Covering Every Base

Originally published on Supply Chain X

Here’s how one Costa Rican factory hand makes millions of baseballs for the Major Leagues.

Every spring, as temperatures begin to rise and flowers start to bloom, baseball fans across the country start counting down to Opening Day. Baseball is often referred to as our national pastime, so it might come as a surprise to many that baseballs are not manufactured in the United States, but in Costa Rica.

Approximately 600,000 baseballs are used by Major League Baseball (MLB) teams over the course of a season, and a single factory in Costa Rica makes more than two million balls a year to ensure that every game is well supplied. Wondering how MLB manages to source and distribute these balls so seamlessly, year after year? We’ll walk you through baseball’s supply chain and trace each ball’s progress, from Costa Rica to Fenway Park and Wrigley Field.


From the Rainforest to the Baseball Diamond

In Costa Rica, a country known for rainforests and ecotourism, lies the world’s only factory authorized to supply MLB. Its 300 employees produce and hand-stitch 2.4 million baseballs every year with raw materials that are shipped tax-free to Costa Rica, including cork and rubber, Holstein cowhide, and wool yarn from New Zealand sheep. Workers then assemble the baseballs themselves, stitching the red seams by hand. When complete, the baseballs are packaged and shipped to Miami for distribution across the United States.

To ensure that each baseball is perfectly shaped, aerodynamic, and able to withstand the wear and tear it will be subjected to over the course of a game, MLB applies stringent quality control standards at every stage of manufacturing. With only minor tweaks over the decades, the current design has proven relatively foolproof for nearly a century — and will likely serve as the gold standard for many years to come.

An official MLB baseball is made from a round cushioned cork center wrapped in wool and covered by hand-stitched cowhide. The materials account for many of the ball’s distinctive characteristics. Since wool is a naturally resilient material, it bounces back easily despite sustaining repeated pressure — enabling the ball to maintain its shape despite being hit multiple times during a game. Similarly, the cork core enables the ball to travel farther and last longer than balls made with alternative materials such as rubber. In addition to resiliency, baseballs are also measured, weighed, and graded for appearance before they’re shipped from the factory.


Play Ball

When game day rolls around, it’s essential that each team has enough balls on hand to last the entire game. Over the course of a typical MLB game, the two teams will use more than 50 baseballs. Indeed, the average baseball only remains in play for five to seven pitches during a game, with foul balls routinely being lost to the stands or the balls simply becoming so scuffed that they need to be replaced.

Before a ball can be put into play, however, it needs one final touch. The baseball needs to be de-sheened — essentially, it needs to be broken in. Before each game, an umpire or staff member will rub each baseball down with a specific baseball rubbing mud sourced from the Delaware River basin. This de-sheening process enables players to more easily grip the ball. Without this last-minute part of the baseball manufacturing supply chain, the baseballs would be far too slippery to be put into play.

It’s a long road for the raw materials sourced from across the globe to the factory in Costa Rica, where they’re assembled by hand into Major League baseballs. But with an efficient supply chain, the factory is able to meet the high demand for baseballs each MLB season, ensuring that there’s no shortage of home runs or foul balls for fans lucky enough to catch them.