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10 Things Done to Balls to Give Athletes a Competitive Edge

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"Deflate-gate," perhaps the worst-named scandal in NFL history, was born after 11 of 12 footballs used by the New England Patriots during their blowout victory in the AFC Championship Game were found to be inflated below the league-minimum threshold. The team under-inflated the balls by two and a half pounds per square inch, and the Patriots are now accused of ostensibly manipulating the equipment in order to make throwing and catching easier for their players.

There's over a week and a half until Super Bowl Sunday, meaning there will be no shortage of scorching hot takes on "deflate-gate." So, in order to pass the time and supply some context, here are 10 other examples of odd things done to balls in order to give athletes a competitive edge.

1. Over-inflate 'em

Sport: Football

Example: Aaron Rodgers

How does it help?: Sitting diametrically opposite the Patriots is Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has said he likes his footballs over-inflated. "The majority of the time, they take air out of the football," Rodgers said in a radio interview. "I think that, for me, is a disadvantage."

He attributes his large hands for this preference, and says he gets a better feel from a fully pumped ball. "If you don't have strong grip pressure or smaller hands, an advantage to having a flat football, though, because that is easier to throw." While this is not an advantage, per se, it is a preference, and one he is particular about. "There should be a minimum on the air pressure but not a maximum. Every game they're taking air out of the footballs I'm throwing, and I think that's a disadvantage for the way that I like them prepped."

2. File 'em with a nail file or sandpaper (or both)

Sport: Baseball

Example: Joe Niekro

How does it help?: After Twins pitcher Joe Niekro threw a nasty slider during the second inning of an August 3, 1987 game against the Angels, the umpire walked up to investigate. When he got to the mound, an emery board fell out of Niekro's pocket. Upon further inspection, the ump found a piece of sandpaper "contoured to fit a finger." Niekro was ejected and had to serve a 10-game suspension.

Afterwards, Niekro said, "I'll be honest with you, I always carry two things out there with me. An emery board and a small piece of sandpaper. I've done that ever since I started throwing the knuckleball. Being a knuckleball pitcher, I sometimes have to file my nails between innings. So I carry an emery board with me to the mound."

That's a nice explanation, but the more likely story is that Niekro didn't need to supress his superhuman nail growth and instead used the file and sandpaper to rough the balls up to add unpredictability to their trajectory. According to Angels manager Gene Mauch, "Those balls weren't roughed up, those balls were borderline mutilated."

3. Rub Vaseline On 'Em

Sport: Baseball

Example: Gaylord Perry

How does it help?: Perry was known throughout his career for adding petroleum jelly to baseballs, making them "spitballs." He'd lather his hat or his sleeve with the stuff and slyly rub it on the balls. The viscosity of the Vaseline would cause the ball to slip out of his hand with little-to-no backspin, fooling batters. He was even known to pretend to put it on to keep batters on their toes. Despite releasing an autobiography in the '70s titled Me and the Spitter, Perry wasn't caught until 1982 during his 655th start. He was ejected from the game.

4. Cut 'Em With a Wedding Ring

Sport: Baseball

Example: Whitey Ford

How does it help?: Cutting the ball can give the same effect of scuffing it, and it will alter its flight to the catcher. Ford was known to slice balls up with his wedding ring. He would also slather baseballs with mud and "gunk"—a mix of baby oil, turpentine, and resin—to turn them into spitters.

5. Cut 'em With Thumbtacks

Sport: Baseball

Example: Rick Honeycutt

How does it help?: It didn't. In an attempt to get an edge in a 1980 game, Rick Honeycutt removed a thumbtack from a stadium bulletin board and taped it to his finger. "It didn't do anything for me," he recalls. "I didn't know what I was doing at the time. I only did it once and I did it badly and got caught at it." He used the tack to scratch up the ball—and his face. Honeycutt accidentally wiped his brow and opened a gash. He was caught red-handed and red-faced and was ejected, suspended for 10 games, and fined $250.

6. Freeze 'Em

Sport: Baseball

Example: Chicago White Sox

How does it help?: In the late '60s, the White Sox were over-reliant on quality pitching, so Gene Bossard, the Comiskey Park groundskeeper, would freeze the baseballs to give the Sox rotation an added edge. His son recalls, "In the bowels of the old stadium my dad had an old room where the humidifier was constantly going. By leaving the balls in that room for 10 to 14 days, they became a quarter to a half ounce heavier." This would reduce the balls' bounce, making it harder to pop home runs off the pitchers.

