Old Days in Baseball
This outstanding article–a personal favorite, I will say–is from the June 1902 number of Outing, an Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Recreation. Its author is Clarence Deming (1848-1913), celebrated captain of Yale’s baseball and football teams in his youth. Moving on to editorial positions with the New Haven Palladium and the New York Evening Post, he penned for the latter an article entitled “An Old Yankee Ball Game: Wicket,” recalling his days of playing that now forgotten sport when he was a lad in Litchfield, Connecticut [I had long searched in vain to locate this, following the bum steer of a 1903 citation; see Comments section below]. His fanciful reconstruction of how rounders and base merged is not to be credited, but all in all this is a splendid memoir of someone who played ball before professional league play. A phrase that may well jump out to the modern reader is this: “The shortstop for many years shifted ground to a point between first and second bases if a left-handed striker was at bat….” Another stunner: “a shrewd, up-country team of Connecticut in the early sixties did not miss the mark when it bored out a set of huge bass-wood bats and filled them with corks.” Read on.
There was in Old England a game of bat, ball, and base-runnings called “rounders.” There was in New England a contemporaneous and similar game called “base.” At about the middle fifties a genius lost to renown compounded the two games and gave us the basic lines of modern baseball. The new sport, with its variety and grace, caught the American taste. By the year 1857 it had risen to the dignity of an association of clubs and official rules. It eclipsed the scientific but torpid English cricket and the more vigorous but less refined “wicket” of Yankeeland. The Civil War hardly gave it pause, and up to 1868, when professionalism and gate money were first officially allowed, the game was sovereign, if not despot, of the American sports of the sward.
The game is still national and popular; it draws in the cities and around academic diamonds its thronging hosts, and is an institutional sport; but the youngsters of to-day should have seen it as it was in 1866 and 1867, when it reached its climacteric and a frenzy for the game swept the land. Each little village and hamlet boasted its nine, and in the larger towns of the eastern states the clubs were enumerated by the score. There were national championships, state championships, and county championships, fierce, even, vindictive in their rivalries, and in narrower fields with smaller prizes of victory the passions were not less tense. Across the long reach of years two incidents come back to mind as tokens of the acute quality of the sport in those days. One was the edict of the factory owners in a large New England town imposing special pains and penalties on absentees at ball games during working hours. The other is the vision of weeping women turning homeward as the umpire’s last “out” signalled defeat for their pet nine in an inter-town match.
It was on those rural fields in the heyday of baseball that the sport, if less refined, was more picturesque. That the game was vocal goes with the saying. In our present baseball day there is the familiar trick of organizing the nine as a kind of “claque” to chattel away the nerves of opponents at the bat. But a generation ago the claque was both spontaneous and noisy, and included spectator as well as player. Not far away from the truth was the country captain who described his team as “men who can’t bat much, or field much, but first-rate talkers.” To dispute the umpire on every close decision was orthodox duty—a fashion not yet outlived—and it made the rural ball game forensic as well as spectacular.
The country umpire, who was usually selected by the home team, merits his specific picture. In the earlier days of the sport he was chosen for knowledge of the rules simply because the opposing bucolic nines had so little knowledge themselves. Later, technical lore became somewhat secondary as a credential, and in the ideal rural umpire was sought a kind of Boanerges—a Son of Thunder, bellowing out his decisions until the welkin echoed, and able on the one hand either to placate the crowd by good temper or to daunt it with strong speech. That is to say, the umpire of the time and place had to own no middle terms of personal temperament, but be either extremely crisp or superlatively good-natured and tactful.
The umpire’s place was usually a point even with the home plate and about twenty feet away. There on armchair was set for him and, on sunny days, he was entitled to an umbrella, either self-provided or a special one of vast circumference, fastened to the chair and with it constituting one of the fixtures of the game. He had freedom of movement, but the prerogative was rarely used. In his pocket was a copy of “Beadle’s Dime Baseball Book,” then the hornbook of the game, and often in requisition. In his airy perch, shielded by his mighty canopy, the umpire of those days made an imposing figure, bearing his honors with Oriental dignity, though hardly with Oriental ease.
