Game-used memorabilia has carved a special niche in our hobby as fans strive to get closer to the game. Jerseys worn by players, equipment they use to play the game, game balls – anything that serves as a memento to remind us of a certain player, or a specific event, helps hobbyists make an emotional connection with the game they love. Collectors often seek out memorabilia from an important sports event, a particular game, even a memorable play. This equipment serves to document the event, becoming historical artifacts in the process, living proof that the player existed, that the game was played, or that the event took place.
In the sport of baseball, hardcore fans are frequently drawn to events that appeal to their knowledge of the game, and how amazing certain feats can be: a perfect game, a hitting streak, a high batting average, a spectacular play. The types of events that both hardcore and casual fans can appreciate, however, are related more to pure athleticism: a towering home run, a lengthy streak of consecutive games played, a 100 MPH fastball. Athletic achievements that seem superhuman are always captivating to a wide audience of people; their understanding of such feats are what make game-used memorabilia so interesting to those outside the hobby.
Presented are two such pieces, which will be featured as a single lot in our upcoming Spring auction: the very baseball thrown by Bob Feller in 1946 to set the record for the fastest pitch ever thrown, and the baseball thrown by Nolan Ryan in 1974 to break that record – a record that still stands today. Indeed, of the millions and millions of baseballs thrown by untold numbers of pitchers, these two baseballs were thrown faster than any other baseballs on record, ever, in the history of the game.
The story begins on August 20, 1946. As part of a pre-game promotion (in which Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith paid the Indians hurler $700 to participate), pitcher Bob Feller was to throw pitches through the U.S. Army’s “Sky Screen Chronograph.” The Sky Screen Chronograph was a device used by the United States military to measure the velocity of artillery shells, and was deemed to be accurate to one ten-thousandth of a second. Working with the device involved setting it up behind home plate, and catcher George Susce crouching behind an opening in the device. Feller, then, was to throw fastballs through the opening, at which point the speed would be measured.
“Rapid Robert” was no stranger to promotions designed to show off his incredible velocity. In 1938, Feller tested his speed against a racing motorcycle, speeding down a road at 86 miles per hour. Feller’s fastball beat the motorcycle to its target by 13 feet, which was figured out at 104 MPH.
But it wasn’t until 1946 that Feller’s fastball was measured scientifically. The Chronograph clocked Feller’s fastest pitch at 145 feet per second, the equivalent of 98.6 miles per hour – the fastest pitch known. Feller threw 30 pitches into the Chronograph before the game, then went on to pitch a complete game against the Senators, giving up six hits and striking out seven in a 5-4 loss.
Feller’s record stood for 38 years, until electronics technicians from Rockwell International measured fastballer Nolan Ryan on September 7, 1974. Ryan, who had insisted that he threw harder in the late innings than he did at the beginning of the game, was clocked all night, on Rockwell’s radar equipment. In the ninth inning, against the White Sox’ Bee Bee Richard, Ryan was proved correct, throwing his fastest pitch of the night. The pitch was clocked at an astonishing 100.8 miles per hour, breaking Feller’s record and setting a new one that stands to this day.
The Angels hurler, when asked by Sports Illustrated reporter Ron Fimrite about the toll such pitching would take on his arm, responded “I don’t look for longevity. I look for productivity. If I can escape injury, I should be a fastball pitcher for maybe another five years.”
Of course, five years later was 1979. At the end of the 1979 season, Ryan ended his career with the California Angels – and signed with the Houston Astros, where he would pitch for 9 more years, before pitching 5 seasons with the Texas Rangers. During that 14 year period that the young Ryan expected his career would have been long over, he recorded 2,805 more strikeouts, breaking the career record and finishing with 5,714 – nearly 1,000 more than his nearest competitor.
Of course today’s radar equipment, ubiquitous at all games, seems to record a 100 MPH fastball every week. Cincinnati’s Aroldis Chapman famously has been clocked at 106 MPH. So how is it that we can claim that Nolan Ryan and Bob Feller are still the owners of the two fastest pitches ever recorded?
Simply because they are.
Today’s technology measures pitch speeds at a point near the pitcher’s hand, 50 feet from home plate. The radar and Chronograph devices that measured the pitches from Ryan and Feller measured speed at distances much further away from the hand. Given that typical pitches lose 8-11 MPH by the time they reach the front of the plate, a standardized adjustment needs to be made in order to standardize all known pitch speeds. The measurement is known as an “FFE (fifty foot equivalent) Calculation.”*
Nolan Ryan’s fastball on August 20, 1974 were measured by a laser radar device at 9-10 feet from home plate. Utilizing the FFE calculation, Ryan’s pitch would have been clocked at an astonishing 108.1 MPH using today’s standard of measurement. Feller’s measurement was taken at home plate, 60 feet from the mound. Utilizing the FFE calculation, Feller’s pitch would have been clocked at 107.6 MPH using today’s standard of measurement.
Standardizing all known pitch speeds utilizing FFE calculations, the four fastest pitches recorded are as follows:
1. Nolan Ryan, September 7, 1974: 108.1 MPH
2. Bob Feller, August 20, 1946: 107.6 MPH
3. Aroldis Chapman, September 24, 2010: 105.1 MPH
4. Joel Zumaya, October 10, 2006: 104.8 MPH
The baseballs in question were acquired by noted collector Barry Halper, where they resided until Halper made the bulk of his collection available in a widely-publicized public auction in September of 1999. The baseballs were sold together as a single lot, where they were won by our consignor, who has kept them in his collection for the past fifteen years.
The Feller baseball is an official Wilson American Association ball, noting Roy Hamey as president. This ball was used exclusively by the American Association between 1945 and 1947. It should be noted that Feller’s pitch was not thrown in a game but was thrown in a pre game exhibition, so the use of a non-official ball is entirely plausible. Notations written on the baseball in ink are “August 20, 1946” “145 FT. per Second or 98 Miles per Hour. World Record.” The adjacent panel is signed both by Feller (on the sweet spot) and catcher George Susce, both vintage signatures.
The stampings on the ball are faded with time, and the ball is somewhat worn and toned. The ball has been coated with a thin layer of shellac to protect it from further wear.
The Ryan baseball is a Spalding official Lee MacPhail American League baseball. We consulted with Brandon Gruenbaum, author of the excellent research publication History of the Baseball, and he confirmed that Spalding official baseballs were definitely used in the American League as early as 1974. The ball, also somewhat worn and toned, features an inscription in felt tip marker on one panel reading “This ball was thrown 100.8 MPH on 9/7/74 for a worlds record.” The adjacent panel has been signed in ballpoint by Nolan Ryan, with another panel signed and inscribed by Bill Kunkel, who was the second base umpire for the game. Kunkel’s inscription and the identifying writing were clearly written in the same ink, and appear to have been written in the same hand. Ryan’s signature, applied in different ink, has faded considerably but is unmistakably Ryan’s.
This is an incredible piece of historically significant memorabilia. The legends of Bob Feller and Nolan Ryan are legends against which every power pitcher who has come after them is compared. Everybody – even the casual baseball fan – knows that Nolan Ryan threw 100 miles per hour, and this is the very ball he threw! And of course, like the power pitchers of today who are chasing the legend of Nolan Ryan, Ryan broke into baseball chasing the legend of Bob Feller – and this is the ball he threw as well. Truly a museum-quality pair of baseballs, worthy of becoming the centerpiece of any memorabilia collection.
* research on FFE Calculations and the fastest pitches ever thrown taken from efastball.com. Read the entire fascinating article at http://www.efastball.com/baseball/stats/fastest-pitch-speed-in-major-leagues/