I saw 42 tonight. It’s the new movie about Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough with the 1946 Montreal Royals, and then with the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers as the first black player in modern Major League Baseball.

rickeyThe movie’s a bit cheesy, redeemed mainly by the glorious story it recounts, and by a wonderful performance from Harrison Ford as Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey—the man who spearheaded baseball’s integration.

There are some nice touches, as when Rickey picks Robinson’s bio out of a stack of Negro League player reports he’s considering.

“He’s a Methodist,” notes Rickey. “I’m a Methodist. God is a Methodist. It should work out well.”

jackie-robinson-montreal 3Growing up in a liberal family in a 1950s New York suburb, I was weaned  on Robinson’s story, and I rooted passionately for the Brooklyn Dodgers. But tonight I learned an obscure detail that had never registered with me.

In the summer of 1945, Robinson had just been released from World War II army service and was batting .381 for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League. On August 28, 1945, Rickey summoned him to a three-hour meeting in his Brooklyn office, where he taunted the 26-year-old player with racial epithets.

“You want someone tough enough to fight back?” asked Robinson.

“No,” said Rickey. “I want someone tough enough not to fight back.”

He signed the 26-year-old player to a contract with the Royals, a Dodger farm team.

On that same day, 300 miles to the northwest, in Children’s Hospital, Buffalo, NY, Flora Best Donham, 31, was cradling her fourth child, a day-old baby boy.

That would be me. You could say I was born the day before they integrated baseball.

Still random after all these years?

When Philip Humber of the Chicago White Sox pitched a perfect game against the Seattle Mariners back in April, I wrote that the frequency of these exceedingly rare feats had ramped up dramatically over the last three decades.

Mathematicians argued that speedup was more apparent than real, a classic example of a Poisson distribution. This is the natural tendency for exceptionally rare but random events to bunch up in ways that appear non-random.

Humber’s flawless game was the 19th in modern baseball’s 112-year* history. Since April, there have been two more, including the 1-0 gem Félix Hernández of the Seattle Mariners pitched against the Tampa Bay Rays last night.

Here’s the latest chart:

True, there are more ballgames per year than there were 60 years ago—almost twice as many.

Still, from 1901 to 1960, there was only one perfect game every 15 years. From 1980 to Wednesday night, there was one every 2.36 years.

Random or not, there’s one thing I’m sure Félix Hernández can agree on:

Bayesian ball’s been bery bery good to me.

* Baseball is older than 112, but the rules were so different in the Nineteenth Century, most scholars date the modern era from 1900.

One (obvious) reason why there are more perfect games

Contrarian reader Andrew Douglas makes the obvious point that there are a lot more Major League Baseball games nowadays than there were in the first six decades of the 20th Century, and they play a slightly longer season. That can account for some—but probably not all—of the recent flurry of these exceptionally rare events that I remarked on yesterday.

From 1901 through 1960, with minor variations, 16 teams played 154 games per season, for a total of 1,232 games per year (16 x 154 ÷ 2).

In 1961, the season was lengthened to 162 games, an increase of about five percent. Baseball added two teams in each of 1961 and 1962, four more in 1969, and two each in 1977, 1993, and 1998.

Since then, 30 teams have played 162 games, for a total of roughly 2,430 per year, or almost twice as many as in the years 1901 to 1960.

Still, from 1901 to 1960, there was only one perfect game every 15 years. From 1980 to last Saturday, there was one every 2.6 years.


What’s up with all the perfect games lately?

Philip Humber of the Chicago White Sox pitched a perfect game against the Seattle Mariners yesterday. He faced only 27 batters, and got them all out. It’s an exceedingly rare feat—Humber’s was only the 19th in modern Major League Baseball history—but not as rare as it used to be. Or is it?

Click to view full-sized image.

(Click on the chart to view a full-sized version.)

In the first 60 years after the turn of the 20th Century, only four major-leaguers  managed to pitch perfect games; 15 have done it in the 62 years since. It sure looks as if pitching a perfect game got easier around 1980, but mathematicians argue that this is just an example of a Poisson distribution, which could be crudely stated as the tendency for rare events to appear non-random.

Writing in the Journal of Statistics Education, Michael Huber of Muhlenberg College and Andrew Glen of the United States Military Academy at West Point examined three other rare baseball feats: no-hitters; triple plays; and hitting for the cycle. None of these is nearly so unusual as a perfect game, but all three:

offer excellent examples of events whose occurrence may be modeled as Poisson processes. That is, the time of occurrence of one of these events doesn’t affect when we see the next occurrence of such.

