A recent discussion thread on the listserv of SABR’s Nineteenth Century Baseball group focused interestingly (to me, anyhow) on the odd sport of baseball on roller skates, an 1880s fad that followed upon the 1860s passion for baseball on ice. Priscilla Astifan of Rochester wrote: “I only found the one reference to baseball on roller skates so far, but a review of the Early Newspaper Index indicates polo games at the roller skating rinks in Rochester also. I naturally assumed that the game was not played on horseback although one star attraction at a Rochester rink was Dolly the Roller Skating Horse. Anyway, I have since learned of the variants of polo, even canoe, and auto polo which surprised me most.” At this my whiskers tingled, as I recalled that some years back I had first learned about pushball and its automobile version, about which more below.
Novelty baseball games flourished in the 1880s, as did the professional game throughout the land. The National League, founded in 1876, was followed in short order by three rivals: the American Association (1882), the Union Association (1884) and the Players League (1890). Play-for-pay variants were particularly prominent in Philadelphia; ethnic teams, “colored” male and female ball teams, Native-American nines, crippled clubs, and so on. John Lang, a white barber from Philadelphia who had “temporarily deserted lather and razor” to organize pioneer black baseball clubs such as the Orion, found his true métier in New York with his Chinese teams. In Chester, Pennsylvania, Lang also created a fetching nine of “colored girl” professional players whom he named the Dolly Vardens after the fluffily and colorfully costumed lass in Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge. Fat men contested with lean men in “Jumbos vs. Shadows” matches, just as married vs. single games had been common in the amateur era. Of the players of the Snorkey Club of Philadelphia (named for the one-armed hero of the drama Under the Gaslight), one had an arm off at the shoulder, another had a paralyzed arm, the rest were minus a hand; their opponents in a game of May 23, 1883, were the Hoppers, who were all one-legged or on crutches. In a reminder to modern readers of the brutality of the industrial age in America, both sides were said to consist wholly of former employees of the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1885, two clubs of the New York State League, Binghamton and Rochester, played on roller skates at the Pioneer Rink in the former city (it was these contests that informed last week’s discussion on the listserv.) In 1887, George Hancock of Chicago invented indoor baseball as a winter sport; it survives as today’s softball.
I knew that hockey was the ancient game of shinny transplanted onto ice, that baseball had evolved through bat and ball games dating back to the banks of the Nile, that football was a game even more ancient. But I had always believed that James Naismith was the lone true “inventor” of a major sport, when he nailed peach baskets at opposite ends of the overhead track at a gymnasium in Springfield, Massachusetts on December 15, 1891. As a physical-education instructor he felt that his students needed a vigorous indoor game for the winter months, and so — boing! — basketball.
Only a few years back, however, I learned that the idea for the game of basketball did not alight on Naismith’s pate in a Eureka moment. An Associated Press story about a 2006 auction of his recently unearthed relics indicated that he had been inspired to invent basketball by recalling a game he had played as a boy in Canada — “Duck on a Rock,” a medieval game of rock-throwing and tag. More interestingly to me, it reported also that before coming up with basketball he had invented other games in that winter of 1891: “He tried to adapt lacrosse and football to be played inside. He even introduced his students to a slew of invented games like Hylo Ball, Scruggy Ball and Association Football. None of them took.”
Hylo Ball? Scruggy Ball? These innovations had been lost to history until then. For an opening bid of $10,000 at Heritage Auction Galleries (the hammer price proved much higher), one might purchase Naismith’s crudely typed rules for these heretofore hidden bypaths of basketball.
Too rich for my taste, as just one week earlier I had purchased much more modestly an Open Sesame to a whole lost world of sport: auto pushball, a variant game deriving from pushball, itself very nearly as strange and obscure. The original game of pushball had been invented by Moses G. Crane of Newton, Massachusetts in 1894, barely before the age of the automobile and only three years after Naismith’s brainstorm. But I get ahead of myself.
I was on my way out of an antique shop on Catskill’s Main Street that has long been a favorite haunt when I spotted a cardboard poster depicting three 1930s hot rods maneuvering around a huge ball. There wasn’t much left of it — mice had had their way with it — so the proprietor, who said the placard had come from a barn in nearby Coxsackie, let me have it for $8.00.
Bringing it home and prowling the internet, I was able to reconstruct the wording as:
B. WARD BEAM’S New 1933
10 OTHER THRILLERS!
B. Ward Beam and Company were probably entertaining crowds at the Greene County Fair, but I guessed that an “International Congress of Dare-Devils” was not designed to be a local phenomenon. It turned out that Beam was a thrill-show racer and entrepreneur even more important historically than the names that may have greater resonance today—Barney Oldfield, Aut Swenson, Earl “Lucky” Teter and his Hell Drivers, the Jimmy Lynch Death Dodgers, Jack Kochman’s Champion Hell Drivers, Joie Chitwood’s Chevy Thunder Show. All that Beam did was to invent the auto thrill show, when he launched his Congress of Dare-Devils in Toledo, Ohio, in 1923. Soon he was playing county and state fairs in Michigan, Indiana, and parts west. The Chicago Tribune of February 18, 1925 reported that “Country people will not attend an agricultural exhibit unless they are assured of plenty of entertainment…. Auto push-ball is a new form of amusement offered that is meeting with favor.”
Did Beam invent auto pushball as well as the auto thrill show? Almost certainly not, as the Washington Post of May 9, 1922 features an image of auto pushball — the only other one I have come across besides my poster — at San Francisco, and Beam appears not to have taken his show to California. “The latest sport to be inaugurated on the Pacific Coast is auto pushball. In it one gets many a thrill, for it is more exciting and hazardous than polo. Six autos are needed to play the game, three of them constituting a team. The same rushes apply that are used in polo. The game originated in San Francisco.”
Beam’s troupe may have been in Davenport, Iowa for a “motor rodeo” on Memorial Day in 1926, when, according to the Davenport Democrat and Leader, “the champion Canadian and American push ball teams are slated to play their [tie-breaking] thirty-first game on the 1926 championship schedule.” Surely this was Barnumesque promotion to inflate interest as much hot air filled the Spalding-Goodyear ball used for the occasion. Auto pushball was just one of many attractions, from motorcycle racers to aerial acrobats, and was tame entertainment when contrasted with the staples of the Beam show: demolition derbies, leaping buses, flaming barriers, and sundry death-defying stunts.
