When Base Balls Became Baseballs

In the early days of baseball, the balls were nothing like what pitchers throw today. They called them dead balls, but they might as well have called them beanbags.

On January 5, 1934, the National and American Leagues agreed on a new ball, one that would remain largely unchanged until today.

Today’s design is so consistent, the 2017 World Series erupted in controversy and accusations of scandal when the 2017 World Series graphic printed on the game balls reportedly ruined the ball for throwing sliders. Even worse, it improved game balls for hitting.

We’re talking about a print-thin golden stamp on the balls. That’s how specific the players expect the ball to be now. That specificity came into play in 1934, under an agreement between the league owners of the MLB.


The game we know today as baseball comes from a British game called rounders. It’s been around since the late 18th century, sometimes referred to as base-ball. That was how Americans spelled it too for a few decades.

Rounders took its name from the action of players rounding the four bases to score points, otherwise known as “rounding the bases” in baseball today.

As America was wont to do, like we did with rugby, we decided to standardize this base-ball sport. Historic credit goes to Alexander Cartwright for nailing down the basic rules of early base-ball.

He was the same person whom players can thank for swapping out that soft ball used in rounders for the first baseballs, which were tighter, a little smaller, and more responsive than rounders balls.

Dead Balls

Early base-balls were the product of cobblers as they used the same materials to make balls as they did shoes. The first standard came to light in 1872, establishing what remains the weight and size of a baseball today.

Those 1872 balls were not the same as today’s. There was no core, so they were in essence, dead balls. Baseball historians define that time as the dead ball era, in part, by the ball design of the day. It was also the league’s tendency towards being a pitching sport.

Back in the turn of the century, corkless balls were the least of a batter’s concern. It was the ball dripping with tobacco spit that caused a bigger hitting challenge.

Ending the spitball era was part of ending dead balls, but there was also a design change which came about around the same time.

Early 1900’s balls came with a rubber core.

Cork Balls

By the year 1910, the rubber core baseball gave way to the cork-core ball, which in turn became the cork-cushioned model in later years.

Ball makers would wrap rubber around the cork center, giving the ball a special pop. Then they would wrap the ball in wool and cotton windings until it reached the appropriate size.

After 1934, the MLB established standards for every part of the ball. It would have a 13.16-inch diameter pill at the core, the cork center sphere.

That core would have two layers of rubber around it, enlarging the pill to 4.125 inches. Then the layers of wool and cotton complete the sphere until they reached the outer surface.

From 1934 to 1974 the leather used for baseballs was horsehide, but a shortage of horse hides or an abundance of cows forced the MLB to switch to cowhide.

The MLB even has provisions for how to properly tan those hides, from where they must originate, the cows and location of said cows, and even the final color; white.

They’ve managed every detail to the last thread, 108 red stitches per ball, so that every ball thrown would have the same exact chance as any other.

It may seem bureaucratic, but this consistency is the backbone of modern baseball. It’s reflective of the country that invented it (or stole it from the Brits if you prefer).

There exists an exact rightness to everything, with parameters and processes outlined clearly from the start producing a consistent final product.

It’s the do it right or don’t do it all mentality which permeates American manufacturing.

Sources: madehow.comsmithsonianmag.com