The Complicated History of Baseball Stitching Machines

As the Texas Rangers battle the San Francisco Giants in the 2010 World Series, the 106th installment of the most American of championship series, we're taking a step back here on the Technology Channel. This isn't the place for cheer for one team or the other, but it is a place to celebrate one of the most basic components of the game -- the baseball -- and the surprisingly complicated history of attempts at mass producing it.

A professional baseball only lasts for an average of six pitches before being retired, according to Major League Baseball. That means somewhere between five and six dozen balls will be used in every game of this series, which could last for seven games. 500 balls! And each one was hand sewn by Rawlings Sportings Goods, Inc. in Costa Rica, which holds an exclusive contract. That bit of news would give Henry Ford nightmares. Obviously, it would make sense to put together a machine for stitching the leather onto baseballs, but, to this day, nobody has been able to successfully pull it off.

This post was originally published on the Smithsonian Collections Blog as part of a 31-day Blogathon in October for American Archives Month and republished on the National Museum of American History's "O Say Can You See?" blog. It is republished here with permission. It was written by Alison Oswald, an archivist in the museum's Archives Center.

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An Undercover Invention: Baseball Covers and Stitching

For baseball fans everywhere, October is a sacred time. It signals that The Fall Classic or the World Series is almost upon us. With talk of pennant races, batting averages, and future trades, it's hard to escape baseball. While cruising through the vast holdings of the Archives Center (over 20,000 linear feet of stuff) I recently discovered a hidden gem that many baseball fans will find interesting. It's the fascinating yet little known story of an experimental baseball stitching machine made by the United Shoe Machinery Corporation (USMC) of Beverly, Massachusetts. I had a vague recollection that baseballs were hand sewn, but surely technology had caught up with this small, but significant cultural object. I guessed wrong. The baseball is a complicated little sphere. I began to delve deeper and what I discovered is that the baseball cover stitching process has resisted mechanization.

The United Shoe Machinery Company was formed in 1899 by the consolidation of the most important shoe machinery firms in the industry -- Goodyear Machinery Company (made machinery for sewing the sole to the upper in welt shoes), Consolidated Hand Lasting Machine Company (made machines for lasting a shoe), and McKay Shoe Machinery Company (made machines for attaching soles and heels). On May 1, 1905, the new company became officially known as the United Shoe Machinery Corporation. The merger revolutionized shoe equipment manufacturing and the shoe industry itself. With this merger, conflicting patents were eliminated and patents supplementing each other were brought under United's control to permit their prompt combination in a single machine or process. To ensure efficiency, the new company also continued the practice previously followed by its constituent firms of renting machinery instead of selling it. After the 1899 merger, United grew rapidly. By 1910, it had an eighty percent share of the shoe machinery market, with assets reaching forty million dollars, and it had acquired control of branch companies in foreign countries. USMC was headquartered in Boston, and its main manufacturing plant was in Beverly, Massachusetts.

Baseball2.jpgUSMC applied the company's expertise in machine technology to other areas of development in order to diversify its product line. Under the direction of the Research Division, the company engaged in military, computer, and other automation projects. The EX files or "experimental files" in the collection represent ordinary experimentation related to the development and improvement of shoe manufacturing machinery, and work done in connection with the company's post-World War Two diversification efforts. The files cover all aspects of an experimental project, from conception through the experimental working out of problems, to the final decision to adopt or not adopt the idea for production. They also provide information on the functions of the Research Division, the manner in which it operated, and the way in which production decisions were made. In particular, they illustrate the Division's interaction and cooperation with the company's Patent Department. The files usually contain notes, technical drawings, photographs, and patent information.

Starting as early as 1949, the company undertook three experiments to create a baseball stitching machine: EX#16002, EX#16116, and EX#16279. These three projects document experimental work in the area of baseballs, specifically of automatic controls, component inserting, and stitching. The objective of the experimental projects, according to a July 11, 1950 work request, was "to develop a suitable baseball covering equipment for mechanizing to the greatest practical extent both parts of the present discretionary hand lasting-lacing operation." The full development included an analysis of the hand procedure and how each portion of that work would be handled. The ball starts as a round cushioned cork center called a "pill," then is wrapped tightly in windings of wool and polyester/cotton yarn, and then covered by stitched cowhide. The process of assembling a baseball involves two types of workers: assemblers (who assemble the core parts of the baseball) and sewers (who stitch the cowhide covers onto the baseball by hand). There are 108 stitches in the cowhide leather of each ball, and each is done by hand.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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