CLEARWATER, Fla. — Danny Litwhiler, the greatest inventor in baseball history, died in late September at the age of 95.
In 28 years of collegiate coaching (9 years at Florida St. and 19 more at Michigan St.), Litwhiler was the catalyst behind some of the greatest inventions in baseball history. He ultimately came up with well over 100 inventions for the sport.
His entire life revolved around the game as his No. 1 mission in life was to help others. He spent 12 years in the Major Leagues as a player with the Phillies, Reds, Cardinals and Braves. He earned two consecutive Gold Gloves in 1942-43, committing only one error over that span.
Litwhiler was the first major league outfielder to play in every game and inning of a complete season and not commit an error during the 1942 season. His glove was placed in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Thomas Edison may have been the greatest inventor of all time. With only three months of formal schooling, he changed the lives of millions with such inventions as the electric light and phonograph. Edison patented more than 1,100 inventions over 60 years. But he couldn’t hold a candle to Litwhiler when it came to baseball inventions.
Here are Litwhiler’s top 10 inventions as told to Collegiate Baseball several years ago
1. Radar Gun
Danny came up with the concept of a baseball radar gun in 1974.
He had read in the Michigan St. student newspaper about a campus policeman pointing a new device at cars called a radar gun to catch speeders. Suddenly, an intriguing idea popped in his mind. Why not use such a radar gun to check the velocity of pitched balls?
He immediately sprang into action and contacted a local police officer about coming to his baseball field to run an experiment. The officer drove over near the field and then was instructed to point the radar gun at one of his pitchers to determine the velocity of his pitches.
Initially the gun registered 75 mph. But the reading was on a flat portion of the field. So Litwhiler asked the police ofrficer to drive his car near the pitcher’s mound since the radar gun was attached to the lighter in the car.
This time, the pitches registered 85 mph. The gun caught about 75 percent of pitches thrown. Litwhiler immediately wrote to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn about the discovery to let every Major League club know so one team would not have an advantage over the other.
Litwhiler then contacted John Paulson, inventor of the JUGS Pitching Machine, to see if he would be interested in making a radar gun for baseball.
"I told him of the radar gun idea for baseball, and he was interested," said Litwhiler. "It took us several months to get the radar gun to the point where it would track a baseball every time. The radar gun had to be re-tuned. So it went back and forth until it was perfected. John came up with a portable gun that could be used any place on the field or indoors. It operated on a rechargeable battery."
Litwhiler said the radar gun was initially used to chart the speeds of different pitches (fastballs, sliders, curves, changeups, etc.) to see if they complimented each other. He found that the speed differential of pitches was important in getting batters out. Also, the gun was used to check how quickly an infielder could throw a ball to first base, a catcher fire a ball to second or outfielders throwing balls to home.
Over the years, the radar gun has become a staple of scouting prospects. The portable prototype was developed in 1975 which picked up 99 out of 100 pitches. Thousands and thousands have been sold across the world since that time.
2. Diamond Dust, Diamond Grit
In 1956, Danny and a neighbor named Jack Moore went to a football game.
Unfortunately, it rained during the contest as referees kept trying to dry footballs with a towel prior to plays. It was during this game that both Moore, a chemical engineer, and Litwhiler, baseball’s greatest inventor of all time, brainstormed on a better mode of operation to dry not only footballs but baseballs during wet conditions such as this.
"I explained to Jack that some football teams had an electric dryer to get the moisture off balls. But Jack didn’t understand why football teams used such a device because he felt the pressure of the ball would increase with footballs in such a dryer. So I asked him if he had a better idea. He told me that he just might have something which would work."
A product was devised from a dirt and clay mixture that absorbed water from baseballs or footballs by simply rubbing wet balls in it.
"It was amazing," said Litwhiler. "I put a baseball under a faucet and then put it in this product. In 20 seconds, the ball was dry. During a rainy baseball game, you could use 2-3 dozen balls because of the soggy conditions. But it immediately changed with this product which was eventually called Diamond Dust. I went entire rainy games after this using only 3-4 balls. It saved a lot of money over the years for baseball programs."
This product naturally dovetailed into a solution to dry up muddy infields on baseball fields. Prior to the invention of this new calcined clay product, which allows groundskeepers to turn a virtual swamp into a playable field in minutes, groundskeepers dumped sawdust over wet infield dirt, soaked the area with gasoline and set it on fire.
For extreme wet spots, groundskeepers would throw old tires in the trouble spots, add gasoline and then set it on fire. The air pollution was absolutely terrible and damaged the pristine look of dirt infields.
"When the fields were burned, the smell was absolutely terrible," said Litwhiler. "The burning tires ruined the infield."
Danny also objected to the use of helicopters to dry infields because of the tremendous waste of gasoline. Litwhiler hoped that Diamond Dust would be the answer to wet infield dirt areas of baseball fields as well. However, Diamond Dust was too expensive to accomplish the task.
So Moore and Litwhiler developed a type of calcined clay that absorbed water so quickly that it turned wet mud into dry dirt in minutes.
"After Jack came up with a product for drying infield dirt with calcined clay, we tested it out on an area by home plate. I soaked the area very well. Then I put some of the Diamond Grit on the wet area and raked it in well. In 7-8 minutes, the soil was ready to play on."
After this discovery, every Major League organization started using this product to dry up wet infield dirt.
3. Unbreakable Mirror
In 1961, Danny saw a toothpaste commercial showing bullets bouncing off the front end of an airplane.
It made him wonder if a mirror could be built so pitchers could throw at it and watch their own deliveries. The key was using a mirror that would withstand the impact of a fastball.
He constructed a 650-pound device which included a 5 x 3 foot Herculite mirror weighing 150 pounds built by Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company. The mirror structure could stand up to 100 mph fastballs. Litwhiler used it for almost three decades as a college baseball coach and the Cincinnati Reds for many years.
"The frame was all steel, and it folded down flat," said Litwhiler. "The mirror could withstand just about anything. Herb Score (former Cleveland Indians’ pitcher) wanted a shot at the mirror one time. He got 30 feet in front of the mirror as all pitchers did. It gave the illusion of seeing yourself 60 feet away. He proclaimed to one and all that he would bust that mirror once and for all. He let loose with a fastball. But the ball ricocheted off the glass right back at him as it barely missed his head. Most pitchers threw into the mirror at a slight angle as the ball rebounded to another player.
"The idea of the unbreakable mirror was for pitchers to see everything hitters saw about their delivery. You could see if you were hiding pitches properly. We also used it for catchers to see how well they used their mechanics. One of my catchers refused to believe he did not throw over the top. So I brought in the mirror. He eventually corrected himself and became a skilled catcher."
4. Weighted Balls
5. Instructional Bunting Bat
6. Multiple Batting Cage
7. Can’t Release Golf Glove
8. Weighted Catcher’s Mitt
9. Litwhiler’s Fly Swatter
10. 30-Gallon Oil Drum
Honorable Mention Inventions
• Triple Batting Tee
• Bat Throwing Drill
• Eye Patch Drill
• Ball In Dirt Drill
• Yo-Yo Pitching Drill
• Remarkable Spray Drag
• Resistance Training
• Reading Pitch Spins
The complete story on inventions 4-10, plus his honorable mention all-time inventions, can be found in the Jan. 6, 2012 edition of Collegiate Baseball. Call (520) 623-4530 to secure a copy of this issue for only $3 (includes postage and handling).
This edition also is the College Preview edition for 2012 and includes all pre-season polls, all the top teams and players in college baseball for 2012 and the top draft eligible players who may be picked in the first two rounds of next spring's Free Agent Draft, plus much, much more. A one year subscription to Collegiate Baseball is only $28.