The August 6, 1931 Amherst (NY) Bee contained this telling advertisement: “Wanted: Single man, not over 25 years, to drive automobile in head-on collision with another car at the Albion Fairgrounds in connection with the Congress of Daredevils on August 19. Must crash with another car at 40 mph and give unconditional release in case of injury or death. Name your lowest price. Write B. Ward Beam, Albion, N.Y.”
His traveling shows continued into the 1950s but biographical data about B. Ward Beam has proved hard to come by. From his 1917 draft card I learned that he was born November 18, 1892, had a wife and two children as of that time, and was a student at an aviation school in Celina, Ohio. His Social Security data indicates that he died in September 1979 (no precise date given) in Goshen, New York.
Even after his thrill-show days were done (he played the Orange County Fair in the late 1940s and early 1950s), he continued to book acts for county fairs through the Ward Beam Agency in Goshen as late as 1973. And there the trail ended, though I would certainly like to hear from any reader who knows more about this fascinating auto-race pioneer.
Pushball’s pioneer, Moses G. Crane, is known today instead as an inventor and manufacturer of the fire alarm box. What bit of whimsy drove him, as a member of the Newton Athletic Association in 1894, to devise the game of pushball is beyond my reconstruction. However, he did not live to see its rapid progress in the first decade of the next century, as he committed suicide on July 7, 1898 in Newton.
Photographs survive of teams grappling with the six-foot-diameter leather-covered ball weighing 50 to 100 pounds, reminiscent of the giant breast chasing Woody Allen through the fields in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. There is even a 1903 documentary short, produced in England but distributed in the U.S. as well, described in the catalogs as “A splendid and most interesting picture of a new game by two teams using a ball 6 feet in diameter. Taken at the Crystal Palace, London.” The game depicted in the film had been played in the previous October; a game two months earlier at Headingley had been between two eight-man squads representing England and America.
Such a grand international setting … and not even a decade after its first media splash, when pushball was played between the halves of a Harvard-Brown football game played at Soldiers Field in Cambridge. The Boston Globe of October 20, 1895 reported: “It was very amusing yesterday to see the large ball rolled from side to side. Now and then a man got under the ball, and sometimes the ball was raised way above the heads of the men. The players got into very amusing attitudes…. every one who saw the exhibition was highly entertained….” The student newspaper of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in its report of the game that day, added, “Although the game is said to be conducted on carefully studied scientific principles, the first impression on the spectators was irresistibly comical.”
Adding to the comic effect, in 1902 pushball was played on horseback in Berlin and at Durland’s Riding Academy in New York, where basketball on horseback had also made its debut that year. In the following year pushball was played for laughs at Madison Square Garden. At some universities the game replaced class rush as the favored ritual clash between freshmen and sophomores. An Iowa City postcard from 1909 depicted a riotous pushball contest on “Farmers Day.”
The Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1911, however, played it straight when describing pushball as a “game played by two sides on a field usually 140 yds. long and 50 yds. wide, with a ball 6 ft. in diameter and 50 lb in weight. The sides usually number eleven each, there being five forwards, two left-wings, two right-wings and two goal. The goals consist of two upright posts 18 ft. high and 20 ft. apart with a crossbar 7 ft. from the ground. The game lasts for two periods with an intermission. Pushing the ball under the bar counts 5 points; lifting or throwing it over the bar counts 8. A touchdown behind goal for safety counts 2 to the attacking side.”
Oddly, pushball continued to flourish into the 1940s in military training environments. In 1916, on the eve of America’s entry into World War I, a British short film depicting pushball offers a title card that reads: “Yale students engaged in an exciting game of push ball. This game has been recommended as being particularly suitable for soldiers who have lost their sight at the front.” U.S. Marines in training played it in 1918 at Camp Lewis, American Lake, Washington and in the 1940s at Parris Island, South Carolina.
Revived in Australia in 1971 as “sogball,” the game featured a vinyl-covered ball that punctured within minutes. The game was described by one of the organizers of the intravarsity contests as the “stupidest occupation possible, involving the greatest number of participants.”
All the same, it sure looked like fun, which is more than can be said of many of our sports. Requiescat in pace, pushball.
This continues a story commenced yesterday at http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2013/03/18/thinking-robinson/. During the early professional period that, in the 1870s, produced the first leagues, dozens of black ballplayers sought to earn a living. Several pioneers come in for special note: William Edward White, born of a Georgia slave and her white master, enrolled at Brown University and played on its celebrated baseball club. On June 21, 1879, the Providence Grays, a National League club at that time, needed a replacement for the injured first baseman Joe Start. In those less formal days, before the advent of farm clubs, they invited White to play. He got a hit, scored a run, and played flawlessly in the field as Providence defeated Cleveland, 5–3. White returned to the ball field for Brown in 1880 but never played for Providence again.
Until 2004, when a study revealed White’s historic role as the first African-American major leaguer, nearly all fans believed that the man who had earned that distinction was Jackie Robinson, in 1947. Only a handful of scholarly types knew that two brothers from Oberlin College, the Walkers, had preceded Jackie by playing with the Toledo Blues in 1884. William White was the first, but the Walker story resonates more strongly with us today.
After starring in baseball with Oberlin College’s inaugural nine in 1881, Moses Fleetwood Walker was invited to play for the strong semiprofessional White Sewing Machine club, based in Cleveland. The visiting Whites ran into a problem before a scheduled game with the Eclipse club in Louisville (the Eclipse would enter the major-league American Association as a charter member the following spring). As the Louisville Courier-Journal reported on August 22, 1881, “players of the Eclipse Club objected to Walker playing on account of his color. In vain the Clevelands protested that he was their regular catcher, and that his withdrawal would weaken the nine.” The White Sewing Machine manager held Walker out, but when his replacement catcher bruised his hand and refused to come out for the second inning, the crowd began to call for Walker to go behind the bat. He … was disinclined to do so, after the general ill-treatment he had received; but as the game seemed to be in danger of coming to an end, he consented, and started in the catcher’s stand. Louisville’s players walked off the field.”
