Answer Man

This is how a fatal pitch changed how long Major League baseballs are in play

Q: I have a baseball question that has bugged me for a long time: Why do they throw in a brand-new baseball after a pitcher throws a pitch in the dirt? Yet when a batter hits a ball into play whether on the ground, in the air, whatever, as long as it’s not a foul ball, that ball continues in play until a pitcher throws a dirt pitch or it goes out of play. And while you’re at it, what’s the average life expectancy of a Major League baseball in terms of number of pitches before it’s tossed out?


A: Remember the old proverb which ultimately concluded that for want of a nail, a kingdom was lost?

Well, there was one time in Major League history when a player may have been killed for want of a clean baseball.

It was Aug. 16, 1920, and the New York Yankees were battling the Cleveland Indians at the old Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan. (Yankee Stadium wouldn’t open until 1923.) These were the rough-and-tumble days when pitchers could do just about anything to flummox the hitters, including rubbing tobacco juice, licorice or dirt to discolor the ball and make it harder to see.

On this day, Carl Mays was on the mound for the Yanks. In his 15-year-career, the right-handed submariner would notch 207 victories, including a Major League-leading 27 wins the following year.

Mays was looking for his 100th career win, but the Yankees were trailing 4-0 as the Indians’ Ray Chapman stepped to the plate in the fifth. In his previous at-bats, Chapman had managed only a sacrifice bunt and a pop-up to first. But irritated over the shortstop crowding the plate, Mays unleashed a high fastball that Chapman, between the fading afternoon sun and the grimy ball, apparently never saw.

The impact of the ball hitting Chapman’s head was reportedly so loud that Mays thought it had struck Chapman’s bat, so he ran to field the carom and fired it to Wally Pipp at first base. Knowing he had been hit by the pitch, Chapman instinctively took a step or two toward first base, but fell to the ground twice. Blood started to trickle out of his left ear as Tris Speaker rushed over from the on-deck circle and other teammates poured out of the dugout.

After being helped off the field, Chapman was taken to a hospital, where surgeons discovered a skull fracture, which they did their best to repair. At first, Chapman seemed to rally, but then died at 4:30 the next morning. Meanwhile, Mays had continued to pitch until the ninth in a 4-3 losing effort.

Today, baseball historians say the tragedy was a major impetus for what today is rule 3.01, which states, “No player shall intentionally discolor or damage the ball by rubbing it with soil, rosin, paraffin, licorice, sand-paper, emerypaper or other foreign substance. PENALTY: The umpire shall demand the ball and remove the offender from the game. In addition, the offender shall be suspended automatically for 10 games.”

As a result, under “Umpire Duties” rule 4.01, umps have wide latitude to give baseballs a quicker heave-ho than George Steinbrenner firing Billy Martin. Under the rule’s section e, an umpire is required to throw in an “alternate” (e.g., new) ball in at least three circumstances: 1). A ball has been batted out of the playing field or into the spectator area; 2). A ball has become discolored or unfit for further use; 3). The pitcher requests an alternate ball.

As you have seen, a Major League baseball has the relative lifespan of a mayfly. According to a study published at, 745 pitchers threw 704,983 pitches in 2,430 games in 2014 for an average of 290 pitches a game. In 2012, Minnesota Twins assistant equipment manager Tim Burke told Fox Sports that anywhere from eight dozen to 10 dozen balls are used each game. Even a conservative 100 balls means each one would survive only an average of three pitches — roughly a quarter million balls used in a season. Hmm, maybe it’s time to buy some Rawlings stock.

So, yes, umpires will almost always toss out a ball after a pitch hits the dirt. But I think you may be wrong in saying that batted balls are always kept in play. Witness this anecdote from longtime Minnesota reliever Glen Perkins, who retired in January. Early in his career, he said, he would keep using a ball after it was hit for an out.

“But then there was one I was throwing to (catcher) Jose Morales. It was supposed to sink, and for whatever reason it cut and it went past him and over the umpire’s head,” he told Fox in 2012.

He immediately changed his routine and asked for a new ball.

“I get a ball back and it might have a little flat spot on it, a little lopsided,” Perkins said. “Or if you throw enough pitches, the rub kind of gets polished and they get slick. If a ball lasts too long, I think they get rid of it. It seems lately, after every out I’ve gotten rid of the ball.”

It’s a far cry from even the 1980s, when Twins Hall-of-Famer Bert Blyleven remembered throwing at least one pitch when the cover was starting to come off the ball.

“I threw the pitch and the guy fouled it off,” Blyleven recalled. “I was so upset. I wanted him to put it in play. I felt like a Little Leaguer, ‘Bring that ball back! You can get an ice cream cone!’”

But at least there were no fatalities.

Today’s trivia

What special substance does Major League Baseball use to prepare baseballs before a game?

Answer to Sunday’s trivia: It was more than four centuries after World War II when the United Federation of Planets was invited to take joint control of the Terok Nor space station on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” Nevertheless, the plot of “The Siege of AR-558” closely mirrored “Hell is For Heroes,” a WWII classic starring Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Bob Newhart, among others. So close, in fact, that several characters in the DSN episode were named after characters and actors in the movie, including Reese, Larkin, Kellin, Captain Loomis and Commander Parker.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer