Clocking Pitch Speed in 1917

One of the things that we take for granted these days is the ballpark speed gun. No matter where you look in a ballpark these days, or no matter what television station you’re watching the game on, it’s easy to find out just how fast that pitch was thrown. Is Zack Grienke reaching the high-90s today? Just how fast is that Justin Verlander fastball? Is Brian Bannister even getting to 85 tonight? These are questions that we all have and, thanks to the age we live in, they are questions that we can get answered immediately. It’s wonderful.

But it’s easy to forget that this wasn’t always the case. Before the radar gun was invented in 1954, it was nearly impossible to accurately measure the speed of a pitched ball. Video could probably be used, but that isn’t nearly as accurate as a radar gun. Plus, the further you go back in time, the less reliable the technology was.

In 1917, for example, film was still very new. Cameras were hand-cranked, making it very difficult to know exactly what speed a role of film was recorded at. But that didn’t stop people from trying to figure it out.

In this 1917 issue of Popular Mechanics, for example, they detail the attempts of Frank Gilbreth, a famous “efficiency engineer” that the book Cheaper by the Dozen was written about (the book is great for ~12-year olds, though the movie has absolutely nothing to do with the book), to determine the speed of a pitched ball. Using a hand-cranked camera, a special-made watch, and a grid-backdrop, he analyzed film to best estimate the speed of the pitch. Here’s the description of the experiment:

“Since it is necessary to know the time occupied in carrying out a given motion, sometimes to the thousandth of a second, and since camera cranks are never turned uniformly, Mr. Gilbreth has invented a special clock which is photographed with the scene. It is a very peculiar clock; for it has only one hand with makes six revolutions every second. That clock appears on every film and the position of its hand enables Mr. Gilbreth to determine the speed of a motion down to the one-millionth of an hour. Behind the catcher, a background is hung, ruled off into one foot squares. Every movement of the pitcher, catcher, batter, ball and bat is photographed against that background. Thus by referring to that background in the film the direction and extent of every motion can be accurately determined.”

Sounds impressively accurate, right? Especially for 90 years ago. You’ve got to hand it to someone for even coming up with an experiment so elaborate given such limited technology. So how well did it work? Again, from the article (other stats are also cited):

“In one of Mr. Gilbreth’s tests, Fromme pitched a ball which, including wind-up, required only .99 seconds until the batter hit it. The time consumed from the moment that it left the hand of the pitcher until it reached the bat was 0.288 seconds. The ball therefore traveled 210.07 feet a second, or 2 2-5 miles a minute. Even speeds of 2.8 miles have been recorded. In that case the batter occupied 0.042 seconds swinging and striking the ball; which means that he began his swing when the ball was 9.24 feet in front of him.”

The numbers sound good. After all, we know that a 95 mph fastball gets to home plate in a fraction of a second. But as fast as that Justin Verlander fastball is, it’s nowhere near as fast as the numbers that Gilbreth’s study claims. For example, a 95 mph fastball travels approx. 140 feet per second. The 210 feet per second speed that they calculate, then, is actually 50% faster than Verlander’s fastball – or 143 mph. Again, Verlander is fast, but no one is 140 mph fast. We would expect that 95 mph pitch to go from mound to plate in 0.43 seconds, not the 0.288 he calculated. It really goes to show you just how difficult it is to measure something like that precisely.

The Popular Science article is called “Two and a Half Miles a Minute: That’s the speed at which a pitched ball travels.” That’s150 mph. We won’t be reaching those speeds any time soon. There might have been significant measurement and calculation error in that study, but it’s still fascinating to see what people were doing nearly 100 year ago to better understand the game of baseball. We should just be thankful that we no longer have to resort to such elaborate means to get that kind of data. Instead, we just spend hours and hours anayzing it. Maybe we haven’t changed all that much. Not that I’m complaining…

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.