The panorama at left has been labeled in the mount “Panorama of New York and Vicinity.” The Baseball Hall of Fame has a print which has been labeled “Baseball in Jersey City in 1868.” Not exactly. What we see in the foreground is baseball at the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, a pleasure grounds for New Yorkers ever since the dawn of the century, when bear-baiting and bare-knuckle prizefighting competed for attention with buffalo hunts and cricket matches. Most visitors to the site came for the cool breezes, soothing libations, and relief from the strains of city life. Ferries departed every fifteen minutes from the Barclay Street docks in Manhattan. The steamers were controlled by the John C. Stevens family, which also owned the resort grounds–a model of commerce that would mark baseball’s development through the age of trolley cars, short-line rail, and subways: that is, create a remote attraction, and control the access to it. The Stevens Castle is the large house to the right of the ball grounds.
The Elysian Fields became not only a place of rest but also recreation as the prospect of employment lured young bachelors from the farm to the city, only to leave them pining for rural bliss. Cricket was played at the Hoboken grounds before baseball, but by 1845 the New York Knickerbockers had taken heed of the northward push of industry in Manhattan and had taken their new game of “base ball” to Hoboken.
The lithograph, printed and published in Philadelphia in 1866, offers a bird’s-eye view of extraordinarily intricate if untrustworthy detail. The artist is John Bachmann, famous for such views of northeastern cities. Depicted are two quite different games of “base ball” being played within a few yards of each other, separated by the Colonnade, a refreshment pavilion (i.e., tavern) and hotel. At the left two teams are playing the Massachusetts Game, in which the batter stood between fourth base and first–a variant nearly dead in New England and never played in the New York area, but perhaps still alive at the time in Philadelphia, where the Olympic Club had organized in 1833 to play town ball, from which the Massachusetts Game derived. To the right, two other teams appear to be playing according to the rules of the New York Game, which has come down to us as the game we would recognize today. The codification of rules for the New York Game is attributed to William R. Wheaton and William H. Tucker–not Alexander Cartwright–of the famed Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York.
Among the critical innovations of the Knickerbockers was the concept of a boundaried playing field (cricket, town ball, and the Massachusetts Game had no prescribed bounds). The Knicks were constrained by their playing site (look at how close their field, the one at the right of this picture, was to the Hudson River). Accordingly, not only was a foul ball declared a non-event, but, as stated in Rule 20, the last of their original rules of 1845, “But one base allowed when a ball bounds out of the field when struck.” Doc Adams made the leather-strapped balls himself, an exceedingly tedious task, and he wasn’t going to stand for some young Hercules sending his handiwork into the drink. (All the same, Doc recalled in later years, “I was a left-handed batter, and sometimes used to get the ball into the river.”)
The Elysian Fields, known as Turtle Grove in the 1780s, was gone by the end of the 1880s, overtaken by rail and industry. But I used to visit the Knickerbocker playing fields site by asking the friendly watchman at the abandoned Maxwell House Coffee plant to let me into the courtyard. (This option is no longer available.) You might even detect the site of the Sybil’s Cave, a lovers’ destination in the 1840s, now walled up within the rock abutment along the river road, once described as “romantic and beautiful … a narrow, circuitous path, overarched with oak branches.” Today it is an industrial service road called Frank Sinatra Drive, after Hoboken’s favorite son.
Every picture tells a story, but some offer a peephole to the past, in which the closer you get to the opening, the more you see. Such is the case with Bachmann’s “Panorama of New York and Vicinity.”
With the rise of pitching (or decline in batting) capturing everyone’s attention lately–as if it had not been inevitable–I think it worthwhile to take the long view. History may exist for its own sake but, unlike art, it may also be useful. Before we lower the pitching mound, increase the pitching distance or the length of the basepaths, permit aluminum bats, or move in the fences, let’s buck up for a moment and realize that we have been here many times before … since the very dawn of the game. Here, modified only slightly, is the opening chapter of The Pitcher, which John B. Holway and I wrote in 1987.
THE EARLY DAYS: 1845-75
In the first survivng rules of baseball, drafted by William R. Wheaton and William H. Tucker for the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in 1845, Article 9 (the only one pertaining to the pitcher) read:
The ball must be pitched, not thrown, for the bat.
Only ten words, but how much they reveal about the humble origins of baseball’s pioneer players! First, we see that the pitcher came by his name from the underhand, stiff-armed, stiff-wristed pitch borrowed from cricket’s early days—a delivery much like that seen today at the bowling alley. Second, we see the disdain of the “gentlemanly” Knickerbockers of New York for the uncouth throw, which characterized the rival version of baseball that flourished in New England until the Civil War. (Indeed, the term pitcher has been a misnomer in baseball ever since the mid-1860s, when the widespread—though not yet legal—wrist snap transformed the respectable pitch into the lowly throw.) And third, we see that the pitcher was not required to throw strikes rather than balls (the former did not exist until 1858, the latter until 1863), but instead to pitch for the bat: In other words, he and the batter were not adversaries but very nearly allies, each doing his utmost to put the ball in play for the valiant barehand fielders. Of all the positions in the game’s original 1845 design, only right field was less demanding and less prestigious than pitcher.
That began to change in the game’s second decade, as pitchers realized that, despite the restrictions on their motions, they could muster considerable speed and, with no “called ball” system in place, could whiz fastballs wide of the bat for as long as fifteen minutes until the impatient batter finally fished for one. The former alliance of batter and pitcher was thus breached and the breach was soon to widen.
Jim Creighton, a seventeen-year-old pitcher for the amateur Niagaras of Brooklyn (all teams were amateur then), created a stir in 1858 with a pitch that was not only faster than any seen before but also sailed or tailed or climbed or dipped; the result was “fairly unhittable,” in the words of John “Death to Flying Things” Chapman, a contemporary star with the Brooklyn Atlantics. How did Creighton do it? By adding an imperceptible snap of the wrist to his swooping bowler’s delivery. The first baseball pitcher to impart spin to the ball, he was soon wooed away from the Niagaras by the Star of Brooklyn club, with filthy lucre no doubt the bait. Now he was baseball’s first professional, and by the following year, when the Excelsiors of Brooklyn offered him a still more lucrative deal, he had become baseball’s first great pitcher and the idol of the fans. Even twenty years after his last performance, observers of such worthies as Hoss Radbourn and Tim Keefe would say, “They’re fine pitchers, to be sure, but they’re no Creighton.”
That last performance, alas, came against the Unions of Morrisania on October 14, 1862, when the twenty-one-year-old Creighton sustained a rupture which a few days later proved fatal. He incurred the injury with heroic flair, after a mighty swing that produced one of his four doubles in the game. (Legend soon had him hitting a home run, like Roy Hobbs.)
