December 14, 2015

The Historic Quest For Speed In Baseball

“Humans are amazing throwers. We are unique among all animals in our ability to throw projectiles at high speed and with incredible accuracy.” (Dr. Neil Roach)

Rapid rotation of the upper arm in throwing is the fastest motion the human body produces. It goes up to nine thousand degrees (of rotation) per second in professional pitchers, writes Cristopher McDougall in his book. A 95 mph fastball travels from the mound to the plate in 0.395 of a second which is faster than time needed to complete a full blink – 0.40 seconds.

While other variables like good control, command, movement and changing speeds are still needed, it’s no wonder that an explosive fastball alone can still get a pitcher to college and help him enter the professional baseball.

One of the things that we take for granted these days is the ballpark speed gun. Baseball celebrates radar love at nearly every game, where the speeds of pitches are posted on ballpark scoreboards or Fox TV broadcasts. Danny Knobler calls this the radar gun revolution: “The radar gun has changed how we watch baseball. We admire a pitcher who can toy with a lineup without throwing hard. But we pick up the phone to call our friends when we see one who can hit triple-digits on the gun with ease.” Marlins General Manager Dave Dombrowski confirms this view: “People are fascinated with velocity. It’s the speed. That’s why we put the speeds up on the scoreboard. It’s a way of entertaining the fans.” Indeed, the speed of pitched balls has been of intense interest since the earliest days of baseball. Team owners and newsmen have long known that the public has a thirst for fastball speeds.

We cared about velocity even before we could measure it with modern technology today. But it’s easy to forget that before the radar gun was invented in 1954, it was nearly impossible to accurately measure the speed of a pitched ball. So, how did they measure the pitching velocity back in the days?

In the past, baseball had resorted to some odd stunts to satisfy fans’ appetite for speed. It all started back in 1912, which is the year of the first scientific test of a pitcher’s speed.

Baseball Magazine editor F.C. Lane organized a speed test on October 6th 1912, between Washington’s Walter “The Train” Johnson and Brooklyn’s Nap Rucker, two of baseball’s fastest pitchers, at the Remington Arms Co. bullet testing range in Bridgeport, CT.

A special chronograph was used for this purpose, one that was used by army to measure the speed of bullets at that time. This cronograph was a 2 x 2 feet large and 15 feet long tunnel of copper wires ending at a steel plate. It measured the speed of the ball as it passed the front end of the tunnel until it smashed into a steel plate at the end of the tunnel. The first-ever measured pitching velocities were 83 mph (Walter Johnson) and 77 mph (Nap Rucker). As the device measured the pitches at the end of their flight, after they’d lost several miles per hour of initial speed, one could hardly say the measurements were accurate or comparable to the later measurement efforts. Nevertheless, Johnson and Rucker became a sensation and made headlines all over the country.

scoutee smart speed radar gun San Francisco Call

Two years later, in 1914, came the famous speeding motorcycle test, this time on a closed-off street near the Chicago’s Lincoln park. The pitcher was again Walter Johnson, but the experiment looked a lot different. Motorcycle was driving at a constant speed in a direction from pitcher towards the target 60.5 feet away. At the same time the pitcher threw the ball into the target. Based on the motorcycle speed (86 mph) and on the distance between the pitcher and the motorcycle at the moment of throw (motorcycle 2 feet beyond a pitcher) and at the moment of hitting the target (ball 13 feet ahead of motorcycle) they were able to calculate Johnson’s ball speed (99.7 mph).

Also in 1914, Johnson was tested once again with yet another method – a ballistic pendulum. The pendulum consisted of a clayey or muddy bob, which served as a target for throwing ball. Ball hitting the muddy bob sticked in it, and the pendulum swinged up. By measuring how high the pendulum swinged up, they were able to calculate how fast the ball went, and they could do it quite accurately. Johnson’s speed was 99.7 mph this time around, but the measured speed refers to the time when ball hit the pendulum, not when thrown out of pitcher’s hand.

