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The dead-ball era is a baseball term used to describe the period between 1900 (though some date it to the beginning of baseball) and the emergence of Babe Ruth as a power hitter in 1919. In 1919, Ruth hit a then-league record 29 home runs, a spectacular feat at that time.

The dead-ball era refers to a period in baseball characterized by low-scoring games and a lack of home runs. The lowest league run average in history was in 1908, when only 3.4 runs were scored per game.

Baseball during the dead-ball era

Dead-ball era runs scored per game (highlighted area, 1900-1918 inclusive)
Dead-ball era runs scored per game (highlighted area, 1900-1918 inclusive)

During the dead-ball era, baseball was much more of a strategy-driven game, using a style of play now known as small ball or Inside Baseball. It relied much more on stolen bases and hit and run type plays than on home runs. These strategies emphasized speed, perhaps by necessity. Teams played in spacious ball parks that limited hitting for power, and, compared to modern baseballs, the ball used then was "dead" both by design and from overuse. Low-power hits like the Baltimore Chop, developed in the 1890s by the Baltimore Orioles, were used to get on base. Once on base, a runner would often steal or be bunted over to second base and move to third base or score on a hit and run play. In no other era have teams stolen as many bases as in the dead-ball era.

There are many statistical examples from this era that show how much more emphasis was placed on speed than on power. Between 1900 and 1920, there were 13 occasions when the league leader in home runs had fewer than 10 home runs for the season, and just 4 where the league leaders had 20 or more homers. Meanwhile, there were 20 instances where the league leader in triples had 20 or more. Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Owen "Chief" Wilson set a record of 36 triples in 1912, a little known record that is likely one of baseball's unbreakable records, as is the 309 career triples of Sam Crawford, set during this time.

Despite their speed, teams struggled to score during the dead-ball era. Major league cumulative batting averages ranged between .239 and .279 in the National League and between .239 and .283 for the American League. The lack of power in the game also meant lower slugging averages and on-base percentages, as pitchers could challenge hitters more without the threat of the long ball. The nadir of the dead ball-era was around 1907 and 1908, with a league-wide batting average of .239, slugging average of .306 and ERA under 2.40. That year, the Chicago White Sox hit three home runs for the entire season, yet they finished 88–64, just a couple of games from winning the pennant.

There were some complaints about the low-scoring games and baseball looked to remedy the situation. In 1909, Ben Shibe invented the cork-centered ball, a ball which the Reach Company, the official ball supplier to the American League (AL), began marketing. Spalding, the ball supplier to the National League (NL), followed suit with its own cork-center ball. The change in the ball had a dramatic impact on both leagues. In 1910, the AL batting average was .243; in 1911, it rose to .273. The NL saw a jump in the league batting average from .256 in 1910 to .272 in 1912. 1911 happened to be the best season of Ty Cobb’s career; Cobb batted .420 with 248 hits. Joe Jackson hit .408 in 1911, and the next year Cobb batted .410. These were the only .400 averages between 1902 and 1919. In 1913, however, pitchers started to regain control, helped by a serendipitous invention by minor league pitcher Russ Ford. Ford accidentally scuffed a baseball against a concrete wall, and after he threw it, noticed the pitch quickly dived as it reached the batter. The emery pitch was born. Soon pitchers not only had the dominating spitball, they had another pitch in their arsenal to control the batter, aided by the fact that the same ball was used throughout the game and almost never replaced. As play continued, the ball became more and more scuffed, making it increasingly difficult to hit as it moved more during the pitch, as well as being more difficult to see as it became dirtier. By 1914 runs scoring was essentially back to the pre-1911 years, and remained so until 1919.

Such a lack of power in the game led to one of the more ironic player nicknames in history. Frank Baker, one the best players of the dead-ball era, earned the nickname of "Home Run" Baker merely for hitting two home runs in the 1911 World Series. Although Baker led the American League in home runs four times (1911–1914), his highest home run season was 12, and he finished with 96 home runs for his career.

The best slugger of the dead-ball era was Philadelphia Phillies outfielder "Cactus" Gavvy Cravath. Cravath led the National League in home runs six times, with a high total of 24 for the pennant-winning Phillies in 1915, and seasons of 19 home runs each in 1913 and 1914. Cravath, however, was aided by batting in the Baker Bowlmarker, a notoriously hitter-friendly park aided by a short distance to right field.

