While an exact definition of the Deadball Era in Major League Baseball is debatable, most experts and fans agree it lasted from about 1900 to 1920. The era is marked by low scoring, the dominance of pitchers and strategic emphasis on great pitching and outstanding defensive fielding.
Some consider the era to run from the turn of the century until the emergence in 1919 of Babe Ruth as a power hitter. Others mark the end of the era with the outlawing of the spitball in 1920, which had given pitchers an extra edge on hitters.
The Beginning of the Era
The Deadball Era has no official start date, but most put it around 1901 when the American League officially started play. Also, a major rule change was put in place: Foul balls started being counted as strikes.
This had a major impact on the game. The rule started in the National League in 1901 and the American League in 1903. Previously, hitters could continuously foul off balls until seeing the pitch they wanted. Now, they could quickly accumulate two strikes.
That certainly contributed to a drop in offense. For example, the National League went from its highest amount of scoring ever in 1894 to the lowest scoring season ever in 1908.
Other Factors Leading to the Deadball Era
As noted by Baseball Reference, it’s difficult to pinpoint any one reason for the Deadball Era a century later. It seems instead to have been the result of a combination of factors, in addition to the foul ball rule change.
Here are some of the characteristics of the Deadball Era and what could have caused them.
By today’s standards, balls used in the early 20th century were nowhere near as lively. Also, balls tended to get used longer. As seams loosened, the ball could absorb more impact. Some balls were used for as many as 100 pitches.
The spitball stands as another factor. Pitchers used tobacco juice to discolor the ball (making it harder to see), scuffed it up, spit on it with or without tobacco juice – anything to make the ball move more when thrown. As noted above, this was finally outlawed in 1920, taking away a major advantage to pitchers.
Some ballparks were also much bigger, giving another advantage to pitchers, This included the Cubs home park, which was 560 feet to center field. The Boston Red Sox home field was 635 feet to centerfield.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, managers began putting more emphasis on developing a great defense (which also helped pitchers). This cut down on offensive output. Managers also put greater emphasis on contact hitting and speed on the base paths. Ty Cobb mastered both of those skills as is perhaps the biggest offensive star of the era.
Overall, the game was driven by “small ball” strategy, using hit and run plays and stolen bases to move runners around the base paths, rather than power hitting.
End of An Era
The Deadball Era produced many great pitching stars. They included Cy Young, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson. All three were clearly talented, but the rules of the Deadball Era certainly gave them even more of an edge.
Hitters could become famous with what would be considered a very small amount of power these days. For example, James Franklin “Home Run” Baker of the Philadelphia Athletics and New York Yankees led the American League in home runs four times during the Deadball Era, but never hit more than 12 in one season.
In addition to the foul ball rule change and the end of the spitball, MLB also insisted on cleaner balls after Ray Chapman of the Cleveland Indians was hit in the head with a pitch and later died (the only time this has ever happened in MLB). Umpires now started changing out balls more during a game, which lead to hitters having a better chance.
And then, of course, there was Babe Ruth. With his power and ability to hit home runs, he quickly electrified fans, which gave MLB even more incentive to change the pitching rules. It also gave managers a new strategy – power hitting. That this happened to put more people in the stands was likely no coincidence.
There’s never really been anything like the Deadball Era, except for a short period in the late 1960s and early 1970s when pitchers again dominated. But it’s been a hitter’s game for the most part ever since, making today’s top pitchers some of the best the game has ever seen – because they must be.