The year after Creighton’s death brought the system of “called balls” to speed up the game, but inasmuch as the lone umpire stood in foul ground along the first base line, balls and strikes could not be accurately judged. Moreover, the batter could demand a pitch high in the strike zone (waist to top of shoulder) or low (waist to a foot or so above the ground) and the pitcher had to comply. The pitcher was therefore working with a batter-imposed strike zone that was theoretically half that of today (but in practice much the same, since the strike zone of the last thirty-plus years has effectively shrunk to the “low strike” definition of the 1860s).
What advantages did a pitcher of the earliest days have? First, he worked behind a line, and after 1865 within a box, that was only 45 feet from home plate. An 80-mile-per-hour fastball thrown by George “Charmer” Zettlein would reach the plate in 0.38 seconds, precisely the time it takes Justin Verlander to hurl 100-m.p.h. heat past a batter today. Second, with the pitcher’s box—which until its abolition in 1893 varied in width from twelve feet to four and in length from seven feet to three—the hurler might move pretty much as he pleased, permitting him a wide-angle crossfire or even a running start, as in cricket bowling. Third, he could record outs on one-bounce catches until 1864, on one-bounce fouls until 1883, and on foul tips at any point in the count until 1888; uncaught fouls were not to register as strikes until the next century. Fourth, even though the batter’s high-low option narrowed the strike zone and thus gave him an edge, a walk was awarded on nine misfires prior to 1876, and that number was not reduced to the current four until 1889. And fifth, once Creighton snapped his wrist, it was only a matter of time before the other spinning pitches—notably the curve, but also the drop (sinker), the rise, the in-shoot (screwball), and spitter—were invented.
The many claimants to creation of the curveball include Candy Cummings, Fred Goldsmith, Deacon White, Tommy Bond, Bobby Mathews, and college pitchers Charles Hammond Avery and Joseph McElroy Mann. The spitter is attributed to Bobby Mathews, but surely his version dropped less spectacularly than the reinvented wet one thrown most notably by Jack Chesbro and Ed Walsh.
The prohibition against the wrist snap and the throw (or bent-elbow delivery) was only rarely observed by the late 1860s, so in 1872 Henry Chadwick proposed that the wrist snap be legalized, and it was. At the same time, the requirement that the pitcher’s arm swing perpendicular to the ground was relaxed so as to permit, in effect, a below-the-hips throw not unlike that of Joe McGinnity or Dan Quisenberry. By 1875, Hartford’s Tommy Bond was living at the edge of the rule by throwing low sidearm with tremendous speed, paving the way for the batting decline of the late 1870s and the frantic series of rule changes in the 1880s.
Before these pitching innovations came about, the baseball games of the 1860s typically featured 35 or more combined runs per game, with scores of 60-100 runs not unusual. Many of these were unearned because of general ineptitude in the field, greatly abetted by a rock-hard ball of incredible resiliency. One player of the period recalled in later years that the ball was so lively that, if dropped from the top of a two-story building, it would rebound nearly all the way back up. Low-scoring games were such a rarity that the annual guides would feature a list of “model games,” defined as those in which the teams combined for fewer than ten runs.
In addition to the different pitching techniques, the late 1860s brought the famous dead ball and with it a sudden rush of low-scoring contests characterized by comparatively dazzling fielding. The fans and sportswriters were overjoyed with the new “artistic” game, at last a worthy rival to cricket. In a famous game of July 23, 1870, Rynie Wolters of the New York Mutuals shut out the “braggart” Chicago White Stockings; this whipping gave rise to the term Chicagoed, meaning shut out. (Prior to that game a few shutouts had been recorded—the first authenticated one, pitched by Creighton, on November 8, 1860—but never against so formidable a foe.)
On May 10, 1875, Chicago fell victim to Joe Blong of St. Louis in baseball’s first 1-0 game and to Boston’s Joe Borden in history’s first no-hitter on July 28 of the same year.
The opening season, 1871, of the National Association, baseball’s first professional league, produced six shutouts. Only five years later, the National League’s inaugural schedule of seventy games featured a whopping sixteen shutouts by St. Louis’ Grin Bradley alone.
THE RISE OF THE MAJORS: 1876-1900
Baseballs were now being manufactured in mass, with deplorable quality control: The dead ball was, by midgame, often the mush ball. The fans no longer considered low scores so remarkable. National League batting averages declined every year from 1877 to 1880, falling from .271 to an alarming .245. The number of strikeouts nearly tripled as pitchers perfected the curves and slants introduced only a decade before. The league ERA was 2.37. The fledgling circuit, which in those years included franchises in such marginal sites as Troy, Syracuse, Worcester, and Providence, was losing money and in big trouble.
To the rescue came Harry Wright, the organizer of the Cincinnati Red Stockings and “Father of Professional Baseball.” He perceived the threat as early as 1877 when, in the Boston Red Stockings’ final exhibition contest, he had the pitcher’s box moved back 5 feet. The following year, in a September exhibition contest against Indianapolis, he arranged for the game to be played with: a walk awarded on six balls rather than the nine that then prevailed; every pitch counting as either a strike or a ball, thus eliminating the “warning” call an umpire made when a batter watched a good pitch sail by; and complete elimination of restrictions on a pitcher’s delivery—he might throw any way he wished. In the winter prior to the 1880 season, Wright proposed a flat bat and a cork-centered lively ball. And in December 1882, by which time most of the above proposals had been tried and some instituted—the front of the pitcher’s box at 50 feet, the abolition of warning pitches, the walk awarded on seven balls, soon to be six—he proposed denying the batter the right to call for a high or low pitch and, most dramatically, a pitcher’s box of 56 feet—very much the pitching distance of today. (The pitching distance at that time was measured from home plate to the front of the box, or true point of delivery, while today’s distance is measured from the plate to the rubber, from which the pitcher’s front foot strides some 4 to 4.5 feet forward.)
Hitting revived briskly in 1881, the first year of the new 50-foot pitching distance, but soon slid back again. The rule makers continued their tinkering with the ball/strike count (raising the strike count to four for 1887–in effect raising it to former levels, since the old warning pitch had prevailed until 1880 and was granted with two strikes until 1881–and lowering the ball count to four by 1889); the length of the pitcher’s box (from 7 feet to 6 feet to, in the final adjustment before replacement by the rubber, 5.5 feet); the pitcher’s windup (banning the running start and, for 1885, the raised-leg windup); and, most important, the delivery itself.
Once Tommy Bond began to raise his sidearm delivery slightly above the waist in the mid-1870s, it was only a matter of time before “anything goes” became the standard. Pitchers’ motions were creeping up to a three-quarters, “from the shoulder” style in the early 1880s, and despite a few warnings, many balks, and even a few forfeits, the practice was well in place before the rule that permitted it in 1883. In 1884 the National League removed all restrictions from pitchers, permitting a full overhand delivery that benefited primarily Charlie Sweeney of Providence, whose record of nineteen strikeouts in a game was not surpassed until Roger Clemens struck out twenty 102 years later. The American Association, the rival major league of the day, held to the from-the-shoulder rule until a June 7 meeting in 1885.
