“Making America’s Pastime”
The game began with nothing more than a stick found in the woods and a homemade ball.
Today, Major League baseball is a $9.5 billion industry. Much of it profits around the manufacturing of baseballs, bats, gloves and uniforms.
From May 12 through October 31, The National Museum of Industrial History in Bethlehem is presenting an exhibit titled “Making America’s Pastime.” Marketing and Outreach Coordinator Glen Koehler will guide visitors through the industrial history of baseball equipment, which includes photographs and stories of legendary players who accepted employment at Bethlehem Steel to avoid military service during World War I.
In 2016, Major League baseball hitters slugged an incredible 5610 home runs. In 1910, when records for the game were first kept, 455 total homers were hit. The argument can be made that there are more teams, more games and better athletes now, but many will say the ball itself has contributed to the enormous increase in the number of round trippers.
Baseball historians refer to the years from 1901-1910 as the “dead ball” era. The exhibit displays the inside material of the first baseballs made from India rubber. The rubber core would soften and break down through use, making the ball difficult to hit solidly. In 1911, rubber was replaced by cork, which was more rigid and resilient and covered by horsehide. The result was an overall spike in home run numbers. Today’s baseball core is a combination of cork and rubber. This core is then wound by four layers of wool and covered by cowhide, all of which allows the ball to spring back into shape when hit with a bat.
The average life of a baseball in the Major Leagues is six pitches. About 65 balls are used in one game and 2430 baseballs are thrown and hit in a single season.
As a barehanded catcher for the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1870, Doug Allison sustained an injury while catching a hard thrown ball from the pitcher. Allison is credited with being the first baseball player to wear a glove, which he made as a pair of mittens from buckskin. In 1876, Spalding began manufacturing gloves with padding and webbing for all fielders and in 1890, Harry Decker of the Indianapolis Hoosiers patented the first catcher’s mitt.
In today’s game, a single cowhide is used to make four gloves. Major leaguers select custom made gloves made from full grain leather that takes time to break in before it is ready. St. Louis Cardinal catcher Yadier Molina pounds a new catcher’s mitt with a sledge hammer, while Seattle Mariner pitcher Felix Hernandez starts to break in his new glove by “cooking” it in a microwave oven for a minute and a half.
A major leaguer’s glove can cost as much as $400.
In the early years, baseball players made their own bats by whittling a piece of pine or ash. With no MLB restrictions, some measured well over 42 inches long and many were flat from the handle up. Some bats were sawed off at the handle so hitters swung only the barrel at the ball.
In 2001, Barry Bonds used bats made from hard maple wood to hit 73 home runs that year. Despite the improvement in the manufacturing process, MLB bat breakage hit an all time high in 2008 causing the league to create stricter manufacturing regulations regarding the slope of the wood’s grain.
MLB teams often buy bats in bulk to keep the price down, but a single custom-made bat can cost as much as $180. An MLB player uses about 50 bats in a season.
A fascinating story at the ”Making America’s Pastime” exhibit involves famous baseball players and military service. Not mentioned is Hall of Famer Ted Williams, who was a marine fighter pilot in WWII. Although he never saw combat, Joe DiMaggio of the Yankees served two years in the army while at the height of his baseball career.
The exhibit reveals that during WWI, the US government sent a directive to all MLB players: “Get a job or go to war.” Little known Alexander “Tom” Burr, an outfielder for the Yankees, died In a plane crash in France in 1918, but two legendary players decided to go to work instead of serving their country.
“A little-known fact is that Babe Ruth and Shoeless Joe Jackson came to work at Bethlehem Steel in 1918” said Koehler. “They also played baseball for the company and received at least $200 a game.”
American League President Ban Johnson had said “The league does not impugn the motives of players who have gone into industrial work. Some of them are patriotic. But if there be any of them who are Class 1A (deemed highest level for the military draft) … I hope they get yanked from the shipyards and steel works by the coat collar.”
The National Museum of Industrial History, a Smithsonian affiliate, is located at 602 East Second Street in Bethlehem and is open from Wednesday through Sunday from 10am to 5 pm.