Grandpa, Baseball, and Physics

Last Wednesday, I was taking care of my two grandsons, Matthew and Luke, while daughter Ginny enjoyed a much-needed respite at our local Peets coffee house. Life has been very busy for her and husband Scott who has been back on the east coast for several days. Peets is her favorite place to sip tea, meditate and work on her blog and books-in-progress. She desperately needed a short break from the kids to just unwind and have some quiet time to write. When Ginny asked if I could watch the boys for a while, I said, “Sure.” I love spending time with my grandsons…and my two granddaughters whom we do not get to see as often because of distance. The two boys are really great kids, but they do keep Mom hopping when Dad is not available to share the load.

Matthew will be entering the second grade this fall and loves sports – especially soccer, football, and baseball – and he is very good at all of them! Luke is going into Kindergarten and, being two years younger, is not yet the accomplished athlete that Matthew is.

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While Matthew and I played baseball catch in the backyard, Luke got busy with a plastic “fat bat”, a “whiffle” ball, and a T-ball hitting post. He is now beginning to hit that stationary ball much better off the “T.” Matthew, as usual, was pleading for greater challenges in the form of high fly balls and, characteristically, was making a lot of circus “near-catches.” I say “near-catches” because the tennis ball we were using with our baseball gloves, would often pop out of the hollow of his glove after he made some pro-style moves to even get his glove on the ball! We were using a tennis ball because we could not find my baseball.

A Teachable Moment is at Hand!
Why Tennis Balls and Baseball Gloves Don’t Work

I, too, was having trouble holding on to the tennis ball; it all too often popped out of my glove, even in routine catches! I thought briefly about why we were having so much trouble catching the ball. Here was a teachable moment, an opportunity to explain to Matthew why a tennis ball is considerably more difficult to catch than a regulation hardball as used in baseball. One might initially think it would be the other way-around, but no. Newtonian physics, as gifted to us by Sir Isaac Newton in 1687, can supply the reasons why catching a tennis ball is more challenging.

A baseball is easier to corral in a baseball glove than a lighter tennis ball for two primary reasons. First, the hardball has a greater mass (mass is a measure of the amount of atomic material present in an object…and related to its weight) than does a tennis ball. Even so, a tennis ball dropped from a tall platform has almost the same velocity profile in fall as does a heavier baseball. If we neglect the small effects of air resistance, they both will fall exactly side-by-side despite the difference in their masses, and consequently, their weights. Give Galileo Galilei credit for that revelation – early in the seventeenth century!

The mathematical product (multiplication) of a body’s mass and velocity yields a quantity called “momentum” in physics. Two falling bodies with the same physical shape and size (like a tennis ball and a baseball) will make depressions in a sand-pit which reflect their individual momentum at impact. If the two velocities are equal at impact, a deeper impression in the sand will be made by the more massive of the two, due to its greater momentum (and kinetic energy, too).

Substituting a leather baseball glove for the sand-pit, the heavier baseball will burrow more deeply into the leather “pocket” of the glove than will the tennis ball. If the baseball’s trajectory is slightly misaligned with the center of the glove’s pocket as the ball enters the glove (the fielder’s fault!), it soon reshapes the pocket as it burrows deeply in – and it stays put. A tennis ball will not burrow deeply; in a similar circumstance, it tends to quickly “ricochet’ off the side of the pocket without significantly burrowing in. That gives the fielder little time to react and squeeze the glove around the ball, thus capturing it. A tennis ball is elastic, or “springy,” and that, in conjunction with its lighter mass, enables it to rebound quickly off the glove before the fielder can react and “squeeze” it. The elasticity of a tennis ball constitutes the second reason that catching a tennis ball presents a special challenge.

I explained this to Matthew, and, bright boy that he is, he seemed to understand at a certain level. I long ago deduced that he is a natural athlete, one of those youngsters who instinctively understand body mechanics in sport, almost without coaching. At quite an early age, he was “whacking” whiffle balls off the “T” post with great power and relatively little instruction from me or anyone else. This also held true for the much greater challenge presented by balls which were pitched to him. He is very quick on his feet and with his feet. When Linda and I play soccer with the boys, it is now almost impossible to contain Matthew once he begins to take the ball down the field toward the goal. As a former track man in high school, I can still run at seventy-three years of age, but I am rapidly becoming no match for my seven and a-half year-old grandson.

