Foul Territory: Does The Deadball Era Equate to Weaker Players? Part I  

In the most recent fan injury case against The Atlanta Braves, one of the attorneys for the plaintiff stated something that illustrates and apparent lack of basic historical knowledge this particular attorney has.

After reading more about the case, and re-reading several of the articles on the case, I realized that something wasn’t quite right about an assertion. These are the exact words, as reported in this article at the lawyer for the prosecution states:

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 …that a change in the fabric of the game may necessitate a change in the safety precautions. The way baseball is played today, the lawyer argued, is not the way it was played years ago, and fans may be put at an increased risk of injury as a result. “The players are much stronger and bigger and the balls are hit harder than they ever were before,” he said. “This was 2010, not 1910. … The balls now travel so fast there is no way a child can get out of the way.”

This commentary should be a red flag to all involved in the case because of the fallaciousness of the assertion. We’ve all heard the saying, “You can’t compare apples and oranges.” The attorney here essentially has.

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It appears the attorney isn’t educated in any way with respect to baseball history. 1910 was the middle of the “Deadball Era”. The basics, as all avid baseball fans know, is that this was the time when things went well…kind of dead with respect to batting. This was an era of changes (starting in 1901 with the National League adopting the “foul strike” rule to discourage batters from fouling off incessantly). By logicaly extension, this means that prior to 1901, there was a very high rate of foul balls being hit; a higher foul ball count means an increased potential for foul ball injuries as opposed to now, which would be significantly lower.


Another issue is that this timeframe is considered a pitchers era. That is, pitchers conceived of new, wild pitches that kept batters off balance; many of the pitches are now outlawed. There was abundant use of pitches that have since been outlawed—the screwball, spitball and other “specialty” pitches that entailed the roughing up or dirtying of the ball. These throws did not behave like pitches of the past or future. They were significantly more unpredictable. Unpredictable pitches are difficult to hit with any accuracy.

The Deadball Era is viewed as a “small ball” era too. This means power hits and general hitting was lower than historical averages—lower than previous years and future years. In addition to the crazy pitches, the decrease in batting averages was also partly due to the balls used at the time. Balls in 1910 didn’t have a cork center. Teams also had to use the same couple of balls for an entire game. Balls would be scuffed and in poor shape because they were used long into the game. This use resulted in a softening of the ball, adding to the difficulty of getting a solid hit. The common practice of roughing up the ball made pitches even less controllable and more unpredictable. Add all this together and you have a baseball perfect storm; batters didn’t stand a chance. Thus, they played dead ball with dead balls.

To be blunt, the attorney for the plaintiff used poor judgment when he decided to blindly go to the century mark in his effort to make a point about modern baseball. 1910 may have perhaps been the worst year he could have chosen for the comparison though. As I have said, the doctoring of balls and the overuse of balls during 1910 (again, the dead middle of the Deadball Era) led to historically low batting averages because balls were harder to hit. It wasn’t until a season or two after 1910, when balls were corked and specialty pitches and ball roughing was more uniformly policed, that batting averages started climbing back up. It was after that time that baseballs had a cork center that helped them soar through the air better, leading to more runs. The ball, essentially, became sturdier and more alive.

Thus, regardless of what the plaintiff’s attorney wishes us to believe, batting differences between 1910 and 2010 had nothing to do with strength, power, speed or anything else. The differences are much more complex: different balls and different pitches than what we have today are what makes this an apple-oranges comparison.