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Modern baseball features an intricate dance between catcher and umpire which plays out after nearly every pitch. The catcher, once sure of the call from the ump, will reach out their free hand to receive a new baseball before throwing or handing off the ball they just caught. This happens time and again over the entire course of the game. The umpire, wearing a ball-holding belt, will continuously dish out fresh balls to the catcher as needed.

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This is because today’s baseballs have an average lifespan of just two pitches. Add in foul balls, and recent record-high numbers of home runs, and you can see how the total of baseballs that are used and discarded over the course of a single Major League Baseball (MLB) season could be astronomical.

Why are so many baseballs used per game? The answer stems from a terrible incident that occurred in 1920 that resulted in the only death in MLB’s history in consequence of a play that happened on the field.

The death of Ray Chapman
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Photo of Ray Chapman (Public domain)

Baseball in the earliest parts of the 20th century is a completely different game than it is now. This was known as the dead-ball era due to the fact that games were low scoring due to the fact that baseballs were used until they were unrecognizable. The course of a standard game of baseball would kill the ball itself and the score. Unfortunately for one Ray Chapman, the dead-ball era killed him as well.

Ray Chapman was a popular shortstop playing for the Cleveland Naps. He had been a professional ballplayer for nearly eight years at the time of the incident. On August 16th, 1920, Chapman was hit in the head by a pitch. The pitch was thrown so hard that when it struck him in the head, many in attendance thought that he had hit the ball off his bat. The sound was so similar to a ball being put into play that the pitcher, Carl Mays, fielded the ball and threw it to first base hoping to earn an out.

Unfortunately, it became immediately clear that the ball had not been put into play but rather had left Chapman laying in the dirt bleeding. He died twelve hours later from trauma to the head.

He was not wearing a helmet. Batting helmets did not come onto the scene until Chapman’s death highlighted the need for protective equipment in the game of baseball.

Not only was Chapman beaned in the head and subsequently killed, it later came out that he had not even reacted to the pitch. He didn’t flinch. He didn’t duck. He didn’t move at all. He simply could not see the ball at all. Even as it was sailing towards his head at nearly ninety miles an hour.

How did this happen?

Dark, dirty, and hard to see
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Old worn baseballs with different compositions. (Public domain)

The reason that Ray Chapman died at home plate is the same reason that baseball games had become so low scoring during the dead-ball era. It was notoriously difficult to see the ball. Pitchers were allowed to scuff the ball, put dirt on it, put pine tar on it, spit on it, smear it with tobacco, and all sorts of other alterations which are highly illegal today. The result left the balls misshapen, discolored, and able to fly in erratic patterns on the way to the plate.

Baseballs were often used for an entire nine-inning game without being replaced and it was said that some fans would even throw home run balls back onto the field so they could continue to be used. This left them brown in color rather than white.

Couple that with the fact that baseball stadiums and fields did not have the lights that we have now and you can see how a dark ball being thrown in low light could result in some miscues.

The reason that Ray Chapman did not react to the pitch that killed him was that the ball was dirty, misshapen, and was being thrown in low evening light without any illumination to help the batter.

Thankfully, the rules would quickly change to reflect the danger that dirty baseballs had on the game, especially in an era that forewent the use of batting helmets.

Rule changes

Today, the rules are clear about when baseballs need to be retired from the game and it results in a high number of balls being used per contest. The rules now read:

The umpire shall:

Have possession of at least two alternate balls and shall require replenishment of such supply of alternate balls as needed throughout the game. Such alternate balls shall be put into play when:

(1) a ball has been batted out of the playing field or into the spectator area;

(2) a ball has become discolored or unfit for further use;

(3) the pitcher requests such alternate ball.

These three stipulations lead to a large turn over of baseballs during a game but for good reason. They were enacted in memory of Ray Chapman, a player largely forgotten today but whose death greatly impacted the game of baseball.

How many balls are used in a season?

There are thirty professional baseball teams today. Each team plays a game against a single opponent 162 times. This gives us a total number of unique games in the regular season of 2,430.

Estimates regarding the number of baseballs used per game vary. Some say it is ninety-six. Others say it is closer to 144. A number that has appeared many times is “ten dozen” or 120 balls per game.

At 120 balls used per game over the course of 2,430 games, we get 291,600 baseballs used in play during a regular MLB season.

If we add in the playoffs, which can add another seventy-five or so games to a season, that puts the total number at 300,000 game balls used per season including playoffs.

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That is a lot of baseballs and it is all because of the sacrifice Ray Chapman had to make in order to change the rules.