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7 Famous Baseball Pitches (and some physics behind them)

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iStock

If you watch the playoffs from home, or listen in on the radio, you'll hear a lot of talk about what kind of pitch was just thrown, will be thrown, should be thrown, might be thrown, or, perhaps, shouldn't have been thrown. Cutters, sliders, sinkers—what are they exactly and what's the difference between them? Here's a little primer on six of the most popular pitches out there and a bit of the physics behind them:

1. Fastball - This is the basic, most important pitch in baseball. The first two fingers rest just on (or inside) the seams and the pitcher releases the pitch with the palm pretty much facing the batter, producing maximum velocity. How fast are we talking? Generally in the 90-95 mph range, though some pitchers have been known to hurl over 100 mph. Technically, what you see in the photo is called a two-seam fastball and produces a sidespin that causes the ball to cut in as it approaches the batter. There are other varieties, like the 4-seam fastball, which is thrown by holding the ball with the seams horizontal, rather than vertical. This produces backspin, which creates high pressure under the ball and low pressure on top resulting in the illusion of the ball rising (actually the ball isn't rising, just falling more slowly than it would normally). There's also a split-finger fastball where the first two fingers split, or straddle the seams, which causes the ball to drop a little as it approaches the plate. Despite the movement, the basic idea of a fastball is to overpower the batter, so he swings late and misses.

2. Sinker - If you've ever played wiffleball, you know the ball rises, falls, and curves in and away from a batter depending on where you position the air holes in the ball. Likewise, in baseball, a pitcher can create movement and variation in speed depending on how he releases the ball, or how he spins the ball. Off-speed pitches, like the sinker, are pitches that are released with the palm of the hand facing away from the pitcher. This causes the ball to sink as it approaches the batter. The idea here is to either get him to swing over the ball and miss, or, if he connects with the pitch, to produce a ground ball, rather than a line drive.

3. Changeup - A changeup is like a sinker, in that it's an off-speed pitch, only the palm is turned even further out. All off-speed pitches are similar in that they're thrown with less velocity than the fastball. But the batter doesn't know when one is coming because a good pitcher is able to use the same arm speed as he does for the fastball. So how does he throw it with less velocity? Simple: by pressing the baseball deep into his palm. Less finger contact means less torque and less velocity. So, if a batter is expecting a fastball, slowing down, or "changing up" the speed to, say, 87 mph can trip him up and he'll swing ahead of the ball. Great pitchers can build an entire career on the changeup because they're able to slow it down all the way to around 80 mph. If they can throw a fastball around 95 mph, that's a whopping 15 mph slower and really confuses the batter.

4. Screwball - This is another off-speed pitch that not only sinks, but moves from the pitcher's left side to the right as it approaches the batter. The palm is again pronated away from the pitcher, even further than the sinker and changeup. As the pitcher releases the ball, he twists the ball like a corkscrew. A left-handed batter will see the ball break away from him and a right-handed batter will experience the opposite, as the ball breaks in on him (the reverse is true if the pitcher is left-handed, of course)

5. Cutter - Turning the palm in the opposite direction produces a series of pitches known as breaking pitches. The further the palm is rotated toward the pitcher, the more movement (in most cases, but not all). The first stop over from the fastball is the cutter, which is like a fastball, only it breaks in ever so slightly and is generally thrown a few mphs slower than a fastball.

6. Slider - Basically the same thing as a cutter, a slider is thrown with less velocity than the former and the palm is rotated further toward the pitcher. The slower speed means there's more time for the ball to move, or slide, from one side of the plate to the other.

7. Curveball - A good curveball can be devastating, and also fun to watch. These are the pitches that appear to arc up toward the batter's chest (or even head) before dropping into the strike zone like a bomb as they reach the plate. Of course, not every successful curveball pitcher throws the large arc variety and they need not be so dramatic. Even a small arc keeps the hitter off balance. So how is the amazing trajectory accomplished? The pitcher turns his palm in so far that his hand looks like the letter "C." He then flicks his wrist as he releases the ball (the opposite direction from the screwball) creating topspin. The more topspin, the greater the air pressure difference between the top and bottom of the ball, and the greater the break.

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Shout! Factory
Original GLOW Wrestling Series Hits Twitch
Shout! Factory
Shout! Factory

When it premiered in June 2017, GLOW was a bit of a sleeper offering for Netflix. With the amount of original programming ordered by the streaming service, a show based on an obscure women’s pro wrestling league from the 1980s seemed destined to get lost in the shuffle.

Instead, the series was a critical and commercial success. Ahead of its second season, which drops on June 29, you'll have a chance to see the mat work of the original women who inspired it.

Shout! Factory has announced they will be live-streaming clips from the first four seasons of GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling), which first premiered in 1986, beginning at 9 p.m. ET on June 28. The stream, which will be available on shoutfactorytv.com and Twitch, will feature original footage framed by new interviews with personalities including Godiva, host Johnny C, and Hollywood. The show will air live from the Santino Brothers Wrestling Academy in Los Angeles.

Godiva, who was portrayed by Dawn Maestas, inspired the character Rhonda (a.k.a. Brittanica) on the Netflix series; Hollywood was the alter ego of Jeanne Basone, who inspired the character Cherry in the fictionalized version of the league. Basone later posed for Playboy and takes bookings for one-on-one wrestling matches with fans.

Shout! Factory's site also features a full-length compilation of footage, Brawlin’ Beauties: GLOW, hosted by onetime WWE interviewer “Mean” Gene Okerlund.

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Alamy
On Top of the World: Remembering the Lost Trend of Flagpole Sitting
Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly sitting on a flagpole atop the Hotel St. Francis in Newark, New Jersey
Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly sitting on a flagpole atop the Hotel St. Francis in Newark, New Jersey
Alamy

Flappers and bootleggers might be the most memorable aspects of the 1920s, but there's a lesser-known, yet no less colorful, trend from that decade: flagpole sitting. From the glamorous hills of Hollywood to the blue-collar dwellings of Union City, New Jersey, this unusual pastime turned eccentric showmen and ordinary people into overnight celebrities, before the crushing reality of the Great Depression grounded their climb to stardom.

Flagpole sitting is exactly what it sounds like: a person climbing on top of a towering pole, usually in the middle of a city, and testing their endurance by sitting atop it for as long as their body holds up. It began in Hollywood in January 1924, when a former sailor, boxer, steelworker, and stuntman named Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly was hired by a local theater to sit on a pole outside of the building for as long as possible to drum up publicity for a new movie. Kelly, a New York City native—whose nickname was supposedly inspired by his dubious claims as a Titanic survivor—wowed crowds by perching himself on the pole for an astonishing 13 hours and 13 minutes. The stunt worked, and once it got picked up by the papers, offers started pouring in from more businesses to perform pole-sittings. Kelly was eager to oblige.

News of Kelly's exploits spread, and before long, men, women, and children were climbing poles of their own. There was the three-week feat of Bobbie Mack, a young woman from Los Angeles; Joe “Hold ‘em” Powers, who sat for 16 days in Chicago in 1927 and climbed back down with six fewer teeth than he started with after a storm smacked him face-first into his pole; and Bill Penfield, who braved a pole for 51 days in Strawberry Point, Iowa before a storm forced him down. In 1928, a 15-year-old named Avon Foreman of Baltimore even established a juvenile sitting record of 10 days, 10 hours, 10 minutes, and 10 seconds (he practiced on an 18-foot hickory tree in his backyard). Foreman’s accomplishment was so inspiring to Baltimore mayor William F. Broening that he publicly declared that the youngster exhibited “the pioneer spirit of early America.”

Still, Kelly was the one making a big business out of pole sitting. Even when he wasn’t holding the record, he was the ambassador of the bizarre sport. He toured 28 cities, attracting massive crowds that jammed streets and lined rooftops just to get a glimpse of the daredevil poking out among the apartment buildings and businesses of Downtown, USA.

Kelly's notable feats included an 80-hour sit in New Orleans and the 146 hours he spent high above Kansas City's Old Westgate Hotel. But even those were overshadowed by his largest-scale stunts: 312 hours on top of Newark’s St. Francis Hotel in 1927, 22 days on a pole above a dance marathon (another endurance fad of the time) in Madison Square Garden, and 23 days in 1929 in Baltimore’s Carlin’s Park on a pole that was 60 feet high. By Kelly’s own calculation, he’d spend around 20,613 hours pole-sitting during a career that lasted over a decade.

His peak came in 1930 when he lasted 49 days and one hour on a 225-foot pole on Atlantic City’s steel pier. The feat was witnessed by as many as 20,000 onlookers during the weeks he spent up top, becoming one of the first of many spectacles that would grace the pier in the 1930s. (He’d eventually be followed by acts like Rex, the water-skiing “wonder dog”; JoJo, the boxing kangaroo; and the city’s infamous diving horse routine.)

Estimates of Kelly’s fees range from $100-$500 a day throughout his career, paid by whatever outlet needed the publicity and sometimes by crowds who spent a quarter to get a view of his act from nearby hotel rooftops. And what did those onlookers see, exactly? A man on a circular padded seat high above the rabble, sometimes reading the paper, other times enjoying a shave. For food, he’d stick mainly to a liquid diet of broth and water, along with cigarettes, all of which were lifted up to him in a bucket. When he needed to sleep, he’d stay seated by wrapping his ankles around the pole and securing his thumbs into holes in his seat before nodding off. That's if he rested at all—he was also known to deprive himself of sleep on the pole for as long as four days.

The big money would dry up soon after his Atlantic City stunt, and the realities of the Great Depression put an end to flagpole sitting as a career. With up to a quarter of the population unemployed, people were apparently less interested in opening their papers to stories of men and women testing endurance at the top of a pole for more money than the readers would likely see all year.

"As Shipwreck Kelly analyzed it, it was the Stock Market crash that killed pole-sitting as the golden egg that paid the goose," a writer for The Evening Sun in Baltimore put it in 1944. "People couldn't stand to see anything higher than their busted securities."

Kelly’s personal story ends on a similarly somber note. Penniless and stripped of his daredevil veneer, he died of a heart attack in 1952 at the age of 59, his body found not far from the room he rented on West 51st Street in New York City. Underneath his arm at the time of his death was a scrapbook of newspaper clippings detailing his accomplishments as a once-champion flagpole sitter.

Though flagpole sitting has fallen out of the public eye since the Depression, it has occasionally shown faint signs of life. In 1963, 17-year-old Alabama native Peggy Townsend cruised past all of Kelly's highest marks by spending 217 days on a pole for a radio contest. That time was later beaten by Kenneth Gidge, who topped her at 248 days in 1971 before becoming an artist, inventor, and New Hampshire state representative later in life.

Today, the occasional pole-sitter still pops up in the news, though they're now most likely perched for protests or as living art installations. Regardless of the purpose behind it, it's unlikely that a person atop a flagpole will ever attract a sea of thousands of onlookers again—and the days when a man like Kelly could become a household name and dub himself the "Luckiest Fool on Earth" seem long gone.

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