Factors that contributed to the dead-ball era

The following factors contributed to the dramatic decline in runs scored during the dead-ball era:

The foul strike rule

The foul strike rule was a major rule change that, in just a few years, sent baseball from a high-scoring game to one where scoring any runs became a struggle. Prior to this rule, foul balls were not counted as strikes: thus a batter could foul off a countless number of pitches with no strikes counted against him. This gave an enormous advantage to the batter. In 1901, the National League adopted the foul strike rule, and the American League followed suit in 1903.

The ball itself

Before 1920, it was very common for a baseball to be in play for over 100 pitches, as in cricket. A ball would be used until it started to unravel. The early baseball leagues were very cost-conscious, so fans would have to throw back balls that had been hit into the stands. The longer the ball was in use the softer it would become, and hitting a heavily-used, softer ball for distance is much more difficult than hitting a new, harder one. There is also the argument that the ball itself was softer to begin with, making home runs less likely.

The spit ball

The ball was also hard to hit because pitchers could manipulate it before a pitch. For example, the spitball pitch was permitted in baseball until 1920. Pitchers often marked the ball, scuffed it, spat on it, or did anything else they could to gain an advantage over the ball's motion. This made the ball "dance" and curve much more than it does now, making it more difficult to hit. Tobacco juice was often added to the ball as well, which discolored it. This made the ball difficult to see, especially since baseball parks did not have lights until the late 1930s. This made both hitting and fielding more difficult.

Ballpark dimensions

Many ballparks had big dimensions, such as the West Side Groundsmarker of the Chicago Cubs, which was 560 feet to the center field fence, and the Huntington Avenue Groundsmarker of the Boston Red Sox, which was 635 feet to the center field fence. The dimensions of Braves Fieldmarker prompted Ty Cobb to say that no one would ever hit the ball out of it.

The end of the dead-ball era

The dead-ball era ended suddenly. By 1921, offenses were scoring 40% more runs and hitting four times as many home runs as they did in 1918. The abruptness of this dramatic change has caused widespread debate among baseball historians, and there is no consensus among them regarding the cause of this transformation. Six popular theories have been advanced:

  • Changes in the ball: This theory claims that owners replaced the ball with a newer, livelier ball (sometimes referred to as the "jackrabbit" ball), presumably with the intention of boosting offense and, by extension, ticket sales. This theory has been denied by Major League Baseball. The yarn used to wrap the core of the ball was changed prior to the 1920 season, although testing by the United States Bureau of Standards found no difference in the physical properties of the two different types of balls.
  • Outlawing of the spitball: The spitball, a very effective pitch throughout the dead-ball era, was outlawed at this time as well. This theory states that without the spitball in the pitcher's arsenal, batters gained an advantage.
  • More baseballs per game: The fatal beaning of Ray Chapman during the 1920 season led to a rule that the baseball must be replaced every time that it got dirty. With a clean ball in play at all times, players no longer had to contend with a ball that "traveled through the air erratically, tended to soften in the later innings, and as it came over the plate, was very hard to see."
  • Game-winning home runs: In 1920, Major League Baseball adopted writer Fred Lieb's proposal that a game-winning home run with men on base be counted as a home run even if its run is not needed to win the game. The intentional walk was also banned‚ and it was decided that everything that happened in a protested game would be added to the game record. (From 1910 to 1919‚ records in protested games were excluded.)
  • Babe Ruth: This theory alleges that the prolific success of Babe Ruth hitting home runs led players around the league to forsake their old methods of hitting (described above) and adopt a "free-swinging" strategy designed to hit the ball hard and with an uppercut stroke, with the intention of hitting more home runs. Critics of this theory claim that it does not account for the improvement in batting averages from 1918–1921, over which time the league average improved from .254 to .291.
  • Ballpark dimensions: This theory contends that the cause of the offensive outburst was changes in the dimensions of the ballparks of the time. Accurate estimates of ballpark sizes of the era can be difficult to obtain, however, so there is some disagreement over whether the dimensions changed at all during this time, let alone whether the change led to an increase in offense.

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