After hitting a 565-foot home run, Mickey Mantle once said, "I just saw the ball as big as a grapefruit." During a slump, Joe "Ducky" Medwick of the St. Louis Cardinals said he was "swinging at aspirins."
A new study puts some science behind those perceptions.
Researchers found a correlation between batting averages of softball players and how big or small they perceived the ball to be.
After games at several softball fields in Charlottesville, Va., the researchers asked 47 players to pick from eight different-sized circles the one that best represented the size of the ball they had been trying to hit.
"Only people who hit .500 or above pointed at the big circle," said Jessica Witt, a cognitive psychology doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia.
The softball players literally see the ball as larger, the study concludes. "It's not in their minds. It's in perception," Witt told LiveScience.
Witt was not surprised. She competed last July for the gold medal-winning U.S. Ultimate Frisbee team at the 2005 World Games in Duisburg, Germany. She has experienced a similar effect.
"The player I'm throwing to seems so far away when I'm throwing against the wind, but when I'm throwing with the wind it seems to be a short toss even if it's far," she said.
It's not entirely clear what's going on, however.
The study did not reveal whether the participants saw the ball as bigger and therefore hit better, or if they were having a good day and therefore recall perceiving the ball as being bigger. But Witt speculates it's all about being ready to hit well.
"The body is in synch and ready to be a good batter," she said. "That affects perception."
Witt figures the concept applies to life outside sports, too.
A study last year by other researchers found similar perception differences in successful dart throwers. Another study found that destinations are perceived as being farther away when study participants wear heavier backpacks.
"Perspective and perception play a big role in what we do and how well we do it," she said.
The new study's results might be related to the reason many athletes visualize their performance beforehand. "If you visualize yourself hitting better, maybe you'll see the ball as bigger," Witt said. In further research, she hopes to investigate whether we can trick the perception system into thinking the ball is bigger.
The findings are detailed in the December issue of the journal Psychological Science.