In 1883, Walker helped the Toldeo Blue Stockings win the Northwestern League championship but again had a run-in regarding his race. After arriving in Toledo for an exhibition contest, Cap Anson announced that his Chicago White Stockings would not take the field with Walker in the lineup. Toledo manager Billy Voltz, who had planned to give Walker the day off anyway, decided to start him in right field, daring Anson to walk away from his share of the gate after having traveled some distance. Anson gave in, grumbling that he would never again bring his club to Toledo, while also beginning to nurture a personal grudge against Walker.
When Toledo moved up to the big-leagues in 1884, with the American Association, Walker played in forty-two games, batting a respectable .263, and was joined briefly by his brother Weldy, but he was released near the end of the season after suffering a broken shoulder. He would be the last black player in the major leagues until 1947, but Fleet Walker played in integrated leagues each year from 1883 through 1889, seven consecutive seasons. Although the public liked him, he continued to suffer many indignities at the hands of opponents and teammates alike.
In a later, more celebrated incident, when Chicago’s National Leaguers faced the Newark club of the International League in an exhibition game in mid-1887, Anson ran into Walker again, this time with a black battery mate in left-handed pitcher George Stovey. He insisted upon their removal, and this time he prevailed. It is easy to overstate Anson’s role in establishing the color bar of the 1880s. He was not alone—racism was not only prevalent among the virulent lower classes with pale skin, but also casually assumed and expressed by the upper classes. Unless you were white, wealthy, and male, the good old days, they were terrible.
It was in 1887 that race relations in the International League came to a boil. Buffalo’s black second baseman Frank Grant starred in the league, one notch below the majors. Another black second baseman, Sol White, played on integrated clubs in Wheeling, West Virginia and Fort Wayne, Indiana. After years of electioneering on their behalf by members of the Society for American Baseball Research, of which I have been a happy member for 33 years—both received their Baseball Hall of Fame plaques in 2006. (For more about Sol White, see: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2012/12/28/sol-white-recalls-baseballs-greatest-days/.)
After 1887 it became clear, yet again, that for blacks to find their place in baseball, it would have to be on the barnstorming circuit, with such legendary clubs as the Cuban Giants, or in a league of their own: a short-lived National Colored League of 1887 (it lasted two weeks) presaged the successful organization of the Negro National League in 1920. The Cuban Giants were an aggregation born in 1885 from the merger of four earlier black professional clubs: the Keystones, the Orions, the Manhattans, and the Argyles of Babylon, Long Island.
Not one of the players was Cuban but, given America’s friendliness toward its island neighbor (and historic lust for its annexation), African-American ballplayers had been led to believe they would have an easier time playing before white audiences if they pretended to be Cubans or Spaniards . . . exotics of color rather than colored Americans. James Weldon Johnson, who was raised in Jacksonville, Florida, and learned to speak Spanish from a Cuban boyhood friend, observed that while traveling by rail in the 1890s, he was treated much better by railroad employees and fellow passengers after they heard him speak Spanish and surmised that he was not African-American but Cuban. “In such situations,” he concluded, “any kind of Negro will do; provided he is not one who is an American citizen.”
The light-skinned Frank Grant, described as a “Spaniard” in the Buffalo Express in 1887, had been a star in the league one year before joining Buffalo. His reward was to come in for unceasing attack. (For a fuller treatment of Frank Grant, see: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2011/06/18/safe-at-home/.) Ned Williamson, second baseman of the Chicago White Stockings, told Sporting Life:
The Buffalos … had a Negro for second base. He was a few lines blacker than a raven, but he was one of the best players…. The haughty Caucasians of the association were willing to permit darkies to carry water to them or guard the bat bag, but it made them sore to have the name of one in the batting list. They made a cabal against this man and incidentally introduced a new feature into the game. The players of the opposing teams made it their special business in life to “spike” this brunette Buffalo. They would tarry at second when they might have easily made third, just to toy with the sensitive shins of this second baseman. The poor man played in two games out of five perhaps; the rest of the time he was on crutches. To give the frequent spiking of the darkey an appearance of accident the “feet first” slide was practiced. The negro got wooden armor for his legs and went into the field with the appearance of a man wearing nail kegs for stockings.
After leaving the Buffalo club in 1889, Frank Grant played for many teams, though mostly for the Cuban Giants. On September 1, 1892, Frederick Douglass, Sr. came to Washington’s National Park to watch Grant and his Cuban Giants play against the “colored” All-Washingtons. Grant also appeared with top black teams like the Cuban X-Giants (1898-99), the Genuine Cuban Giants (1900-01), and the Philadelphia Giants (1902-03), and barnstormed in towns along the Hudson and Housatonic rivers. After 1905 the trail of his playing record goes cold, though he was invited to play in a 1909 benefit game for the ailing Bud Fowler, an African-American baseball pioneer who had written, “If I had not been quite so black, I might have caught on as a Spaniard or something of that kind…. My skin is against me.” Grant died on May 27, 1937, with no one in baseball knowing that he was still alive.
And yet … when Jackie Robinson made his spectacular International League debut on April 19, 1946, getting four hits in Montreal’s 14-1 rout of Jersey City, the New York Times story concluded thus: “There have been other Negro players in the International League. Ernie Lanigan supplied the information that a Frank Grant played at second base for Buffalo and a Moses Walker caught for Newark in a game between those two teams on April 30, 1887.”
That other, aforementioned second baseman in the International League of 1887, Bud Fowler, is, with Buck O’Neil, the most significant baseball player NOT in the Hall of Fame. Born John Jackson in upstate New York in 1858 and raised, ironically, in Cooperstown, Fowler first achieved recognition as a 20-year-old pitcher for a club in Chelsea, Massachusetts. In April 1878, Fowler defeated the National League’s Boston club, which included future Hall of Famers George Wright and Jim O’Rourke, 2-1, in an exhibition game, besting 40-game winner Tommy Bond. For the next five years, he toiled for a variety of independent and semi-professional teams in the United States and Canada. Despite a reputation as “one of the best pitchers on the continent,” he failed to catch on with any major or minor league squads. In 1884, now appearing regularly as a second baseman, and only occasionally as a pitcher, Fowler joined Stillwater, Minnesota, in the Northwestern League. In 1885 he played with another integrated club, in Keokuk, Iowa. “He is one of the best general players in the country,” reported Sporting Life in 1885, “and if he had a white face he would be playing with the best of them…. Those who know, say there is no better second baseman in the country.”
