National League Ball, 1883

National League Ball, 1883

Let’s try something new that could be fun and maybe even useful. I get a lot of questions about baseball, which may be unsurprising to you. I have been pleased to provide answers, lately on Twitter, and almost always on the fly–“pants pressed while u wait.” Sometimes I need to take a bit of a spin through my archives. And if I don’t know an answer or can’t quickly locate it in my files, I know who will; it is good to have so many clever colleagues in SABR, that “College of Baseball Knowledge.” I like posting odd facts and seldom seen images, too, as my Twitter followers and Facebook friends will have noticed.

Starting today, I will add a hashtag of #AskTheHistorian to such posts (and to my @thorn_john Twitter avatar). The intent is to encourage more questions and comments, and especially more dialogue. I like to talk baseball, and I suspect you do too.

Cramped replies on Twitter are sometimes unsatisfying; now and then I’d like to say a bit more. On such occasions I’ll expand upon my tweets with “The Rest of the Story” at Our Game, or ask that we move into a private conversation in email. Realtime chats might be down the road a bit.

What does this mean to my fellow tweeps, who have already posed such interesting questions? Keep ’em coming. To those who like this idea and would like to join in, I ask only that you genuinely wish to know something you don’t know already. The very best sort of question is, I think, “Where might I go to find this, on the web or in an archive?” or “Who is the expert in this field, and how might I reach him or her?”

Here’s just a sampling of the questions that have come my way in recent days:

Where did the lone survivor of the USS Maine baseball team come from?

Do you think Maury Wills belongs in the HOF?

Who had the lowest RBI/AB ratio ever?

What was Amos Rusie’s influence on the game?

Is this picture of Christy Mathewson really from 1911, as it is labeled?

What was the starting time of the first game played in New York by its NL club?

Did Babe Ruth truly save baseball after the Black Sox Scandal?

Do we know what the rationale was for walks being counted as hits in 1887?

Is Cool Papa Bell in this picture of the 1945 Kansas City Monarchs?

With the Chicago White Stockings playing ball in 1870, does that make the Cubs the oldest continuous major league franchise, or do the Atlanta Braves hold that record? Or the Cincinnati Reds?


So, John, What was your answer to the “oldest continuous major league franchise” question?

Since 1876, the date of the founding of the NL, it’s the Braves and Cubs. If one includes the National Association of 1871-75, it’s the Braves: the Boston Red Stockings (later the Boston Braves, Milwaukee Braves, Atlanta Braves) played in all five years of the NA; because of The Great Fire, Chicago fielded no team in 1872-73.

So John, do you think Tony Oliva belongs in the HOF?

I steer clear of such discussions, as they involve my suggesting what others might do with their institutional procedures, over which they have control and I am not a participant. I will say that Oliva is a strong candidate, as were several others who fell short of the needed ballots for 2015.

Well, that is a reasonable and intelligent reply. I forgot (temporarily) you are the official historian of MLB. I know you have to respect the views and actions of others (even those who lack your knowledge of the game).

Could you answer a different question: what is the origin of the “pitching path” that one sees in old photographs of ballparks? When was it “abolished?” (I cannot find a clear answer in Peter Morris’ GAME OF INCHES.)

Never functional, the skinned path echoed (in reverse) the manicured pitch between the wickets in cricket.

Thank you. Will you answer a follow-up? Does that mean that baseball and cricket may have shared grounds at times in the early days of the game?

Certainly they did. Chicago 1884; Cincinnati 1871; NY Mets 1887; NY Giants 1889; Brooklyn Bridegrooms 1898. Does not mean the pitching strip saw “double duty.”

Thanks again. I have several more questions, but do not wish to monopolize your valuable time.

The famed Cincinatti Red Stockings provided the core of the 1871 Boston Red Stockings, including the manager Harry Wright. Did Harry Wright consider the 1871 Boston Red Stockings to be essentially the same club as the 1870 Cincinnati Red Stockings, which would put the first season of the club now called the Atlanta Braves in 1866?

No. As many of Cincinnati’s Red Stockings landed with the Washington Olympics as with the Boston Red Stockings. Key additions for Boston in 1871 came from Forest City of Rockford: Al Spalding and Ross Barnes. Cincinnati Red Stockings disbanded in 1870. All player contracts were allowed to lapse, making free agents of every member of the once great club.

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What was the main reason why night baseball did not become “official” in the major leagues until 1935, when many sporadic, unofficial attempts (in the minors, etc) had been made since 1880? It’s hard for me to imagine the owners were simply purists and didn’t have dollar signs in their eyes envisioning bigger crowds after people came home from work. Does it have to do with “supper” having a much more prominent place in society, at least in the traditional family view of the sit-down dinner, and only the desperate times of the Great Depression forced them to think outside the box?

