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Ever attend a Major League Baseball game and notice how many foul balls get chipped into the crowd? For some people it could be the most exciting part of attending pro baseball games: watching fans scramble for balls. They aren’t returned to the field of play, which can make a new fan’s mind wonder.
How many balls are used in a MLB game? The general consensus is it takes about 100 new balls for a MLB game, or a range of about 7 to 10 dozen (typically how they’re counted, because the balls come in boxes of 12). No one really counts the exact number of balls used each game, and it varies greatly depending on game situations and other factors like stadium size.
The new balls must be game play-ready including a special mud-rubbing to reduce new-ball gloss and help improve grip (more on that below).
Baseballs are not cheap, a reason why lower-level baseball leagues like the minor leagues, college or youth ball try not to toss too many new balls out. Some even offer incentives for fans to bring them back, like a free hot dog or soda!
That does not happen in Major League ballparks, and here’s a close look at details.
Why MLB Fans Keep the Balls
Major League Baseball fans were not always allowed to keep the balls hit or thrown out of play into the stands. That changed with a group of rules instituted for the 1921 season, primarily because a batter was killed from a game incident.
Ray Chapman was an above-average MLB shortstop for the Cleveland Indians in 1920. Then he was struck in the head by a pitch by spitball-pitcher Carl Mays. Chapman died 12 hours later.
In response, MLB — already under scrutiny for suspected gambling during the previous season’s World Series — made rule changes, including:
- Banning the spitball (except for pitchers who used the pitch during 1920, who were “grandfathered” to continue using it through their career).
- Requiring a new ball in play to replace those sent into the stands.
What did this accomplish? Previously, fans had to return balls from the stands. The result was the same ball used for multiple innings, if not most of a game. The baseballs got darker (and softer) as games progressed.
The intent of the changed rules was to make the baseball easier to see and the game safer. This was before night games and lighting, and sometimes games would linger close to dusk which makes balls hard to see — especially if they are no longer white. The thought was, Chapman could not see Mays’ pitch properly.
(The argument with the spitball is the pitch could not be controlled properly, because saliva or moisture on one side of a pitched ball could make it break too fast or too much. That Mays was a spitballer did not help the cause; however, remember that putting saliva on a ball also makes it darker over time as it soaks into the hide and dirt sticks to it.)
Making these changes to ensure fresh balls in play profoundly impacted the game — and ended what is known as the Dead Ball Era. Prior to that, balls were hard to knock over outfield fences, mainly because they were too beat up, but also because the style of play dictated “small ball,” or a lot of bunting, moving runners over and stealing bases.
Using whiter and cleaner balls let Babe Ruth hit 59 home runs in 1921 — surpassing his own single-season record by 20! — and the long ball took over fans’ imaginations and propelled baseball forward after a rather turbulent decade. Chapman remains the only person who ever died as a result of action in a Major League Baseball game.
Mud, Ball Rejections, and More
Major League baseballs do not just go from the manufacturer’s box right onto the field, nor are they expected to last in game play even if not fouled away or homered over a fence.
Pre-Game Mud Rubs
While MLB rule-makers in 1920 wanted the balls cleaner for game safety, today all league equipment managers rub a special mud onto brand new balls before every game — for a total of an estimated 240,000 balls for the 162-game seasons for each of the 30 teams.
The mud is available only from a tributary of the Delaware River, a location not disclosed by its collector to anyone including the league — and the same family has been gathering the mud since the 1950s. A small amount rubbed onto new balls eliminates the shiny glare of new balls, and gives them a very slight reddish hue. That color might be noticed by anyone who has caught a baseball during MLB games.
The particular mud is important because it’s thick enough to do the job, without messing up the seams on baseballs that hold 2 pieces of rawhide together. Any type of weight on a baseball, or moisture to grab at the air, during a pitch can make a huge difference in how the ball moves approaching the batter.
It’s a reason during games you might see an umpire hold a ball close to his face, and then abruptly toss the ball aside (for a bat boy to collect). This happens often during games, and the bat boys are constantly running up to the home plate umpire handing 2 or 3 balls for him to refill the small bag of balls attached to his belt.
That’s right, they go through so many balls, the home plate umpire carries new ones with him while working.
Balls Rejected In-Game
Some new fans might wonder why the umpire tosses baseballs to the side. This especially happens when a pitch hits the dirt before the catcher.
The reason is, even the smallest of scratches, scrapes or wetness can be used to the pitcher’s advantage. Why baseballs move after pitching is a science, involving aerodynamics, and a scratch or glob of spit on one side of the ball can grip the air in-flight and make the ball bend.
It’s a reason spitbballs are banned, and umpires will toss what look like perfectly good balls. They have discretion to do so, but some will insist that the batter make a request to inspect the ball.
All the Baseballs Add Up
Major League officials must cringe when they see balls tossed aside or into the stands. A MLB-approved Rawlings baseball costs about $6 each — costing the league up to $5.5 million per season just for balls.
Add to that cost security of the balls before games. To prevent unfair doctoring, the league in 2015 instituted new rules for security of the balls from clubhouse to the umpires.
Teams are given a 9-step procedure to handle the baseballs, including to store them around 70 degrees with about 50% humidity, and a chain of command for who could transfer the new balls from location to location. An MLB representative watches balls carried by a clubhouse assistant from the umpires’ room to the field. If umpires run out of balls during a game, the batch of new balls coming in is monitored by a league security representative.
Other Ball-Wasting Factors
The “smaller” baseball stadiums today — referring mainly to outfield fences closer to home plate — has not helped with the loss of game balls. All those home run totals going up? Each homer costs a ball.
Add to that the trend of getting fans closer to the fields, which reduces foul territory which in effect turns foul outs of the past into foul-ball strikes and an extended at bat — and more balls getting lost in the crowd.
Question: What if you catch a milestone home run, like someone’s 500th career home run?
Answer: First, hold tight to it, and probably hide it. Someone nearby could have thoughts on wrestling it from you. The answer is, you’re free to keep it … although getting it to the hitter would be nice. Recommended is informing stadium staff that you have it, and follow their lead. Typically you get a chance to give it directly to the slugger, which means face time with a hero, and sometimes the player offers something like a bat or memorabilia to say “thanks.”
Q.: Are there rules for fans who catch balls?
A.: No, except to follow behavior rules of each stadium such as no fighting or horseplay, etc. Sometimes there are unwritten or etiquette rules to consider, like giving a ball to a fan who was injured by a foul ball but failed to catch it. Or, in some stadiums like Wrigley Field, fans might be expected to throw home run balls hit by the opposing team back onto the field.
Q.: Can’t the MLB use another substance to reduce a new ball’s shine?
A.: Originally after the 1920 Chapman tragedy, the league tried many substances to improve a pitcher’s grip, including dirt, shoe polish, and even tobacco spit, but for years nothing worked. It took until the 1930s when a Philadelphia Athletics coach rubbed a ball with mud from near his childhood home in New Jersey. He eventually brought in a friend to help, and by the 1950s the mud was standard for all MLB clubs.
Q.: How long does each ball last in a MLB game?
A.: An estimated 2.5 to 3 pitches.
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