Living through the Rabbit Ball in 1987

Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE

With Japanese officials admitting to juicing the baseball this season, we take a look back at how Americans reacted to the same suspicions during the 1987 season.

There was some intriguing news out of Japan this week. Japanese baseball officials, after denying for months that increased offensive performance this year was due to a change in the ball, issued a statement admitting just that. Mizuno, makers of the Nippon Professional Baseball League balls, had altered the ball at the league's orders. The goal was to boost scoring and it worked. Boy did it work, with a 40-percent increase in home runs this season. I guess it was just too obvious of a change to continue to lie about.

It's a good thing we would never see something like that in good ol' Major League Baseball, right?

Well ...

Now, there's never been anything to verify this (other than a plethora of circumstantial evidence), but the consensus is that Major League Baseball did something similar in 1987. After a big-league record for most home runs in a season in 1986, home runs suddenly increased by an additional 20 percent -- that's 700 home runs! -- that season.

It was the season that 23-year-old Mark McGwire hit 49 home runs as a rookie. Wade Boggs hit 24, and never topped 11 in any other year in his career. Andre Dawson turned his 49 home runs for the last-place Cubs into a National League MVP (and, eventually, a Hall of Fame plaque). George Bell nearly mirrored the feat, though his 47 home runs and American League MVP award came for the second-place Blue Jays. The likes of Matt Nokes, Mike Pagliarulo, and Howard Johnson all hit 30 home runs that year as well. Many pages of newsprint were spent on the power-hitting ways of Eric Davis, Pete Incaviglia, Juan Samuel, Cory Snyder ... the list goes on and on.

We've seen crazy seasons before, of course. We're still feeling the effects of a decade-long power era that once saw Richard Hidalgo sock 44 home runs. What makes everyone so certain that 1987 was more than a mere aberration is how quickly everything went back to normal. Where there were more than 20 sluggers hitting at least 30 homers in 1987, there were only five in 1988. If Major League Baseball were a stock broker investing in the home-run market, that kind of suspicious over-correction would have the feds breaking down their doors in no time.

Looking back, the 1987 rabbit-ball year is most interesting for how the suspicions were handled. There were no super-secret hush-hush discussions about what the league might be trying to pull. Everyone was up front with their suspicions, with players and press talking about it openly. It was a major topic of conversation at the All-Star break, for example. However, while almost everyone seemed to know the ball was juiced, everyone else spent plenty of energy trying to prove that just wasn't true.

Players and managers talked about the "lively" ball throughout the year. Sparky Anderson, then the manager of the Tigers, said "Can you imagine the Big Red Machine with that nitroglycerin ball? … Souped? These balls just fly." Jack Morris: "Yes, I think the balls are different." Mike Scott: "I really think that the balls are going farther." Jay Howell joked, "I think it might be something in the trees, maybe it's acid rain causing a hardening of the wood." Bert Blyleven suspected a rabbit ball too. "There's a whole family in there." Garth Iorg, after hitting two home runs: "I'd been hearing about it, but I felt left out. Now I've finally gotten in on the jackrabbit ball." Pitching coach Herm Starette: "The ball is juiced." And Pete Rose: "I definitely think there's a livelier ball."

Even 41-year-old and long-retired Bobby Bonds could tell what was going on: "I've taken batting practice and I've hit those balls... I've hit the ball as far as I did when I was 25 years old. I'm not that strong. I hit balls really terrible and they go over the fence. When I was playing, I'd hit balls and say, 'Oh my God,' and it didn't go out. Now I hit balls and I say, 'Oh my God,' and they clear the fence by 30 feet. All the tests can't convince me. I don't need tests on some machine. I go by contact."

But it wasn't enough to look at the alarming increase in home runs and accept one of the obvious answers: a livelier ball, or random statistical fluctuation. Instead, the writers had to come up with a range of other theories.

Frank Deford wrote about the rumors for Sports Illustrated. His piece was as dismissive of the rabbit ball as Sparky Anderson was certain of it. Among a list of possible explanations for how such a conspiracy would come about, Deford winked, "The major league owners had a secret meeting and agreed to liven up the ball. Since then, for months, they have kept a blood oath and not told another living soul. Or maybe "Colonel Mustard did it in the laboratory with a rabbit." He also pointed out that the "yuppie and DINK crowd" of current pitchers just didn't have "the Protestant ethic and commitment to the long haul" that the post-war pitchers of Marichal and Seaver clearly did.

Then there was Washington Post columnist George Will, who found something else to blame: "The sudden disequilibrium between hitting and pitching does have something to do with a new technology -- the aluminum bat used by high schools and colleges to save money." Since it's harder to get fastballs by the quick-moving aluminum bats, Will reasoned, pitchers rely too much on "breaking, sinking pitches that wear out arms." Will also cited organized youth baseball, and weight training.

Blogger Murray Chass, in his former life as a New York Times columnist, wrote about the many offensive oddities of the season's first few months before excusing it away. In his Sports of the Times piece, Chass quoted M. Scott Smith, public-relations manager for Rawlings, the baseball manufacturer. "It's a spring ritual to ask the question and it's a spring ritual on our end to say we don't know why it happens."

One Pittsburgh newspaper went to a number of front-office types to get alternative theories on what was causing the increased offense. Syd Thrift blamed rushing pitchers to the big leagues. Ray Miller agreed, though he also offered off-season training and "top-notch athletes" leaving the pitching ranks as other excuses.

"Ten years ago, the great athletes were pitchers," Miller said. "Jack Morris, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Jim Palmer -- guys like that. Now the top-notch athletes aren't pitchers. The quality athletes go into other sports or they become hitters."

Another theory? Lively bats. Ozzie Virgil, who would hit a career-best 27 home runs in 1987, talked about his more balanced bat. "It's not bottom-heavy the way it was and I'm able to get on top of the pitch a little bit more." A better crop of wood and a tendency towards tapered bats were also offered as explanations.

There were almost as many non-rabbit-ball theories as there were sportswriters. Not that we can truly blame these writers for trying to find a theory for the odd offensive year that didn't boil down to a conspiracy involving "commissioner Peter Ueberroth, sort of a rich man's Ollie North" going down to Haiti on a top-secret mission and changing the balls without anyone's knowledge (though we have to thank Frank Deford for giving us that idea). After all, these writers were living and writing these stories as the events unfolded. They had no way to know that, just one year later, power numbers would return to pre-1987 levels and stay there for nearly ten years.

Sure, home runs were up 20 percent over the year before, but, considering just how much things had been changing in recent years, people had legitimate reasons to suspect any of these other theories. Expansion, wood bats, aluminum bats, small strike zones, the elimination of the umpire chest pad, acid rain, breaking pitches, MTV, corked bats -- why not?

Looking back now, it seems obvious that there was something weird going on that season. Blips like that just don't happen on their own, and fans at the time understood that. Much like Japanese baseball fans in 2013, they clamored for the obvious answer; it just never came. As these quotes from the time show us, however, we did learn one thing: when faced with an unanswerable question, writers and coaches and players will look for explanations everywhere.

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