When you think of the game of baseball, rarely do you think about the ball itself. Think about it, 108 double stitches sewn together by hand using 88 inches of waxed thread, and two strips of white cowhide. All this encloses a cork center and nearly a mile of yarn. That's 1.35 Jose Altuve's worth of thread and over 1,863 baseball bats laid end to end worth of yarn! It has a circumference of nine inches and weighs just over five ounces. A brand new baseball is commonly referred to as a "pearl", a very appropriate name for such an elegantly simple object. When a "pearl" makes its way into the stands, it can become much more than just a souvenir. It's a conversation starter, a cherished possession; it becomes visual reminder of a memorable night at the park.
Ask any casual fan of the game what a baseball looks like and they can tell you without batting an eye - a white ball with red stitches. Not many know it was not always like this. In the early days of baseball, the American and National Leagues actually used different balls. The National League utilized a ball that featured red and black stitching while the American League sported a ball with red and blue stitches. This was up until 1934 when both leagues decided to use a uniform ball featuring only red stitches.
Some of the greatest teams in baseball history used the red and blue stitched baseballs, and the overwhelming majority of baseball fans have no idea. This is what the 1927 Yankees group of Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel, and Tony Lazzeri were accused of brutally murdering on a nightly basis in the Bronx. When Babe Ruth completely annihilated the single-season home run record, this was the victim. This was also the ball used for the first nine seasons of Lou Gehrig's consecutive games played streak. Such legendary baseball names like Jimmie Foxx, Ty Cobb, and Tris Speaker demolished red, white, and blue baseballs on their way to Hall of Fame careers. Guys like Cy Young, Walter "Big Train" Johnson, and Lefty Grove all tossed the red, white, and blue ball in their hallowed careers.
"When we addressed this internally with our Board of Directors," said league President Rick White "the way we introduced the idea of the red, white, and blue baseball was to show and then remind our owners that when Babe Ruth hit home run #60, there was something unique about the ball that most people didn't remember. And then of course we showed them the baseball. My very first job in pro ball was working for the American League office at the time there still was an American League office. The original American League ball was a red, white, and blue ball, and I always remembered that. "
Pre-1934 American League baseball, similar to Babe Ruth's 60th home run.
Now, the red, white, and blue ball is becoming the official ball of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball (ALPB). While working closely with one of the premier names in sporting goods, Rawlings, the Atlantic League debuted a new version of the ball on July 8th, 2015 at the 18th annual Atlantic League All-Star game. The contest featured former MLB players Scott Cousins, Cody Eppley, Delwyn Young, Brandon Boggs, and Lew Ford while also featuring numerous former minor league veterans such as Jon Griffin, and Brian Cavazos-Galvez. (A full roster can be found here).
"When the Atlantic League asked us to revisit our heritage and bring back the red, white, and blue baseballs, it was a request that really resonated. As we are proud of being the League's baseball supplier today, so too are we proud of our history. When the two can meet, it's a win-win [situation], and we are sure this will be a real attention-getter."
- Mike Thompson, Executive VP of Marketing, Rawlings Sporting Goods
The new red, white, and blue official Atlantic League baseball.
Not only does the stitching set the ball apart from anything else in the game right now, there are other details unique to the Atlantic League. Every ball will have two signatures on it instead of one. The signature of league President Rick White who has led the league as President for the last year and a half will be one of the names. The second John Hancock on the ball will be up to each individual club in the league - it can be the Club Director or a designee.
So far, the Bridgeport Blue Fish, Camden Riversharks, and Long Island Ducks will use the signature of Joe Klein. He is the Executive Director of Baseball Operations and one of the founding fathers of the Atlantic League. Mr. Klein is also former general manager of the Detroit Tigers, Texas Rangers, and Cleveland Indians, and has spent decades in MLB front offices while learning from some of the greatest minds in the game. He even passed along a story about how he got his first job with a team after retiring as a player, which is too good to not share.
"My first job after I retired as a player was from Ted Williams. Ted was in Washington and he managed three years there and then the first year in Texas [after the expansion]. Ted's first year they let everybody go in the minor league system and I was going to spring training with the intention of being a coach somewhere in the minor league system. I wound up managing because of a meeting I had with Ted and Hal Keller. We got to talking baseball and Ted asked me what is the key to hitting. I told him you can't hit a baseball if you don't get a good pitch to hit. I owe a lot to Ted and his good judgement."
- Joe Klein, Director of Baseball Operations for the Atlantic League
The idea for the new ball came about a year ago according to Mr. Klein and it's something that has evolved over that time period. "Our partners at Rawlings expressed an interest right away and we're happy that it's worked out." With any alteration to equipment that will be used in games, a certain level of testing has to go into assuring that the performance will not be an issue.
When asked about this, Mr. White said, "It was absolutely critical. Over 40% of the players in our league have Major League Baseball experience. Each year we send dozens of players back to big league organizations at all levels of play. We cannot compromise their performance and their chances to get back to major league organizations because of us looking for some brand identity. With Rawlings, we conducted a pretty thorough evaluation." When asked the same question, Mr. Klein responded saying "All it is, is just one little, single piece of thread that happens to be blue, not red... I think it's more cosmetic than anything else. If somebody catches a ground ball they may take an extra look at it."
The Atlantic League has been on the forefront of many innovations to the game of baseball. If you've been to a minor league baseball game this year, you may have noticed The Pace of Play initiatives being enacted. These attempts to speed up the game were first tested in the ALPB before coming into the affiliated ranks. While it may not be the "baseball of tomorrow", I do believe we aren't far from seeing a red, white, and blue baseball being used in both minor and major league baseball. I know I can easily think of a handful of dates on the calendar that would be appropriate for such a show of patriotism.
At the end of the day, its about the game of baseball and a way to honor the national pastime. To the players, it's about the dream of one day becoming a Major League Baseball player. The Atlantic League helps keep that dream alive when the going gets tough.
"The dream doesn't diminish when a player gets released. They all want to get back to the show. Sometimes players deserve a second chance, sometimes players get to the end of their career and want to come back, sometimes a guy needs to find his fastball."
- Rick White, President of the Atlantic League