In late June of 1887, Fowler’s Binghamton teammates in the International League refused to take the field unless the management removed him from the lineup. Soon after, on July 7, the club submitted to these demands.
As opportunities for Negro players were limited after 1890, Fowler played independent ball for the next four years. In 1895 he went to Adrian, Michigan, where he organized a black team for the Page Woven Wire Fence Company. And so was born the Page Fence Giants, one of the crack Negro teams of that period. Fowler and a handful of other blacks continued to play on integrated teams until the mid-1890s. All-black teams were imported intact into some lower minor leagues, but by 1899 Bill “Hippo” Galloway was the last African American in Organized Baseball at any level, appearing in five games with Woodstock of the Canadian League. Fowler, who began playing ball in Cooperstown, will be honored on April 20–five days after Jackie Robinson Day–with the naming of the entrance to Doubleday Field as Fowler Way and the installation of a permanent plaque in the brick wall of the first-base bleachers. I will be there that day, one of those speaking on his behalf.
Jimmy Claxton “passed” as Native American to pitch in a few games for the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. Once his race was suspected he was shuffled off the roster, but a few days before, he had happened to be present when the Zee-Nut Candy photographers came to the park to secure images for their trading card series. Claxton’s card in the 1916 set is a highly desirable item. One of these rare cards, rated by condition as a 3 out of 10, was sold at auction by Sotheby’s for $7,200 in June 2005.
Understand that while Jackie Robinson was not the first, he was and will always be the most important African American baseball pioneer—every day of the year, not only on his April 15 anniversary. Robinson and Rickey forced America to confront the falsehood that baseball could truly be a national pastime while excluding peoples of color, any color. While the baseball playing population of African Americans in the major leagues has diminished from a high of purportedly 28 percent in the late 1960s—actually it peaked near 20 percent in 1975—to perhaps 8 percent today, more people of color play the game in the major leagues than have ever done so before. If you count all dark-skinned people, whatever their nation of origin–the number is over 40 percent today, and the upward trend is inexorable.
America is a nation of nations, and its emblematic game is enriched by reflecting that truth. Today Asians and Hispanics as well as African Americans—and I hope one day soon, women—have to answer only one question from baseball: how well can they play?
Here’s a story about the bridge that Jackie Robinson crossed, and some of the men who built that bridge. I was going to deliver this as a speech last month, to close out a regional celebration of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s traveling exhibition, Pride & Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience. But because I was suddenly laid low by a bout of ill health, from which I have since recovered, the event had to be cancelled and the speech shelved. Now, as we near Jackie Robinson Day, I thought I’d share these thoughts with you, in two parts. Please note that in some period accounts quoted below, language regarded as offensive today is reproduced verbatim.
A feature film, titled 42, about Jackie Robinson’s breaking of Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947 will have its premiere pretty soon, on April 12 in fact. (Had the studio scheduled the opening three days later, they would have launched on the very date that Jackie first wore that number at Ebbets Field; oh well—I’m sure they knew that.) Harrison Ford will play Branch Rickey, Chadwick Boseman will play Jackie, and the screenwriters will get the story right, largely. However, a film will take dramatic license that the written word may not. Like the newsman in the great western picture The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the director of 42 must say, “This is baseball, folks. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
To a greater extent than Hollywood, a historian is obliged to follow the trail of fact. It diminishes Rickey and Robinson not one bit to think about all those black players of long ago who built the bridge, as my friend Buck O’Neil said, that Jackie Robinson walked across.
I will wish to talk about how African Americans came into the game—as early as slaves playing ball 25 miles south of my home, in Kingston, in 1820—then were excluded from it, and then readmitted only to have the gate close again. The story of the Negro Leagues, founded in 1920, has been amply covered by recent scholars, so I will skip over the well-worn tales of Josh and Satch and Rube and Oscar to focus on some stories and some names that most baseball fans may not know.
My dear departed friend Jules Tygiel and I broke a story back in 1988 which has gained little traction over these 25 years. The popular “frontier” image of Jackie Robinson as a lone gunman facing down a hostile mob has always dominated the story of the integration of baseball. But new information we uncovered revealed that while Robinson was the linchpin in the grand strategy to integrate major league baseball, in October 1945 Rickey intended to announce the signing of not just Jackie Robinson, but of several other Negro League stars too. Political pressure, however, forced Rickey’s hand, thrusting Robinson alone into the spotlight. He was to have been joined on the Brooklyn Dodgers by at least two other players, chosen from among Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, and Sam Jethroe. But that is another story from the one I propose to tell now. (For that earlier piece, see: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2012/04/15/jackie-robinsons-signing-the-real-story/.)
Even in its cradle, baseball was bound up with the issue of inclusion and exclusion—whom do we, the entrenched class, permit to play alongside us? In New York City around 1840 there were those who thought the newly codified game of baseball should model cricket—as a diversion for “gentlemen,” those with sufficient money and thus leisure to play an afternoon’s game of ball. William Rufus Wheaton, the man who drew up the rules of the first baseball club, the New Yorks of 1837, recalled in later years: “The new game quickly became very popular with New Yorkers, and the numbers of the club soon swelled beyond the fastidious notions of some of us, and we decided to withdraw and found a new organization, which we called the Knickerbocker. . . .”
Clubs of working-class origin followed soon enough, to the dismay of the white-collar crowd. A largely Irish club, the Magnolia, formed in 1843; a more celebrated and long-lived one, the Atlantic, was created in Brooklyn in 1855. The first African American clubs, three in number, were thought to have been from Brooklyn as well, beginning in 1859: the Unknowns, the Monitors, and the Uniques of Williamsburgh were in the field that season, but little trace of their activities can be found in the papers of the day. Ball games were played on Emancipation Day, when, the Eagle admitted, “20,000 colored gathered in two suburban Brooklyn parks.” Only last month, however, researcher John Zinn discovered a reference in the press to a St. John’s “colored club” in Newark, New Jersey going back to 1855.
