Basketball and hockey season are over, and baseball is on the national sports’ center stage until football kicks in. I’m no longer the fan of the game I was as a kid, but I’ve become a fan of the baseball itself – as a design object. It came on my radar when I was revisiting the famous Eames interview on the definition of design. It made me realize that the baseball is one of a handful of examples of truly superb iconic pieces of modern design and deserves more respect as such.
The baseball is perfect design, by definition. It can’t be improved upon. There will always be a faster car, a smarter phone, a more ergonomic chair, a sexier floor lamp, and a more reliable zipper. But try to improve the design of a baseball and you mess with cultural forces far greater than aesthetics or form and function. You mess with heritage, authenticity; you mess with Baseball.
If you change the baseball, you change one of the basic constraints that make the game what it is. Then you have to toss out the statistics that are the descriptions of performances based on those constraints. Making the baseball more efficient, for example, would have the same effect as allowing players to use steroids. It would alter the game in an inappropriate manner. The game is then redesigned and a different animal. Eames made this clear in his iconic 1972 interview, which, like the baseball itself, just gets better over time*. Here is one of my favorites excerpts:
Q: Does the creation of design admit constraint?
A: Design depends largely on constraints.
Q: What constraints?
A: The sum of all constraints. Here is one of the few effective keys to the design problem: the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible (and) his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints—the constraints of price, size, strength, balance, surface, time, etc.; each problem has its own peculiar list.
Few man-made objects have been strong enough to resist automated manufacturing. Most get dumbed down over time, details are tossed out, and other compromises made in a quest for affordability. But not the baseball, at least not the real ones. (They are still hand-made out of leather and materials that are sent from the U.S. to Costa Rica, assembled and shipped back.) Attempts to automate its production have failed, making it that much more special than golf balls, tennis balls, basketballs and footballs (we may call it “pigskin” but it’s all rubber and plastic).
It’s also just an amazing visual object. Two identical curvaceous symmetric patches of hide held together with 216 red stitched arrows that move around the object in a dynamic fashion. No two views are the same, and no two throws are the same. The unique contour of the surface and the fact that it fits perfectly into the hand, allows it to be thrown in an infinite range of speeds and movements. Fastballs have been pitched at 105 mph. Knuckleballs flutter and jump erratically. Curveballs with topspin move downward dramatically. It’s magical in the hands of the right person, more like a quill pen than a ballpoint i.e. with a direct tactile connection. It teaches us to appreciate our individual talents and capabilities in a way that other balls do not, so it’s more like a Frisbee, another great piece of modern design.
*Eames articulated in his iconic Q&A interview with Madame L'Amic of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, in conjunction with a design exhibit at the Louvre in 1972. Theirs is an entertaining conversation.