Although legend has it that a student in Cooperstown, New York invented baseball in 1839, in all likelihood it evolved from the game of cricket. The sport was less than organized in its early days, and the ball went through many transformations in the 19th century on its way to becoming the baseball used by Major League Baseball in the millennium.
The first baseballs had anything from a walnut to a rock in the center. Yarn or string was wrapped around any solid substance. The string was then encased in leather. Players made their own or had them made for them to their own specifications. Since the custom was for the first teams of the 1850s to supply the balls for a game, games were dramatically swayed by the choice of a ball with properties that suited a team’s style of play.
As baseball became more organized in the 1850s, meetings periodically took place between teams and governing bodies to decide on the best weight, dimension and construction of the baseball. Rules were changed, then changed again. In 1854, three New York teams decided they would use balls that weighed 5½ to 6 ounces. The weight changed to between 6 and 6¼ ounces three years later. In 1858, it was decided that the center be made of India rubber. In 1860, everything changed again. The official weight of a baseball was reduced back to 5¾ ounces, then to 5 ½ ounces in 1861, and to 5¼ ounces in 1867. In 1871, it was decided that the weight of the rubber inside should be no more than 1 ounce. This seemed to satisfy everyone, because the baseball did not change again throughout the remainder of the 19th century. As of 2011, MLB rules specify that the center can be made of any rubber or cork and the ball must weigh between 5 and 5¼ ounces.
Notable Ball Makers
Through most of the 1800s, a few companies dominated the manufacturing of baseballs as the sport progressed and players gave up on making their own. H.P. Harwood and Sons produced the first commercially made baseballs in 1858. John Van Horn, who also played second base for the Baltic Club in New York, was the leading producer of baseballs in the 1860s. Albert Spalding’s company took over in 1878 and continued to supply the National League until 1977 when MLB switched to Rawlings. In 1998, MLB purchased more than 600,000 baseballs from Rawlings, according to the American Chemical Society.
The last notable change to baseballs came about in 1974 when MLB changed the outside covering to cowhide from horsehide, as horsehide became hard to come by. Major League Baseball now puts its baseballs through stringent testing before play. They are shot from an air cannon at a speed of 85 feet per second at a wall of northern white ash and must rebound at no more than 0.578 percent of their original speed.
When pitchers began complaining in 1921 that they could not get a good grip on new balls, umpires began the practice of rubbing them before a game. Lena Blackburne’s Rubbing Mud is currently used, and its exact recipe is a deep secret. Rawlings also now makes baseballs with microchips inside that record a ball's speed.