The dead-ball era refers to a period in baseball characterized by extremely low-scoring games; in fact, it was the lowest-scoring period in major league baseball history. Using major league statistics, the dead-ball era started in about 1903, and continued to 1918. A common misconception about the dead-ball era is that it was due to a scarcity of home runs. However, home runs were also rare in the 1890s—a very high run-scoring decade. The lack of scoring in general during the dead-ball era, however, underscored the lack of home runs in the game at that time.
Baseball, or a poor excuse for it, during the dead-ball era
During the dead-ball era, baseball was much more of a strategy-driven game. It relied much more on stolen bases, hit and run plays and similar strategies than on home runs. These strategies emphasized speed, perhaps by necessity. Teams played in spacious ball parks that limited hitting for power, and, compared to modern baseballs, the ball used then was "dead" from both its design and its overuse. Plays such as the Baltimore Chop, developed in the 1890s by the Baltimore Orioles team, remained in use. Once on base, a runner would often steal or be bunted over to second base and move to third base or score on a hit and run play. In no other era have teams stolen as many bases as in the dead-ball era.
There are many statistical examples from this era that show how much more emphasis was placed on speed than on power. Between 1900 and 1920, there were 13 occasions when the league leader in home runs had fewer than 10 home runs for the season. Meanwhile, there were several instances where the league leader in triples had 20 or more. Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Owen Wilson set a record of 36 triples in 1912, a little known record that is likely one of baseball's unbreakable records, as is the 309 career triples of Sam Crawford, set during this time.
Despite their speed, teams struggled to score during the dead-ball era. Major league batting averages hovered between .240 and .255 during the dead-ball era. The lack of power in the game also meant lower slugging averages and on-base percentages, as pitchers could challenge hitters more without the threat of the long ball. The nadir of the dead ball-era was around 1907 and 1908, with a league-wide batting average of .239, slugging average of .306, and ERA under 2.4. That year, the Chicago White Sox hit 3 home runs for the entire season, yet they finished 88-64, just a couple of games from winning the pennant. One extreme example of the lack of offense was Bill Bergen, a catcher for the Reds and Dodgers, who played his entire career during the dead-ball era. In 1909, Bergen had the lowest batting average ever for a player who qualified for the batting title, hitting .139 for Brooklyn. Over his career he hit .170, an amazingly low figure for a position player—yet he managed to stay in the big leagues for 11 years and amass 3,028 at-bats.
There were some complaints about the low-scoring games, and baseball looked to remedy the situation. In 1909, Ben Shibe invented the cork-center ball, a ball which the Reach Company, the official ball supplier to the American League, began marketing. Spalding, the ball supplier to the National League, followed suit with its own cork-center ball. The change in the ball led to a dramatic increase in scoring in both leagues. In 1910, The AL batting average was .243; in 1911, it rose to .273. The NL saw a jump in the league batting average from .256 in 1910 to .272 in 1912. 1911 happened to be the best season of Ty Cobb’s career; Cobb batted .420 with 248 hits. Joe Jackson hit .408 in 1911, and the next year Cobb batted .410. These were the only .400 averages between 1902 and 1919.
In 1913, however, pitchers started to regain control, helped by a serendipitous invention by minor league pitcher Russ Ford. Ford accidentally scuffed a baseball against a concrete wall, and after he threw it, noticed the pitch quickly dived as it reached the batter. The emery pitch was born. Soon pitchers not only had the dominating spitball, they had another pitch in their arsenal to control the batter, aided by the fact that same single ball was used throughout the game, almost never being replaced. By 1914 runs scoring was essentially back to the pre-1911 years, and remained so until 1919.
Such a lack of power in the game led to one of the more ironic player nicknames in history. Frank Baker, one the best players of the dead-ball era, earned the nickname of "Home Run" Baker merely for hitting two home runs in the 1911 World Series. Although Baker led the American League in home runs 4 times (1911-1914), his highest home run season was 12, and he finished with 96 home runs for his career.
The best slugger of the dead-ball era was Philadelphia Phillies outfielder "Cactus" Gavvy Cravath. Cravath led the National League in home runs 6 times, with a high total of 24 for the pennant-winning Phillies in 1915, and seasons of 19 home runs each in 1913 and 1914. Cravath, however was aided by batting in the Baker Bowl, a notoriously hitter-friendly park aided by a short 280-foot distance to right field.
Factors that contributed to the dead-ball era
The following factors contributed to the dramatic decline in runs scored during the dead-ball era:
The foul strike rule
The foul strike rule was a major rule change that, in just a few years, sent baseball from a high-scoring game to one where scoring any runs became a struggle. Prior to this rule, foul balls were not counted as strikes: thus a batter could foul off a countless number of pitches with no strikes counted against him. This gave an enormous advantage to the batter. In 1901, the National League adopted the foul strike rule, and the American League followed suit in 1903.
The ball itself
Before 1920, it was very common for a baseball to be in play for over 100 pitches, as in cricket. A ball would be used until it started to unravel. The early baseball leagues were very cost-conscious, so fans would have to throw balls back that had been hit in the stands. The longer the ball was in use the softer it would become, and hitting a heavily-used, softer ball for distance is much more difficult than hitting a new, harder one. There is also the argument that the ball itself was softer to begin with making home runs less likely.
The spit ball
Another reason that the ball was hard to hit was because pitchers could largely do whatever they wanted to the ball. The spitball pitch was permitted in baseball until 1920. Pitchers often marked the ball or scuffed it or spit on it or anything else they wanted. This made the ball "dance" and curve much more than it does now, making it more difficult to hit. Tobacco juice was often added to the ball, which discolored it. This made the ball difficult to see, especially as baseball parks did not have lights until the late 1930s. Obviously, this too made hitting more difficult.
The end of the dead-ball era
There is much debate as to why the dead-ball era ended. There are a few reasons, though, which are generally accepted. One was the end of the spitball as a legal pitch. This happened when Ray Chapman of the Cleveland Indians was killed by a pitched ball on August 16, 1920 when pitcher Carl Mays of the New York Yankees hit him in the head with a discolored ball.
Today, balls are usually replaced over 60 times in a game; most balls do not last more than just a few pitches. Also, there was the Black Sox scandal of 1919. There is speculation that after the scandal, the ball itself was reformulated so it would be easier to hit.
Finally, there was the arrival of Babe Ruth. Ruth demonstrated how effective a power-hitting game could be in his first season with the New York Yankees in 1920. The combination of these factors led to the beginning of station-to-station baseball, where it became much more common for teams to wait for the home run.