In 1887 the rule makers granted the most controversial capitulation to the hitters: not only were four strikes allowed against only five balls (although, to be fair, the division of the strike zone into high and low regions was eliminated), but walks were to be counted as hits. The resulting proliferation of .400 batting averages was broadly ridiculed, and in 1888 an out was again based on three strikes, walks resumed their previous status—and batting averages resumed their decline, dropping a whopping thirty points in the National League and thirty-five in the American Association as strikeouts increased dramatically.
The slide in batting performance was finally arrested in 1893 by adoption, one decade after its proposal by Harry Wright, of an effective pitching distance of 56 feet. The box was eliminated in favor of a slab placed 60 feet 6 inches from home (rejected was a proposal that the pitcher’s position be midway between home and first, or about 63 feet 7 inches from home). Writers ever since have attributed the explosion of hitting in the mid-1890s to the ten-foot increase in the pitching distance, but in fact it was only a five-foot increase: The box of 1892 was 5.5 feet long, and the distance to home plate of 50 feet was measured from the front of the box; moreover, since 1887 the pitcher had to have his back foot in contact with the back line of the box. The old chestnut about the 60-foot 6-inch pitching distance being the result of a surveyor’s error in reading a blueprint has no basis in fact: The rule makers simply moved the pitching distance back five feet, just as they had done in 1881.
The hitting explosion produced, at its zenith in 1894, a league ERA of 5.32, a team batting average of .349 (for the fourth-place Phillies), and nearly twice as many walks as strikeouts. That such a boost could have been anticipated was demonstrated by a little-known experiment in the Players League of 1890. In its attempt to win fan favor through increased scoring, the rival major league moved its pitching box back 1.5 feet and, with the addition of a new lively ball, produced a batting average twenty points higher than those in the two established major leagues.
The 1890s were a hitter’s heyday. Pitchers throwing breaking pitches at the new distance tired more quickly than their predecessors of the 1880s had; staffs now typically featured three and sometimes four starters where two had sufficed in the 1880s and one had been enough in the 1870s. The pitcher’s craft was advancing, but refinement created a new level of physical exertion. The curveball of the 1890s was no longer the roundhouse or schoolboy curve that featured only a lateral break, and the better pitchers had learned to throw a slow ball (change-up) with the same motion as the fast one, making it just as taxing on the arm. Hoss Radbourn threw for 679 innings in 1884, but he would not have been able to do it in 1894, when no pitcher exceeded 450 innings.
In 1895 the bat was widened to 2.75 inches in diameter, and the foul tip (nicked backwards) was for the first time ruled a strike. As the former change benefited the batter and the latter the pitcher, the balance between offense and defense was maintained. The other notable new wrinkle of the 1890s was pitcher Clark Griffith’s introduction of the scuffed, or cut, ball; his practice was to bang the ball brazenly against his spikes. (In the 1920s, oddly, Griffith’s voice was one of the loudest against the spitball.) Griffith’s cut ball was significant primarily as a harbinger of the dead ball era to come, which might as aptly be termed the doctored ball era.
THE DEAD BALL ERA: 1901-19
Rule changes slowed in the 1890s—now was one of those anomalous times in major-league history when the battered pitchers needed a boost. And they drew considerable comfort from the ruling that the foul ball was a strike (NL, 1901; AL, 1903) and from the advent of such now illegal if not exactly defunct pitches as the spitball, shine ball, mud ball, emery ball, and cut ball as well as the legal knuckleball and forkball. In 1900, the National League batting average was .279, and walks exceeded strikeouts by 12 percent. One year later, the mark was .267, and strikeouts exceeded walks by 58 percent. Parallel figures mark the experience of the American League in the years surrounding its adoption of the foul strike.
A hitting famine took hold for the rest of the decade, with the grimmest year being 1908. Shutouts were common and extra-base hits scarce. Base stealing and the bunt were potent offensive weapons, but the home run was a freakish occurrence—more often than not, the league home run leader would have fewer than ten, and in 1908 the entire Chicago White Sox team, who contended for the pennant into the final week, had only three. The popularity of the game itself was not in jeopardy—indeed, 1908 may have provided baseball with its greatest pennant races in each league. Such pitchers as Christy Mathewson, Ed Walsh, Cy Young, and Walter Johnson had become heroes with stature equal to Ty Cobb, Nap Lajoie, and Honus Wagner. The game was fast, strategic, and exciting, and fans were delighted with the rivalry between the American and National leagues after a decade of NL domination. But the owners had long memories, and they worried what might happen if hitting did not pick up soon: the press had been grumbling about baseball becoming a dull duel between pitchers rather than a contest between teams.
So in midseason of 1910, the National League introduced the new cork-centered ball (developed for cricket in 1863, rejected by baseball in 1882). Both leagues agreed to its use in the World Series that year and during the regular 1911 season. The result was a mild boost in batting averages but a marked increase in extra-base hits—notably home runs—and run scoring. But was the cork-centered ball truly that much more lively than the rubber-centered ball of old? Did it have a higher coefficient of resiliency? In 1911, one oldtimer noted astutely:
It isn’t the cork center that makes the ball lively and causes so much hitting; it’s the fact that the pitchers find the ball too hard to curve with their former skill. You see, the cork center is so large that twine has to be wound more tightly than formerly and when the cover is sewed on the ball is like the one used in cricket. It is like wood and the pitchers in gripping it between the thumb and fingers find that the surface does not give. You can make a soft ball curve almost at will. Anybody who knows will admit that. But the hard ball, such as the big leagues are using now, is far different. The pitchers can’t get the old breaks and shoots, and as the ball necessarily cuts the plate straight and fast the good batsmen kill it. You’ll find that all the best pitchers are having trouble this year and most of them will tell you that the old curves are impossible. The ball used two years ago was just soft enough near the surface to permit a tight grip, and that meant plenty of effectiveness.
This observation applies equally well to later, still more lively versions of the baseball. The bane of pitchers is not the rabbit at the center of the ball, but the nature and tightness of the twine or wool that wraps around it, and the elevation of the stitching. The rest of the decade continued to be dominated by pitchers such as Russ Ford with his emery ball, Eddie Cicotte with his shine ball, and legions of pitchers with spitballs, Ed Walsh being paramount.
The cork-centered ball may have been more lively, but its joie de vivre was certainly diminished by the fifth inning or so, for in these days only two or three balls might carry the teams through an entire game.
By the mid-1920s—surely due in some measure to Ray Chapman’s fatal beaning—stained or mutilated balls were taken out of play; a batter could request a fresh baseball; and the teams no longer insisted upon the return of foul balls (sample figures: the NL of 1919 used 22,095 baseballs; in 1924 it used 54,030). And those foreign-substance pitches were banned. And Babe Ruth, who had sounded the death knell of the dead ball era when he hit 29 homers for the Red Sox in 1919, came to New York. And the lively ball, whose existence at any point in history is still denied by everyone connected with Organized Baseball, hit the American League. (What made the heart of the 1920 ball race was the use of Australian wool, unavailable during World War I, and the tighter winding made possible by new machinery. An official of the Reach Company, manufacturer of AL baseballs, later admitted that the winding would be periodically tightened or loosened as requested.)
