“You know, in baseball you think that all science is eliminated: Newton’s laws don’t apply, everything else is separate.”
Syd Thrift, vice president of baseball operations for the Baltimore Orioles, waxes wry from a hotel room in Kansas City, where his team is in the midst of a three-game series with the Royals. Back in 1971, as director of the short-lived (1970-’74) Royals Baseball Academy–an innovative year-round facility in Sarasota that recruited and trained prospective players for Kansas City’s major league franchise–Thrift quietly attempted to pierce the game’s hidebound nature.
“I was interested in finding new and better ways to do things,” he explains. One such effort involved studies of what he terms “the aerodynamics of a baseball in flight,” for which the academy hired John Nash Ott. “He wasn’t a baseball person,” recalls Thrift. “He just happened to live in Sarasota, saw what we were doing, and was fascinated by it. Up until then all inventors–really, anyone with creative ideas–were shut out of baseball.”
Already 61 at the time, Ott had burned through bushels of creative ideas, most of them rejected by the mullahs of science. Born in Winnetka on October 23, 1909, he worked briefly as a messenger for a stock brokerage firm after graduating from high school, but the 1929 crash sent him skittering to the First National Bank of Chicago, where his maternal grandfather had served as president and chairman and his father was an attorney. This, however, was merely a day job. Ott spent his free time alone in his Winnetka basement, consumed by experiments with time-lapse photography, something he started tinkering with in 1927 while still in school. He set up the necessary lights and cameras, devised timing mechanisms for the equipment, and proceeded to shoot the growth and flowering of various plants. Through the 1930s his hobby evolved into a side business, with Ott making short commercial, industrial, and educational films for schools, lawn-care companies, and other clients. He also gave lectures and screened his movies for local garden clubs.
After a two-year hitch in the navy during World War II (1943-’45), Ott returned home, quit the bank, and plunged into commercial moviemaking, expanding into microscopic time-lapse films. He built backyard greenhouses to accommodate his projects, crisscrossed the nation lecturing, and in 1948 began a decade-plus run as host of the weekly, half-hour Chicago TV show, How Does Your Garden Grow: some happy patter about flowers, some time-lapse films, some answers to readers’ mail. At six-foot-four, with wire-framed glasses, sandy hair, and sculpted features, he came across as a homegrown horticultural heartthrob. “It made him a local celebrity,” remembers his son James. Meanwhile, Ott’s clientele mushroomed– railroads and universities wanted him to make films–and in 1951 he contributed time-lapse footage to Walt Disney’s Nature’s Half Acre, winner of an Oscar for best short subject, followed in 1956 by similar work (dancing flowers!) for Disney’s Secrets of Life, which made manifest a long-percolating personal transformation: “The turning point,” notes James, “that took him from just a photographer to a scientist, the lovely story about the sex life of a pumpkin.”
As detailed in his 1958 book, My Ivory Cellar, Ott was stymied while filming time-lapse sequences of a pumpkin’s growth in his basement studio for Disney. Pinkish fluorescent light wilted the plant’s female flowers, but when he replaced the lights with bluish fluorescent bulbs and raised a new pumpkin, the male flowers perished. Based on these findings–and coupled with difficulties he’d encountered growing morning glories, corn, and apples–Ott deduced that light wavelength could dramatically affect plant maturation, and that full-spectrum light, the kind that streams from the sun, greatly enhanced growth. He also found his greenhouses’ glass windowpanes, which absorbed ultraviolet wavelengths, were inferior to clear plastic sheeting, which transmits UV light. Finally, he suspected that spending time outdoors basking in full-spectrum light, without wearing his UV-blocking eyeglasses or sunglasses, significantly alleviated the arthritis in his hip–perhaps because sunlight triggered salutary responses in the endocrine system.
Ott moved in 1966 to sunnier Sarasota, where he continued his experiments, establishing the Environmental Health and Light Research Institute (the imposing name “added a little dignity to his efforts,” his son surmises). His work led him to believe that radiation emitted by TVs, microwave ovens, and video terminals was deleterious, and that different colors played an important role in animal and human behavior, theories he laid out in his 1973 book, Health & Light.
He adapted his own lifestyle, encasing his home in plastic windowpanes, illuminating its interiors with full-spectrum Ott-Lite lamps (he licensed their manufacture), and lining his TV cabinet with lead while positioning a mirror to reflect the set’s image so it did not directly strike his eyes. He championed “healthy” lighting environments, railed against complacent television makers, and developed a light box to treat seasonal affective disorder, eventually retiring in 1995.
When he died at the age of 90 on April 6, few in the scientific community had acknowledged the value of his ideas. “He was totally outside the mainstream academia, and had tremendous trouble gaining acceptance,” says James. “He was convinced that these theories were going to have a monumental impact on people’s lives. He thought he could change the way we live.”
He certainly changed baseball. While making films for the Royals Academy, Ott acquainted Syd Thrift with his hypotheses about light. “He said to me, ‘Why do you have green under the brims of baseball caps? That’s the worst color it could be,'” Thrift recalls. “And I said, ‘Because everybody’s had them since the beginning of baseball.’ So I asked, ‘What should they be?’ And he said, ‘Medium gray.'” Thrift immediately ordered new caps with neutral gray underbilling for his Academy players. Eureka! “You could see the ball better,” says Thrift. “You could hit the ball better.” The big-league Royals followed suit. After consultations with Ott, the Cincinnati Reds also adopted the gray-lined caps. And by the end of the 70s, they were worn by all the pros.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ann Taradel.