The dead-ball era refers to a period in baseball characterized by low-scoring games and a lack of home runs. The lowest league run average in history was in 1908, when only 3.4 runs were scored per game.
During the dead-ball era, baseball was much more of a strategy-driven game, using a style of play now known as small ball or Inside Baseball. It relied much more on stolen bases and hit and run type plays than on home runs. These strategies emphasized speed, perhaps by necessity. Teams played in spacious ball parks that limited hitting for power, and, compared to modern baseballs, the ball used then was "dead" both by design and from overuse. Low-power hits like the Baltimore Chop, developed in the 1890s by the Baltimore Orioles, were used to get on base. Once on base, a runner would often steal or be bunted over to second base and move to third base or score on a hit and run play. In no other era have teams stolen as many bases as in the dead-ball era.
There are many statistical examples from this era that show how much more emphasis was placed on speed than on power. Between 1900 and 1920, there were 13 occasions when the league leader in home runs had fewer than 10 home runs for the season, and just 4 where the league leaders had 20 or more homers. Meanwhile, there were 20 instances where the league leader in triples had 20 or more. Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Owen "Chief" Wilson set a record of 36 triples in 1912, a little known record that is likely one of baseball's unbreakable records, as is the 309 career triples of Sam Crawford, set during this time.
Despite their speed, teams struggled to score during the dead-ball era. Major league cumulative batting averages ranged between .239 and .279 in the National League and between .239 and .283 for the American League, during the dead-ball era. The lack of power in the game also meant lower slugging averages and on-base percentages, as pitchers could challenge hitters more without the threat of the long ball. The nadir of the dead ball-era was around 1907 and 1908, with a league-wide batting average of .239, slugging average of .306 and ERA under 2.40. That year, the Chicago White Sox hit three home runs for the entire season, yet they finished 88–64, just a couple of games from winning the pennant.
There were some complaints about the low-scoring games and baseball looked to remedy the situation. In 1909, Ben Shibe invented the cork-centered ball, a ball which the Reach Company, the official ball supplier to the American League (AL), began marketing. Spalding, the ball supplier to the National League (NL), followed suit with its own cork-center ball. The change in the ball had a dramatic impact on both leagues. In 1910, the AL batting average was .243; in 1911, it rose to .273. The NL saw a jump in the league batting average from .256 in 1910 to .272 in 1912. 1911 happened to be the best season of Ty Cobb’s career; Cobb batted .420 with 248 hits. Joe Jackson hit .408 in 1911, and the next year Cobb batted .410. These were the only .400 averages between 1902 and 1919. In 1913, however, pitchers started to regain control, helped by a serendipitous invention by minor league pitcher Russ Ford. Ford accidentally scuffed a baseball against a concrete wall, and after he threw it, noticed the pitch quickly dived as it reached the batter. The emery pitch was born. Soon pitchers not only had the dominating spitball, they had another pitch in their arsenal to control the batter, aided by the fact that the same ball was used throughout the game and almost never replaced. As play continued, the ball became more and more scuffed, making in increasingly difficult to hit as it moved more during the pitch, as well as being more difficult to see as it became dirtier. By 1914 runs scoring was essentially back to the pre-1911 years, and remained so until 1919.
Such a lack of power in the game led to one of the more ironic player nicknames in history. Frank Baker, one the best players of the dead-ball era, earned the nickname of "Home Run" Baker merely for hitting two home runs in the 1911 World Series. Although Baker led the American League in home runs four times (1911–1914), his highest home run season was 12, and he finished with 96 home runs for his career.
The best slugger of the dead-ball era was Philadelphia Phillies outfielder "Cactus" Gavvy Cravath. Cravath led the National League in home runs six times, with a high total of 24 for the pennant-winning Phillies in 1915, and seasons of 19 home runs each in 1913 and 1914. Cravath, however was aided by batting in the Baker Bowl, a notoriously hitter-friendly park aided by a short distance to right field.
The ball was also hard to hit because pitchers could manipulate it before a pitch. For example, the spitball pitch was permitted in baseball until 1920. Pitchers often marked the ball, scuffed it, spat on it, or did anything else they could to gain an advantage over the ball's motion. This made the ball "dance" and curve much more than it does now, making it more difficult to hit. Tobacco juice was often added to the ball, as well, which discolored it. This made the ball difficult to see, especially since baseball parks did not have lights until the late 1930s. This made both hitting and fielding more difficult.
The dead-ball era ended suddenly. By 1921, offenses were scoring 40% more runs and hitting four times as many home runs as they did in 1918. The abruptness of this dramatic change has caused widespread debate among baseball historians, and there is no consensus among them regarding the cause of this transformation. Six popular theories have been advanced: