5 Sports Innovations That Didn't Quite Take

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A lumber-based storm is gathering over Major League Baseball, and it's all about how the bats are made. Popular maple bats have the advantage of being denser than bats made of the other wood of choice, ash, and players feel this quality helps them hit for more power. On the other hand, the maple bats tend to have fat barrels for striking the ball and thin handles and are prone to shattering. When one breaks, pieces of its barrel turn into flying knives ready to impale anyone in their path. Players and coaches are starting to worry about ending up with a sharpened hunk of maple hanging out of their bodies, so the wonder-bats may not stick around much longer. In their honor, though, lets look at a few more sports equipment innovations that didn't quite take.

1. FoxTrax
Better known as the "glow puck," "techno puck," and "thing that was going to make every American love hockey," FoxTrax was an innovation Fox debuted for its coverage of the 1996 NHL All-Star Game. Market research showed that the average novice hockey viewer had trouble finding and following the puck on the ice. Fox execs, ever innovative, decided the solution was making a puck that glowed blue so fans always knew exactly where it was.

Creating the glowing FoxTrax puck was no easy technological feat. The puck itself had to be perfectly identical to a regular NHL puck, but it also had to house a circuit board, battery, and infrared transmitters. When the puck was slapped or dropped for the first time, it would begin transmitting infrared pulses to 20 pulse detectors and ten cameras located around the arena. These signals were then sent to a huge truck outside where the blue glow was added to the TV signal. In short, getting the puck to glow to glow on your TV set was quite a production.

Unfortunately, no one really appreciated the fruits of these labors. Hockey purists were understandably miffed that their viewing experience had been changed and that it now looked like their favorite players were batting around a small blue pillow. The blue glow didn't show up very well against the white ice, and the red shooting-star tail that was added whenever the puck's speed when over 70 mph was generally irritating to fans. Casual fans liked that the puck helped them follow the game, but it didn't generate huge interest in the sport. Worse still, players claimed the FoxTrax pucks didn't have the same feel as their low-tech counterparts and thus affected game play.

FoxTrax continued to make occasional appearances, but public opinion to it never warmed. It made its final appearance in Game One of the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals before retiring to the land of failed gizmos.

2. The Alert Orange Baseball
FoxTrax had a few forefathers, though. Take, for instance, Charlie Finley's alert orange baseball. Finley, the cantankerous and eccentric owner of the Athletics, was always looking for a new way to improve the game and the viewing experience. He felt that the white baseball was too tough for players to pick up in the air and difficult for fans to see from the stands. His solution was painting the ball the color of a road cone to make it easier on the eyes. If batters could see the ball better, they'd hit better. Scoring would go up, games would be more exciting, and fans would flock to stadiums in record numbers. Finley set out to convince his fellow owners that his innovation was perfect.

The other owners weren't buying it, though. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn declined Finley's offer to use the ball, so an indignant Finley set about proving the orange ball's value. He used the ball in an exhibition against the Indians in 1973 to test his theory. Turns out he was half right: fans could see the ball much better as it moved around the field of play. Batters, though, couldn't pick up the rotation on the bright ball, and pitchers complained that the orange covering was too slippery to grip. The ball never made it into a real game.

finley-rabbit.jpg3. The Ball Rabbit
Finley's ball-related innovations weren't limited to the color of the sphere itself, though. He also had a revolutionary idea about how to get the ball into play. In a standard game, the home plate umpire wears a pouch full of balls around his waist, and as balls are lost to scuffing or hit out of play, a bat boy brings a fresh set out balls out to the umpire. It's a simple, efficient system. Finley saw room for improvement, though. He installed an underground device near home plate that the umpire would tap with his foot upon running out of balls. At that point, a mechanical rabbit would emerge from a subterranean lair bearing a basket of fresh balls. Details on how long this necessary innovation lasted are sketchy, but unless I really haven't been paying attention during baseball games, I feel pretty confident saying it never quite took off. [Image courtesy of The Sporting News.]

whitesox-shorts.jpg4. The White Sox Shorts Plan
If any owner could rival Finley's eccentricities, it was Bill Veeck of the White Sox, a tireless and crafty promoter. In 1976, he had a strange idea of his own: outfitting the Sox in shorts instead of pants. The revealing uniforms made their debut on August 8, 1976 against the Royals. The Sox strode out of their dugout wearing short for the first game of a doubleheader, and after only a few innings came to a rather obvious realization. While it's certainly not always comfortable to wear pants in the August heat of Chicago, baseball is a game that necessitates covered legs. Sliding into a base or making a play against an opposing baserunner in metal spikes is considerably less fun with exposed shins.

To add insult to injury, the Royals players mercilessly taunted the Sox, including John Mayberry's quip that the Sox were "the sweetest team we've seen yet." The Sox won the game but switched back to pants for the second half of the doubleheader. The shorts made one more appearance that season before disappearing into the lore of terrible uniform choices. [Image courtesy of MopUpDuty.com.]

5. The NBA's Synthetic Ball
Few equipment changes in recent years have caused as much of an uproar as the NBA's switch from leather to synthetic balls in 2006. Unlike the original leather ball, the new rock had a microfiber composite exterior and a paneling system that changed the number of ribs on the nba-synthetic.jpgball. The NBA's brass thought the new ball was more consistent than its leather equivalents, and cows everywhere rejoiced at the development.

The people who actually had to use the ball, however, hated it. Players started whining about the switch almost immediately. The synthetic surface was easier to grip at the beginning of games, but since it didn't absorb sweat it soon became slippery. The ball's cover was designed to aid grip by generating more friction on the player's hand, but several stars like Jason Kidd and Steve Nash claimed that the surface was actually cutting their fingertips. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban requested a study into the way the ball bounced, and physicists at the University of Texas-Arlington discovered that the composite ball didn't behave the way its leather predecessor did. Shaquille O'Neal added his own droll spin on the issue when he quipped that comparing the new and old balls was "like touching an exotic dancer, and then going and touching a plastic blow-up doll."

As players continued to gripe, the NBA did something almost totally out of character: it admitted it made a mistake. On December 12, 2006, the league announced that all games would return to the old leather ball on January 1, 2007.

Ethan Trex grew up idolizing Vince Coleman, and he kind of still does. Ethan co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys.

May 29, 2008 - 7:52am
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