In 1917 Frank Gilbreth, a famous “efficiency engineer”, analyzed film to best estimate the speed of the pitch (Art Fromme and others), using a hand-cranked camera, a special-made watch, and a grid-backdrop. Here’s the description of the experiment: “Since it is necessary to know the time occupied in carrying out a given motion, sometimes to the thousandth of a second, and since camera cranks are never turned uniformly, Mr. Gilbreth has invented a special clock which is photographed with the scene. It is a very peculiar clock; for it has only one hand which makes six revolutions every second. That clock appears on every film and the position of its hand enables Mr. Gilbreth to determine the speed of a motion down to the one-millionth of an hour. Behind the catcher, a background is hung, ruled off into one foot squares. Every movement of the pitcher, catcher, batter, ball and bat is photographed against that background. Thus by referring to that background in the film the direction and extent of every motion can be accurately determined.” In spite of highly accurate clock used, the obtained speed results (two and a half miles a minute or approximately 150 mph) were obviously overrated which causes doubts in overall accuracy of this method.

scoutee smart speed radar gun Frank Gilbreth pitching experiment

In the year 1930 a new device, similar to the one from 1912, was invented. It was called the “Boulenge chronograph” and the difference between this and the old device was that there was only 6 foot gap between the front and back of the tunnel (instead of 15 foot gap as in the 1912 device). The measurements with the chronograph took place at the West Point Military Academy.

Nine years later, in 1939, a photo-electric speed meter was developed by the Cleveland Indians and Cleveland Plain Dealer. The machine had a 3 foot gap from front to back. It clocked the ball in the interval it passed between two photoelectric circuits at the front and back end of the machine. There were several different pitchers who tried out this new device, including the Yankees pitcher Atley Donald (94.7 mph) and the Indians pitcher Bob “Rapid Robert” Feller (81 mph). The measurement was performed at the location of the clocking device which was several tens of feet away from the pitcher. There was skepticism about the validity of this machine since Feller’s speed was lower than that of several other players on his own team.

scoutee smart speed radar gun Cleveland Indians photo-electric speed meter

Steve Lyons and Burton Rocks write in their book that Feller, back in the days before radar guns, took the notion of throwing heat to an entirely new level. Lots of people thought Bullet Bob Feller was the hardest thrower in the majors in 1940, so one day they decided to put it to the test in the best way they could think of: Feller repeated the famous speeding motorcycle test from 1914 by putting his fastball up against a speeding motorcycle. Here’s how they set up the race: a motorcycle was going to drive past Feller at 86 mphy, and at that exact moment Bob would uncork his best fastball at a target 60’6’’ away. You probably guessed how this turned out – Bob’s fastball won. The final estimate was his pitch was going 104 mph. You can even see the footage of this “race” below.

Several years later, Feller was wearing a baseball uniform and pitching from a mound when his delivery was measured by an electric-zone device at the Aberdeen Ordinance Plant in Washington, D.C., and was clocked at 107.9-mph.

“Joe Chronograph” machine was a military photoelectric-cell device used to gauge the speed of projectiles, developed by US Army Ordinance Department in 1946. This device measured the speed of the ball as it passed into the front end which was 5 feet in front of home plate and the back end which was at home plate. The device measured the speed for this 5 foot interval. The device was considered more efficient than the earlier testing devices. Bob Feller was again the testing object and the measurements took place at Maryland’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds. Feller’s maximum pitch velocity within this testing was 98.6 mph.

