June 2nd, 2014
Who is the Father of Fantasy Baseball? Most today will answer Dan Okrent or Glen Waggoner, but let me propose Francis C. Sebring, the inventor of the table game of Parlor Base-Ball. In the mid-1860s Sebring was the pitcher (clubs only needed one back then) for the Empire Base Ball Club of New York (and bowler for the Manhattan Cricket Club). At some time around the conclusion of the Civil War, this enterprising resident of Hoboken was riding the ferry to visit an ailing teammate in New York. The idea of making an indoor toy version of baseball came to him during this trip, and over the next year he designed his mechanical table game; sporting papers of 1867 carried ads for his “Parlor Base-Ball” and the December 8, 1866, issue of Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly carried a woodcut of young and old alike playing the game. A few weeks earlier, on November 24, Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times had carried the first notice. (In a previous post I discussed other fantasy-baseball forerunners, from Chief Zimmer’s game to Ethan Allen’s: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2011/10/17/fathers-of-fantasy-baseball/)
No examples of Parlor Base-Ball or its packaging survive, but from the patent application and drawing of February 4, 1868, we see that a spring propelled a coin (“one of the thick nickel coins of the denomination of ‘one cent,’ issued by the United States Government in and about the year 1860”) from pitcher to batter, and another spring activated a bat that propelled the coin into one or another of the cavities in the field. A pinball machine is not very much different. David Dyte has suggested that the schematic for Sebring’s game is instructive as to the positioning of the shortstop. He is correct: by the time of the table game’s devise (1865-66), Dickey Pearce of the Brooklyn Atlantics had moved the position into the infield from its original fourth outfielder spot. Then George Wright, blessed with a great arm and range, began to play deep.
There is another game with a prior patent: the “Base-Ball Table” patented by William Buckley of New York on August 20, 1867, which like Sebring’s game operated on the pinball principle. And like Sebring’s game, it too has no remaining example: the earliest surviving baseball table game is a card game from 1869: “Base Ball: The New Parlor Game.” But Sebring’s game went into commercial production while Buckley’s did not. (An enterprising antiquarian might reconstruct both games from their schematic drawings and play them today.)