THE RUTHIAN ERA: 1920-41
Daring the dead ball era, the National League batted over .270 only once and the American League only in its first two years as a major circuit, when pitching quality was marginal. Beginning in 1920, NL batters hit over .270 every year until 1933, and AL batters did so every year until 1941. From 1919 to 1921 alone, home runs doubled; by 1930, they had nearly doubled again. In 1919 the National League’s leading slugger, Hi Myers, had a slugging average of .436; in 1930, the entire league slugged at a .448 clip. In 1919 the National League had no .350 batters, the American League four; in 1930 they had twenty. Perhaps most incredible, the top-hitting team in the NL of 1919 was the second-place New York Giants, who batted .269; in 1930 the Phillies hit .315 and finished last as their shellshocked hurlers permitted 7.7 runs per game.
The Dark Age for pitching had set in: Pitchers found themselves short on ammunition and ideas, as they had in 1893—but now it would take them a long time, far longer than ever before or since, to resume their historic advantage.
Was the batting truly so awesome or the pitching so awful? Probably neither. This was an extraordinary period during which several forces combined to give the offense the sort of overwhelming superiority it had enjoyed in the mid-1890s. A whole generation of strongboys, their path illuminated by Ruth, was learning the joys of fencebusting. The push-and-poke attack, advancing runners one base at a time, went the way of the dodo almost overnight. And the pitchers, shorn of much of their arsenal, were caught unprepared for the new offensive—they simply fired those fastballs a bit faster and resignedly watched them rocket by their ears.
A fastball and a curve (the latter almost never thrown when behind in the count, except by the great ones) used to be enough to get by when the ball was dead and the outfielders could play shallow. Now the ball was, comparatively, a grenade, and every man in the lineup could hurt you—no more opportunities to pitch around strong batters and coast whenever you had a three-run lead. The plan of pacing oneself to go nine innings, a la Christy Mathewson, was becoming passe; relief pitchers were becoming respectable. Indeed, the advent of such relief specialists as Firpo Marberry, Mace Brown, and Johnny Murphy was the principal strategic innovation of the Ruthian era.
The great pitchers of the dead ball era were gone or, like Walter Johnson and Grover Alexander, in decline. Stars like Lefty Grove, Dizzy Dean, Dazzy Vance, and Bob Feller came along, but most of the pitchers of the twenties and thirties were pretty straightforward chuckers, daring the big boys to hit their best. Their stuff was probably no worse than that of the bulk of dead ball pitchers, but the consequence of their mistakes was far greater. New pitches? The slider may have been created in the mid-1920s by George Blaeholder of the Browns or Tommy Thomas of the White Sox, but its era of impact was yet to come. The knuckler o[ Dutch Leonard was not new, and its glory too was in the distance. The screwball of Carl Hubbell had of course been used by Mathewson (the fadeaway) and with less celebrated effect by a handful of nineteenth-century pitchers. Paul Richards, a great student of pitching and architect of the dazzling Orioles’ staffs of the 1950s and 1960s, once said:
Pitchers are much better than they used to be. The oldtimers only remember the outstanding ones. They forget about the soft touches who couldn’t hold a job today. Let’s go back to the 1930s, and that means we’re actually talking about the modem era. Most of the pitchers threw a fastball and a curve. That was it. There were some cute ones around, too, but they weren’t the stars. Even some of the stars had a curve that was nothing special and today they couldn’t make it with just the pitches they had.
When Richards spoke of cute ones, he may have had in mind Ted Lyons or Tommy Bridges. Some say Bridges had the best curve ever seen. And Richards’ curveless wonders might have included Red Ruffing, Dizzy Dean, and a bevy of other notables, including Hall of Famers.
But the pitchers’ debacle of this period cannot be blamed entirely on their penchant for meeting power with power. The ball was livened and deadened, league by league, as the owners scrambled to attract the scarce dollars of Depression era fans. The NL ball was juiced in 1921, one year later than in the AL, when senior circuit officials saw how the fans liked the home-run heroics of Babe Ruth in the rival league. Certainly it was inflated further for the bruising 1930 season, then deflated the following year as homers declined mysteriously from 892 to 492. By 1933 the National League’s ERA had come down by 33 percent; Carl Hubbell managed one of 1.66, a level not seen in either league since . . . 1919.
From 1931 to 1942, the American League was the hitters’ circuit. Its ERA reached a high of 5.04 in 1936 (the only time a league ERA has ever exceeded five runs except for 1894) and stayed over 4.00 every year from 1921 to 1941, barring a 3.99 mark in 1923. Yankee fans may have loved the carnage their batters in particular wrought, but these were not classic years in baseball history.
Nor in truth were the next four, but they laid the groundwork for the period many observers feel was the game’s greatest, the 1950s.
THE CLASSIC PERIOD: 1942-60
Baseball during World War II (1942-45) may have been inferior to that played immediately before and after, but the reason was not just the manpower shortage, which was not severe until 1944-45. The shortage of wartime materials forced baseball manufacturers to use an inferior grade of wool that produced a dramatically softer, deadened ball. Home runs in the American League, for example, plummeted from 883 in 1940 to 401 in 1946; league batting averages dipped below .250 for the first time since 1917, when another war for America had just commenced.
The marathon batting orgy of the twenties and thirties was over, and pitching seemed poised to reassert the dominance it had enjoyed in the early years of the century; even the return of stars like Williams, Musial, and DiMaggio from the service for the 1946 season failed to boost overall batting. But 1947 was a year of momentous change: Jackie Robinson broke the color line, television became a force. Of less obvious but more immediate impact, the ball was livened again. Home runs jumped by an incredible 62 percent, and, not surprisingly, complete games declined and saves increased (in the AL, by a whopping 45 percent). The fans loved it.
So the rule makers fanned the flame, lowering the strike zone in 1950 from the top of the shoulder to the armpit and raising it from the bottom of the knee to the top—the first mandated change in this area since 1887. As a result, home runs soared again, to a new high—but oddly, so did strikeouts. The die was cast for the rest of the decade: batters would swing from the heels, forsaking batting average for power, and pitchers—many of them newly armed with the slider, or “nickel curve,” as Cy Young disparagingly termed it—would keep them off balance. The strikeout-to-walk ratio, which had been roughly 1:1 since the introduction of the lively ball in 1920, was nearing the 2:1 (and higher) ratio of the 1960s. Despite the plentiful home run (in 1954, National League teams averaged 158 homers, the game’s highwater mark until 1986 when American League teams averaged 164 four-baggers), batting averages and bases on balls declined, testifying to the advancing skill of the pitchers and the managers who discovered the bullpen. The scoring level in 1960 was lower than that in 1950, and batting was already on its downhill slide to the vanishing point of 1968: the year of the pitcher.
