Peter Brancazio, Who Explored the Physics of Sports, Dies at 81

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Peter J. Brancazio, a physics professor who debunked concepts like the rising fastball (physically impossible) and Michael Jordan’s apparently endless hang time (much shorter than fans believed), died on April 25 in Manhasset, N.Y., on Long Island. He was 81.

The cause was complications of the novel coronavirus, his son Larry said.

Professor Brancazio, who taught at Brooklyn College for more than 30 years, was one of a small number of sports-minded physicists whose research anticipated the use of the advanced statistics that are now accessible through computerized tracking technology. His work, which he began in the 1980s, was filled with terms like launching angle (how high a ball is hit, in degrees) and spin rate (the measurement of a pitch in revolutions per minute) that are now part of baseball’s lingua franca. (Launch angle, not launching angle, is the term now widely used.)

Although he was obsessed with basketball, Professor Brancazio was best known for what he had to say about baseball, notably his explanation that a so-called rising fastball could not rise — even if pitches thrown by fireballers like Nolan Ryan had seemingly been doing that for decades.

“The rising fastball is an illusion,” Professor Brancazio told The Kansas City Star in 1987.

Gravity, he said, makes everything fall, even baseballs, and no one can throw one fast enough and with enough spin to overcome gravity’s natural force. “The rising fastball just looks as if it’s rising,” he said. “It’s really just not dropping as far” as a typical fastball.

A fastball thrown at 90 miles per hour and 1,800 revolutions per minute would drop three feet when it reached home plate, he said. But a fastball that is thrown with still more backspin will fall only two and a half feet, a six-inch difference that creates the illusion of rising.

Professor Brancazio, whose tools included a calculator and a TRS-80 computer, wrote about his research in professional journals; in magazines like Popular Mechanics; and in the 1984 book “Sport Science: Physical Laws and Optimum Performance.”

Several fans were asked during the segment to guess how long Jordan seemed to hang in the air. Their guesses ranged from six to 10 seconds.

No, Professor Brancazio, said. Even Jordan was subject to gravity. His hang time was only 0.9 seconds.

Later that year, Professor Brancazio elaborated on the physics of hang time for Popular Mechanics. In an article about the science of slam dunks, he devised a formula that determined that a 36-inch vertical leap would equal hang time of 0.87 seconds and that a four-foot vertical leap would equal one second.

“No small part of Jordan’s greatness is the fact that he seems to cover enormous horizontal distances in the air,” Professor Brancazio wrote. “He accentuates this illusion by releasing his shots on the way down, rather than at the peak of his trajectory.”

Peter John Brancazio was born on March 22, 1938, in the Astoria section of Queens. His father, also named Peter, sorted mail for the Post Office. His mother, Ann (Salomone) Brancazio, was an actuarial worker for The Hartford, an insurance company.

When he and his future wife, Ronnie Kramer, were dating as teenagers, she gave him a gift that would help guide him in his professional life: a telescope.

“It made him want to study astronomy,” she said.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in engineering science from New York University in 1959, Professor Brancazio earned a master’s in nuclear engineering from Columbia University a year later. He began teaching physics at Brooklyn College in 1963 while working toward a Ph.D. in astrophysics from N.Y.U.

During his 34 years at Brooklyn College, he was also a director of the college’s observatory.

Professor Brancazio wrote his first sports article, about basketball, for The American Journal of Physics in 1981. In it, he calculated the optimum launching angles for shots from various distances on the floor.

Having distilled the lessons of shooting on the schoolyards of Astoria, he found that a ball was best launched at an angle of 45 degrees plus half the angle of the incline from the shooter’s hand to the front of the rim of the basket, or at about 50 to 55 degrees.

He had, he admitted, a personal reason for writing the paper.

“In truth,” he wrote, “the major purpose of this research was to find some means to compensate for the author’s stature (5’ 10” in sneakers), inability to leap more than eight inches off the floor, and advancing age.”

His intellectual detour into baseball, basketball and other sports enlivened his classes and made him part of a small group of physicists who brought science to sports, among them the Yale professor Robert Adair, who wrote the 1990 book “The Physics of Baseball.”

Michael Lisa, a professor of physics at the Ohio State University, said that when he did the research for his 2016 book “The Physics of Sports,” Professor Brancazio’s book had been an inspiration.

“Bob’s book on baseball is very nice,” he wrote in an email, referring to Professor Adair, “but Peter was a true communicator.”

“His book is a favorite among physicists for its clear, accurate treatment,” Professor Lisa continued. “Meanwhile, it is popular among a broader readership for its compelling approach, obviously driven by a passion for sports coupled with a scientific mind.”

Professor Brancazio had no doubt that the people he most wanted to impress — the athletes whose work he admired — would disdain his research. And he knew why, or at least why they did in the era before advanced training techniques transformed athletic achievement.

“Larry Bird does not need to be told to release his shots at the optimum launching angle,” he wrote in The American Journal of Physics in 1988, “nor does Dwight Gooden have to understand the Magnus effect in order to throw a devastating curveball.”

Professor Brancazio retired from Brooklyn College in 1997 and then briefly taught adult education courses there and at Queens College. He lectured on science, religion and astronomy at Hutton House, part of Long Island University, from 1999 until last year.

In addition to his wife and his son Larry, Professor Brancazio is survived by another son, David, and five grandchildren.

Professor Brancazio became a go-to physicist in the news media when sports met science. For instance, during Game 1 of the 1991 World Series, CBS introduced SuperVision, a computerized animation of the path and speed of pitches. One pitch, by Jack Morris of the Minnesota Twins, clocked in at 94 miles per hour when it left his right hand and was the same speed when it landed in the catcher’s mitt.

CBS’s analysts were impressed. But when asked a day later, Professor Brancazio said that a ball could not maintain the same speed on its path of 60 feet 6 inches.

“The ball has to slow down by air resistance,” he told The New York Times in 1991. “No way it can maintain speed or pick up speed. It should lose 9 percent of its speed along the way.”

The inventor of SuperVision acknowledged the error, saying that the speeds had probably been rounded off — the ball might have left Morris’s hand at 94.4 m.p.h. but had landed at 93.6.

A pitch that maintained its speed, it turned out, was as magical as a rising fastball.

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