Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Science of Sports - in 1962

Louise is still half a world away so doesn't know this yet, but during my trip to Minnesota I again raided my parents' basement and dug through some of my old boxes of books that are still taking up space. I brought seven or eight, maybe nine or ten, back with me, as I slowly reacquaint myself with the volumes I'll again be in possession of whenever my folks finally make good on their threat to downsize to a smaller home.

The books I brought back? Couple of David Halberstam classics - The Best and the Brightest, and The Powers that Be - along with a few Stephen King books.

But another one that made the cut came out long before I started collecting books. My dad or, more likely, one of my uncles must have bought it and it stayed out on the farm for decades, before I took a couple of boxes of my grandpa's collection. It's called Here's Why: Science in Sports. A man named George Barr wrote it and it was published in 1962. Barr, according to the inside of the book, served as a "consultant in elementary science Board of Education, New York City."

The book cost 45 cents.

And what did it promise you for a quarter and two dimes? The answers to these questions:
Ever wonder why most fast-ball pitchers are tall?
A football lineman crouches?
Basketball shoes are like "4-wheel brakes?"

The book deals primarily with the big sports: Baseball, football and basketball, along with a section on "the athlete's body." Other sports, including the broad jump, are lumped together in a single chapter, relegated to the back of the book, though they too receive the complete scientific treatment.

Barr provides the words but the book's illustrations are just as valuable for young athletes and budding scientists, and those were provided by Mildred Waltrip. The baseball section begins with pitching.

"The pitcher is one of the most important players on the baseball team. Upon him usually depends the success or loss of a game. Because of the sensitive nature of his work, all his teammates pamper him. They try in every way to save his strength and his nervous system."

And just think, Barr wrote those words four decades before starting pitchers were pampered to such a degree that they're now universally applauded anytime they go past six innings. I'm guessing solid fielding and eight runs per game would save a pitcher's nerves. Barr does note that "on average, 100 to 150 pitches are made by one pitcher during a game." A hundred and fifty. Yes, the game's changed.

Wanna know the diameter of a pitching mound? Barr offers up an experiment anyone can do at home, provided they own a No. 2 pencil and lack friends:

"Hold a pencil or a stick vertically at arm's length. Sight past this object toward the pitcher when he is in the center of the mound. Compare the height of the pitcher and the diameter of the mound by making reference marks on the pencil. Suppose you find that the mound diameter is about three times the height of the pitcher. Assuming that the pitcher is about 6 feet tall, the diameter of the mound would be 18 feet. Try this next time you see a professional game on TV or at a stadium. You will find that not all ball parks have similar pitchers' mounds."

Only three more months and you can try it yourself.

When Barr wrote his book, baseball obviously ruled America. The NFL was still years away from becoming the most popular sport in the country and basketball, for the most part, was still being played completely on the ground and wasn't even close in popularity.

Like a modern scientist, Barr confronts player safety in football. Again, an experiment, this time when explaining how helmets absorb punishment:
"Strike your skull with the eraser part of a pencil. Use enough force to make it annoying. Now place a stiff piece of cardboard, or a thin hard-covered book against your head. Strike the book with the pencil held in the same way as before. Use the same part of the head and, of course, the same force. You will find that your head does not feel the annoying shock in one spot. You will also find that the pressure is decreased."

Barr must have been one of the leading pencil scientists in the country. No matter the sport, give the man a pencil - and an eraser - and he could break it down like John Madden with a telestrator. I'm picturing my dad reading this book when he was 15 years old, standing in his bedroom, hitting himself in the head with a pencil, then again, only this time with a stray piece of cardboard acting as protection. Hey, during bad winters they were occasionally stuck out on the farm for days at a time. No cable, few provisions, no Internet, you did science experiments during your free time to keep from going mad.

A football, Barr wrote, can be called "a prolate spheroid," which sounds more like a dinosaur than a ball. It also sounds like a phrase a husky former lineman who recently finished a crossword puzzle would use in the announcers' booth today, something like, "I tell ya, Joe. When the prolate spheroid hit Owens in the abs, it took the wind out of him and he landed on his gluteus maximus."

On to hoops. "Basketball is one of the fastest foot games on earth. Only players who are in topnotch condition can play the strenuous game."

Barr obviously didn't anticipate my Wednesday night basketball league.

"Many players use two hands for set shots. In recent years, more and more of these shots are being made with only one hand. Some coaches feel that with one hand there are fewer muscles used which can upset one's aim." My friend Mike, a master of the two-handed set shot, or at least a practitioner, should have played thirty years before he did.

It's possible that Barr was a guy on the short side. Or he lost a lot of girlfriends to taller guys who also blocked his two-handed set shots. When talking about the competitive nature of the sport, he wrote, "Many people say that to make the game competitive, there should be an attempt made to match teams of approximate heights." Did many people say that, or just Mr. Barr after being victimized by a giant going over his back for offensive boards? "The elimination of the frequent center jumped helped matters somewhat. But in the main, little has been done about the problem of unmatched teams."

And little's been done since.

The book is actually extraordinarily informative, even if many of the passages today sound as awkward as lessons from old books on etiquette. Barr explained how a basketball bounces and a baseball curves. He dissected spirals and punts. Any young athlete - with a somewhat nerdy side that's interested in science - would enjoy the book today, nearly 50 years after it was published.

Just make sure the kid's got access to plenty of pencils.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Okay, I AM one of those kids who would've done dubious science experiments on her head if a baseball expert told her to! Please bring this to work someday. Oh, and of course there is only one pitcher under 6 feet in the Hall of Fame.