I don’t think the idea of supper had much to do with it. There was a capital-investment conundrum. Until the 1920s experiments with night ball were under portable arc lights, generally, and the results were deemed unsatisfactory. The desperation of the Depression was indeed the spur to invention and creativity. For a good book on the subject, see: “Lights On!: The Wild Century-Long Saga of Night Baseball,” by David Pietrusza.

Not historical facts just opinion:
If you could pick one NL CF to track down and catch the final out of game 7 of the WS with the tying and winning runs on base who would that be? Same for the AL.

A ball hit over his head or in the gap? Willie Mays might be the expected answer, but I’ll take Jim Edmonds (NL) or Devon White (AL).

Just my two cents, but I would take Paul Blair (AL) and Curt Flood (NL). His performance in Game 7 of the ’68 Series was an aberration =;)

Hello John: I know you shy away from giving your opinion on Hall of Fame entries. But why do you think why a player like Wm. Ellsworth ‘Dummy’ Hoy has not been inducted into the Hall of Fame? Here we have a handicapped deaf player who performed above average over a distinguished career. Hoy is noted for being the most accomplished deaf player in Major League history, and is credited by some sources with causing the establishment of signals for safe and out calls. (There were signals on the field before Hoy, but he set them inmmotion and made it a vital part of the game). He held the Major League record for games in center field (1,726) from 1899 to 1920, set records for career putouts (3,958) and total chances (4,625) as an outfielder, and retired among the leaders in outfield games (2nd; 1,795), assists (7th; 273), and double plays (3rd; 72). He was also an excellent base runner, scoring over 100 runs nine times, and often finishing among the top base stealers. He is one of only 29 players to have played in four different Major Leagues. His 1,004 career walks put him second in Major League history behind Billy Hamilton when he retired, and he also ended his career ranking eighth in career games played (1,796). Come on. Why isn’t he in the Hall of fame/

The 1954 World Series went four games, NY Giants over Indians

The Kansas City Royals made a resurgence in 2014 and I hope the powder-blue reign continues.
But I remain a fascinated fan of the 1970s and ’80s Royals. They were indeed a memorable bunch, packed with colorful players like Amos Otis, John Mayberry, Fred Patek and Cookie Rojas, Hal MacRae and of course George Brett.
KC made the playoffs seven times from 1976-85, winning two pennants and the ’85 World Series. But there was so much more promise.
Do you think if ace Steve Busby had not been abused at a young age he could have been the difference in a solid run and a dynasty? Would a healthy Busby have meant multiple titles?

Gegory, you are right–I do not enter into in Hall of Fame discussions that focus on why one’s favorite is not in. Hoy’s case as a pioneer, it seems to me, is better than his case as a player. Although he was a formidable one, he was not better than Bill Dahlen, Jack Glasscock, or JImmy Ryan, just to name three early players who are not in the Hall.

Or George Van Haltren?

Tom, the what-if department is a fascinating one but it is the special province of fans, rather than historians, who are ploddingly focused on what happened (and why). What if for Busby? Sure. And Billy McCool. And Ralph Branca. And a legion of other young arms sidelined too soon.

Van Haltren is another good candidate. Harry Stovey, et al.

In 1994, the NL MVP was Jeff Bagwell and the AL MVP was Frank Thomas. They were born on the same day (May 27, 1968). Has that happened before or since?

Nope, nor will it ever, my crystal ball says.

Many people forget, or fail to notice, that Mays had to make the throw back to the infield. He has said that he knew he’d make the catch but had to figure out how to catch it and be in position to make the throw.
I’ve never seen a catch compared to Mays’ that also required a throw.

Yes the throw was special. I thought the same of Ron Swoboda’s catch and throw in the ninth inning of Game 4 in the 1969 World Series.

I’m curious about the criteria for considering what makes a “major” league. For instance, in 1968 MLB ruled the Players’ League was an official “major” league. How was this determined? I find so many leagues and teams listed in the 19th Century (and so many which came and went), and since there was no designation of “major” and “minor” leagues in those days, how can you determine this? It seems a survival of the fittest whereby if one key baseball owner/promoter had been in League A instead of League B, League A would have survived and history would have been different. Could there be some leagues which could have been considered “major” but are forgotten to history and could have been more in the right scenario?

Thanks for taking my scattered thoughts…

The first step in being declared a major league in the modern era is to have declared your league a rival major league at or close to your founding. That was certainly true of, in turn, the American Association (1882-91), the Union Association (1884), the Players’ League (1890), the American League (founded 1900 as a minor, self-declared as major in 1901) and the Federal League (founded as a minor in 1913, self-declared as a major for 1914-15). Issues of caliber of play exist especially for the UA and the FL, but that was not the basis of the 1968 decision.

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