In those superheated decades before the Civil War, anti-black sentiment was no more prevalent than anti-Irish. The upper crust lumped the two together as a permanent problem. Even Henry David Thoreau, that apostle of independence and reason, wrote in his journal, “The question is whether you can bear freedom. At present the vast majority of men, whether black or white, require the discipline of labor which enslaves them for their good. If the Irishman did not shovel all day, he would get drunk and quarrel.” Such was the climate when baseball began in earnest.
In truth, young people of both colors and genders had played a game they called baseball long before New York snobs took to organizing clubs and restricting membership. A decade ago, I became fleetingly famous for discovering an ordinance from 1791 barring the play of baseball in Pittsfield, Massachusetts—a real shocker to those who thought baseball had begun in Cooperstown in 1839. We also know that young men and women played a game called baseball, without benefit of a bat, in England in the 1740s and probably long before.
African Americans had played baseball near Madison Square in the 1840s, not far from the grounds of the New York and Knickerbocker clubs before they relocated to Hoboken’s Elysian Fields. In Rochester, in 1859, Frederick Douglass Jr., son of the great abolitionist orator, played baseball with the integrated Charter Oak Juniors. When young Douglass moved to Washington, he helped to form another baseball club, the all-black Alerts, which became the first such club to play against a first-rank white one, the Olympics of Washington, DC, in late September 1869. (The first interracial game took place in Philadelphia a few weeks earlier, with the black Pythians playing against the white Olympics, both of that city.)
Researchers had found reference to ball play by antebellum slaves in the South, but no evidence was put forth that the game they played was baseball as we might understand it—a game that went by that name, or another that bore the central feature of bases run in the round. (In Massachusetts well into the 1850s, for example, the names “base ball” and “round ball” were used interchangeably to describe the same game.) Frederick Douglass, Sr., wrote in his autobiography, published in 1845, that at holiday time “by far the larger part [of slave communities] engaged in such sports and merriments as ball playing, wrestling, running foot races, fiddling, dancing, and drinking whiskey: and this latter mode of spending the time was by far the most agreeable to the feelings of our masters.” But only in the past year Randall Brown discovered an account in a Kingston newspaper of an elderly barber recalling that in 1820 or so—seven years before the “peculiar institution” was abolished in New York State—he and his fellow slaves had played baseball. The source was a story in the Daily Freeman, of August 19, 1881, headlined:
A Colored Resident. Henry Rosecranse Columbus, Jr. Some Incidents in the Life of an Old Resident of Kingston. Born a Slave, He Lives to Become Wealthy and an Example to His Race.
“We used to have a great deal better time than that you do now,” said Mr. Rosecranse, born in 1804. “We didn’t have a big city with lamps and curb stones and paved walks, and had to go round through the mud, but we had more holidays. There was the Pinkster holiday, the Great Holiday for the colored men. They used to meet at Black Horse Tavern … and shoot for turkeys. Then the colored men raced horses on Peter Sharpe’s lane…. After the races they used to play ball for egg nog.”
The reporter asked, “Was it base ball as now played?”
“Something like it,” came the reply, “only the ball wasn’t near so hard, and we used to have much more fun playing.”
This find may seem a small thing, but in my world, where such a discovery had been sought for decades, it was simply fantastic! Looking at records in the South all these years, it may not have occurred to anyone to look in the North, where slavery lived far longer than we may imagine today. (For more on this subject, see: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2012/12/26/did-african-american-slaves-play-baseball/.)
We do not have an unbroken record of blacks playing ball into the 1860s, but in the years following Emancipation black teams began not only to play against white ones but also to seek a level of acceptance in the larger society. Philadelphia’s Pythian Base Ball Club, a formidable African American aggregation of the 1860s, tried to gain admission to the all-white National Association of Base Ball Players, the regulatory and rulemaking body for all first-class clubs. The Ball Players’ Chronicle, a sporting weekly, commented that the report of the Nominating Committee in 1867 recommended the exclusion of the Pythians and any other club that included even one African-American player.
Reconstruction after the defeat of the Confederacy was seen by many upper-class twits as a healing period to be approached with delicacy. In seeking to keep out of the convention the discussion of any subject that might be seen to have a political bearing, they had drawn game’s first overt color line. The committee further proclaimed, “If colored clubs were admitted there would be in all probability some division of feeling, whereas, by excluding them no injury could result to anyone.”
The Philadelphia City Item in 1869 pushed heavily for some white club to play the Pythians. The following, from the August 7, 1869 issue, gives some interesting insights into the difficulty. Richard Hershberger shared this with the SABR research community:
Five thousand persons would pay fifty cents each to see the Athletics play the Pythians. Now, as the Athletics want money, here is a chance to raise it in an honorable way. The Pythians think they can beat the Athletics. Why not give them a trial? Oh–but Fisler, who is a roaring, red-hot Democrat, objects; and so does that Black Republican Reach, and so does Curthbert [sic] , and so does that other fine gentleman–that refined, educated, tasteful young gentleman–who says “the Pythians are d–d niggers!” But, an intelligent public–a fair-minded, liberal generous public, would like to see this contest, and it should take place. Let the Pythians begin with the Athletics, then the Keystones, next the Olympics, then the City Item, and keep on until they find their playing level. We are sure they will play like gentlemen, and beat everything except the professionals.
Speaking of this interesting proposition, the Sunday Dispatch says:
“The propriety of playing the Pythian Club is now a subject of debate in base ball circles. The Pythians are a colored club, and that is an objection to playing them. But they are anxious to measure their strength against some first-class white club, and are especially desirous to play the Athletics. We have not seen the Pythians play, but are told they are a very strong club. They are stout, muscular, active colored men, well-behaved and genteel, who take a deep interest in base ball, but have been unable to find any club to meet them. Now the question is, “Will the Athletics or Keystones play them a match?” Some of our players think it would not be en regle for white men to play against colored men, and oppose any proposition for a match. But others say that if colored muscle can beat white muscle it ought to have a chance. For ourselves, we only state the fact that the Pythian Club is willing to play against any organization in this city, and that thus far no white club has consented to meet them. It is certain that any match of the kin would draw an immense crowd, and we are confident that such players as Reach, Foran, Cuthbert and Radcliffe would see that the modest colored youths would have fair play, and that the spectators would look at the game with unusual interest. One or two of the Republican papers have intimated that the Athletics are afraid to play the Pythians. This is merely one of the slanders to which the Athletics are exposed. They are not afraid to play any club in the country, and they will prove it in any proper way.”