THE EXPANSION ERA: 1961-
Only Commissioner Ford Frick did not know it. He saw the prodigious slugging in the American League’s expansion year of 1961: Colavito, Gentile, Killebrew, Cash, Mantle, and Maris plus a Yankees’ team that hit 240 homers. He was particularly irked that a low-average hitter like Maris could break the cherished home run mark of Babe Ruth. After the National League’s expansion and increased run production in the following year, he said: “I would even like the spitball to come back. Take a look at the batting, home run, and slugging record for recent seasons, and you become convinced that the pitchers need help urgently.” He saw fit to rescue them by restoring the old strike zone that had been reduced in 1950.
Whoops! Strikeouts rose, walks declined; batting averages fell to the mid-.240s in both leagues, reaching the lowest combined level since 1908, and the woeful New York Mets batted .219, the lowest in NL annals since 1908. The batters were in disarray, and in the seasons that followed they would scurry into full retreat. Young strikeout artists—Gibson, Marichal, Koufax, McDowell, Chance, McLain, and others—dominated. New stadiums favoring pitchers, such as Shea, Busch, and Dodger stadiums, replaced older parks that were hitters’ havens—the Polo Grounds, Sportsman’s Park, the Coliseum. The forkball and the knuckler, two pitches that had been around for generations, were revived with devastating effect; every kid pitcher seemed to hit the big time with a slider in addition to his curve and fastball, and such firemen as Larry Sherry, Roy Face, Ron Perranoski, Lindy McDaniel, and Dick Radatz had years when they seemed unhittable.
Baseball officials were becoming concerned that the grand old game appeared stodgy to fans of the sixties, that professional football was capturing the hearts and minds of America. The events of 1968 helped convince them. In the National League Bob Gibson had an ERA of 1.12, including thirteen shutouts. The American League had a batting champion who hit .301, surpassing his nearest rival by eleven points; five pitchers with ERAs under 2.00, with one of them, Denny McLain, winning thirty-one games; a league batting average of .230, with the once proud Yankees hitting .214. Paul Richards recommended setting the pitching distance back another 5 feet, to 65 feet, 6 inches.
This was rejected, but the remedies of 1969 were almost as radical. The strike zone was reduced again, to the region of 1950-62. The mound was lowered to a maximum height of 10 inches from the 15 inches that had prevailed since 1903. In all likelihood, the ball was juiced again. Scoring was boosted by about 15 percent in each league, and homers (adjusted for the expansion to twelve-team circuits) jumped by about 30 percent. The lowered mound flattened out wicked curveballs and sliders and took the hop off all but the elite of fastballs. The strike zone change was of little significance in itself, but at about this time, without an explicit rule change, the top of the strike zone mysteriously came down not from the shoulders to the letters but to the midriff. By 1987 the high strike would become defined in practice as anything above the belt buckle.
These innovations resuscitated hitting for a while. Whereas in 1968 there had been only six .300 hitters, 1969 produced eighteen; where 1968 saw only three men with 100 RBIs, 1969 brought fourteen; the number of forty-plus home-run hitters rose from one to seven. But by 1972 the pitchers had adjusted, and batting in both leagues slid back to near-1968 levels. In the American League particularly, the situation was grim: home runs (on a team-average basis) hit their lowest level since 1949 and batting averages dipped below .240 yet again.
The response this time was the designated hitter. It produced a tilt back toward the batters, inasmuch as pitchers now had to face nine true batters rather than eight. (How remarkable an achievement was Nolan Ryan’s strikeout record of 383 that season. If he had faced pitchers in the nine-hole of the lineup, he might have added sixty more Ks.) Not only did the d.h. produce more scoring, it also produced more complete games, as managers no longer needed to pinch-hit for a starter who trailed in a low-scoring game. This tendency, however, was short-lived: AL pitchers completed 33.5 percent of their starts in 1974, but only 15.7 percent a decade later (although this was still higher than the 11.6 percent figure for the NL).
Strangely, hitting perked up in the National League at about the same time, without benefit of the d.h. Could the new cowhide ball, manufactured in Haiti, have had something to do with it? Or was it the incredible shrinking strike zone? (Consider how sharp today’s pitchers must be in comparison to their mates of, say, the 1920s, when the strike zone printed in the rule book corresponded to the strike zone during the game.) In any event, the pitcher/batter war seemed a standoff in the late seventies and early eighties, as batters fattened up on the new flock of breaking-ball cuties while older hard-stuff stars like Seaver, Palmer, Carlton, and Ryan continued to shine. Some of the newcomers—Soto, Guidry, Richard, Morris, Valenzuela—threw hard and made their marks, but the general opinion in baseball was that if the fastball was the pitch of the sixties and the slider the pitch of the seventies, the mixed bag of curve and change, cut fastball and split-finger fastball, would dominate the eighties. Then along came Dwight Gooden and Roger Clemens and Mark Langston, and we stopped hearing about the death of the fastball.
Nonetheless, the split-finger fastball was the sensation of the 1986 season. Popularized by relief pitcher Bruce Sutter in the early eighties, it had been invented back in 1908 by Bert Hall, who called it a forkball, and later was employed by Tiny Bonham, Roy Face, and Lindy McDaniel. For all of them it served as a dry spitter, an offspeed sinker that batters would beat into the ground or, in the case of Sutter, who threw it harder than the others, fan on. The gospel of the split-finger fastball was spread in the 1980s by Roger Craig when he was pitching coach of the Detroit Tigers, whose staff fell in love with the pitch.
It seems anyone whose fingers were long enough to throw the pitch added it to his repertoire. But one of Craig’s disciples, Mike Scott of the Houston Astros, threw it harder than anyone and transformed it, in 1986, from a freakish change-up to the greatest menace batters had faced since the hard sliders of Lyle, Guidry, and Carlton a decade earlier. The pitch thrown by Sutter had a bit of a screwball tail to it, but its primary trait was its drop; Scott’s split-finger pitch sailed and swooped unpredictably at some 85 m.p.h.—and sunk, too.
In the second half of 1986, carrying over to the National League Championship Series, Scott’s pitch was as nearly unhittable as any ever seen on a diamond—as discouraging as Ryan’s fastball, Carlton’s slider, Koufax’s curve, Wilhelm’s knuckler, Walsh’s spitter, Creighton’s blue darter. Was this the end for the batter? Of course not; he would adjust, even if it would take a little help from his friends.
Offenses revived in the mid-1990s and home runs proliferated. And then the pitchers came up with something new.
If you love palindromes—words or sentences that read the same forwards or backwards—then you know the granddaddy of them all: a man, a plan, a canal, Panama! This week the man of the palindrome will be Mariano Rivera, the New York Yankees relief pitcher recently retired as the all-time leader in saves. The plan will be to honor him as his former club and the Miami Marlins play a two-game set at Panama City’s Rod Carew Stadium on March 15 and 16. The canal will of course be the Panama Canal, marking its centennial year of operation. And Panama—well, that’s a baseball story that goes back farther than one might imagine, to even before Panama was a nation.
In tandem with Panama’s independence from Colombia in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt crafted a treaty that gave America the right to build the canal and create a Canal Zone, about five miles wide on either side of the cross-isthmus waterway. (The Canal Zone was, until 1979, American territory; in this century it has been wholly Panamanian.) Construction of the waterway began a year later. Among the American imports was baseball—or at least that is the way the story has long been told. Colonel George Goethals, when not directing the canal’s construction, served as president of the Isthmian Baseball League. Thomas Graham Grier wrote in 1908:
There is a baseball league on the Canal Zone, consisting of seven teams, and good baseball is played, and people get just as excited and interested as we do over baseball in the States. A baseball park is at the rear of the Tivoli Hotel. If you are a guest, and have a room on the third floor, it is easy to obtain a very good view.
As it turns out, baseball had been played in Panama as far back as 1883, when the future nation was still a province of Colombia. Panama’s Daily Star and Herald of January 9, 1883 described a baseball game played in Chiriqui Plaza two days before, between a team from Chiriqui Province and members of the Panama Cricket and Baseball Club. The contest was won by the latter, largely West Indian workers brought in for that period’s French-managed canal construction.
However, baseball’s history in Panama may go back to so distant a time that its rules were not yet standardized in its home country. Panamanian historian Ramon G. Pérez Medina, in his book Historia del Béisbol Panameño, writes that the game was first played here in the mid-1850s by American traders and men affiliated with the Panama Railroad Company.
Major League Baseball clubs had investigated the Canal Zone as a possible spring training site as early as 1916. The Giants and Yankees rejected a specific offer made to them, deeming the park facilities inadequate. But baseball continued to be played in Panama by its nationals and in the Canal Zone by the Americans. During World War II major leaguers on Armed Services teams played ball in the Zone (Mickey Harris of the Boston Red Sox threw a no-hitter there in 1942). Prior to spring training in February 1946, some Yankees who were returned servicemen had gone to the team’s spring camp in St. Petersburg, Florida directly from Panama.
The Yankees scheduled 11 games in Panama in 1946 and played against a team of Panamanian all-stars in the Canal Zone city of Balboa before an estimated crowd of 10,000. The Yanks returned for more in 1947, playing exhibition games against the Brooklyn Dodgers, who featured a rookie named Jackie Robinson, still nominally on the roster of their top club, the Montreal Royals. Panamanian Héctor López, who would go onto play with the Kansas City A’s and then the Yanks, said, “The Yankees and Dodgers came down to Panama for spring training [in March 1947]. After watching them, that’s when I really started thinking about playing professionally.”
The color line had been a barrier for Panamanian players, but some had joined clubs in the American Negro Leagues. Among these were Léon Kellman, Frank “Pee-Wee” Austin, Archie Braithwaite, Clyde Parris, and Pat Scantlebury. Of those mentioned, only Scantlebury reached the big leagues, at the age of 38 as a pitcher with the Cincinnati Reds.
By 1945 the Professional Baseball League of Panama had been organized, growing strong enough to become one of the four key national groups that formed the Caribbean Series, first played in Havana, Cuba in 1949. That year Panama was represented by Spur Cola’s Refresqueros.
In the following year Panama sent its league champions to the Caribbean Series—this time held in San Juan, Puerto Rico— the same players as in ’49 but renamed for a new sponsor. The team was called Los Licoreros de Carta Vieja, after a brand of rum produced in Panama. The Carta Vieja club won the Series, the only time Panama did so.
The first Panamanian in MLB has sometimes been identified as Héctor López, other times as Pat Scantlebury. But the first, truly, was pitcher Humberto Robinson, who debuted with the Milwaukee Braves on April 20, 1955 (López came next, on May 12). Including the four major leaguers who were born in the Canal Zone, Panama has sent a total of 53 players to the U.S. majors. These include four who are currently on MLB 40-man rosters: Ruben Tejada, Christian Betancourt, Randall Delgado, and Carlos Ruiz.
Panama’s lone Hall of Famer to date has been Rod Carew. But this weekend’s honoree—Mariano Rivera—is, to use a canal term, a lock.
Perspective is everything. The first peoples of America did not think that Christopher Columbus discovered it or them. Likewise for Australia, to which Americans think Albert Goodwill Spalding and his band of ball-playing tourists brought baseball in 1888–89. The Spalding Tour was undoubtedly important to the future of the game in Australia, as Columbus was to all that followed in his wake. But baseball had already arrived Down Under.
Baseball in Australia has come a long way, and now Major League Baseball has come a long way to open its season there. On March 22–23, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks will be staging their Opening Day games at the historic Sydney Cricket Ground—the same venue where, 125 years ago, Spalding’s Chicago White Stockings played three games against the All Americas, top-flight opponents (including three future Hall of Famers) selected for the voyage.
Also like America, Australian baseball has a creation myth with little or no basis in fact. The Aussie equivalent of Abner Doubleday and his Cooperstown pals of 1839 would be a bunch of expat miners playing baseball in the goldfields of Ballarat 1857. There’s no point in burying Abner Doubleday again, although he has proven to be a lively corpse. But the Ballarat tale is preceded by evidence two years earlier, in the Colonial Times [Hobart] of September 22, 1855:
Sabbath Desecration. – A correspondent requests us to call attention to the practice of a number of boys and young men, who congregate in Mr. Wilkinson’s paddock, near Patrick and Murray Streets, on Sunday afternoons, for playing at cricket, base-ball, &c., making a great noise, and offending the eyes and ears of persons of moral and religious feeling.
Far from the goldfields where Americans tended to congregate, Hobart is on the northern coast of the island that since 1856 has been known as Tasmania. And interestingly, like most of the many recent finds of baseball in the U.S. before Doubleday, this first Australian mention of baseball comes in the form of a complaint, of the sort that generally leads to a prohibition.
Australia’s first recorded game, as reported in Bell’s Life, was a February 28, 1857 three-inning match between Collingwood and Richmond. Though named “baseball,” it was a hybrid game in which it seems a run was recorded for each base secured. The final score: Collingwood 350, Richmond 230. Another significant report of baseball play (labeled the “first trial in the colonies”) survives in Melbourne’s Argus of June 5, 1869:
The first match of the Baseball Club will be played on the old Lonsdale Cricket ground, near the Botanical-gardens-bridge, at half-past two o’clock this afternoon. This game is as popular in America as cricket is here, and as to-day will witness its first trial in the colonies it will no doubt prove attractive to lovers of out-door sports.
