5 Sports Innovations That Didn't Quite Take

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iStock

A lumber-based storm is gathering over Major League Baseball, and it's all about how the bats are made. Popular maple bats have the advantage of being denser than bats made of the other wood of choice, ash, and players feel this quality helps them hit for more power. On the other hand, the maple bats tend to have fat barrels for striking the ball and thin handles and are prone to shattering. When one breaks, pieces of its barrel turn into flying knives ready to impale anyone in their path. Players and coaches are starting to worry about ending up with a sharpened hunk of maple hanging out of their bodies, so the wonder-bats may not stick around much longer. In their honor, though, lets look at a few more sports equipment innovations that didn't quite take.

1. FoxTrax
Better known as the "glow puck," "techno puck," and "thing that was going to make every American love hockey," FoxTrax was an innovation Fox debuted for its coverage of the 1996 NHL All-Star Game. Market research showed that the average novice hockey viewer had trouble finding and following the puck on the ice. Fox execs, ever innovative, decided the solution was making a puck that glowed blue so fans always knew exactly where it was.

Creating the glowing FoxTrax puck was no easy technological feat. The puck itself had to be perfectly identical to a regular NHL puck, but it also had to house a circuit board, battery, and infrared transmitters. When the puck was slapped or dropped for the first time, it would begin transmitting infrared pulses to 20 pulse detectors and ten cameras located around the arena. These signals were then sent to a huge truck outside where the blue glow was added to the TV signal. In short, getting the puck to glow to glow on your TV set was quite a production.

Unfortunately, no one really appreciated the fruits of these labors. Hockey purists were understandably miffed that their viewing experience had been changed and that it now looked like their favorite players were batting around a small blue pillow. The blue glow didn't show up very well against the white ice, and the red shooting-star tail that was added whenever the puck's speed when over 70 mph was generally irritating to fans. Casual fans liked that the puck helped them follow the game, but it didn't generate huge interest in the sport. Worse still, players claimed the FoxTrax pucks didn't have the same feel as their low-tech counterparts and thus affected game play.

FoxTrax continued to make occasional appearances, but public opinion to it never warmed. It made its final appearance in Game One of the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals before retiring to the land of failed gizmos.

2. The Alert Orange Baseball
FoxTrax had a few forefathers, though. Take, for instance, Charlie Finley's alert orange baseball. Finley, the cantankerous and eccentric owner of the Athletics, was always looking for a new way to improve the game and the viewing experience. He felt that the white baseball was too tough for players to pick up in the air and difficult for fans to see from the stands. His solution was painting the ball the color of a road cone to make it easier on the eyes. If batters could see the ball better, they'd hit better. Scoring would go up, games would be more exciting, and fans would flock to stadiums in record numbers. Finley set out to convince his fellow owners that his innovation was perfect.

The other owners weren't buying it, though. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn declined Finley's offer to use the ball, so an indignant Finley set about proving the orange ball's value. He used the ball in an exhibition against the Indians in 1973 to test his theory. Turns out he was half right: fans could see the ball much better as it moved around the field of play. Batters, though, couldn't pick up the rotation on the bright ball, and pitchers complained that the orange covering was too slippery to grip. The ball never made it into a real game.

3. The Ball Rabbit
Finley's ball-related innovations weren't limited to the color of the sphere itself, though. He also had a revolutionary idea about how to get the ball into play. In a standard game, the home plate umpire wears a pouch full of balls around his waist, and as balls are lost to scuffing or hit out of play, a bat boy brings a fresh set out balls out to the umpire. It's a simple, efficient system. Finley saw room for improvement, though. He installed an underground device near home plate that the umpire would tap with his foot upon running out of balls. At that point, a mechanical rabbit would emerge from a subterranean lair bearing a basket of fresh balls. Details on how long this necessary innovation lasted are sketchy, but unless I really haven't been paying attention during baseball games, I feel pretty confident saying it never quite took off. [Image courtesy of The Sporting News.]

4. The White Sox Shorts Plan
If any owner could rival Finley's eccentricities, it was Bill Veeck of the White Sox, a tireless and crafty promoter. In 1976, he had a strange idea of his own: outfitting the Sox in shorts instead of pants. The revealing uniforms made their debut on August 8, 1976 against the Royals. The Sox strode out of their dugout wearing short for the first game of a doubleheader, and after only a few innings came to a rather obvious realization. While it's certainly not always comfortable to wear pants in the August heat of Chicago, baseball is a game that necessitates covered legs. Sliding into a base or making a play against an opposing baserunner in metal spikes is considerably less fun with exposed shins.

To add insult to injury, the Royals players mercilessly taunted the Sox, including John Mayberry's quip that the Sox were "the sweetest team we've seen yet." The Sox won the game but switched back to pants for the second half of the doubleheader. The shorts made one more appearance that season before disappearing into the lore of terrible uniform choices. [Image courtesy of MopUpDuty.com.]

