Friday, January 23, 2015

Baseball's version of 'Deflategate'

It has come to my attention that in the grotesquely popular spectacle/sport that is the NFL a controversy has erupted over whether a team tampered with the gameballs and garnered a competitive advantage by having said balls in sub-optimal condition.

For the baseball fan conversant with the history of the superior game, this is a big "been there, done that." And I'm not talking about spitballs, shineballs, scuffballs or any other pitcher shenanigans intended to enhance a pitch's movement. I'm talking about the ball before it's put into play.

The 1967 American League pennant race was a real doozy. Four of the 10 teams in the league -- Boston, Minnesota, Detroit and Chicago -- went to the final weekend for the pennant, and the first three teams were all still in it on the final day.

White Sox manager Eddie Stanky had a gifted pitching staff and a solid set of fielders but a lineup almost completely without power. This may sound odd to modern fans, used to the Sox as a collection of defensively challenged sluggers, but it was was typical of the White Sox back then; for decades, the franchise's operating philosophy was that if you never give up a run, eventually the opposition will make a mistake and give you one.

But even by White Sox standards, the '67 squad was challenged at the plate. Stanky, a disciple of Leo Durocher, came up with an inventive, if  unethical, solution for home games. The baseballs at Comiskey Park were stored in a damp storage room -- so damp, the story goes, that the balls (dozens of them) brought out for each home game had to be wiped clean of mildew and put in fresh boxes before being delivered to the umpires.

The soggy, moisture-laden balls didn't go far when struck solidly. Since the Sox didn't strike many balls solidly, that wasn't much of an issue for them, and the power gap with the opposition was thinned.

That may have worked for the Sox at home, but Stanky didn't have control over the baseballs for their road games. The Sox went 49-33 at home with the tampered balls, 40-40 on on the road. (I'm not sure how they wound up with an extra home game, but those numbers come from Baseball Reference.) As it turned out, the Sox had a better road record than two of the contenders, but they still finished three games out of first place.

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