Most die-hard baseball fans are well aware that Rawlings has been the official and exclusive supplier of baseballs for Major League Baseball for over a quarter-century. They may even know that each Rawlings Official Major League Baseball (ROMLB) is made in Costa Rica. But what most baseball enthusiasts might not know is the extreme scrutiny and the barrage of tests and inspections that every baseball must go through before they ever reach the pitcher’s mound of every MLB ballparks across the country and Canada.
Rawlings Sporting Goods began manufacturing baseballs in 1955 when Spalding bought out the company. And even though American League and National League balls were both made by Rawlings, American League balls were stamped with the Rawlings logo and National League balls were stamped with the Spalding logo. Because of an anti-trust investigation in 1968, Spalding was forced to sell the Rawlings portion of its company but entered into a contractual agreement with Rawlings to have them continue manufacturing National League baseballs with the Spalding logo on them.
In 1977 Spalding’s exclusive National League naming agreement expired and Rawlings began using their own trademark logo on both American League and National League baseballs. Although identical, each league’s ball had their own league logo with their respective president’s name stamped on them. The American League balls were in blue ink and the National League in black ink. Even though Rawlings has actually been making Major League baseballs for both leagues since 1955, it wasn’t until 1977 that Rawlings was recognized as the official and exclusive manufacturer for both leagues – hence that quarter-century thing instead of more than a half-century, which it has actually been.
Up until 1987, all Rawlings baseballs were manufactured in Haiti, but sensing political instability in the small island country, Rawlings opened a second factory in the friendly Central America country of Costa Rica. This move proved to be a wise one for Rawlings, as increasing political tension forced Rawlings to shut down their Haiti factory in 1990 and allowed the Costa Rica factory to continue manufacturing baseballs without interruption.
In 2000, Major League Baseball did away with individual league presidents, thus giving full governing authority over both leagues to the commissioner of baseball. At this same time, the MLB also did away with league-specific baseballs (even though they were the exact same ball but with separate league markings) and went with a single identical logo for both leagues – thus the ROMLB was born.
Rawlings now produces 80,000 dozen ROMLBs annually at its Costa Rica plant – this not counting baseballs made exclusively for the World Series, the All-Star Game and other special events such as the World Baseball Classic, etc.
Rawlings also makes all official Minor League baseballs, but do so at a factory located in China. Unlike the Major League balls made in Costa Rica, the Minor League balls include a stamp indicating that they were made in China. This is probably due to some type of trade agreement between China and the United States.
MLB’s strict specifications for the manufacturing of each ROMLB calls for a cork center (called a “pill”) that is wrapped in two thin rubber layers and weights exactly 7/8 oz. This pill is then machine-wound under consistent tension with 121 yards of four-ply blue-gray wool yarn, 45 yards of three-ply white wool yarn, 53 more yards of three-ply blue-gray wool yarn, and 150 yards of fine white poly-wool blend yarn. When finished, the yarn-covered ball (called a “center”) is coated with an adhesive and two separate pieces of elongated figure-8-shaped white cowhide covers are placed on it. Once the covers are applied to the center, they are double stitched together by hand using 88 inches of 10/5 red cotton thread. It takes approximately 10 minutes to hand sew the 108 stitches into each baseball, with the first and last stitches completely hidden. Once stitched, the ball is machine rolled for 15 seconds to assure that the newly sewed seams are flat and even. The balls are then stamped with the Rawlings trademark, the MLB logo, and the commissioner’s signature and allowed to dry for a week. When finished, each ROMLB must weigh between 5.0 and 5.25 oz and be within a tolerance of 2.86 to 2.94 inches in diameter and 9 to 9.25 inches in circumference.
Although ROMLBs are manufactured in Costa Rica, the cowhide for the covers actually comes from the United States and is closely inspected for 17 different defects such as stretch marks, tick bites, barbwire marks, etc. and is tested for tensile strength. It is then sent to the Tennessee Tanning Company in Tullahoma, TN where it is alum tanned (which gives it its bright white color) and then shipped to Costa Rica.
But wait… there’s more!
Completed balls are then inspected for weight and diameter to confirm that they meet the strict MLB specifications and several balls from each shipment are randomly selected and shot from an air cannon at 85 feet per second against a wall made of northern white ash (the same wood used to make baseball bats). Each tested ball must bounce back between 0.514 and 0.578 of its original speed to be suitable for MLB use. The balls are then shipped to the U.S. where they are again inspected by weight and diameter. ROMLBs that make the cut are then sent to each of the 30 MLB teams for game use and those that do not are sold on the retail market (for collectors and autograph seekers, etc.) or sold to MLB teams at a reduced price to be used for batting practice balls or for promotional purposes.
But wait… there’s still more!
Once an MLB team receives its shipment of ROMLBs, each ball is hand rubbed with a special mud that comes from a remote (and secret) stretch of the Delaware River in New Jersey. It is this mud that gives each game-used ROMLB its off-white and slightly darkened color – almost dirty looking (go figure).
Rubbing mud onto the balls removes the ball’s slick, shiny outer coating, allowing pitchers to have a better grip and more control. It also dulls the bright white sheen on them which, if not done, gives a distinct advantage to hitters. Hitters, on the other hand, will sometimes argue that a ball with too much mud is too dark and makes it difficult to see (and hit). This is why umpiring crews closely examine each and every mud-rubbed baseball (for consistency) in the umpire’s room prior to every MLB game.
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- Six to seven dozen baseballs are used in a typical Major League game.
- The average life of a baseball in the Majors is 6 pitches.
- The terms “live ball” and “dead ball” have been applied to baseballs for more than 100 years. In the early years of the game, the home team was expected to provide the game balls and a good hitting team would wind their baseballs tightly for a lively (live ball) effect, while a good defensive team would wind their baseballs looser for a softer (dead ball) effect.
- In 1857 the length of a game was set at nine innings and pitching was done “underarm” (underhand) from a distance of 45 feet and the batter was out if a fielder caught the ball on the first bounce.
- In 1978 Rawlings began manufacturing the commemorative ROMLB World Series game baseballs with distinctive trademarked logos. Rawlings continues to manufacture these event-specific baseballs for three years following the actual event.
- Since 1983 Rawlings has been manufacturing special commemorative ROMLBs for events such inaugural stadium openings, franchise or stadium anniversaries (such as this year’s Dodger Stadium 50th anniversary), and other milestone events such as Derek Jeter’s 2,000th hit, to name just a few.
(Article re-posted from October 17, 2012)