America loves its legends: George Washington’s cherry tree and Cooperstown’s Abner Doubleday inventing baseball are not exactly accurate. Baseball is believed to have evolved from cricket (rounders). All of these sports use a stitched ball. Rounders and cricket allow for some variation in the number of stitches on the balls, baseball does not. So how many stitches are on a baseball?
Major League Baseball (MLB) uses a cowhide leather baseball with 108 red double stitches (216 single stitches). They use a flat-seamed ball, which is harder to grip, yet can be hit farther. Younger baseball leagues mostly use a raised-seamed baseball.
Baseball Stitches Have Changed Over the Decades
Though MLB baseballs were made by one company (Spalding) the balls had different features including raised seams versus flat seams. A raised seam favors the pitcher (easier grip and more movement on the ball when pitched) A flat seam favors the batter (flies through the air with less friction).In 1934, the MLB tried to standardize the ball. They started with the thread. The stitches of a baseball, known as virgules had to be made of waxed red thread. Before this, the National League used black thread mixed with red virgules, while the American League used blue and red. Though the color of the stitches wasn’t the main issue, the change to all red made the ball easier to see.
2019: Were The MBL Baseball Seams Too Flat?
In 2019, the MBL and Rawlings were taking heat for having “juiced up” balls. Everyone loves a home run, but there was more that year than any previous season.
Eventually, it was noted that the balls used during the regular season had seams that produced less drag, allowing the ball to go significantly further. Of course, the stitches would have to be narrower and flatter to do this and possibly use a different thread. But the “juiced” balls no longer seemed to be in use by post-season.
The next few years saw hitting averages plummet. By 2022, they were reaching historic batting lows, with hitters accusing the MBL and Rawlings of overcorrecting the 2019 “juiced” balls.
But pitchers were not happy either. In addition to the flat seams, the balls are slicker than ever. The figure of eight stitch pattern on the ball gives it a unique property both in drag and Magnus force. But the slicker the ball, the harder to control and perform unique pitches. Moreover, the more the ball’s defining characteristics are smoothed away, the more the game loses the artistry in pitching.
But the battle between who the ball should favor is as old as the game.
Does The Baseball Favor The Pitcher Or The Batter: A History
Pitchers and batters want different things from a baseball. Pitchers want features that provide excellent grip, like raised stitches and a softer ball, so it is harder to hit long distances. Hitters want a hard ball that will go far with little grip, so it is harder for the pitcher to strike them out. Of course, crowds love a batter’s ball, too. But a batter’s ball also means it is more likely the batter gets hit.
Handstitched Baseballs: High Seams Vs. Flat SeamsHigh seams are a pitcher’s best friend; they make it easier to grip the ball and make it easier to perform many types of throws. However, MBL stitches are flat, making them more aerodynamic. They are made by hand at the Rawlings factory in Turrialba, Costa Rica.
For 155 years, players from the college level and below used raised seams. They are safer and lend themselves to more accurate pitching. But as pitching improved, home runs decreased. By 2014 the NCAA had seen a record low of crowd-pleasing homers. Thus, in 2015 they switched to flatter seams.
According to analysis, that change led to an average of 20 extra feet in a hit. The result was 3,000 more home runs in 2015 than the year before.
Baseballs Originally Favored The Pitcher
Until 1876, pitchers had the full advantage in baseball design because they made them. Consequently, the pitcher could tweak various features to suit their throwing style. In addition, the balls would vary in weight, size, softness, number of stitches, and height.
1876: Spalding Baseballs Are Born
A.G. Spalding, a pitcher for the Chicago White Stockings, presented a baseball design to the National League. It was approved, bringing an end to pitchers using their homemade balls, which were known to have incredibly rough hides, to increase grip. He also standardized the centers of the ball, using rubber instead of rocks or whatever the pitcher fancied.
When the American League formed, Spalding created the line “Reach” for their balls.
1900: Baseballs Get Rid Of Cowhide Stitches, Helping Batters
By 1900, natural cowhide-colored stitches were abandoned for colored stitches. The changed help the batters see, who had already struggled due to pitchers dirtying the ball. The waxed thread also provided a less lumpy ball, another advantage to batters.
Altogether, the Spalding balls from 1901-1910 were pretty balanced. The stats show that games averaged 3.94 runs and .13 home runs during this period.
1911: Batters Get A Cork Core Baseball, And Stats Spike
In 1911 Spalding changed the core to cork. The stats for batters improved: 4.51 runs per game and .21 home runs. But they didn’t change dramatically. The pitchers, annoyed with the changes favoring batters, began scuffing the ball during the game, adding their grip.
1920: Batters Get A Cork Core Baseball, And Stats Spike
In 1920, Pittsburg Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss won his campaign to ban the spitball. The spitball gave a pitch an extra break and hastened the ball becoming filthy, making it harder for the batter to see. Purposely scuffing the ball was also cracked down on.
In the past, pitchers had been very creative in altering a ball, including using bits of sandpaper. Of course, there are rumors that tampering goes on to this day. But while the ban produced new pitches, such as the hard slider and the split-fingered fastball, it still allowed hitting stats to climb.
Adding to pitchers’ fury was that Spalding had begun to use Australian wool to create a ball that was more tightly wound. These “lively” balls became nicknamed “rabbit balls” as they were harder to grip. By 1925 the stats showed an average of 5.13 runs with .48 home runs.
1931: Cushioned Cork Gives Pitchers Some Relief
By 1930 hitters were king, and pitchers were furious. Of course, runs are crowd-pleasers, but even owners were starting to wonder if the stats were absurd. Thus, Rawlings cushioned the cork with a bit of rubber, reducing runs slightly, but still leaving them at crowd-pleasing levels.
Thus, the game appeared to find a nicely balanced ball. But then war broke out.
Balata Baseballs: Pitcher’s Darling & Hitter’s Nightmare
In 1943 World War II hurt baseball. First, it stole some of its best players. Next, it prevented access to rubber and high-grade cork. The result was granulated cork and balata rubber, also known as Gutta Balata. It comes from the bully tree in Guyana and the West Indies. The rubber behaves differently creating a hitter’s nightmare, and stats plummeted.
MBL Baseballs Return To Standard Design
After the Balata ball, the baseball returned to its general design:
- 5 – 5.25 ounces
- Cork core
- Cushioned by rubber
- Layers of cotton and wool
- Leather (cowhide or horsehide)
- 108 red double stitches of waxed thread
But as 2019 and 2022 show, controversies continue on precisely how the ball is made and whom the design favors: hitters or pitchers.
Baseballs may only have 108 double stitches, but how they are sewn in can make a massive difference to homerun stats and the type of pitches used. Thus, baseball players and fans continue to debate, “How much hitting is too much?” and “Are we losing the artistry of pitching?”
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