5. The NBA's Synthetic Ball
Few equipment changes in recent years have caused as much of an uproar as the NBA's switch from leather to synthetic balls in 2006. Unlike the original leather ball, the new rock had a microfiber composite exterior and a paneling system that changed the number of ribs on the ball. The NBA's brass thought the new ball was more consistent than its leather equivalents, and cows everywhere rejoiced at the development.

The people who actually had to use the ball, however, hated it. Players started whining about the switch almost immediately. The synthetic surface was easier to grip at the beginning of games, but since it didn't absorb sweat it soon became slippery. The ball's cover was designed to aid grip by generating more friction on the player's hand, but several stars like Jason Kidd and Steve Nash claimed that the surface was actually cutting their fingertips. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban requested a study into the way the ball bounced, and physicists at the University of Texas-Arlington discovered that the composite ball didn't behave the way its leather predecessor did. Shaquille O'Neal added his own droll spin on the issue when he quipped that comparing the new and old balls was "like touching an exotic dancer, and then going and touching a plastic blow-up doll."

As players continued to gripe, the NBA did something almost totally out of character: it admitted it made a mistake. On December 12, 2006, the league announced that all games would return to the old leather ball on January 1, 2007.

Ethan Trex grew up idolizing Vince Coleman, and he kind of still does. Ethan co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys.

Friday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Digital Projectors, Ugly Christmas Sweaters, and Speakers

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Amazon
As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 4. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

10 Amazing Facts About Bruce Lee On His 80th Birthday

Photo courtesy of The Bruce Lee Family Archive
Photo courtesy of The Bruce Lee Family Archive

Bruce Lee is one of pop culture's most multifaceted icons. Legions of fans admire him for his movies, his martial arts prowess, his incomprehensible physical fitness, his championing of Chinese culture, and even his philosophies on life. Yet for all the new ground Lee broke, most of his recognition only came after his death at the age of 32. Read on to learn more about the life of this profound, if enigmatic, superstar.

1. Bruce Lee’s first starring role in a movie came when he was just 10 years old.

In 1950’s The Kid, a pre-teen Bruce Lee played the role of Kid Cheung, a streetwise orphan and wry troublemaker, based on a comic strip from the time. Starring opposite Lee, playing a kindly factory owner, was his father, Lee Hoi-chuen, who also happened to be a famous opera singer. (Bruce Lee was actually born in San Francisco while his father was there on tour; Lee would move back to the U.S. in 1959).

According to Lee biographer Matthew Polly, the movie was a big enough success in China to earn sequel consideration. There was just one problem: A young Bruce Lee was getting into fights at school and out on the streets, so his father forbid him from acting again until he straightened up—which, of course, didn’t wind up happening.

2. Bruce Lee was deemed physically unfit for the U.S. Army.

While he may have walked around with body fat in the single digits and could do push-ups using only two fingers, Lee still managed to fail a military physical for the U.S. draft board back in 1963. Despite being an adherent to physical fitness all his adult life, it was an undescended testicle that kept him from fighting for Uncle Sam in Vietnam.

3. Bruce Lee was an exquisite cha-cha dancer.

Long before he was known for breakneck fight choreography, Bruce Lee’s physical skills were focused on the dance floor. More specifically, the cha-cha. In Polly’s book, Bruce Lee: A Life, the author explains that the dance trend made its way from Cuba through the Philippines and soon landed in China. And once the cha-cha settled into the Hong Kong social scene, it didn’t take long for youth dance competitions to spring up. Lee had been taking part in cha-cha dancing since the age of 14, and in 1958, he won the Crown Colony Cha-Cha Championship. Foreshadowing his later dedication to martial arts, Lee would keep crib notes of all 108 different cha-cha steps in his wallet so that he could obsessively memorize them.

4. Bruce Lee refused to lose a fight to Robin.

The Green Hornet aired its first episode in September 1966, with Bruce Lee as the Hornet's (Van Williams) lightning-quick sidekick, Kato. The series would immediately be compared to Batman, ABC's other costumed crime-fighting show, and it wouldn't be long before a two-part crossover episode was in the works. And as heroes do, before they teamed up, they first had to fight each other. According to Newsweek, since Batman was by far the more popular show, the script featured a fight between Burt Ward's Robin and Bruce Lee's Kato that was set to end with the Boy Wonder getting the upper hand. But who would really buy that?

Well, Lee certainly didn't—and he knew no one else would, either. Williams later recalled that Lee read the script and simply said, "I'm not going to do that," and walked off. Common sense soon prevailed ... sort of. The script was rewritten to change the ending—not to a Kato K.O., but to a more diplomatic draw. Though The Green Hornet was Lee's first big break in the United States, the series itself lasted only 26 episodes.