A pressing thorn at the umpire’s sat of judgment was the right of an offended team to demand a “change of umpire,” and such transitions in old rural baseball were not rare. In that connection a typical incident comes to mind. It was at an inter-town match, when for some reason, not now recalled, the visiting team supplied the umpire. He gave three successive decisions which angered the home players. On their demand the umpire was changed; then the captain of the home team asked from the new umpire a reversal of the last decision, and, as it seemed, by the very audacity of the demand obtained it. Such an ex post facto ruling illustrates the wide range of umpiring in old baseball.
There were few uniforms in the rural nine and such as they were they were not uniform. The country player rose to quite a peak of dignity if he could “sport” the old-fashioned baseball cap with its huge visor, or a belt in place of the more useful than ornate “galluses.” Baseball shoes, for such as had them, were of the homespun pattern, with spikes made by the village blacksmith and set in the soles of ordinary shoes by the local cobbler, who also not seldom tried his hand at covering with calfskin the balls used for practise games, the orthodox “white” ball being used only for match games—often the same ball for two or three matches.
If a country club could secure a fairly level meadow for its play it was in high luck, and the local vagaries of the soil were no small factor in the result of match games. Thus a team wonted to the hard-packed dirt of the village green, and, by ground hits vanquishing visiting teams easily, found grief and rustic Waterloos when, visitors in turn, it faced foes on soft and irregular turf, with grass so lush that it is of record that the ball was sometimes lost inside the diamond, and a home run scored on the equivalent of the modern bunt. If the home field was bounded by a near fence, thicket, or stream, all the better for the home nine after it had learned the local hazards. These variations of the field made the game fantastic in its changes. Nor was the country editor in a New England town, which boasted for those days a good field, without genuine if caustic wit, when after an acrimonious victory won on the home grounds he closed his account of the match with the words: “The visiting club labored under the difficulty of playing on a level field and in the presence of gentlemen.”
A dinner after the game, usually contributed by the friends of the home nine, was for a number of years conventional, and salved many wounds of temper in the actual play. This hospitality was possible when the matches of a season were few, but as games multiplied it was dropped on the ground of expense. Now and then the country teams played for a dinner as the stake of the match—a suggestion from the earlier “wicket.”
On college and urban fields the early game in its amateur epoch was played with more system, better temper, more deference to the umpire, and higher skill. But its technique was of the crudest quality, even among teams of the championship class. Team play, as now interpreted, was almost unknown. The heavy hitter, rather than the good fielder, was the Nestor of the game. The catcher, in the few emergencies when he dared throw to second base to catch the runner, stood perhaps ten feet behind the batsman, and if he actually nipped the runner, the fact was red-lettered in a match. The shortstop for many years shifted ground to a point between first and second bases if a left-handed striker was at bat; basemen throughout a game hugged their bases far more closely than now; the outfielders played much farther afield; “backing up” infielders, save in most moderate degree, was still a dream; and with gloves, pads, and masks unknown the aroma of arnica was rich, and the old game unto this day registers its honorable lesions in the finger joints of the graybeards.
Scores of course ran up in ratio as skill was down. In the middle sixties clubs reckoned strong piled against each other scores of fifty runs or more in a game, and when a hard-hitting nine faced relative weaklings, three figures for runs were not uncommon. So late as 1867, when a nine of one of the large colleges scored thirteen runs to eight against a strong state club, the figures were deemed almost phenomenal. Certain special causes of these huge scores will be referred to hereafter.
Between the “big” clubs of the Atlantic, Athletic, and Eckford type—doubtless masking some professionalism—and the higher class of college players there was much the same disparity as now—not so much in the strength as in the regularity of the batting, and more in the fielding than in the batting as a whole.
