a championship. And it was awfully close to the last time that that Microsoft managed to produce a version of Windows that anybody cared about. And, hey, both the Yankees and Microsoft have long histories of dominating their professions, and of using that dominance to run up huge payrolls with — let’s be honest here — a near-decade of lackluster results.

It’s an uncanny resemblance.

Dump the ump

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 09, 2009

Joe Sheehan at Baseball Prospectus: use pitch tracking technology to call strikes in pro baseball games.

If a breaking ball crosses the plate at a point between a batter’s knees and the midpoint between his shoulders and pants, it’s a strike, no matter what the anachronism behind the plate thinks he sees. In eighteendicketysix, a human being was state-of-the-art technology for making these decisions. Now, you can get better information — we do get better information — by using better technology. Championships should be decided by the players and by what actually happened, not by what somebody thinks happened.

Heh. Dickety. (via david)

Beep baseball

posted by Ainsley Drew   Oct 02, 2009

Beep baseball is the classic American pastime adapted for the blind and visually impaired. In order to appreciate the athleticism of the game, and the fun that most sighted folks are missing, here’s a video of beep baseball in action.

The ball used contains a beeping device that is loud enough to aid in sightless location. The six players on the field are helped by a sighted pitcher, who announces “pitch” or “ball” as they toss to a sighted catcher. Batters are allowed four strikes and one pass, but the fourth swing must be a clear, defined miss. The game has six innings, the standard three outs per inning, and two bases, not three. Baseball’s traditional tile-like bases are replaced with padded cylinders that stand four feet tall and give off a distinct buzz once activated. The batter doesn’t know which base will be activated, but must run to whichever sounds, tackling the base before defense has a chance to field the ball. If the runner makes it in time, a run is scored. Two sighted “spotters” also play the field and call out which direction the ball has headed using a system based on numbers assigned to each outfielder. Spotters can only announce one number, and the outfielders must communicate with each other to locate the ball. Cheering is discouraged because it interferes with play.

Update: A recent article from the Wall Street Journal documented the West Coast Dogs and their quest to win the World Series of beep baseball.

(thx jesse)

What’s in (or out) of a name

posted by Ainsley Drew   Sep 28, 2009

In case you ever wondered why you’re cheering for a group of young bears, Northern statesmen, or tiny birds, here’s a Venn diagram of baseball team names and their etymology.

How good is Albert Pujols?

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 11, 2009

Really very good and has a shot at being among the best of all time. Post-1901, he’s #1 on the list of most HRs in the first 9 seasons of a player’s career and is in the top 20 all-time in batting average amongst all players with 4000+ plate appearances. Longevity will tell the tale, particularly if (birthers, take note!) Pujols is older than he claims. (thx, david)

Immaculate innings

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 24, 2009

Immaculate innings are those innings in baseball games where the pitcher strikes out all three batters with nine pitches. It’s only happened 42 times in the history of the game. David Archer is tracking the frequency of such innings; they are getting more common.

As one friend pointed out, the best explanation for the increase in recent decades appears to be the advent of the modern reliever, especially the flame-throwing, one inning closer (more immaculate innings have been thrown in the 9th inning* (eight) than in any other inning), though starters — such as Burnett — have also been throwing them with impressive frequency.

Update: See also three-pitch innings. (via noah brier)

Moneyball inefficiencies erased

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 07, 2009

Unsurprisingly, the MLB teams currently drawing the most benefit from the lessons of Moneyball are those with lots of money operating in big markets.

Well, of course, the big-market teams figured it out. They hired their own Ivy League consultants. They bought even better computers. Walks is only one tiny aspect in it … but who leads the American League in walks this year? The New York Yankees. Last year? The Boston Red Sox. The year before that? The Boston Red Sox. And so it goes. Now, six years later, it seems to me that the small-market teams are really grasping and trying to find some loophole, some opening that will allow them to win in this tough financial environment.