Another baseball club was formed in Sydney in 1878. On June 17 the Argus reported: “The Base-ball Club formed here opened successfully at Moore-park on Saturday.” A month later the Gippsland Times reported the formation of another Sydney club: “The New South Wales base ball club has fairly started; practice matches have commenced.”
But the most important early Australian baseball club was the St. Kilda. On May 12, 1879, three days after an organizational meeting at Jewett’s Hotel in Clyde Street, the club conducted its first intramural game:
The first practice of the St. Kilda Base Ball Club took place on Saturday, on their ground, at the corner of Chapel and Argyle streets. After a little desultory practice sides were chosen and a scratch match played, the teams being captained by Messrs Jewett and Campbell. It resulted in an easy victory for Campbell’s side, by 16 runs to 3.
By the following month the St Kilda BBC was ready to square off against a team of American performers, the Georgia Minstrels, comprised of ex-slaves who could play both music and baseball. Almost a decade before Spalding’s Tourists, the Argus reported: “The deciding game between the St. Kilda Base Ball Club and Georgia Minstrels will be played on St. Kilda Cricket Ground, this afternoon, at 2 o’clock sharp. As each club has won a game, an exciting contest is expected.” As a sidelight, the year 1879 also marked the first appearance of an African American in MLB: William Edward White with the Providence Greys.
Now to Spalding’s Australian Tour—for that was how the expedition was billed on its departure from San Francisco on November 11, 1888. Only on board the steamship Alameda did Spalding reveal to his passengers that he intended to head west from Australia, transforming the trip into a World Tour with stops in Asia, Africa, and Europe.
When the teams arrived in Sydney harbor on December 14, 1888—after a one-game stopover at Auckland—a flotilla draped in red, white, and blue sailed out to meet them. A large crowd at Woolloomooloo wharf cheered the tourists. On the next day, Spalding’s “baseballers”—as they were labeled in the local press—played their first game in Australia, reportedly drawing 5,500 curious spectators. After two more games in Sydney, the troupe traveled by rail to Melbourne.
Thanks to a Spalding advance man, the teams were greeted at Spencer Street Station by 500 flag-waving fans. They played two games at Melbourne Cricket Ground, on December 22–23, then three at Adelaide Oval, one at Ballarat’s Eastern Oval and, finally, another two in Melbourne at the turn of the New Year. Spalding’s World Tourists then steamed off for Colombo in today’s Sri Lanka, where they played their next game on January 26, 1889.
Spalding left behind his young aide Harry Simpson, charged with capitalizing on the trip by forming baseball clubs for the Victoria Baseball League of 1890—including the Metropolitan, Melbourne, Ferguson, Fitzroy, Victoria, and Richmond—as well as these clubs in the South Australian League: North Adelaide, Post and Telegraph, Norwood, Goodwood, and Kent Town. Simpson also travelled to New Zealand to promote baseball. Simpson died of typhus in September 1891, after setting up the New South Wales Baseball League. He was inducted into the Baseball Australia Hall of Fame in its inaugural class of 2005.
In 1897 players from Victoria and South Australia made a somewhat slapdash tour of the United States, winning eight games and losing fourteen. A highlight occurred on June 21, when the Aussies challenged a team of old-time Boston players, including the now rotund Spalding. Henry Chadwick threw out the first ball and officially scored the contest. Despite the additional draw of Princeton Professor Charles Hinton and his new mechanical pitching machine, only about 500 fans attended. Hinton’s “cannon” pitched the last two innings against Australia. According to the Boston Globe, the first pitch “appeared so suddenly that the batsman ducked, the catcher made a wild leap to one side while the ball sailed directly over the plate and up against the backstop with a resounding crack.” After the game, George Wright organized a banquet in the visitors’ honor.
On New Year’s Day 1914, two American teams returned to Australia—nominally the New York Giants and Chicago White Sox, but also including many players from other major league teams, such as Buck Weaver, Tris Speaker, Sam Crawford, Germany Schaefer, Fred Merkle, and Jim Thorpe. Following games in Tokyo, Shanghai, and Manila, the teams played their first game in Australia on the very day they landed at Brisbane. Their last contest was on the 8th, in Melbourne, with two dates in Sydney in between; one of these, on January 3, drew 10,000 spectators.
These visits—along with two more in the late 1920s by, respectively, the Stanford and Multnomah Athletic Association nines—spurred interest in the game, which had continued in Australia all along but without the rising popularity of, say, Australian Rules Football, let alone cricket. The concept for Australia’s first national competition—known as the Claxton Shield—emerged in 1934 as the idea of all-around athlete Norm Claxton, who was also president of the South Australian Baseball League. The shield would be awarded annually to the winner of the annual interstate series between New South Wales, South Australia, and Victoria; the first to win the shield three times in a row would keep it. In something of an upset, former laggard South Australia captured the shield in the competition’s first year, and then again in 1935 and 1936.
It was then decided to award the shield annually. Except for the war years, the Claxton Shield was played annually until the Australian Baseball League (ABL) superseded State competition in 1989–90. The original eight-team ABL competition permitted up to four American minor league players per team and lasted ten years. The Claxton Shield reemerged briefly, but baseball languished despite a high point in 2004, when at the Athens Olympics Australia took the silver medal to Cuba’s gold.
In 2009 Major League Baseball and the Australian Baseball Federation (ABF) announced they were resurrecting the national baseball league. The new ABL would be jointly owned by MLB (75 percent) and ABF (25 percent). The six-team league features homegrown talent, including professionals who compete in North America and Asia, and many players who hail from outside Australia. The league’s 40-game season runs from November through January.
The ABL not only revived a strong baseball following in Australia but also provided a launch pad for young Australian talent and international players in their U.S. offseason. Of Australia’s 28-man roster for the 2013 World Baseball Classic (WBC), 21 competed in the ABL during the Australian summer.
The Australian National Baseball Team has participated in all three installments of the WBC, in 2006, 2009, and 2013. The club has been managed by Jon Deeble, the Pacific Rim Scouting Coordinator of the Boston Red Sox. In their opening game in 2009, Team Australia defeated Mexico 17–7 and set a new tournament record for hits in a game with 22, including four home runs. Australia currently has 57 players under contract with MLB organizations.
Over the years 28 Australians have played in MLB, 20 of them pitchers. The first was Joe Quinn, born in Sydney in 1864, who started his 17-year big-league career in 1884 with St. Louis of the Union Association. Playing mostly second base, he went on to play for five clubs in the National League and, in his final year in the majors, with Washington of the new American League. He also managed St. Louis in 1895 and Cleveland in 1899.
It took more than a century from Quinn’s debut until another Aussie reached the majors—infielder Craig Shipley, born in Parramatta. Among the five clubs for whom he played over his 11 years in the majors, one was the Dodgers, whom Australian fans will see this month. Today he represents their opponents, the Diamondbacks, as an assistant to general manager Kevin Towers.
