'I Got It!'

Baseball's Ultimate Souvenir -- A Game Ball -- Is Not Just Free, It's Priceless.

Up For Grabs

Cover Story

October 24, 2004

Some baseballs that reach the fans in the stands end up displayed in gleaming cases in the Hall of Fame, or get auctioned off to comic book moguls for millions, or are fought over in courtrooms by someone who says someone else elbowed him out of a piece of baseball history.

But most others have a more modest fate. They are those balls' poor cousins, you might say. Balls that (almost) never affect the course of a game, never even make it into the field of play, never evoke the deafening roar that says it's outta here!

And yet, as the World Series plays out this week, watch what happens when one of those balls heads toward the stands, arcing high in the sky or bouncing outside third base or even tossed casually by an outfielder or ballgirl. Sure, some fans may shy away, but most surge toward the spot where it will land, eyes wide, glove or cap or bare hand outthrust, waiting, watching, hoping this one -- finally -- might be the one they will catch and raise in triumph for everyone else to envy.

As Sun photographer Lloyd Fox demonstrates here, it's the same at Camden Yards as at the humblest minor league park. Other souvenirs -- a pennant, a T-shirt, a big foam finger -- you can buy. This one, a little ball -- 5 ounces, 9 inches around -- finds you, just you, among the thousands around you, literally dropping into your lap. And what are the chances? For a foul ball, something like 1 in 1,300, they say. Maybe 50 balls go foul in the average game; maybe half that many make it into the stands. Far more than land in the bleachers as home runs, but still pretty rare.

So this ball goes home, not to a museum. Maybe it gets an autograph, maybe not. Maybe it goes to school for show and tell, or brought to work to be bragged on. Maybe it gets a place of honor on a bookshelf or atop the TV, dusted regularly and handled with care. Or maybe it gets taken outside for game after game of catch, getting scuffed and stained until the seams unravel.

Either way, just holding it again can take you back to that one unlikely moment, the one every baseball fan hopes for, the one that you can always say you once had.

Alexander Cartwright essentially invented the foul ball: In 1845, he devised the 90-degree angle from home plate that created a baseball field's foul lines.

Until 1921, major league teams had employees retrieve foul balls hit into the stands. A lawsuit by New York Giants fan Reuben Berman, who refused to give up a ball and was ejected, changed that practice.

Rawlings Sporting Goods makes about 720,000 baseballs for the major leagues every year. The average ball remains in play for just six pitches.

Balls can go foul when a batter swings just 1 / 100th of a second too soon or 1 / 100th of a second too late.

There are typically 48 balls hit foul in each major league game. On average, between 16 and 29 foul balls reach the stands.

In a survey done in 1998, Oriole Park saw the ninth most foul balls hit in the majors, 3,974. Philadelphia's late Veterans Stadium had the most (4,192); New York's Shea Stadium the fewest (3,551).

Self-proclaimed "king of baseball snagging" Zack Hample of New York says he has caught or obtained more than 2,400 balls of all sorts at major league games. His favorite: a foul tip from Jorge Fabregas in a 1999 playoff game.

Price paid for the foul ball that Cubs fan Steve Bartman notoriously kept outfielder Moises Alou from catching in the 2003 National League playoffs: $113,824.16. Its buyer blew it up.

-- Shelia Jackson

Sources: University of Alaska, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, National Public Radio, Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, How Baseball Works by Keltie Thomas, The Wall Street Journal, ballparks.com, bostonbaseball.com, ZackHample.com

On the Web

To see an online gallery featuring more photos, go to baltimoresun.com / foulball.

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