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In Spring of '70, There Was No Debate If Ball Was Livelier--It Was

September 20, 1987|JIM DONAGHY | Associated Press

The decline of home runs and batting averages in the late 1960s brought an experimental baseball that got in the air just fine, but never quite got off the ground.

While the experimental ball struck out, other changes that were implemented almost 20 years have culminated this season with an unparalleled number of homers.

Where did the conspiracy against the pitcher begin?

The powers that be in the major leagues decided it was time to help all the hitless wonders after the overall batting average fell to .237 in 1968.

In 1968, five of the National League's 10 teams hit less than .240 and the Chicago Cubs led the league with 130 home runs. The league total was 891 that season, an average of 1.02 homers per game.

This year, 10 of the 12 teams in the NL have more than 100 home runs, and the National and American Leagues have combined to set a record for homers in a season.

Last Monday, the Toronto Blue Jays set a record with 10 homers in a game and four players have hit 40 or more homers this season. The last time that happened was 1973 (Willie Stargell, 44, Davey Johnson 43, Darrell Evans 41 and Hank Aaron 40).

Speculation on why there has been such a dramatic increase in home runs this season has ranged from lively balls to a change in the cosmos.

But there were some specific changes made in 1969 that gave the hitters the upper hand.

"In 1969 they took five inches off the mound. It went from 15 inches to 10 inches and everybody blames it on me," former St. Louis pitcher Bob Gibson says.

Gibson's career reached its zenith in 1968 when he put together remarkable numbers which included a 1.12 earned run average. His ERA that season was the best since the end of the dead ball era in 1920.

There was also a change in the strike zone after the 1968 season. Instead of a strike being from the batter's knees to the top of the shoulders, it was changed to top of the knee's to the armpits.

Concern over the low scoring also led the major leagues to request Spalding to make a baseball that really was lively. The first experimental ball was the 1-X and it had 10 percent more bounce.

The 1-X had a little bit too much bounce, and it was modified to the X-5 for the spring of 1970.

The X-5, with five percent more bounce, was used for 22 exhibition games in 1970, but was discontinued before spring training ended.

In a game at Miami, Paul Blair hit what were described as a "pair a mammoth home runs" as Baltimore defeated the Chicago White Sox, 12-10. Andy Etchebarren, Walt Williams and Duane Joseph also hit long home runs.

Washington Senators outlasted Minnesota 12-11 as the teams combined for 25 hits. The hits included five homers, two by Tony Oliva. And, Kansas City got 420-foot homers from Bob Oliver and Lou Piniella in beating Montreal, 6-4.

In another game, light-hitting Detroit infielder Don Wert hit a two-run homer against St. Louis.

"It was the new ball that gave me the homer," Wert said. "I didn't really catch it full enough for the ball to go that far."

Pitcher Camilo Pascual, a victim of the X-5 said "I think somebody will get killed with that ball."

Leo Durocher, then manager of the Chicago Cubs, said "If they use that ball on AstroTurf or Tartan-Turf, somebody will get killed."

Bowie Kuhn, commissioner of baseball at the time, agreed.

"The hitters were hitting bullets, not baseballs," Kuhn said. "But the lowering of the mound and the new strike zone helped bring the hitters back and everybody seemed to like that."

Everybody except the pitchers, that is.

"Reporters say fans wanted to see more hitting, but the fans I talked to like 1-0 and 2-1 games, too," Gibson said.

Duke Zilber was a member of the Spalding team that worked on the 1-X and X-5.

"We tried it in spring training and the damn ball was coming off the bat like a rabbit and we thought somebody was going to get killed," Zilber said.

"We put a new compound into the center of the X-5," Zilber said. "It was larger in the center."

Zilber said the regulation ball has a cork-cushioned center and the X-5 did not.

"There are so many things you can do to the ball. You know, they hand-stitch every ball. Everybody stitches differently," Zilber said. "You can pull the stitches a little tighter. I know everything about the ball. We made them, you know, for what, 100 years."

Zilber doesn't think it's a lively ball, corked bats or the weather causing the increase in home runs.

"The guys are getting stronger and they're using lighter bats, they got a faster swing and they got more power," Zilber said.

"I believe the hitters are stronger than they use to be," Gibson said. "If you throw that ball out over the plate, those big strong guys are going to hit the ball hard."

If someday, however, homers and averages start to decrease, Zilber still has a few X-5s around the house.

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