The name applied retroactively to period in baseball history from 1872, when the baseball's size and weight were first standardized, through the 1919 season, when new rules mandated that the balls be wound more tightly. The dead ball era is commonly associated with a "small ball" style of baseball that focused on bunting, stealing bases, and slap hitting. Ty Cobb, the greatest star of the dead ball era, was an expert at all three.

Although the new ball standards instituted for the 1920 did help hitters, there were other factors that contributed to the age of power hitting that we are still in today. Another new rule for the 1920 season mandated that new balls be put into play whenever the old ball got too dirty or scuffed. Prior to 1920 the same ball was often used for a whole game, and by the ninth inning had become a dark greenish brown that was almost impossible for the hitters to see with the onset of twilight. Foul balls were thrown back onto the field and put back in play. Needless to say, having a new white ball in play every inning or so helped hitters immensely (today a new ball is put into play every five pitches or so). Another change in 1920 was that baseball had decided to ban the spitball that winter. Pitchers who threw it were allowed to keep throwing it for the rest of their careers but no new players could throw it. Further adding to the hitting boom were new, smaller ballparks that were built in the 1920s.

But perhaps the biggest single reason for the passing of the dead ball era was a sudden, shocking event that shook the baseball world like no other before it: in 1919 a Boston pitcher hit 29 home runs, more than most other teams. His name, of course, was Babe Ruth. The next year he almost doubled that total, launching 54 bombs for the Yankees. Soon almost all hitters stopped choking up and started swinging for the fences. Bunting declined dramatically and base stealing almost disappeared. There is no widely agreed-upon name for the era that came after the dead ball era; the "live ball era" has a certain symmetry, but perhaps a better name would be the "Babe Ruth era." We are living in that era still.

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