NIST logo

NIST Proves It: The Ball Does Curve

Media contact: Mark Bello, (301) 975-3776 Technical contact: Bob Kelly, (301) 975-4139.

Lyman Briggs
(To download a Hi-Res version (2.5 MB), right click and choose Save As)
After he retired, former NIST Director Lyman Briggs used a wind tunnel he designed in 1918 and the pitching staff of the Washington Senators to settle a long-disputed question: the degree to which a baseball can be made to curve in the 18 meter (60 foot) throw from the pitcher's box to the plate. He found that the spin rather than the speed of the ball determined its break. Briggs described his research-widely reported in the news media-as a logical development in the field of mechanics and closely related to NIST work in ballistics and projectiles.

For the better part of the 20th century, the curve ball was a hotly debated topic among fans and players. Many dismissed the ball's sideward movement as an illusion. But Dizzy Dean, the legendary St. Louis Cardinal pitching ace during the 1930s, knew better. "Ball can't curve?" countered Dean, leader of the Cards' famed Gashouse Gang. "Shucks, get behind a tree and I'll hit you with an optical illusion."

In 1959, renowned scientist Lyman Briggs, who served as the third director of today's National Institute of Standards and Technology, vindicated Dean and other masters of the mound. He did it with the aid of several Washington Senator pitchers and a wind tunnel he built in 1918 for pioneering research on aviation aerodynamics. Four decades later, the then-retired Briggs demonstrated that a thrown ball can curve up to 17 1/2 inches over the 60 feet 6 inches that separate pitcher and batter. The unraveling of the mystery of the curve--the ball's spin, rather than speed, causes it to break--captured national interest and was reported in papers from coast to coast. For posterity, Briggs published the results of his work in the American Journal of Physics.

Read the original press release: Eminent Scientist Reports How Far a Baseball Curves (View pictures)

WWII Rubber Shortage Is a Core Issue for Baseball, War Department

On one occasion during his official tenure as director of what was then called the National Bureau of Standards (from 1933 to 1945), Briggs did turn his attention to a matter of general concern to professional baseball and of particular concern to batters. The issue stemmed from a wartime shortage of rubber.

To stretch supplies of rubber, the American and National Leagues substituted balata cork centers for the rubber-cushioned cork centers that had been used in baseballs before World War II. The impact on the ball's resiliency was not known. The switch to an all-cork center was a boon for pitchers, as reported by Briggs in the January 1945 issue of the Journal of Research. "A hard-hit fly ball with a 1943 center," he reported, "might be expected to fall about 30 feet shorter than the prewar ball hit under the same conditions."

For Briggs, who was an outfielder on the Michigan State College baseball team during the 1890s, the work was a brief diversion from the more serious matters of wartime research. In fact, Briggs directed much of the early work that led to the first atomic bomb. But tinkering with one of the essentials of the great American game also concerned the War Department, which joined a committee of the American and National Leagues in requesting the study. A congressional committee, however, viewed the matter differently. It called on Briggs to account for the work. The NIST director's explanation satisfied the committee. Briggs retired shortly thereafter, allowing him to pursue, years later, his curiosity about the physics of baseball.

Read the historical account of this episode

Learn how NIST helped to launch the synthetic rubber industry

NIST Shows X-rays Best for Exposing Bat Tampering

Late in the summer of 1987, Major League Baseball asked NIST to suggest ways to determine whether bats had been corked to pack more wallop into a hitter's swing (or so it was hoped). NIST's Materials Reliability Division evaluated several options for detecting illegally doctored bats. X-rays, it turned out, were best for spotting bats with barrels that had been hollowed out and filled with cork, rubber, or other materials. Click here for more details.

Other NIST Connections to Baseball

Like a reliable utility infielder, NIST contributes to the national pasttime in important, yet inconspicuous ways. Day in and day out, NIST works in the background, helping to make the game enjoyable and accessible. Here are a few examples:

  • Tuning in the ol' ballgame. To track the fortunes of their favorite baseball teams, millions of Americans rely on their radios or TVs to follow the play-by-play action on the diamond. Thanks to NIST, these broadcasts are free of interference. Stations tune their transmissions to the precise frequency signals broadcast by NIST stations in Colorado and Hawaii. To prevent interference among stations that veered off assigned frequencies, NIST established a standard frequency and began broadcasting precise frequency signals in 1923. These frequency services continue to serve radio and television stations, power and telephone companies, and others.
  • The Ball Park. Since 1991, 15 new Major League baseball stadiums have opened their gates. From steel girders to concrete ramps to heating and ventilation equipment, many of the materials, components, and systems that go into modern ball parks are built and assembled with the aid of measurement standards and quality assurance methods developed by NIST. For example, NIST began distributing standard reference samples of iron and steel in 1906, and it developed the first standard specification for Portland cement in 1912. Philadelphia's Shibe Park, the first concrete-and-steel stadium in the Majors, opened in 1909. Learn about building and fire research under way today at NIST.
  • Goodness they're delicious, but how nutritious? At the request of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, NIST chemists have developed a Meat Homogenate Standard Reference Material (SRM 1546).This reference material helps meat processors and food and nutrition laboratories verify the accuracy of the nutritional values they assign to hot dogs and other process or canned meats. Check out NIST's other food-related Standard Reference Materials.
  • Wow! Check out the new scoreboard display. The newest generation of "instant replay" boards will likely include full-color LED (light-emitting diode) displays based on a new materials technology refined and advanced by a small Durham, North Carolina, manufacturer. Back in 1991, Cree received almost $2 million in co-funding from NIST's Advanced Technology Program for a two-year project to develop a better way to process silicon carbide into large, high-quality single crystals. Cree's technical success has led to a variety of products, from 16-million-color, full-motion video displays to power semiconductors to lasers.
  • Links to Other (fun, but mostly science-oriented) Resources on Baseball
Notice of Online Archive: This page is no longer being updated and remains online for informational and historical purposes only. The information is accurate as of 2001. For questions about page contents, please contact us.