The live-ball era, also referred to as the lively ball era, is the period in Major League Baseball beginning in 1920, following the dead-ball era. During that year offensive statistics rose dramatically in what would be mistakenly attributed to the introduction of a new "lively" ball. The lively ball era was the era in which baseball regained relevance and exploded in popularity.
While cork-centered balls had been introduced around 1910 (and proved very hitter-friendly), the construction of the balls remained consistent between the transition from the "dead-" to "live-ball eras." More important, several rule changes gave more advantages to the batter. Before that time, the same ball would be used throughout the game and foul balls would be thrown back on the field and reused. The ball would only be replaced if it started to unravel. As games progressed, the ball would become increasingly dirty and worn, making it difficult to see and its movement erratic. Pitchers were able to help this process along by scuffing it, spitting on it and, since Russ Ford's discovery in 1913, cutting into it with an emery board. The spitball was widely used as well. These factors gave the pitcher a major advantage. The physical wear on the ball from being repeatedly hit also made it less elastic as the game progressed, making it increasingly difficult to hit for distance.
There were also rule changes that contributed to the low-scoring games. In 1901, the National League adopted the "foul-strike rule," which counted foul balls as strikes. Before this rule, batters could safely swing at many marginal pitches, which not only tired out the pitcher but also allowed for more hits because a "flukey" hit could land in play. With the introduction of the foul-strike rule, the batter had to let many more pitches "go" without being swung on, dramatically reducing the total number of hits. The American League followed suit in 1903, making the rule universal.
The dead-ball era came to an end after the fatal beaning of Cleveland Indians player Ray Chapman during the 1920 season. Chapman was killed by a submarine pitch from Carl Mays in the 5th inning of a twilight game against the New York Yankees. Witnesses stated that Chapman never moved to get out of the way of the ball, and it is assumed he simply couldn't see it. The new Commissioner of Baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, instituted several new rules during that season, both in response to Chapman's death as well as in an effort to liven up the game. Starting in 1920, balls were replaced at the first sign of wear, resulting in a ball that was much brighter and easier for a hitter to see. The other major rule change was the elimination of the spitball.
In 1920, the game changed from typically low-scoring to high-scoring games, with a newfound reliance on the home run. During that year, Babe Ruth, setting a record for slugging percentage, hit 54 home runs, smashing his old record of 29. In 1921, he broke his record again, hitting 59 home runs. Six years later, Ruth passed his 1921 mark by hitting 60 home runs, a single-season record that stood for 34 years. In 1920, George Sisler also set his long-standing record of 257 hits in a single season, which would not be eclipsed until 84 years later in 2004 when the Seattle Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki hit 262.
Successful hitters like Sisler, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker provide further evidence that the "live-ball era" is a misnomer. The established sluggers of the 1910s maintained their previous, successful hitting styles into the 1920s, choking up on the bat, striking out less and generally hitting more doubles than home runs. However, Ruth held the bat lower and swung with an uppercut, essentially trying to hit home runs. When he hit 54 home runs in 1920, it was a total greater than 14 of the other 15 teams at the time, and it nearly tripled Sisler's second-highest total of 19 that season. Seeing his success (and his popularity that followed), young players who debuted in the 1920s such as Lou Gehrig and Mel Ott followed Ruth's example, and the home run has been a significant part of baseball since.
The live-ball era also had a lasting impact on pitchers. Between 1910 and 1920, the last decade of the dead-ball era, eight pitchers had a 30-win season. Since the beginning of the 1921 season, the first full season of the live-ball era, only three pitchers have had 30-win seasons (Lefty Grove in 1931, Dizzy Dean in 1934, and Denny McLain in 1968).
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- Stewart, Gail. "1930's Timelines." CrestWood House New York, 1989.
- Stewart, Gail. "1920's Timelines." CrestWood House New York, 1989.