Who Remembers Pushball?
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.