In 1870 the New York Clipper, another sporting weekly, made bold to offer, “we would suggest that the colored clubs of New York and Philadelphia at once take measures to organize a National Association of their own.” In this remark one may detect the general direction for black baseball in all the years up to Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers … yet before blacks looked to a league of their own, there were notable forays into the mainstream of America’s game.
Part 2 tomorrow.
Ed Walsh, born in Plains County, Pennsylvania, not far from Wilkes-Barre, began his Organized Baseball career pitching for the Meriden, Connecticut, team in 1902. After a few unremarkable seasons in the minors he was finally drafted by the White Sox, with whom he became one of the American League greats. Famed for his spitball, Walsh was a workhorse, hurling more than 360 innings in five of of the six years 1907-1912–and leading the American League in saves five times!. In 1908 he won 40 games, a feat matched only once in the 20th century, by fellow spitballer Jack Chesbro in 1904. In the 1912 City Series between the White Sox and Cubs His career ERA of 1.82 is the lowest ever.
But 1912 was his last great year, as he ruined his arm in the October City Series between Chicago’s Cubs and Sox. In Game 1 Walsh threw nine innings of a scoreless tie, allowing only one hit. Then he pitched three innings of relief in Game 2, which after 12 innings resulted in another tie. The Cubs took the next three games,placing the Sox on the brink of elimination. The Sox took the next three to even the Series. Although he had already pitched three complete games and relieved twice in nine days, Walsh was named to start the series finale. He was in top form, hurling his second shutout of the Series, a five-hitter for his fourth complete game. Walsh, who had won twenty-seven games during the regular season, won only eight the next year, and only thirteen in his final five seasons of major league ball. Here he recalls his greatest day in baseball, as told to Francis J. Powers ca. 1940.
Did you ever see Larry Lajoie bat? No. Then you missed something. I want to tell you that there was one of the greatest hitters–and fielders, too–ever in baseball. There’s no telling the records he’d have made if he’d hit against the lively ball. To tell you about my greatest day, I’ll have to go back there to October, 1908, when I fanned Larry with the bases full and the White Sox chances for the pennant hanging on every pitch to the big Frenchman.
That was October 3, and the day after I had that great game with Addie Joss and he beat me 1 to 0 with a perfect game; no run–no hits-no man reached first. There was a great pitcher and a grand fellow, Addie. One of my closest friends and he’d have been one of the best of all time only for his untimely death two years later. That game was a surprise to both of us for we were sitting on a tarpaulin talking about having some singing in the hotel that night, when Lajoie, who managed Cleveland, and Fielder Jones told us to warm up. A pitcher never knew when he’d work in those days.
I don’t think there’ll ever be another pennant race like there was in the American League that year. All summer four teams, the Sox, Cleveland, Detroit, and St. Louis, had been fighting and three of ’em still had a chance on this day. When Joss beat me the day before it left us two and one-half games behind the Tigers and two behind the Naps (as Cleveland was called in honor of Lajoie). We had only four games left to play.
It was a Saturday and the biggest crowd ever to see a game in Cleveland up to that date jammed around the park. Jones started Frank Smith for us and we got him three runs off Glenn Liebhardt and were leading by two going into the seventh. I was in the bull pen, ready for anything because, as I said, we had to win this one.
As I recall it George Perring, the shortstop, was first up for Cleveland and he went all the way to second when Patsy Dougherty muffed his fly in the sun. I began to warm up in a hurry. Nig Clarke batted for Liebhardt and fanned and things looked better. Smith would have been out of trouble only Tannehill fumbled Josh Clarke’s grounder and couldn’t make a play. Clarke stole second and that upset Smith and he walked Bill Bradley.
I rushed to the box and the first batter I faced was Bill Hinchman. Bill wasn’t a champion hitter but he was a tough man in a pinch. I knew his weakness was a spit ball on the inside corner so I told Sully (Billy Sullivan) we’d have to get in close on him. I did. My spitter nearly always broke down and I could put it about where I wanted. Bill got a piece of the ball and hit a fast grounder that Tannehill fielded with one hand and we forced Perring at the plate.
So, there were two out and Larry at bat. Now if the Frenchman had a weakness it was a fast ball, high and right through the middle. If you pitched inside to him, he’d tear a hand off the third baseman and if you pitched outside he’d knock down the second baseman. I tried him with a spit ball that broke to the inside and down. You know a spit ball was heavy and traveled fast. Lajoie hit the pitch hard down the third base line and it traveled so fast that it curved 20 feet, I’d guess, over the foul line and into the bleachers. There was strike one.
My next pitch was a spitter on the outside and Larry swung and tipped it foul back to the stands. Sully signed for another spitter but I just stared at him; I never shook him off with a nod or anything like that. He signed for the spitter twice more but still I just looked at him. Then Billy walked out to the box. “What’s the matter?” Bill asked me. “I’ll give him a fast one,” I said, but Billy was dubious. Finally, he agreed. I threw Larry an overhand fast ball that raised and he watched it come over without ever an offer. “Strike three!” roared Silk O’Loughlin. Lajoie sort of grinned at me and tossed his bat toward the bench without ever a word. That was the high spot of my baseball days, fanning Larry in the clutch and without him swinging.
I like to think back to the White Sox of those days. In 1906, we won the pennant and beat the Cubs in the World Series. Next season we were in the pennant race until the last days of September and in 1908 we fought them down to the final day of the season. There never was a fielding first baseman like Jiggs Donahue in 1908 when he set a record for assists. Sullivan was a great catcher, one of the greatest. It was a great team, a smart team. But the tops of all days was when I fanned Lajoie with the bases filled. Not many pitchers ever did that.
This week marks the second edition of the SABR Analytics Conference, in Phoenix (http://sabr.org/analytics). I had planned to attend, as I had last year, but a bothersome health blip has held me back east. I am something of a sabermetrician emeritus, anyway, and would have been an interested spectator rather than a contributor of fresh insight. My best work in the statistical line, in collaboration with Pete Palmer, is long behind me. All the same, I continue to approach the game analytically and I appreciate the great advances in sabermetrics in recent years.
