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
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.
Dr. Briggs was given a bad moment or two over an incident during the rubber crisis. Early in 1945, the very active Senate Special Committee Investigating the National Defense Program (the Truman Committee) called on him to explain how a study he made in the bouncing characteristics of golf balls and baseballs could possibly contribute to the war effort. The Committee pointed to a paper he had just published, wonderfully entitled: "Methods for measuring the coefficient of restitution and the spin of a ball."
Dr. Briggs explained and the committee subsided. Prodded to conserve rubber, even in miniscule amounts, the Services of Supply had asked the bureau about a substitute material being used in the baseballs it was supplying recreation centers at training camps. Extending an investigation he had made of golf balls in an idle hour before the war, Dr. Briggs took on the SOS request himself. The work, he reported to the committee, had been done by a high school boy He had merely made the analyses, with assistance from Dr. Dryden and Dr. Buckingham on the theoretical considerations.
In baseballs with balata cork centers (made official in the major leagues in 1943), the coefficient of restitution or liveliness of the ball, Dr. Briggs found, was measurably reduced over that of the prewar rubber-cushioned cork center (official in 1938). The coefficient was still lower in baseballs with reclaimed rubber centers. "A hard-hit fly ball with a 1943 center," Dr. Briggs reported, "might be expected to fall about 30 feet shorter than the prewar ball hit under the same conditions." It was an important finding, contributing to the peace of mind not only of the professionals but of the sluggers in the (military) training camps.
– Excerpted from "Measures for Progress," Rexmond C. Cochrane, (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1966), p. 413
Allegations of bat tampering flew throughout the 1987 baseball season. Yet, not since 1974—when the bat of the New York Yankees' Graig Nettles broke and several compressed rubber balls spill out—had a hitter been ejected for using a doctored bat. In response to the latest flurry of bat-related rhubarbs, Major League Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth granted managers permission to confiscate one bat from an opponent if they suspected tampering.
In August, a representative from Ueberroth's office asked NIST experts on non-destructive evaluation to do a quick study of ways to detect illegal cork or rubber cores bored into the heads of bats. A handful of scientists and engineers from NIST's Gaithersburg, Md., headquarters, and Boulder, Colo., facility contributed to the effort.
With four bats (two normal bats and two with cork cores about two pencil widths in diameter) supplied by Major League Baseball, the NIST team assessed a variety of approaches—ultrasound and several types of x-ray devices, including a CAT scanner. Two of the bats—one "loaded" and the other not—were even taken to Boulder Memorial Hospital for diagnostic x-rays, which were viewed from several carefully determined perspectives. The cost of the service was $30.
Medical x-rays were probably the best imaging tools for non-destructive tests of baseball bats. They were deemed the quickest and most practical option, since most ball parks were equipped with x-ray machines for diagnosing player injuries. In contrast, measurements made with ultrasound were less definitive, and the data took longer to collect and interpret.
On September 1, 1987, the day after NIST researcher Ray Schramm took two bats in for x-rays at Boulder Memorial, Houston Astros outfielder Billy Hatcher was ejected from a game against the Chicago Cubs for using a corked bat. No x-rays were needed in this case. Hatcher hit a broken-bat single, and one of the shards ended up in the hands of Cubs third baseman Keith Moreland, who held up the remnant for all to see. Said umpire John McSherry: "The bat was hollowed out at the barrel and had three or four inches cork inside it."
Hatcher, the Astros leading hitter, said he was using a borrowed bat because all his bats were broken. He maintained that he did not know it was corked. He was suspended for 10 days, just as his team was challenging for a divisional title.
"At the time we had several discussions of the physics of corking bats. Was it a weight change that allowed a faster swing due to change in moment of inertia? Was it a change in coefficient of restitution that imparted more energy to the ball? I don't believe we ever came to a consensus. My opinion (and only that) is that any effect was strictly psychological."
– Ray Schramm, retired NIST researcher (deceased)
Like a reliable utility infielder, NIST contributes to the national pastime 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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