Physics of Baseball Pioneers

This page pays tribute to the pioneers of the physics of baseball, listed in chronological order of their principal contributions. All papers linked to on this page are copyrighted but may be downloaded for personal use. This list is not meant to be complete and will be updated from time to time.

Lyman Briggs:

Lyman Briggs portrait from
Lyman Briggs
From Lyman Briggs College

Briggs was an outfielder on the Michigan State College baseball team during the 1890s and graduated second in his class at the age of 19. He became the third director (from 1933 to 1945) of the National Bureau of Standards (now named the NIST). He wrote two important early papers:

A popular account of both Brigg's papers can be found at the website for National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Paul Kirkpatrick:

Paul Kirkpatrick portrait from Stanford University
Paul Kirkpatrick

Stanford physics professor, well known for his pioneering research in the use of x-rays for scientific purposes. He also had a great interest in the physics of baseball and after retiring from the university, he wrote a seminal American Journal of Physics article in 1963 entitled Batting the Ball. A great quote from that paper has guided my own research on the subject: "Our goal is not to reform [baseball], but to understand it."

He was also the subject of a New York Times Opening Day 1982 article entitled Season Opens for Fans of Ballistic Physics. His quote about the dramatic end of the 1962 World Series game between the New York Yankees and the San Francisco Giants has become famous when describing what happened to end the game, from a physics point of view, when he said:

''In baseball, the vertical coordinate of the bat at contact is both important and hard to control. Most strike-outs result from its mismanagement, and the 1962 world championship was finally determined by an otherwise perfect swing of a bat which came to the collision one millimeter too high to effect the transfer of title.''

Robert Adair:

Robert Adair
Robert Adair

Sterling Professor Emeritus of Physics at Yale University and former Physicist to the National League. He is the first to do a comprehensive study of the subject, resulting in a popular book appropriately entitled The Physics of Baseball, originally published in 1990 and currently in its 3rd edition (2002).

Reviews of the book report that it blends scientific fact and baseball trivia nicely. Barnes and Noble booksellers write that the book is full of anecdotes about famous players and incidents that provide fans with fascinating insights into how physics relates to baseball. Prof. Adair's book has been a continuing source of inspiration for my own work in the field. He wrote a shortened version of the book in a Physics Today article (May 1995) with the same title. A quote from that article resonates with me:

"But the physics of baseball is not the clean, well-defined physics of fundamental matters, but the ill-defined physics of the complex world in which we live...Hence conclusions about the physics of baseball must depend on approximations and estimates. But estimates are part of the physicist's repertoire."

Bob Adair passed away at the age of 96 on September 28, 2020, exactly 60 years to the day when Ted Williams hit a home run in his final plate appearance. Bob was my mentor and friend and I will miss our lively discussions.

Howard Brody

Howard Brody portrait from University of Pennsylvania
Howard Brody:

University of Pennsylvania physics professor whose primary expertise was in the physics of tennis. In fact, he co-authored the definitive treatise on the subject, The Physics and Technology of Tennis, as well as many journal articles. He even coached the Penn tennis team for a while. He also wrote two seminal American Journal of Physics articles pertaining to the physics of baseball.

  • The sweet spot of a baseball bat. In this article, Brody showed for the first time that the center of percussion has no relevance for baseball bat performance.
  • Models of baseball bats. In this article, Brody showed for the first time that the batter's grip during the ball-bat collision plays no role in the post-impact velocity of the ball. I love this quote from the article:
    "...the concept of adding some fraction of the hand and arm mass to the bat mass to get an effective mass or striking mass seems to be contradicted by the results presented in this article."

Robert Watts:

Roberts Watts photo from Tulane University
Bob Watts

Tulane University mechanical engineering professor who wrote two important American Journal of Physics articles based on wind tunnel experiments on a baseball:

Watts is also co-author with Terry Bahill of the book Keep Your Eye on the Ball: Curve Balls, Knuckleballs, and Fallacies of Baseball, an excellent book addressing many issues on the science of the game.

Lonnie Van Zandt:

Lonnie Van Zandt portrait from Purdue University
Lonnie Van Zandt

Purdue University physics professor who wrote an important American Journal of Physics article in 1991 entitled The Dynamical Theory of the Baseball Bat.

In his Physics Today article, Adair calls this work "one of the most elegant calculations in sports physics." I agree. In fact, this article provided the primary motivation for my very first foray into the field.

Rod Cross:

Rod Cross from University of Sydney
Rod Cross

University of Sydney physics professor whose first baseball paper, The Sweet Spot of a Baseball Bat, appeared in the September 1998 issue of American Journal of Physics, just as I was starting my own bat calculations. Thus began our professional relationship and frequent collaborations that continue to this day. Rod has written a book, Physics of Baseball and Softball which is the definitive treatise on the subject. It was published in 2011 and is your one-stop shopping for the results of the latest research.