7. Pay Guys to Rough 'Em Up

Sport: Football

Example: Brad Johnson

How does it help?: Before Super Bowl XXXVII, Tamba Bay Buccaneers quarterback Brad Johnson was worried that the brand-new footballs supplied by the NFL would be too slick to provide an effective grip. "[Opposing quaterback] Rich [Gannon] and I talked about it. The footballs needed to be worked in,'' Johnson recalls. "In years past, you heard Troy Aikman, John Elway and Steve Young complain about the balls being slick. Phil Simms, all of them. And basically we agreed on that if the balls could be—if we could work them in, we'd work them in.''

Johnson paid two ball boys a combined $7,500 to beat the balls to a grippy pulp. "I paid some guys off to get the balls right,'' Johnson said. "They took care of them.'' The Bucs won 48-21.

8. Rub Dirt on 'Em

Sport: Cricket

Example: Michael Atherton

How does it help?: England national team captain Michael Atherton was accused of keeping dirt in his pocket to rub on match balls in 1994. In order to get the ball to reverse swing—where the rotation is opposite the bowler's throw and comes on later and with more force—the ball has to be dry on one side. He told reporters, "The dirt in my pocket was used to dry my fingers because it was a hot and humid day."

He hadn't done anything technically illegal at the time, but because he hadn't notified the umpire beforehand, he was fined £2,000. He retained his captaincy, but his reputation was soured by the incident.

9. Bite 'Em

Sport: Cricket

Example: Shahid Afridi

How does it help?: In 2010, Pakistani cricket player Shahid Afridi was suspended for two internationals for biting a ball. He maintained that this practice—done to manipulate the seams and, thusly, the flight of the ball—is common in international cricket. Nonetheless, he was caught on camera and had to serve his suspension.

10. Manufacture 'Em And Buy A Corporate Sponsorship

Sport: Soccer

Example: Adidas Jabulani

How does it help?: As part of their sponsorship with FIFA, Adidas introduces a new ball for every World Cup. Each new ball is heralded as a scientific achievement by both organizations, but, in reality, their very existence can only be explained as a ploy to sell more balls. Worst of all, the "new and improved" equipment can behave differently than players are used to.

This was the case for the Jabulani, which was used in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. It was manufactured with eight thermally-bonded panels spherically-molded from fromethylene-vinyl acetate. It was remarkably lightweight, and the surface was unlike any soccer ball ever used before. It flew through the the air wildly, much to the dismay of goalkeepers. Brazil keeper Julio Cesar called it a "supermarket ball," and Italy's Gianluigi Buffon said, "It is very sad that a competition so important as the world championship will be played with such a horrible ball."

BONUS: Exploit the laws of physics on 'em

Sport: Soccer

Example: Roberto Carlos

How did it happen?: In 1997, Brazil left back Roberto Carlos struck one of the most famous goals of all time during a friendly against France. It was called a fluke by many, and to understand why, you have to watch it from the camera angle placed directly behind Carlos. He hits through the ball with incredible force and it flies so far to the right of the post, a ball boy flinches to avoid the seemingly errant strike. It doesn't go where you'd think physics would permit it, however, and the ball boomerangs back in, leaving the goalkeeper Barthez planted to the ground, so stunned he can barely muster a "sacre bleu."

French physicists studied the goal to determine how it happened. Carlos hit the ball hard enough that he created the spin required to "minimize the effect of gravity." Because it was so far away (115 feet from the goal), we are able to see with the naked eye the effects of how a fast-spinning sphere can eliminate air turbulence and hold off gravity for long enough to bend through space.

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

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.

This Water Bottle Doubles as a Foam Roller

It hydrates and it massages. The MOBOT bottle, as spotted by Outside magazine, is being billed as “the world’s first and only foam roller water bottle,” and many outdoor and adventure enthusiasts swear by it.

The stainless steel bottle is wrapped in non-toxic EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate) foam, which can be rolled along your calves, hamstrings, glutes, or arms to soothe sore muscles and relieve joint paint. It was designed with athletes in mind, but we could see it being used by stressed-out office workers with stiff muscles who could benefit from a little self-care. Plus, the lightweight bottle is great for keeping your beverage cold all day, whether you’re at work, at an amusement park, or at the beach. A top loop allows it to be hooked onto a backpack or beach bag.

The bottle is available in three sizes: the 40-ounce “Big Bertha,” the 18-ounce “Firecracker,” and the 27-ounce “Grace.” There’s a range of colors and patterns to choose from, including neon-colored camouflage for those moments when you can’t decide whether you want to stand out or blend in.

You can order it on Amazon, but some styles have already sold out. Check out MOBOT's video below to see different ways of using the bottle.

[h/t Outside]


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