5. Bruce Lee trained numerous Hollywood stars.

As Bruce Lee worked to become a big-screen heavyweight, he made a living as a martial arts trainer to the stars. Among Lee’s students were Steve McQueen, James Coburn, James Garner, Roman Polanski, and Sharon Tate. For his services, Lee was known to charge about $275 per hour or $1000 for 10 courses. McQueen and Coburn grew so enamored with Lee over the years that they remained close friends until his death in 1973, with both men serving as pallbearers at Lee's funeral (alongside Chuck Norris).

6. Roman Polanski may have (briefly) thought Bruce Lee murdered Sharon Tate.

In addition to providing Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate with kung fu lessons, Bruce Lee also lived near the couple in Los Angeles when Tate and four others, including Lee’s close friend Jay Sebring, were murdered by the Manson Family in August 1969. It would be months before the Manson Family was arrested for the murders, but in the meantime, according to an article from Esquire, Polanski had grown obsessed with finding a suspect, looking for potential perpetrators even amongst his own inner circle.

During one kung fu lesson in the months after the murders, Lee had mentioned to Polanski how he had recently lost his glasses, which immediately piqued the director’s interest. A mysterious pair of horn-rimmed glasses had been found at the murder scene near his wife’s body, after all. Polanski had even purchased a gauge to measure the lenses and find out the exact prescription so that he could do his own detective work, according to The New York Post.

The director, without giving himself away, offered to bring Lee to his optician to get a new pair—this would allow him to hear Lee’s prescription firsthand and determine if the specs discovered at the crime scene belonged to him. It turned out Lee’s prescription didn’t match, and Polanski never told his friend about his suspicions.

7. Bruce Lee had his sweat glands removed.

Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon (1973).Warner Home Video

Bruce Lee brought an impeccable physique to the screen that was decades ahead of its time. But because his roles required so much physicality, he would be drenched with sweat while filming. And apparently, the martial arts pioneer loathed the sweat stains that would show up on his clothing as a result. His solution? In 1973, Lee actually underwent a procedure to surgically remove the sweat glands from his armpits to avoid the fashion faux pas from showing up on camera.

8. Bruce Lee’s cause of death still raises questions.

Bruce Lee’s death at the age of 32 on July 20, 1973, was officially ruled the result of a cerebral edema, or swelling of the brain. Lee had complained about headaches on the day of his death, and was given a painkiller by Betty Ting Pei—an actress who claimed to be Lee's mistress—before lying down for a nap. He never woke up.

Though many reports at the time suggested Lee had an allergic reaction to an ingredient in the painkiller, Polly points to a mystery that began on May 10, 1973, when the star previously collapsed in a hot recording studio while dubbing new dialogue for Enter the Dragon.

In Polly’s opinion, Lee’s collapse had to do with heatstroke, since his stint in an overheated recording studio was compounded by a lack of sweat glands that prevented his body from cooling off naturally. Heatstroke can also cause swelling in the brain, much like was found during Lee’s autopsy. And Dr. Lisa Leon, an expert in hyperthermia at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, told Polly, “A person who has suffered one heat stroke is at increased risk for another" and that there may be long-term complications after the initial incident.

9. Footage from Bruce Lee’s Funeral was used in 1978’s Game of Death.

At the time of his death, Bruce Lee was involved in numerous projects, including the movie that would become Game of Death, his next directorial effort. According to Vice, there wasn’t much completed on the film by the time of Lee’s passing—there were some notes, a story outline (which simply read “The big fight. An arrest is made. The airport. The end.”), and 40 minutes of footage, including Lee’s now-iconic fight against NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Usually, a project in that situation would just be a lost cause, but production company Golden Harvest wanted to salvage what they could, so they hired Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse to put together ... something. The result was a Frankenstein’s monster of a film, comprised of 11 minutes of existing footage Lee shot, overdubbed clips from his previous movies, and stand-ins to fill out certain scenes. The director even resorted to using an unfortunate Bruce Lee cardboard cutout to complete one shot.

That’s not even the top rung on the ladder of poor taste: When the movie called for Lee’s character to fake his death, they used footage from his actual funeral to realize the scene, complete with waves of mourners, pallbearers, and closeups of Lee’s open casket.

10. Bruce Lee’s posthumous success resulted in its own sub-genre.

Lee’s career was exploding in China and gaining momentum in the United States by 1973, but he passed away just a month before his biggest hit was released: Enter the Dragon. The movie, which grossed more than $200 million at the worldwide box office, catapulted the late Lee to icon status. But with the star himself no longer around to capitalize, there would soon be a wave of knockoff films and wannabes looking to take advantage of the martial arts craze.

Both affectionately and derisively known as “Bruceploitation” films, this strange sub-genre of martial arts cinema gave life to z-movie oddities like Re-Enter the Dragon and Enter the Game of Death, starring the likes of—and we’re not kidding—Bruce Le and Bruce Li. Jackie Chan was even roped into a few of these movies, like 1976's New Fist of Fury. In 1980, Bruceploitation even went meta with The Clones of Bruce Lee, starring Dragon Lee, Bruce Le, and Bruce Lai, who play genetic reconstructions of the late actor after scientists harvest his DNA.