To honor those advances and to place them in some historical perspective, I offer an excerpt from The Hidden Game of Baseball, published nearly thirty years ago—so far back that Pete and I were not yet ready to embrace the newfangled term “sabermetrics”! Let’s look at four baseball pioneers who plied their statistical trade before the world had heard of Bill James or my brilliant collaborator.
Although the impulse to improve our understanding and appreciation of baseball through the laying on of numbers had been present from the game’s beginnings, it was not until August 2, 1954, in of all places Life magazine, that the New Statistics movement was truly born. On that date there appeared an article by the game’s designated guru Branch Rickey, supported considerably by statistician Allan Roth, which was optimistically titled “Goodby to Some Old Baseball Ideas.” With the aid of some new mathematical tools, it sought to puncture long-held misconceptions about how the game was divided among its elements (batting, baserunning, pitching, fielding), who was best at playing it, and what caused one team to win and another to lose. This is a pretty fair statement of what the New Statistics is about.
Although the old ideas remained in place despite his efforts, Rickey had shaken them to their foundations. He attacked the batting average and proposed in its place the On Base Average; advocated the use of Isolated Power (extra bases beyond singles, divided by at bats) as a better measure than slugging percentage; introduced a “clutch” measure of run-scoring efficiency for teams, and a similar concept for pitchers (earned runs divided by baserunners allowed); reaffirmed the basic validity of the ERA and saw the strikeout for the insubstantial stat it was; and more. But the most important thing Rickey did for baseball statistics was to pull it back along the wrong path it had taken at the crossroads long ago: to strip the game and its stats to their essentials and start again, this time remembering that individual stats came into being as an attempt to apportion the players’ contributions to achieving victory, for that is what the game is about.
“Baseball people generally are allergic to new ideas,” Rickey wrote. “We are slow to change. For fifty-one years I have judged baseball by personal observation, by considered opinion and by accepted statistical methods. But recently I have come upon a device for measuring baseball which has compelled me to put different values on some of my oldest and most cherished theories. It reveals some new and startling truths about the nature of the game. It is a means of gauging with a high degree of accuracy important factors which contribute to winning and losing baseball games….The formula, for so I designate it, is what mathematicians call a simple, additive equation:
“The part of the equation in the first parenthesis stands for a baseball’s team offense. The part in the second parenthesis represents defense. The difference between the two—G, for game or games—represents a team’s efficiency.”
What we have here is the first attempt to represent the totality of the game through its statistical component parts. Another way of stating the formula above is to say that if the first part—the offense, or runs scored—exceeds the second part—the defense, or runs allowed—then G, the team efficiency or won-lost percentage, should exceed .500. This is a startlingly simple (or rather, seemingly simple) realization, that just as the team which scores more runs in a game gets the win, so a team which over the course of a season scores more runs than it allows should win more games than it loses—and by an extent correlated to its run differential!
How did Rickey and Roth come up with the formula? “Only after reverting to bare ABC’s was any progress noted. We knew, of course, that all baseball was divided into two parts—offense and defense. We concluded further that weakness or strength in either of these departments could be measured in terms of runs.” Once mathematicians at M.I.T. confirmed for them that the correlation of team standings with run differential was 96.2 percent accurate over the past twenty years, the task became to identify the component parts of runs.
In the [preceding] formula, the first segment of the offense (H + BB + HP) (AB + BB + HP), is the On Base Average. The second segment is Isolated Power, multiplied by .75. The third segment, applicable to teams but not to individuals, is percentage of baserunners scoring, or run-scoring efficiency (“clutch”); RBIs were not, Rickey stated, a suitable measure of individuals’ clutch ability.
In the defensive half of the formula, the first segment is simply opponents’ batting average. The second is opponents reaching base through pitcher’s wildness. (Rickey divided the opponents’ On Base Average into these constituent parts in an attempt to isolate “stuff” from control.) The third segment indicates a pitcher’s “clutch” ability, and the fourth, his strikeout ability, multiplied by only .125 because it was not very important. The fifth segment of the defense, F for fielding, was deemed unmeasurable. “There is nothing on earth anyone can do with fielding,” Rickey declared, but he did indicate that fielding was far less significant than pitching as a proportion of total defense: He ventured that while good fielding might account for the critical run in four or five games a year, it was worth only about half as much as pitching.
Rickey and Roth’s fundamental contribution to the advancement of baseball statistics comes from their conceptual revisionism, their willingness to strip the game down to its basic unit, the run, and reconstruct its statistics accordingly. The Rickey formula (though perhaps Roth deserves even more credit) has been superseded in terms of accuracy. The method of correlating runs with wins has been improved in recent years, and the formula for analyzing runs in terms of their individual components has, too. But the existence of the space shuttle does not tarnish the accomplishment of the Wright brothers (Orville and Wilbur, not Harry and George).
In recognizing that traditional baseball statistics did not give an adequate sense of an individual’s worth or of a team’s prospects of victory, Rickey anticipated the future. Twenty-eight years later, a writer for Discover magazine, surely unaware that he was echoing baseball’s Mahatma, described the impetus to the New Statistics: “Sabermetricians have tackled this problem [the inadequacy of traditional offensive measures] by devising a new statistic, one that directly measures a player’s ability both to score and to drive in runs. The number has been calculated by various analysts under various designations: batting rating, run productivity average, runs created, and batter’s run average, to name a few. It usually comes down to this simple fact: The total number of runs a team scores in a season is proportional to some combination of its hits, walks, steals, and other factors that result in batters getting on base or advancing other runners. Although the number of runs scored by a particular hit depends on how many men were on base, the differences tend to cancel themselves out over a season.”
