You’ll have a lot of un­rav­el­ling to do in or­der to get to the cen­ter of a base­ball

The Woolwich Observer - - LIVING HERE - STRANGE BUT TRUE / BILL & RICH SONES PH.D. strangetrue@com­

Q. “You must have been eat­ing like a bird lately,” you tease your friend, not­ing her trim­mer ap­pear­ance in re­cent months. But you’d for­got­ten her keen in­ter­est in or­nithol­ogy, as she re­torts, “Sorry, if I ate like the rubythroated hum­ming­bird but with­out its amaz­ing me­tab­o­lism, I’d be huge — big time.” What’s she get­ting at? A. The ruby-throated hum­ming­bird has “the high­est meta­bolic rate of any ver­te­brate when ac­tive,” says Gemma Tar­lach in “Discover” mag­a­zine. It needs an enor­mous amount of en­ergy to main­tain body tem­per­a­ture and to beat its wings up to 200 times a sec­ond. Hence, the small bird con­sumes its body weight in nec­tar ev­ery day. “So much for think­ing you can diet by ‘eat­ing like a bird.’” Q. Scotts­boro, Alabama, a small city of some 15,000, at­tracts about a mil­lion vis­i­tors a year, most of whom have a par­tic­u­lar des­ti­na­tion in mind. What is it? A. It’s the Un­claimed Bag­gage Cen­ter (UBC), a 50,000-square-foot store that sells the stuff that fly­ers lost and were un­able to re­cover, says Dan Lewis in his book “Now I Know.” This amounts to 50,000100,000 bags of the 2 mil­lion lost each year. Though the air­lines are re­quired to try to lo­cate the owner, af­ter a lost bag has been un­claimed for 90 days, the air­lines then set­tle pay­ment with the owner and in ef­fect legally own ev­ery­thing in the bag. But they have no in­ter­est in sell­ing the con­tents them­selves.

En­ter UBC (and a few other com­pa­nies) that buy un­claimed bags by the pound, sight un­seen, and truck them from var­i­ous air­lines’ un­claimed bag­gage de­pots to the Scotts­boro HQ. There work­ers sort through the con­tents, about a third of which are do­nated, an­other third deemed un­fit for sale (rea­sons un­known), and a fi­nal third of­fered for sale of­ten at a size­able dis­count.

Says Lewis, “On oc­ca­sion, a shop­per may find a di­a­mond in the rough— lit­er­ally. The UBC has sold a hand­ful of lost di­a­mond jew­elry in its forty-plus-year his­tory.” Q. If the game of base­ball is “all in the ball,” what in the heck are we re­ally saying? Think ma­te­ri­als and con­struc­tion here. A. The lit­eral tale be­gins with 450 feet of fine poly/ cot­ton yarn cov­ered in ad­he­sive to hold the inside to­gether; then con­tin­ues with 159 feet of three-ply white yarn; 135 feet of three-ply gray yarn; and 363 feet of four-ply gray yarn, says Kevin Sylvester in his book “Base­bal­logy.” That’s about 1,107 feet of yarn in one base­ball, enough if un­rav­eled to reach al­most to the roof of the Em­pire State Build­ing. For the cover, only num­ber one grade cowhide will do, dyed white. When cut into two fig­ure-8 sec­tions, the cover is hand-stitched with 88 inches of waxed red thread, 108 stitches in all. In­ter­est­ingly, “be­fore each game, the ball is rubbed down with a par­tic­u­lar mud… from some se­cret lo­ca­tion near the Delaware River to make it less shiny and less slick.”

The base­ball it­self has a cir­cum­fer­ence of 9-9.25 inches and weighs 5-5.25 ounces. More than a mil­lion balls are or­dered by ma­jor league base­ball each year, used at the rate of about 100 per game, plus more for bat­ting practice, give­aways and sou­venirs.

Fi­nally, at the heart of the mat­ter is the “pill,” which needs to be a lit­tle spongy to help the ball bounce off the bat. To­day, it’s made up of a cork cen­ter, sur­rounded by two rub­ber lay­ers. But be­fore rub­ber was read­ily avail­able, var­i­ous ma­te­ri­als were uti­lized. “It could be cork, or (in some cases) fish eyes. Yes, base­ball mak­ers used ac­tual fish eyes—spongy and round!”


Bill is a jour­nal­ist, Rich holds a doc­tor­ate in physics. To­gether the brothers bring you “Strange But True.” Send your ques­tions to

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