The quintessential element to the game of baseball is obviously the ball itself. From a collectibles standpoint, the baseball is more than just a canvas for acquiring autographs. Baseballs document the game from a historical perspective and the lineage of league presidents and commissioners serves as a timeline for the game itself.
Collecting official league baseballs has become a growing aspect of the hobby. Much like other pieces of memorabilia, the value of the balls is determined by age, rarity and most importantly, condition. Since 1877, only three companies have produced official major league baseballs; Spalding, Reach and Rawlings.
The legendary sporting goods company started by the Spalding brothers, Walter and Albert, obtained the rights to produce National League baseballs around 1876. American League baseballs were manufactured by the Reach Sporting Goods Company. In 1889, Spalding acquired Reach. When the two leagues merged to create Major League Baseball in 1901, Spalding continued to use the Reach brand name for American League baseballs.
Distinguishing the differences between the two baseballs used by each league is simple. American League baseballs, with the Reach name, have red and blue stitching, and the National League, Spalding name baseballs, have black and red stitching. Starting in 1934, both leagues switched to a baseball with only red stitching.
The physical dimensions of the baseball itself have changed very little in terms of size or weight since its professional debut. A major league baseball can weigh between 5 and 5-1⁄4 ounces, and is 9 to 9-1⁄4 inches in circumference. There are 108 double stitches on a baseball.
The materials used in the manufacturing process did change, however, in 1909, when the cork-centered ball was introduced. Previous to that, a cushioned, wood center had been used. The new "livelier" ball ended what has been referred to as the "dead-ball" era.
Wartime rationing and material shortages forced a temporary change in the ball's core. Baseballs used during the World War II-period were made with a rubber core similar to those used in golf balls. Baseballs were manufactured using a horsehide cover for almost 100 years. In 1974, the league began using cowhide covers, which are still used today.
In 1977, Rawlings won the contract to produce official league baseballs and continues to do so to this day. The following year, they would introduce the first World Series logo balls used in the annual Fall Classic.
In 2000, when Bud Selig became commissioner of Major League Baseball, he did away with separate balls for each of the two leagues. Rawlings debuted a newly-designed, official Major League baseball for the 2000 season that features the patented MLB batter logo.
Official league baseballs have always been adorned with the name of the league president. This is an important attribute from a collecting perspective. Autographed baseballs carry the most value when they are signed on an official league ball from the player's era. This practice also aids the authentication process.
Factual evidence, like knowing what period a player was active and when he died, provides a basis for determining the balls authenticity. Such was the case in the mid-2000s when a reputable auction company made the oversight of listing a bogus Ty Cobb autographed baseball. Cobb's alleged signature was on an official American League ball dated from a period after he had died. Knowing there was no way he could have signed the ball, the company removed it from the auction catalog.
Knowing the historical lineage of league presidents is a crucial characteristic when collecting official league baseballs. The following guide notes the league president and duration of usage for each baseball. It is important to note that replicas can be more common than originals, especially from the earlier years of baseball, so make sure you know what you are buying.
Official League Baseball Checklist
Click on the listings to shop for baseballs on eBay.
Baseball Evolution Visual Guide
A gallery, showing official league balls throughout the years, provides a look at how the aesthetics of the ball have changed.