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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)
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.
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.
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:
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