The small ones were perfectly round, like marbles, only they were made of steel.
The big ones were the largest in the United States, up to 5-1/2 inches in diameter and weighing 26 pounds.
Copper and gold miners threw Kansas City's balls into giant tumblers with ore blasted from mountains in Utah and Nevada. The balls pulverized that rock better than balls made anywhere else -- an average of 5 percent better.
Banging balls together tens of thousands of times until they broke, and monkeying with chemistry and heat, Kansas City engineers had found a nearly perfect combination of hardness and toughness for grinding balls. The Chinese had copied the hardness, but their balls shattered like glass.
So in 1995, Kansas City steelworkers set out to make the biggest, baddest grinding-ball plant ever. Their company, GS Industries, was all that remained of Kansas City's steel industry, and by then its factory had been reduced to a few pockets of productivity amid rusted cathedrals, vacant metal buildings that stood as sorrowful reminders of a much busier time. In its heyday, the local steel plant covered 1,000 acres of east Kansas City, a wide swath roughly following I-435 from Independence Avenue to the Missouri River. Railroad tracks crisscrossed the land, and the Big Blue River ran through it.
GS Industries executive Rob Cushman wanted to consolidate his operation on the east side of the Blue River. For $30 million, he would fold into a new mill everything Kansas City workers had learned about making grinding balls over their seventy years in the business. Cushman sent engineer Steve Ornduff on a yearlong trek around the world to visit other GS Industries plants and figure out everything everyone else knew about grinding balls, too.
Italian engineers had designed the best unscrambler, which sorted cold steel bars and readied them for softening in a furnace heated to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Chilean steelworkers had made a distributor that rationed orange-hot balls into tubes of cooling water. And an Australian plant offered the best design for those spinning tubes of water.
But the massive twin corkscrews that shaped small balls were all Kansas City. With every turn, the double-helix machine cut and formed two balls. Its 2,500-horsepower motor was more than twice as powerful as anyone else's.
Kansas City's was to be the fastest ball-making line in the world. Linked to the end of the rod mill, scrap steel would be melted, poured, rolled into bars and spun into balls with minimum human labor and maximum energy efficiency.
But when workers turned on the machine in September 1996, the first bar jammed the corkscrews and broke the sheer pin linking them to the motor. So did the second one. And the third.
After workers fixed the sheer-pin problem, the 32-foot bars slid through the machine instead of being chopped up into balls -- the twin corkscrews mangled these "slider" bars like twist ties, splashing superheated metal around the plant.
It took two weeks to get the one-of-a-kind machine to run right; more weeks passed before the other custom-built pieces worked. But when they did, the result was a thing of beauty.
Operating just five days a week for 45 weeks, the ball maker spun out 140,000 tons of balls in a year.
There wasn't another plant like it in the world, Ornduff says.
But Ornduff never got to finish his project. Cushman retired, taking management support for the effort with him. Meanwhile, copper and gold mines across the country were being idled, not opened. The steel industry had long since crashed.