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Book Review: The Baseball: Stunts, Scandals, and Secrets Beneath the Stitches by Zack Hample

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If you didn’t know what a juiced baseball was before picking up The Baseball: Stunts, Scandals, and Secrets Beneath the Stitches by Zack Hample, you sure will by the time you finish it. Famous ballhawk Zack Hample recounts loads of fun facts and figures about the baseball. The actual ball, not just the sport, in case you were confused about the title. Hample may go on a bit too long about the ins and outs of the history of the manufacture of the balls, down to weight in fractional ounces. But there are so many fun stories interspersed throughout that you can excuse his obsessive need to share the almost moment-by-moment evolution of the major league baseball.

I found quite interesting that the baseball, taken for granted by most fans, except in their desire for a souvenir, has been a constant source of controversy in relation to how games are scored and players are performing. With all the steroids scandals in recent years it was interesting to learn that similar scandals have always plagued the sport — many centered on the actual ball and if it was up to standards.

Hample takes the reader inside the Rawlings Costa Rican baseball production factory — apparently a  top-secret operation. He also relates the interesting story of Albert Spalding, a pitcher in the early days of the baseball (1871), who retired from the sport in 1878 to build his sporting goods business. He was a ruthless businessman and pretty much created a monopoly to produce the baseballs and other sporting equipment. The Spalding company bought out every major competitor, including Rawlings. But the contract to produce major league baseballs was transferred suddenly to rival Rawlings in 1976. Why? Was Spalding still involved somehow in baseball production? Hample doesn’t tell us, which is odd, considering his ability to cram in so many facts and figures elsewhere in Stunts, Scandals, and Secrets, and especially since he got us interested in mid-nineteenth century business practices and the history of the company in the first place.

But there are plenty of other fun stories, such as Pete Rose and the “rabbit” ball. For the 1978 All-Star Game Rose had his National League teammates use Japanese baseballs during batting practice (they’e smaller than major league balls, so travel farther) and the hapless American Leaguers watched as their rivals whacked them out of the park. The American League players couldn’t understand why their batting practice was so lackluster in comparison (Rose and his comrades had removed all the Japanese baseballs after their practice.) The psych-out trick must have worked because the National League won the game, 7-3.

Baseball is a sport that inspires passion — players for the sport, fans for their teams, but also passion towards the minutia, the statistics. There are many who are fascinated by the science of baseball. Hample is definitely one of those people thrilled by the details and crazy lore of baseball and baseballs. And he’s not alone. Stunts like dropping baseballs out of airplanes, blimps, and off the Washington Monument, all to see if a player could catch them — and this was before players wore gloves — have been going on since the late 1800s.

Another interesting story he recounts is about baseball mud — actual mud that is collected and rubbed onto every major league baseball, to make the ball’s surface better for pitchers, have less glare, and provide better contact for batters… mud from some undisclosed creek in New Jersey — who knew?

Hample is best known for his ability to snag a ball at a game. He has caught more than 4,600 major league baseballs and is happy to help others get started doing the same. The second part of Stunts, Scandals, and Secrets focuses on his tips for walking home from a major league game with at least one baseball. Many of his tips are just common sense, like getting to the park early for batting practice, as you’ll have a better chance snagging a ball in an empty-ish stadium. And be the last to leave, same reasoning. Sort of the opposite of party etiquette, but you’re there to get a free baseball, not drink tea. Some of his strategies seem a little crazy — spending the game on your feet; running from seating section to section in potential pursuit of a fly foul ball or home run, based on whether the hitter is a right- or left-handed batter. Odds are, left field is your best bet, if you’re planning on watching the game on the run. Not my idea of a good time, but maybe that’s me.

I come from a family of longtime Yankees fans and when we go to a ballgame we’re there to watch it — some of us maybe even to keep score. Also, when I was a kid and attended my brother’s first little league game I happened to be standing in the perfect spot behind the batting cage for a foul pop-up to hit me on the top of my head. I wasn’t injured, just embarrassed, but when I see a ball heading for the stands my tendency is to still cover my head, letting all the ballhawks make their leaps and stretches for the souvenir ball.

But whether you intend to put Hample’s ball-snagging techniques to the test or not, The Baseball is an entertaining read. He stretched my credibility with his homemade ball-scooper — until he showed his step-by-step photos to making your very own from some string, a mitt, and a sharpie. Don’t believe me? Check out page 224. It’s not that it seems impossible to make a baseball-grabbing tool, just a little nutty that he would go ahead and use it at a major league ballpark. But that’s how you get over 4,600 souvenir baseballs and counting.

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