The Physics of Baseball

Willie Mays "The Catch" 1954

Willie Mays
“The Catch”


Social historian and research educator George Leonard once expressed it in these paraphrased terms: One cannot begin to research and write the complete history of life on earth until he or she is prepared to start with the Big Bang and then accurately transcribe every physical force and chemical reaction at atom-level change that then has transpired in sequential and aberrant direction levels in the unfolding core process that has continued, so far, to mutate, transform, and continue in apparent conformity to the scientific laws governing evolution on the organic level.

Maybe that’s what National League President and later Commissioner of Baseball Bart Giamatti had in mind for the history of baseball back in 1987 when he asked an old Yale faculty pal and colleague, physicist friend, Dr. Robert K. Adair, to sign on as “Physicist to the National League.” A such, the volunteer mind of Dr. Adair would be asked to take on the “tongue-in-cheek” task of compiling and advising Giamatti on “the elements of baseball that might be best addressed by a physicist.”

Adair took on the fun challenge, but with the serious intent of all researchers worth their salt. He first had to fill in the large blanks of what he didn’t know well enough at the start about the game of baseball and its common mechanical actions on the field. This data was essential to anything he engaged as matters of physics governing the speed and trajectory of batted balls, the movement of thrown pitches, and the effects of wind, humidity, and stadium elevation from sea level upon the flight of batted and thrown baseballs. Gravity, of course, is the factor that makes baseball and the whole game of life possible, but even gravity eases up at higher altitude/thinner air game sites.

The task and the book that resulted became Robert Adair’s magnificent obsession. “The Physics of Baseball” finally reached its first printing in 1990. Fortunately, Bart Giamatti got to read and give his blessing to the first edition, but did not live to see its actual publication. Two other printings followed in 1994 and 2002, with Adair continuously correcting and refining his items of measurement through the third printing.

Although I’ve known of this book for years, I never read it until this week, when I received a Christmas gift copy from friend and colleague Darrell Pittman. Thank you, Darrell! This has been a fun-walk through the scientific stuff that happens. One doesn’t have to be a physicist to understand all of its content, but it does help to have taken a course in physics somewhere along the way.

How much did the alleged curve ball inventor Candy Cummings understand about the physical laws governing force and torque upon a thrown baseball from pitcher to catcher from variable distances of 45′ to 60’6″ when he started using that killer pitch? Probably not much. All he had to remember is what he saw it do the first time – and to recall what he did to the pitch and be able to repeat it a second time.

If you have ever wondered how Willie Mays made “The Catch” on Vic Wertz’s long fly ball to center field at the Polo Grounds in 1954, you may really enjoy this book. What is the science behind any explanation we may offer for “The Catch?” Was it the sound of the ball? Coupled with the first flickering sight of the ball’s flight speed and trajectory? And what was it within Mays’ neurological system and/or experiential history with fly balls that cued him to turn his back and run hard to a specific deep center location? And what allowed Mays to be in just the right, still moving spot – and get his glove up in time to catch the ball as it came down from the sky and descended into his glove over his head as probably the most famous long fly ball out in baseball history?

“The Physics of Baseball” (Third Edition)  by Robert K. Adair, Ph.D. is available in paperback from Amazon.Com, if you are interested.

This whole subject awakens me to how much physics was involved in a poem I wrote almost 47 years ago. Let’s close on that note:

pecan park

Summer Baseball By Bill McCurdy (1969)

Time was when summer meant baseball on a vacant lot,

Chasing a ragged brown horsehide as it zoomed off

As a fungo bat streak across the white heat of the morning sky,

Only to be pursued by a blue-jeaned boy, who just knew, …

He would be there when the ball came down.


From the crack of the bat until the thump in his glove,

The boy knew the baseball like one knows an old friend.

They had met so often on a vacant cty lot before.


Texas Leaguers, Blue Darters, Line Drive Scorchers, Worm Burners, Grass Skinners,

Pop Flies, Sunday Screamers: – It made no singular difference at all to the boy.

He knew that each pursuit would end securely in the web of his Rawlings Playmaker.


No thrill could surpass the loud crack of the bat that signaled to the boy in the field

Of the far chase to come as a result of the music instantly traveling to his ears.

It was the lickety-split quick and sure sound of the long ball firing away a singular alarm:




And the boy would race on bare, calloused and sometimes cut-up feet

To a faraway and receding point on the deepest spot of the weed-grass sandlot.


Then, somehow, as though guided by a mysterious inner radar,

The boy would turn his head and look skyward at just the right time,

And at the very moment his old friend, the baseball, was beginning to descend

From that grand eagle-flight ride through the hot and humid Houston summer air.




The chase had ended once more in a rightful wedding of ball and glove!

Simple innocence, But it was love, And it was free.


Years later, the boy, now a man, may only dream of one more chance at joy,

One more chance to race the wind, And to follow the flight of his old friend,

Coming down, Coming home.




One Response to “The Physics of Baseball”

  1. Bill Gilbert Says:

    At a SABR convention many years ago, I happened to be on the same elevator as Dr. Adair following a presentation by Dan O’Dowd, then general manager of the Colorado Rockies. O’Dowd had attempted to explain why the Rockies’ performance was so much different at home and on the road. Adair’s comment was that he didn’t agree with anything O’Dowd had said.

    Later, at the same Convention, I attended a talk by Adair and I wasn’t able to understand anything he said.

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