Tucked in the corner of the Family Studies Building where the old Lu’s Café used to be, students sat in tightly packed rows of chairs to observe a traveling Baseball Hall of Fame exhibit highlighting the evolution of baseball equipment over time.
The exhibit, presented by Educational Consultant and Museum Educator Larry Moore, gave an interactive presentation to about 20 students from Steve Wisensale’s popular Baseball and Society course. The presentation detailed how equipment like bats, balls and gloves have changed over time. While it seems like technology today has taken over the game, Moore said you can see the progression of technology through the lens of baseball equipment.
“Baseball has always been about technology,” Moore said. “Whether it’s the home team back in the 1800s deciding how to construct the ball or early bat manufacturer painting the end of the bat black—it’s always been about technology. Baseball follows the history of our country—as technology progresses so does America’s game.”
Much like a baseball player, Moore is working all year round with the exhibit, but is busiest during baseball season. For 12 years, he has gone to colleges, grade schools, Little League teams, teacher conferences and even retirement homes around New England and surrounding states with his exhibit.
Moore’s job allows him to teach people about the history of the game, something he thinks is integral to garnering more interest in the game.
“Well, probably the reaction most people have is, ‘I never knew [that].’ But probably the best is, ‘I never liked baseball but now after seeing your presentation—I really like it!’” Moore said. “It’s the history that seems to intrigue many audiences. Sometimes I believe we do not teach enough history of the game—which is really too bad because it seems to draw the audience into the game.”
Wisensale has taught in his class that the evolution of equipment has allowed the way the game is played to change along with it—for example, old catcher’s mitts were so stiff that it was difficult for them to catch any other pitch but a fastball.
“The changing design of the catcher's mitt has, in turn, changed the kinds of pitches pitchers use,” Wisensale said. “The modern mitt invites more breaking pitches. The old mitts could not handle so many breaking pitches because the mitt was not so flexible.”
Moore began the presentation showing what early bats looked like. A far cry from today’s skinny handle, thick barreled bats, bats from the 1800s were not designed to smash home runs; rather, the goal of the batter was to “strike” the ball, not swing the bat. Early bats reflected this—the thickness of the handle was almost the same as the barrel. Some bats even had tape around it to designate the “sweet spot” where the batter should be trying to hit the ball for the best results. Other bats had black tape around the end of the bat to warn players against hitting the ball there.
Moore then talked about the evolution of the baseball, which used to have rubber in its core, causing it to bounce around randomly—some of the early rules of baseball say that the first team to 100 runs would be declared the winner. To solve this, they replaced the core with hard material, like a rock, and the cover was loosely wound and incredibly soft. This was the Deadball Era ball, where home runs were rare and the game was all about singles and doubles.
But the ball became harder, bats became shorter and lighter, and Babe Ruth started mashing home runs, forever changing the game and its equipment. With harder balls came more protective gloves, more apt for catching hard throws and fast pitches, and with more difficult pitches came lighter bats with thinner handles to make hitting easier as the game became more strategic.
Now, there are multitude of bat companies outside of the household brand Louisville Slugger; Marucci is the most popular bat in Major League Baseball. Moore’s favorite part of the traveling exhibit is getting to explain this history to people and the significance behind every change.
“It’s the history around that mundane glove or bat. How did that glove come about or how was that bat used are the stories I love telling to the audiences,” Moore said. “Sort of gets my juices flowing and allows me to draw the people in to these great stories. Making the audience think is so important to drawing them in to what is being presented.”
This is the first year Wisensale has had a traveling exhibit in his class and seeing the actual equipment instead of just talking about it has an impact on how he and his students understand the game.
“I found Lou Gehrig's first baseman's mitt interesting. I need to watch him in a film in which he is fielding,” Wisensale said. “I am curious how he actually caught the ball with that mitt. It is quite small.”
Ryan Jovanelly, an eighth-semester MIS major and a student in Wisensale’s class, said seeing the exhibit really supplemented what he learned in class and it helped him understand everything in context.
“My favorite part of the exhibit was seeing the evolution of the bats players used over time,” Jovanelly said. “The exhibit complemented what we have been learning in class and made the material come alive.”