Natural athletes come with a seemingly built-in physics “primer” which operates at a sub-conscious level, allowing them to more easily do the things they do. Physics principles are at the heart of all high-performance endeavors – especially sports, and even music! There are many sport clinics today which utilize complex technology to visually display and analyze body mechanics for athletes – even weekend duffers who are attempting to improve their golf swing. In addition to other gifts like foot-speed, natural athletes have the ability to visualize their body mechanics without cameras and to sub-consciously employ sound physics principles in their technique and in their performances.

 Fun for Grandpa Who Loves Sports and Physics!

I love the chance to inject physics into sport, for the edification of my grandchildren. The combination of sport, body mechanics/coaching, and physics is a fascinating trio of disciplines which, when mastered, combine to make champions and prodigies of the lucky few.

Baseballs and Parabolas_1

As for me, I have had to methodically learn much of what I have done in sports and music the usual way – through hard work! Much effort, experimentation, and analysis was required on my part to discover “the correct/best way.” Such learning experiences and the resulting insights have proven to be quite satisfying in their own right over the years – as compensation for the struggles.

With my grandsons and my older granddaughters, I relish the opportunity to witness, first-hand, life’s learning processes whereby some people must work hard for their accomplishments while others can go farther and more quickly in the challenging disciplines of sport, music, and academics. The grandkids are truly a blessing in so many ways. If they do not turn out to be champions, prodigies, or geniuses, I will love them none the less. It is the journey well-traveled, not the ultimate destination that really matters in life.

Charles Darwin, known for his scientific curiosity and intellect, was, in addition to a great scientist, a devoted father and grandfather – a great family man. I recall reading the stories of how he loved observing his offspring and their development, much as he loved observing nature in general. They were to him, not some scientific experiment to be recorded in his notebooks; rather, they were a precious window on life’s processes and human nature which afforded him a most wonderful, satisfying, and entertaining view. I get that.

A Postscript: Speaking of baseball and natural athletes, there was none better than the great Willie Mays who played his major league baseball in the early years for the New York Giants. I think Willie knew all he needed to know about the physics of baseball without ever taking a physics course – he was born with an instinctive knowledge of the subject along with other major gifts.

I will never forget my personal memory of, undoubtedly, the greatest outfield catch in the history of baseball. A claim like that in sports almost always invites rebuttals and accounts of something even better. This is one of those rare instances where there really is no dispute. The play was especially notable because it occurred in a World Series game and very well may have determined that series outcome. The fact that the series was nationally televised and the game was played in New York only added to the drama.

Mays' Catch_1

“The Catch” occurred on September 29, 1954, during game one of the 1954 World Series between the Cleveland Indians and the New York Giants. The scene: the old Polo Grounds in New York, the Giants’ home park, with its cavernous outfield. With the score tied 2-2 in the top of the 8th inning and men on first and second base with no outs, Cleveland had a marvelous opportunity. Cleveland slugger Vic Wertz was at the plate. Wertz crushed his fourth pitch to deep center field where Willie Mays was playing rather close-up to the infield. Mays wheeled around, and calling on his great foot-speed sprinted straight out to the 420 foot mark in the cavernous Polo Grounds stadium. As the ball neared the grass at the tail end of its towering trajectory, Mays, still on a dead run directly toward the center field bleachers, stretched out his glove and caught the ball as it came directly over the back of his head. How he could even have seen where the ball was as it passed over his head is a mystery exceeded only by the miracle of such natural ability. Most would agree, there was probably no one else playing ball at the time (and likely, since) who could have made that catch on that big stage. The instant Mays had captured the ball in his glove by literally outrunning it, he stopped, wheeled around and made a great throw to the infield to keep the runner at second from scoring after tagging the base. The side was subsequently retired with no runs scored, and the Giants went on to win the game and sweep the series.

On that sunny September day in 1954 I was a freshman at San Mateo High School, leaving my algebra class and heading to my next class. Someone had a radio nearby, and I had the privilege of hearing that catch “live,” and I do consider it a privilege! I was quite a Cleveland fan at that time, and I was bitterly disappointed at that moment. When Wertz connected and the announcer shouted, “There’s a long drive waaay back in center field….waaay baack…,” I thought Cleveland had this game in the bag. That was just before Willie Mays made a statement that is still heard today. What a ballplayer – probably the greatest ever! What a memory!

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