When two perfect games occurred in 2010, statistician Martin Monkman of British Columbia took a similar view in his aptly named Bayes Blog.

As for Humber, his pristine performance at the Mariners’ Safeco Field took just two hours and 17 minutes.

“My wife is nine months pregnant,” he explained, “and I was making sure she didn’t give birth when I was pitching,”

Bob Feller

Bob Feller to Joe DiMaggio-550A

Yankee slugger Joe DiMaggio faces Cleveland fastballer Bob Feller, who died Wednesday.

“I don’t think anyone is ever going to throw a ball faster than he does,” DiMaggio predicted.

Feller was a 17-year-old high school student when he pitched his first game for the Indians and struck out 15 batters. Three weeks later he struck out 17, tying Dizzy Dean’s Major League record.

“By the end of his brief rookie season,” the New York Times reports, “Feller was the best-known young person in America, with the possible exception of Shirley Temple.”

In 1937, with his picture on the cover of Time, he opened his first full season with a no-hitter. He would go on to pitch two more no-hitters and 12 one-hitters in an 18-year career. In all, Feller won 266 games and struck out 2,581 batters, tallies that would be much higher had he not lost four seasons to World War II military service.

Feller also inspired one of the great lines of baseball history. After Yankees pitcher Lefty Gomez took three called strikes from Feller, he is said to have protested, “That last one sounded a little low.”

Game 2 x iPhone 4 x MLB

MLB-350Please don’t think me old, but I grew up in a suburb of New York City, listening to Vin Scully call Brooklyn Dodger games on a radio the size of a bread box, powered by vacuum tubes. The experience was formative in the sense that it left me with the belief baseball games are best seen on the radio, in singer Terry Cashman‘s evocative phrase.

Tonight at 10, I set out from Sydney, Nova Scotia, for the 75 km. drive to my home on a remote stretch of Cape Breton’s Bras d’Or Lakes. Before pulling out of the parking lot, I plugged my iPhone 4 into a Griffin FM transmitter the size of a Bic lighter, opened the phone’s Major League Baseball app, and clicked a tab marked “listen.”

For the next hour, I heard San Francisco radio station KNBR’s Dave Flemming, Mike Krukow, and Duane Kuiper call the middle innings of Game Two of the 2010 World Series with a fidelity more than equal to the old tube radio behemoth. The game played over my car stereo, via the iPhone’s connection to a series of cell towers, the MLB app, and the miniature  FM transmitter. Only once did the feed die, when the phone dropped Telus Mobility’s 3G signal for less than 60 seconds in a notorious radio, TV, and cell phone dark zone on the back side of Boularderie Island,.

For the rest of the drive, the game — a splendid pitcher’s duel until the bottom of the eighth — came through admirably, and the iPhone’s display screen kept pace with instant updates to the information-rich scoreboard pictured in the screenshot at left.

No wider point here, except that we live in an era of breathtaking technology, and the 4.8-ounce iPhone is a staggering technological achievement.



It’s an old debate: Does the curveball really bend, or is it just an illusion, like the river that runs uphill at Marshy Hope? Both says Arthur Shapiro, Associate Professor of Psychology at American University in Washington DC. Shapiro’s demonstration of the illusory component won the Neural Correlate Society‘s Best Illusion of the Year Contest.

In the game of baseball, a pitcher stands on a mound and throws a 2.9-inch diameter ball in the direction of home plate. The pitcher creates different types of pitches by releasing the ball at different velocities and with different spins. A typical major league “curveball” travels at about 75 mph, and spins at an oblique angle at about 1500 rpm; this means that the travel time from the pitcher’s hand to home plate is about 0.6 sec, during which time the ball undergoes about 13 rotations.

The spinning of the curveball creates both a physical effect (“the curve”) and a perceptual puzzle. The curve arises because the ball’s rotation creates an imbalance of forces on different sides of the ball, which leads to a substantial deflection in the path of the ball. The perceptual puzzle arises because the deflection of the ball should appear gradual, but from the point of view of the batter standing near home plate, the flight of the ball often appears to undergo a dramatic and nearly discontinuous shift in position (this sudden shift is referred to as the curveball’s “break”).

Try it for yourself here.