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Baseball's Dead Ball Era: 1900 to 1919 by F.R. Penn
The Dead Ball Era reportably spanned the Progressive Reform Age leading up to the Roaring Twenties, which ran from 1900 to 1919. During this time, professional and semi-professional ball clubs relied heavily on defense and pitching, and scoring was at a premium.
Pitchers dominated the pace of the games, and several legendary pitchers established their lasting legacy during this period. Some of the most notable were Cy Young, Walter Johnson and Grover Cleveland Alexander. In part, these fellows and several others were responsible for a lack of offensive production during this period, but there were other reasons as well.
"Dead Ball" also describes the baseball's actual condition, especially in the latter stages of the games after it had been manipulated, defaced and altered, which was standard practice at that time. Baseballs were considered expensive, and at three dollars each, generally only one ball was used per game. The hardness and aerodynamics of the ball were poor by modern standards and thus the sphere was detrimental to a hitter's success.
In general terms, even though the ball was "dead" by most accounts, it actually did not provide a huge advantage to either offense or defense. The ball could not be hit for great distance, but the poor condition of the ball decreased the speed while increasing the movement of the pitch, thus making it somewhat easier for the hitters to make contact. Hit balls did not generate the tremendous speed off the bat as in today's game. This benefited the defenders in the field. Balls were only replaced if they were hit into the stands and lost. There were not many long-ball hitters and "short game" strategy was common, although some sources say that strategy as a whole was lacking in the Dead Ball Era, which may have further added to a lack of offensive production.
The "foul-strike" rule was installed in 1901 in the National League and 1903 in the American, whereas hitters were charged with their first two strikes on foul balls. The new rule benefited pitchers and cause offensive output to decline further. It also remained legal to throw "spit balls", and although illegal, defacing the ball in some way was a very common practice. Consequently, as you might expect with these conditions, hitting a soft, wet, and usually defaced ball resulted in may singles and fewer doubles, triples and homers.
Dividing pitching responsibility among a larger bullpen also became trendy, as did the sacrifice bunt. Both of these strategies had a detrimental effect as well on a hitter's overall performance. Strangely, there were some legendary record setting hitters from this era, most notably, Ty Cobb. Hailing from Georgia, his nickname was the "Georgia Peach," Cobb was best known for his pinpoint hitting accuracy and his never-say-die stubborn character. He set the record for career batting average at .366 and for runs scored with 2,245; both marks still stand to this day. He also finished his career first in hits; this record stood until the mid-1980s when Pete Rose broke the record. In 1936, Ty Cobb became the very first inductee of baseball's Hall of Fame, earning 222 out of 226 votes.
During the "Dead Ball Era", managers relied on defensive strategy much more than offensive strategy. It was said, "you could shake a tree and find a bat, but finding a glove was a whole different matter." Offensive skills were not highly sought after by managers. The focus was on defense. Some critics argue that "dead" baseballs probably were not the cause of low scoring, given there was no change in the ball's construction between the high scoring 1890s and the low scoring 1900s. The 1894 season saw the highest offensive totals in runs scored ever recorded in the National League. The construction of the ball was changed in 1911 in an attempt to make the ball livelier and to increase scoring. The balls were corked for the first time. And yet, the Dead ball Era continued for another eight years-until 1919.
In 1908, an incident occurred in the National League that has come to be widely known as the "Merkle Incident." It occurred during a regular season meeting between the Giants and the Cubs, In a tie game with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, runners on first and third, a single hit by Al Bridwell apparently won the game for the Giants as the runner scored from third. However, Fred Merkle was on first and ran to the clubhouse instead of advancing to second base, partly because the fans were mobbing the field at the Polo Grounds and partly because it was not entirely customary in that era to run out game winning hits. The Cubs' second baseman, Johnny Evers later claimed to have alertly retrieved the ball and tagged second base. By a strict interpretation of the rules, Merkle was forced out at second, and the game winning run nullified. Because of the pandemonium on the field, none of the umpires saw Evers make the play. Since an official protest was registered, the League ordered the game replayed at the end of the season only if it was necessary. It turned out that it was necessary when the Cubs and Giants ended the regular season tied for first place. The Cubs won the replayed game and then went on to win the League pennant and then the World Series. The Chicago Cubs have not won a World Series since.
Even though it wasn't brought to the media's and public's attention until 1920, no article on the Dead Ball Era would be complete without mentioning The White Sox of 1919, or as they have become widely known: the "Black Sox". Many of the White Sox players felt they were underpaid. This was in light of a new trend where owners in both leagues offered the best players much higher salaries than they had been previously paid. At the same time, White Sox Owner Charlie Comiskey felt cutting costs was the best response to a poor showing by his team in 1918. As a result, a conspiracy ensued by eight of the starting White Sox players to throw the World Series.
Many observers of the series suspected this was the case and a long running controversy eventually led to a Grand Jury investigation. Eddie Cicotte was the first to come forward and admit his part in the conspiracy, followed by "Shoeless" Joe Jackson. All eight of the "Black Sox" were suspended from baseball. Even though there was no law against conspiring to throw baseball games, and all 8 players were eventually acquitted, they were all ruled permanently ineligible.
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