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Anyone new to watching Major League Baseball at a stadium or on television is bound to wonder how they replace so many balls that are fouled into the stands or struck over fences for home runs. What they probably don’t know is that baseballs exit games for many more reasons than just off a bat.
An often-asked question is, How many baseballs are used in a game? And the general answer is 120 baseballs ~ or 10 dozen. That’s the estimated average number of balls umpires bring with them to game time.
The number could fluctuate too, maybe down to 96, or as high as 144. But most MLB insiders will say the average is 8 to 10 dozen baseballs per game.
Are over 100 balls fouled into the crowd or hammered into the cheap seats? No. Here’s a look at why so many balls are needed for a single MLB game, the various reasons they are lost, and a little bit of history with baseball and the balls they use.
As noted, the average number of balls set up for a MLB game is 10 dozen. So, usually about 120 baseballs are prepared for the game. That is, they are all rubbed with a special mud found in only 1 location in the Eastern United States, which is so secret the MLB still has never revealed where to find the mud!
The mud is to help reduce the glare on the shiny new balls, and hopefully with it improve grips.
Most baseball experts agree that the number of balls needed for each game has increased pretty steadily the past 30 or so years. The reasons are numerous:
- Club rules relaxation. In the 1980s, MLB clubs started easing long-held rules against players tossing balls into the stands or otherwise discarding them.
- Baseballs changed. Umpires say today’s baseballs scuff more easily ~ and scuffs, scratches, or other imperfections on a ball could affect how it is pitched and how the pitch moves. Therefore more pitchers than ever, and umpires too, request balls to be tossed from games and replaced with new ones.
- Public relations. Some say the act of players tossing balls to fans really ignited after the disastrous 1994 players strike. When play resumed in 1995, clubs, players, and pretty much anyone involved with the MLB wanted to keep fans as happy as possible. Hence more free souvenirs.
- More home runs. While overall this would not make a significant impact on the total number of balls needed, there are indeed many more homers struck today than just 10 years ago.
- Higher-velocity pitches. Some might argue that there are more foul balls than ever due to the speed of baseballs to hitters.
- Funkier pitches. Every year it seems pitchers figure out how to make baseballs move wildly, or suddenly, to make them hard to predict and therefore hit by a batter. The slider surfacing around World War II comes to mind. But in later years we saw the cut fastball, and the split-fingered, which resulted in more balls fouled off or bouncing in the dirt.
- Smaller stadiums. This means more foul balls and home runs reaching the stands. (Before Fenway Park opened in 1912, the Red Sox played in Huntington Avenue Grounds, which had a centerfield fence 635 feet from home plate. Today the typical centerfield fence is 400 feet away from the dish.
- Picky players. As salaries skyrocket, players are more focused on each pitch and every single at bat, hoping to accumulate statistics to warrant future pay raises. Because any player can ask for a new ball to be put in play, more often today you see batters asking for a new ball that struck the dirt just once; or pitchers tossing back balls that they looked over for seconds and decided they just didn’t like it.
Home plate umpires usually have a small bag hanging from their belt where extra balls are held awaiting foul-offs. They usually hold 4 or 5 balls, some new, others used and returned to play after a close off-field inspection.
People watching on television might miss this, but at real games if you pay attention you can see ball boys or girls running from a dugout to the umpire, then quickly back to the dugout. When an ump runs out of balls he simply calls for more and some youngster will quickly fill the order.
The home club (stadium) is responsible for supplying official baseballs to the umpires.
For a variety of reasons, but ultimately it’s the call of the home plate umpire, who is assigned as chief of a crew of umpires (usually 4 but more during the postseason). Why?
- Damaged. Fans may notice an umpire holding a ball up close to his face to examine it closely. This is to look for scuffs, scratches, or cuts in the hide that could give a pitcher an advantage. Marred balls could allow a better grip, but mostly these marks can change how a baseball flies and arrives at the plate due to aerodynamics. Home plate umpires may pull a ball from his bag (sometimes game-used balls get returned to his belt bag) and instantly toss it aside ~ he was unhappy with how it looked right off the bat (so to speak).
- Player request. Any player on the field can request a new ball, and mostly it’s the pitcher who does so. Batters can ask at home plate, too, especially after a pitch bounces in the dirt. More and more today, umpires just choose to replace balls that strike the dirt from a pitch.
- Player choice. Some players choose to toss baseballs into the stands. This is usually a ball caught to end an inning, and while the catching player trots to the dugout he tosses the ball to a fan he saw in the crowd, or randomly to the mass of people.
- Weather. Sometimes the weather during a game makes that decision for the umpire. Wet baseballs get heavy and slippery, making them dangerous to pitch. (It’s a reason why baseball games are called on account of moist weather, while football games are played through almost always).
- Cheaters. A ball may be pulled from the game if it is discovered (or even suspected in some instances) that the pitcher purposely disfigured a ball to gain an advantage over batters. This is hard to prove with balls that remain in play for several batters because it would be hard to pinpoint where the damage occurred.
- Ball kids. Teams often station a ball boy or ball girl along the fence near the foul lines, to keep an eye on the fence in case fans jump it to run onto the field, and to protect what’s behind them. This is especially true for stadiums without proper bullpens, where pitchers must warm up in foul territory ~ and be prone to screaming-liner foul balls. Many ball kids are allowed to hand the foul balls they catch to fans sitting near them.
Yes. Note mention of the spitball above. That pitch is created by lathering a spot of saliva or water onto one side of the ball, making it break suddenly or act strangely while in mid-flight, as the moisture grabs air molecules as it soars by. Baseball hides are very smooth, so any change to its surface can impact flight.
That pitch was banned, of course, because sometimes the pitcher cannot control how it will act and where it will go, but also because it damages the baseball (moisture makes baseballs heavier and darker).
In the past half-century or so pitchers have used interesting ways to damage baseballs to help them get hitters out, like:
- Petroleum jelly. Don’t ask us how the old Vaseline ball got thrown.
- Belt buckles. That little thin metal part you stick into a hold on a belt to hold it at that size? Some pitchers would sharpen the end so they could casually cut a baseball between pitches.
- Emery board. Pitchers might hold a nail file or sandpaper in a pocket for disfiguring balls.
- Bouncing on dirt. If they can get away with it, a pitcher might bend over and scrape the ball on the dirt of the pitcher’s mound, or bounce it down and back up, to cause damage to a ball.
This does not mean damaged baseballs are not put in play. Sometimes a pitcher gets lucky and a used ball bounces just the right way to cut or marr a ball to his liking ~ and neither the umpire or batter noticed to call for a ball inspection.
No. In fact, before 1921, clubs and stadiums demanded fouled-off balls be returned to the field of play, to save money. Imagine that today!
The first 20 years of the 21st century compose what is called the Dead Ball Era of baseball. During this period, home runs were rare, and game strategies were to scratch for runs with bunts, stolen bases, and hit-and-run plays.
The result was a softer baseball than in modern play, both in construction, and because the balls got beat up and softer as games progressed. (They also got wetter or soiled in play making them heavier and harder to see). All of this resulted in balls that were harder to hit for distance, limiting home runs.
A single baseball back then could remain in play for more than 100 pitches! Today many balls last 1 pitch.
The Dead Ball Era ended when newer balls were used more often, and Babe Ruth showed fans and owners the popularity of the long ball.
In 1920 it was for safety. A Major League player was struck in the head by a spitball pitch from a sidearm pitcher, because he couldn’t adequately see the soil-darkened ball. (Plus it was closer to sunset before lighting was introduced to baseball).
Due to the death of Ray Chapman, MLB rules were changed, to ban the spitball (except for those already throwing it, to be phased out); and ensure fresh, whiter balls were used in play.
Fast-forward to today’s game, and insert public relations into the equation. The cost of a baseball (now between $6 to $7 apiece for MLB teams because of massive bulk purchases) was deemed acceptable in exchange for the goodwill it brought from happy fans.
This was especially true after the players’ strike of 1994 ended that season and canceled the World Series. Fans did not immediately come back to stadiums once play resumed. Teams went out of their way to fill seats and keep them filled, and real ball souvenirs were part of this public relations action.
Retail, you can find official MLB baseballs made from Rawlings sold online for about $15 to $18. Since the MLB buys them in bulk (a LOT at a time), the cost per ball is about $6 to $7.
Question: Do they ever reuse home run balls?
Answer: No. Fans may ask this when home run balls are thrown back onto the field by home team fans, because it was struck by an opposing player (the idea is to disrespect the hitter or his team by showing the ball has no value). They are tossed aside for later use in practices only; or to give away as souvenirs or collector’s items.
Q.: What do they do with balls the umpire tosses aside?
A.: Mostly keep them in buckets for use in batting or fielding practices. A good time to try to get Major League baseballs is during batting practice before games! The crowd has not fully formed yet so there are fewer people to compete for chasing a ball. (Another is to get close to the field in between games of a doubleheader, when players might walk the outfield lines with a bucket of balls to give away).
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