In September 1953, The NY TV station WABD promoted a one game test before a Sunday double header at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, NY. DuMont Laboratories, Inc. using their “cathode-ray oscillograph” (basically a stopwatch), plus two v-shaped photoelectric ‘screens’ to start and stop it, tested the pitching speed of at least three Brooklyn Dodger pitchers. They pitched from the mound through the device at home plate. They were clocked as follows – Joe Black 93.2 mph, Johnny Podres 88.5 mph, and Bob Milliken 83.5 mph. Billy Loes and Ben Wade were reported to have been tested, but no record has been found of the results.

scoutee smart speed radar gun DuMont Laboratories cathode-ray oscillograph test

A year later, in 1954, the Orioles were hyping their move to Baltimore, so Collier’s magazine wanted to test the speed of the Orioles rookie sensation “Bullet” Bob Turley’s fastball for a story. So “Bullet” Bob Turley was tested in Baltimore Stadium in May 1954. Collier’s described it this way: “A Du Mont cathode-ray oscillograph test, arranged recently by Collier’s, proved that Turley throws a ball from the mound through two light screens six inches apart in .00362 seconds.” They described the result as 94.2 mph and the media summed it up as “the fastest ball since Feller’s”.

scoutee smart speed radar gun bullet bob

The same year, in 1954, radar gun was invented, which forever changed the name of the game. Radar gun uses the Doppler effect, named after an Austrian physicist Christian Andreas Doppler who first described in 1842, how the observed frequency of light and sound waves was affected by the relative motion of the source and the detector. This phenomenon became known as the Doppler effect.

Originally, the radar speed gun was invented by John L. Barker Sr., and Ben Midlock, who developed a radar for the military out of primitive coffee cans while working for the Automatic Signal Company in Norwalk, CT during World War II. The first mass market radar gun was later invented by Bryce K. Brown of Decatur Electronics in March 1954 and first used in Chicago, Illinois. Brown along with a team of scientists was looking for a more effective way for police forces to track speeds and catch offenders. Even with the introduction of accurate radar in 1954, and radar use becoming more popular, the idea did not truly take off until the 1960s, when police officers began using radar guns to track automobile speeds.

It took a while since the modern radar gun was adopted to baseball by Danny Litwhiler, coach at Michigan State, in 1974. Coach Litwhiler was “a man of firsts” – during his professional baseball career, he was the first Major Leaguer to have an error-free season. That same season, 1942, he also became the first player to stitch together the fingers of his glove. During his coaching career he invented a very effective method of drying baseball fields after rain using calcined clay as marketed as “Diamond Grit”, enabling resumed play very quickly and thus saving millions of dollars over the decades for organized baseball.

scoutee smart speed radar gun michigan state coach danny litwhiler

But most importantly, Coach Litwhiler also invented the use of the radar gun for timing pitches, which effectively revolutionized the game of baseball for pitchers. He saw campus police using radar to time speeding cars and thought it could be useful also in baseball. He first rented the radar from the police officer, but later on bought one from MSU police. Litwhiler then contacted John Paulson, inventor of the JUGS Pitching Machine, to see if he would be interested in making a radar gun for baseball. “I told him of the radar gun idea for baseball, and he was interested,” said Litwhiler. “It took us several months to get the radar gun to the point where it would track a baseball every time. The radar gun had to be re-tuned. So it went back and forth until it was perfected. John came up with a portable gun that could be used any place on the field or indoors. It operated on a rechargeable battery.” This radar enabled the measurement at the pitcher’s hand or few feet away.

scoutee smart speed radar gun old speedgun

Litwhiler quickly began spreading the gospel of the gun, and the device made its first major league appearance in 1975 when the era’s two influential pitching dynasties, the Orioles and Dodgers, began using it. A spring-training demonstration hooked Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver in February 1975, and radar gun proliferation began.

scoutee smart speed radar gun sport scouts

Danny Knobler writes in his article on the radar gun revolution that “no matter how much anyone complains, the radar gun is here to stay. No matter how much anyone thinks gun readings are overused, everyone still looks for them. The gun has changed the game. And the game is never going back.”

SCOUTEE is changing the radar gun as we know it. We shrunk the radar gun and connected it to your smartphone, so you can carry it around anywhere you go, measure pitching speed, record videos and access months of training data right from your phone. Scoutee is still available for preorder on our website.

scoutee smart speed radar gun baseball field home base


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