Steroid users as sports pioneers

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 23, 2009

Baseball historian Bill James makes a compelling argument that steroids will eventually become an accepted aspect of sports (and society as a whole) and that baseball players who are now more or less banned from entering the Hall of Fame (though not officially) will eventually be elected to Cooperstown.

If we look into the future, then, we can reliably foresee a time in which everybody is going to be using steroids or their pharmaceutical descendants. We will learn to control the health risks of these drugs, or we will develop alternatives to them. Once that happens, people will start living to age 200 or 300 or 1,000, and doctors will begin routinely prescribing drugs to help you live to be 200 or 300 or 1,000. If you look into the future 40 or 50 years, I think it is quite likely that every citizen will routinely take anti-aging pills every day.

How, then, are those people of the future — who are taking steroids every day — going to look back on baseball players who used steroids? They’re going to look back on them as pioneers. They’re going to look back at it and say “So what?”

(via hello typepad)

Of two minds on the pitcher’s mound

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 08, 2009

If I ever write a book, it might have something to do with the two minds that govern creative expertise: the instinctual unconscious mind (the realm of relaxed concentration) and the thinking mind (the realm of deliberate practice). The tension between these two minds is both the key to and fatal flaw of human creativity. From the world of sports1, here’s Rockies pitcher and college physics major Jeff Francis describing the interplay of the minds on the mound:

Even though I do understand the forces and everything, there’s a separation when I’m pitching. If I throw a good pitch, I know what I did to do it, but there has to be a separation between knowing what I did and knowing why what I did helped the ball do what it did, if that makes any sense at all. If I thought about it on the mound, I’d be really mechanical and trying to be too perfect instead of doing what comes naturally.

But you don’t need to be a physics major to wrestle with the consequences of the conflict between the two minds. After an injury and subsequent surgery, Francis’ instinctual mind works to protect his body from further injury:

Francis repeatedly pulled the ball back in preparation to throw. But as he flashed his arm forward, his hand would, mind unaware, bring the ball back toward his ear rather than at full extension. It was his body essentially shortening the axis of his arm to decrease the force on his shoulder, protecting him from pain. And Francis could not stop it.

After his 10th pitch and first muffled groan of pain, he stopped.

“It’s hurting you?” Murayama said.

“Yeah,” Francis said.

“I can tell. You’re getting out ahead of your arm. Slow down, stay back a little more.”

“Does it look like I’m scared to throw a little?”

“Are you scared?”

“Not consciously.”

To fully recover and regain his former effective pitching motion, Francis will utilize his thinking mind to retrain his unconscious mind through deliberate practice to ignore the injury potential. (thx, adriana)

[1] Most of the examples I’ve cited over the years deal with sports, mostly because professional athletes are among the most trained, scrutinized, studied, and optimized creative workers in the world. For a lot of other professions and endeavors, the data and scrutiny just isn’t as evident.

Salary vs performance in baseball

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 02, 2009

Ben Fry just updated his interactive salary vs performance graph that compares the payrolls of major league teams to their records. Look at those overachieving Rays and Marlins! And those underachieving Indians, Mets, and Cubs!

Jack Kerouac’s fantasy baseball league

posted by Jason Kottke   May 21, 2009

Unbeknownst to his close friends, Jack Kerouac invented a fantasy baseball game and played it for most of his life.

[Kerouac’s game charted] the exploits of made-up players like Wino Love, Warby Pepper, Heinie Twiett, Phegus Cody and Zagg Parker, who toiled on imaginary teams named either for cars (the Pittsburgh Plymouths and New York Chevvies, for example) or for colors (the Boston Grays and Cincinnati Blacks).

He collected their stats, analyzed their performances and, as a teenager, when he played most ardently, wrote about them in homemade newsletters and broadsides. He even covered financial news and imaginary contract disputes. During those same teenage years, he also ran a fantasy horse-racing circuit, complete with illustrated tout sheets and racing reports. He created imaginary owners, imaginary jockeys, imaginary track conditions.

Don’t miss the slideshow of some of Kerouac’s notebooks and publications related to his imaginary sports.