This understanding did not evaporate in the years between Rickey’s article and the dawn of sabermetrics by that name. In 1959 the scholarly Operations Research Journal published an article by George R. Lindsey titled “Statistical Data Useful for the Operation of a Baseball Team.” As far as baseball people were concerned, Lindsey might as well have been writing in Icelandic. Lindsey and his father had recorded play-by-play data of several hundred baseball games in order to evaluate such long-standing perplexities as whether in facing a righthanded pitcher, a lefthanded hitter did possess an advantage over his righthanded counterpart, and if so to precisely what extent (he did, by about 15 percent); whether a team in the field should set its infielders for an attempted double play with the bases loaded early in the game and no outs (it should); whether a man’s batting average can serve as a predictor of future performance in a given at bat or game or season (at bat and game, no, season, yes); and more.
Lindsey followed this article with one that is even more central to the issues raised by Rickey and revived by the New Statisticians. In 1963, again in Operations Research, he published “An Investigation of Strategies in Baseball.” He wrote in his abstract, or summary, of the article:
The advisability of a particular strategy must be judged not only in terms of the situation on the bases and the number of men out, but also with regard to the inning and score. Two sets of data taken from a large number of major league games are used to give (1) the dependence of the probability of winning the game on the score and the inning, and (2) the distribution of runs scored between the arrival of a new batter at the plate in each of twenty-four situations and the end of the half-inning. . . . [Note: the twenty-four situations are all the combinations of baserunners, from none to three, and outs, none, one, and two.] By combining the two sets of data, the situations are determined in which an intentional base on balls, a double play allowing a run to score, a sacrifice, and an attempted steal are advisable strategies, if average players are concerned. An index of batting effectiveness based on the contribution to run production in average situations is developed. [Emphasis ours.]
Where Rickey had added the On Base Average and Isolated Power to arrive at a batter rating—and it was a good one, far more accurate in its correlation to run production than was the batting average—Lindsey employed an additive formula based on the run values of each event: .41 runs for a single, .82 for a double, 1.06 for a triple, 1.42 for a home run. (These values are not quite right, but they’re close….) To illustrate how Lindsey’s method was applied, let’s look at the 1983 records of three substantial National League players, Dale Murphy, Mike Schmidt, and Andre Dawson. Note that Lindsey’s method is to express all hits in terms of runs, but not the outs; these he brings into the picture through the traditional averaging process, dividing the run total by at bats. Yet an out has a run value, too, though it is a negative one.
How did Lindsey arrive at these values? It is a bit complicated for the general reader, but those with the appetite for probability theory we refer to the bibliographical citations at the back of the book. In brief, Lindsey devised a table, based on observation of 6,399 half innings (all or part of 373 games in 1959-60); he recorded how many times a batter came to the plate in any one of the twenty-four basic situations. Moreover, he deduced what the run-scoring probability became after the batter had hit a single, double, whatever, by computing the difference between the run-scoring value of the situation that confronted the batter—for example, man on first and nobody out—and that of the situation which prevailed after the batter’s successful contribution. That difference represents the run-scoring value of that contribution.
With these new values, proper weighting became possible, in, say, the slugging percentage. A home run was demonstrably not worth as much as four singles, nor a triple as much as a single and a double, and so on. What Lindsey did not account for was such offensive elements as the base on balls or hit by pitch; this had been done the year before in a formula proposed at a conference at Stanford University by Donato A. D’Esopo and Benjamin Lefkowitz. This formula, which they called the Scoring Index, is too complicated to go into, but in any event it was only marginally an improvement on Rickey’s, which similarly had accounted for walks and hit by pitch as well as total bases. The Scoring Index over-credited these events, to the extent that in ranking the top hitters of the National League in 1959, Joe Cunningham, whose slugging percentage was .478 to Henry Aaron’s .636, rated higher than Aaron, just as he did in On Base Average.
The term Scoring Index reappeared in 1964, but was defined differently by Earnshaw Cook in Percentage Baseball, a book which created considerable media stir for its controversial suggestions to revise baseball strategy in line with probability theory. Among these suggestions was to start the game with a relief pitcher and pinch-hit for him his first time up; to realign the batting lineup in descending order of ability; to restrict severely the use of the intentional base on balls and sacrifice bunt, etc. Indeed, Cook’s Scoring Index did not appear in a form intelligible to the layman until the appearance of his next book, Percentage Baseball and the Computer (1971), in which the “DX,” as he abbreviated it, was represented by:
The first component is simply On Base Average; the latter is a bizarre amalgam of power and speed in which, in effect, baserunning exploits are averaged by plate appearances in the same manner as total bases are. The rationale, evidently, is that net stolen bases (steals minus times caught stealing) adds extra bases in the way that doubles do to singles. This is not quite so, but in any event, the formula works pretty well in spite of its logical shortcomings. At the time of its introduction, the DX was the most accurate measure of total offensive production yet seen and the first to combine ability to get on base in all manners; to move baserunners around efficiently through extra-base hits; and to gain extra bases through daring running.
The original Cook book was highly abstruse in its detail and, despite the hubbub which met its publication in 1964, it is regarded today as perhaps a setback to the cause of improving baseball’s statistics. If the job was going to be that much trouble, why bother?
If Percentage Baseball, despite its brilliance, was not an open sesame to the unlocking of baseball’s secrets, a genie came forth in 1969 with the appearance of The Baseball Encyclopedia, compiled for Macmillan by Information Concepts, Inc. (ICI). But that is a story for another day.
In Baseball in the Garden of Eden, one of my recurrent themes was the vital role that gambling played in making a boys’ game worthy of adult attention. That gambling turned out to be the snake in the garden was soon evident and the professional leagues struggled to restrain it (eradication was not possible). Here is the first record of filthy lucre intruding into the sylvan primordial field. The Delhi Gazette (upstate New York) of July 13, 1825 contains this challenge to play “bass-ball” –for money.
The undersigned, all residents of the new town of Hamden, with the exception of Asa C. Howland, who has recently removed into Delhi, challenge an equal number of persons in any town in the county of Delaware, to meet them at any time at the house of Edward B. Chace, in said town, to play the game of BASS-BALL, for the sum of one dollar each per game. If no town can be found that will produce the required number, they will have no objection to play against any selection that can be made from the several towns in the county.
ELI BAGLEY, EDWARD B. CHACE, HARRY P. CHACE, IRA PEAK, WALTER B. PEAK, H.B. GOODRICH, R.F. THURBER, ASA C. HOWLAND, M.L. BOSTWICK.
Hamden, July 12, 1825.