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The Deadball Era (also sometimes Dead Ball Era) was a period in the early 20th Century characterized by low scoring and an emphasis on pitching and defense. While its boundaries are not concrete, it is generally recognized to have stretched from the founding of the American League in 1901 to the elimination of the spitball in 1920.
The Deadball Era marked the end of the sport's rapid evolution in the 19th Century and the beginning of relative stability in rules and structure of the Major League game that took shape in the early 20th.
Baseball's Second Deadball Era (roughly 1963-76), derived its name from the first.
The exact combination of causes of the low offensive totals during the Deadball era is unclear. Rule changes between 1894, the highest scoring season in the history of the National League, and 1908, the lowest scoring, unquestionably contributed. Changes in how the game was played also were a factor, though it is difficult a century and more later to tease out which which were causes and which effects.
Among the most significant suggested causes are:
- The "Foul strike" rule. Without doubt the single most significant rule change contributing to markedly decreased offense was counting foul balls as strikes. Until 1901 in the NL and 1903 in the AL, only fouled bunts counted as strikes. A batter could continue to foul off pitches until he saw one he liked. Some, most notoriously Roy Thomas, had become so skillful at it the rules were changed to count the first two fouls of any type as strikes.
- Statistically, this change helped pitchers significantly and penalized batters without hurlers having to materially improve their pitching.
- The spitball. A devastating pitch when mastered, it first became a serious weapon for pitchers in the early 20th century. Its banishment in 1920 helped lead to a reversal of a two decade dowturn.
- Other defaced ball pitches. In addition to the spitball, pitchers developed a whole host of pitches - the emery ball, shine ball, mud ball, etc. - that induced ball tremendous movement. While deliberately defacement was illegal, the rule was rarely enforced and pitchers continued to do it. A 1920s change requiring new baseballs to be put into play helped to minimize this trend.
- Inefficient offensive strategies. Deadball Era teams relied heavily on the sacrifice bunt, a strategy encouraged by the change in how strikes were tallied that tends to reduce overall scoring. Exceptionally aggressive base running also became the norm, with players running into far more outs than later became regarded as acceptable, often at a near one-for-one ratio. Because of this emphasis on what today is known as "Little ball" a heavy premium was placed on defensive skills, even at the expense of fielding offensively superior players.
- Division of pitching workload. The number of innings pitched by top starters declined across the era, as did the number of complete games. Although dividing pitcher workload has been a long-term trend in the game, it's unclear whether taking the ball out of staff aces' hands - who had routinely thrown over 400 innings and logged 40 and more complete games - improved overall team pitching or not. The only thing that is clear is that the change happened.
- Improved defense. League fielding percentages improved markedly between the high scoring 1890s and the height of the deadball Era, as did other measures of fielding effectiveness such as defensive efficiency. Once again, it is unclear which is cause and which effect.
By the time the 1919 Black Sox Scandal came to light the era of depressed offense was already effectively over. While the exact combination of causes that led to its end is not entirely straightforward, several factors are generally agreed to have contributed.
- Banishment of the spitball. Wide scale elimination of this exceptionally lively pitch unquestionably improved offense. However, though officially banned in 1919, each team was allowed to designate two pitchers who could continue throwing it. This "grandfather" rule was tightened the following year, reducing the number of exemptions to 17 legal spitballers who were regarded as so reliant on the pitch their livelihood depended on it.
- Enforcement of the rule against baseball defacement. Less scuffing led to less motion on pitches, favoring increased hitting.
- Cleaner baseballs. A direct result of the Chapman beaning (where Ray Chapman was fatally hit by a pitch from Carl Mays) was both brighter, cleaner baseballs and some increased reservation at throwing at a player's head. Chapman was believed to have had difficulty seeing the pitch that hit him because the ball was dirty from continued use. As a result, umpires were instructed to replace balls any time they had become dirty enough to present a hazard.
- Change in baseball construction. Starting in 1919, baseballs were made with a higher grade of Australian wool yarn, with cores wound by machine rather than hand. Pitchers of the era were certain that the balls were springier and flew further off the bat than the old ones, but manufacturers denied the claims. One certain effect was that baseballs were cheaper to make, and thus easier to replace, to batters' benefit.
- The rise of Babe Ruth. Though unquestionably an aggressive and talented batter right from his debut, Ruth's prowess at hitting long balls directly paralleled all of the above changes. His AL leading home run totals exploded from just 11 hit in 95 games (mainly as a fielder, with only 20 pitching) in 1918, to 29 in 130 games (17 as a pitcher) in 1919, to 54 in 142 (0 pitching) in 1920, an astounding near five-fold increase in just two seasons.
- Clearly a focus on playing fulltime and an increase in at-bats contributed heavily to this, but his home run rate per at-bat skyrocketed from 1 in every 28.8 in 1918 to 1 in every 14.9 in 1919 to an utterly unprecedented 1 per 9.5 in 1920. In the process, Ruth demonstrated to all of baseball - fans, owners, managers, sportswriters, and fellow players alike - that it was possible (with cleaner, livelier balls, fewer spitters, and dramatically reduced defaced baseballs) to be successful by "swinging for the fences".
- However, while other players immediately sought to emulate him, most of the increase in scoring at the end of the Deadball Era EAppears to have been driven by an overall increase in batting averages (thanks to the same offense-favoring changes). Ruth's impact had more to do with the decrease in "Little ball" in favor of the "Long ball".
- Mark S. Halfon: Tales from the Deadball Era: Ty Cobb, Home Run Baker, Shoeless Joe Jackson and the Wildest Times in Baseball History, Potomac Books, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 2014. ISBN 978-1612346489
- John R. Harris: Hitting Secrets from Baseball's Graveyard: A Diehard Student of History Reconstructs Batsmanship of the Late Deadball Era, independtly published, 2017. ISBN 978-1973455394
- David Jones, ed.: Deadball Stars of the American League, Society for American Baseball Research, Potomac Books, Inc., Dulles, VA, 2006.
- Robert E. Kelly: "Baseball's Offensive Greats of the Deadball Era: Best Producers Rated by Position, 1901-1919", McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2009.
- Chuck Kimberly: The Days of Wee Willie, Old Cy and Baseball War Scenes from the Dawn of the Deadball Era, 1900–1903, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2014. ISBN 978-0-7864-9401-9
- Ron Selter: Ballparks of the Deadball Era, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2008.
- Tom Simon, ed.: Deadball Stars of the National League, Society for American Baseball Research, Brassey's Inc., Dulles, VA, 2004.