The later professionals in their amateur period, and before the days of gate money, included some heroic figures. There was Harry Wright, who as captain of the famous Cincinnati Red Stockings was the pioneer in team play; his brother George, for years recognized as the best all-round professional and the first baseball man who dared at shortstop to play well behind the base line; Charley Mills, of the New York Mutuals, with a novel trick of throwing to bases by the same motion with which he returned the ball to pitcher; Pete O’Brien, of the champion Atlantics, who could knock a sky ball until it looked like an aerial marble; John Hatfield, of the Mutuals, whoso throw of 133 yards, 1 foot, and 7-1/2 inches, stood for twelve years as the record; Joe Start, of the Atlantics, who survived as a professional first baseman for a decade or more after his old colleagues had passed into the dusk of the baseball gods; and finally Arthur Cummings, pitcher of the Star Club of Brooklyn, first of his race under the restraints of straight-arm pitching to “toss” a curved ball. If from personal observation the opinion may be stated here, Cummings’ famous curve was a mild out curve for right-handed batsmen, accomplished by a cleverly disguised underhand throw.
The “lively” ball used in those archaic days would amaze the player who handles the “dead” ball of to-day. When betimes in the modernized and super-scientific game we see the ball strike an infield obstruction and leap high over the head of shortstop or third baseman, we get a dim inkling of the old lively ball’s chronic habit, but hardly of its persistency of bound and roll, and of its bullet-like far-fetchedness in sky and line hits. In a game on the hard soil of Boston Common, between the Harvard and Lowell clubs, dating back to the days when the first bound was “out” on both fair and foul balls [note: before 1865–jt] , it is related that a batted ball striking inside the diamond was caught on the first bound by the left fielder standing in his normal place. This eternal briskness of the ball was secured by hard wound yarn and a plentiful admixture of very elastic rubber, blended with a small “centre ball” of the same resilient quality. Externally and by the eye it would be hard to tell the old and the modern ball apart. For a year or two in the later sixties there came into vogue a “red dead” ball, maroon in hue, less resilient than its forebears, but animated enough in contrast with the ball used now.
Couple the lively ball leaping by the dazed fielder with the old-fashioned slow pitching, in its most liberal phase a kind of swinging toss—albeit the pitcher stood only forty-five feet from the home plate— and the big scores of old baseball days become clear, without emphasis on the earlier defaults in skill. Wide latitude in the form, size, and material of the bat also favored hard hitting as against slow pitching and lively balls. A hard wood bat was rarely or never seen. The regulation stick was long, thick, and of the ” pudding-stirrer” shape, made of spruce, bass, chestnut, and the lighter woods; and a shrewd, up-country team of Connecticut in the early sixties did not miss the mark when it bored out a set of huge bass-wood bats and filled them with corks.
One or two of the customs of the old game were unique. Such for instance was the habit of the better class of clubs of exchanging, just before each match, silk badges imprinted with the club name. The players wore these accumulated trophies pinned upon the breast, sometimes with startling color effects; and the baseball man was proud, indeed, who could pin on the outside of his deep strata of badges a ribbon from the mighty Atlantics, Mutuals, or Eckfords, attesting his worth for meeting giants, if not mastering them. A custom lasting some years, of presenting the ball won in a match to the player making the best score on the winning side, had the odd feature of fixing the “best” score, not by base hits or lack of errors, but by the gross number of individual runs. But those were days when even the official scores of big games recorded only outs, runs, left on bases, fly catches, outs on fouls, outs on bases, home runs, and time of game—sometimes even less, scoring being the subject of personal opinion rather than of formal rule.
The ardent devotee of the baseball of to-day, with its precisions, curved pitching, and close play behind the bat, may smile at the oddities and crudities of the old game. Yet may the laudator temporis acti claim for the older sport certain vantages. It had speed, range, breeziness, and a horizon; it made fun while not lacking intensity; nine men played it, and the battery did not focalize the match game; on the larger scale of runs and fielding the better team more often won than in the sport of to-day, where the timely base hit or untimely error wins victory or loses it, and, paradoxically, has made the game more uncertain in proportion as it is more scientific; and the term “professional” had not then entered the baseball vocabulary. Yet, were the virtues of the old days in baseball purely legendary, the gray-headed ball player would still love them. Again with memory’s eye he would mark the rough diamonds of the shaggy country land, the outgoings in the sunlight and the homecomings under the moon; hear the cheers for victory, and see the forms of the old players against so many of whom in college triennials the Great Umpire has set his final “out” and marked his sad asterisk of death.