Other Australian-born players of note and longevity include relief pitcher Grant Balfour, newly installed as the closer for Tampa Bay, and Graeme Lloyd, who pitched for several clubs in middle relief, most notably with the New York Yankees. Dave Nilsson of Queensland enjoyed eight highly productive years with the Milwaukee Brewers, including an All-Star Game selection in 1999. In 1987, while still in Australia, the 17-year-old won the Helms Award / Ron Sharpe Medal as the Most Valuable Player in the Australian Baseball League.
Did you know that slugging average is older than the batting average, and was tossed aside in favor of it? And if so, do you know why? I did not, until I came upon Henry Chadwick’s “The True Test of Batting,” in The Ball Players’ Chronicle of September 19, 1867. (I was rummaging through old newspapers, looking for something else in another early baseball weekly; more on that soon.) Chadwick’s article is a genuine crossroads in the history of baseball statistics.
Bases on balls were still uncommon events, having been introduced for the 1864 season, and no one thought of them as batters’ achievements, nor would they for decades to come. So the need for an on base average was not evident. Chadwick had already posited a primitive version of the slugging percentage, with total bases divided by number of games; change the denominator from games to at bats and you have today’s slugging percentage—which, incidentally, was not accepted by the National League as an official statistic until 1923 and the American until 1946. Chadwick’s “total bases average” represented the game’s first attempt at a weighted average—a huge conceptual leap forward from, first, counting, and next, averaging. The weighted average is in fact the cornerstone of today’s statistical innovations.
Chadwick’s bias against the long ball was in large measure responsible for the game that evolved. What he valued most in the early days was the low scoring game marked by brilliant fielding. In the early annual guides, he listed all the “notable” games between significant teams—i.e., those in which the winner scored fewer than ten runs!
What I did not recognize until now was that the triumph of the batting average was not merely a product of Chadwick’s preference for the scientific style over the brutish slugging. It was his recognition that most runs were scored through some combination of errors (muffs), which were easily counted, and misplays, which were not. In the 1860s a single might easily become a tainted extra-base hit, indistinguishable in the box score from a legitimate one. So in discarding the old practice of crediting batters with only Outs (hit into or run into) and Runs, Chadwick held—and correctly, given the state of the early game—that times reached base on undeniably safe hits was a superior measure to the bases gathered on that hit. Here is his reasoning, with spelling unaltered but paragraph breaks added to what appeared originally as a single block of text.
The True Test of Batting
Up to the present year, and, in fact, up to the inaugural number of The Chronicle, the only recorded test of the skill of a batsman in a match was the number of outs and runs in the score of the game. In The Chronicle, however, the plan of estimating the batting by the number of times a batsman made his base by clean hits was introduced, and now this plan, varied by taking in the number of bases secured on hits, has become general, all the daily press reporting the game having accepted it.
Our plan of adding to the score of outs and runs the number of times—not the number of bases—bases are made on clean hits will be found the only fair and correct test of batting; and the reason is, that there can be no mistake about the question of a batsman’s making his first base, that is, whether by effective batting, or by errors in the field, such as muffing a ball, dropping a fly ball, or throwing badly to the bases, whereas a man may reach his second or third base, or even get home, through errors of judgment in the out-field in throwing the ball to the wrong man, or in not properly estimating the height of the ball, &c—errors which do not come under the same category as those by which a batsman makes his first base.
For instance, the first striker goes to the bat, and, by a sharp ground hit between short stop and third base, out of reach of both those fielders, easily secures his first. The second striker hits a ball, which is easily fielded by the short stop, and were he to throw it to first, the second striker would easily be put out, but as the point is to send it to second, to cut off the player forced from the first, striker No. 2 gets his first, not from his good hit, but from the ball having to go to second first.
Striker 3 now comes to the bat, and sends a high ball to third base, and the ball is dropped, whereupon B, the second striker, makes his second, and C, the third striker, his first. D now takes the bat, and, hitting a high ball to centre field, which ball gives a chance for a catch, runs for his second, sending C and B before him; the ball being badly judged, and, when fielded, thrown in badly, D runs for his third, and, without stopping, he risks a home run, and gets his run from another high ball.
Now, how stands the record of this play as ordinarily scored ? Why simply as follows: The man who made the best hit of the four strikers is put out at second by the poor batting of his successor, while B and C, who made their bases by poor batting, arc credited with one base each, while D gets four bases through the lack of skill of the out-fielder in judging a high ball, the result of the play being a credit for seven bases on hits and three runs, when, by a just estimate, only one man made his base by a hit, and he was the only one put out.
Now, this is the average result of the batting score in a match game. But again, in estimating bases on hits, any scorer will find that it is quite a difficult task to sift the chaff from the wheat after the first base has been made; that is, he will find that the second and third bases are made more by lack of judgment in the outer fielding, and by errors of play which are not exactly “muffs,” viz., balls handled but not stopped or picked up neatly, overthrows or miscatches; while in the in-field these errors seldom occur, the ball, generally speaking, cither being palpably muffed, thrown wildly, or not held when touched on the fly. In the scores the number of bases made on hits should be, of course, estimated, but as a general thing, and especially in recording the figures by the side of the outs and runs, the only estimate should be that of the number of times in a game on which bases arc made on clean hits, and not the number of bases made.
Chadwick prevailed, and Hits Per Game became the criterion for the Clipper batting championship and remained so until 1876, when the problem with using games as the denominator in the ratio at last became clear. If a team played several weak rivals who committed many errors, the number of at bats for each individual in the superior team’s lineup would increase. The more at bats one is granted in a game, the more hits one is likely to have. The batting average used in the 1860s is the same as that used today except in its denominator, with at bats replacing games. The suggestion for that may be credited to Hervie Alden Dobson’s letter to the Clipper of March 11, 1871.
The batting average, of course, makes no distinction between the single, the double, the triple, and the home run, treating all as the same unit—a base hit—just as its prototype, Runs Per Game, treated the run as its unvarying, indivisible unit. This objection was met in the 1860s with Chadwick’s Total Bases Average (per game), but, as one reads above, was rejected. Looking at some other data, Chadwick’s choice now seems more reasonable, less idiosyncratic.
In 1871, the first year of professional play and a mere four seasons after Chadwick’s article, only 41 percent of runs scored were earned. The fielding percentage of the National Association clubs was .833. (In 2012 the MLB fielding percentage was .983.) The number of errors per game in 1871 was 7.6 and the runs scored per game was 10.47. And these figures were for the best clubs in the country; Chadwick made his choice of batting average as the “true test of batting” while considering hundreds if not thousands of clubs in 1867, professional and amateur.
The number of runs scored per game has been remarkably consistent throughout baseball history. Here’s a chart I developed a few years back.
1871: 7.61 per game
1911: 3.66 per game
1961: 1.82 per game
2005: 1.22 per game
1871: 10.47 per game
1911: 9.03 per game
1961: 9.05 per game
2005: 9.18 per game
In effect, the relentless increase in home runs, doubles, strikeouts, and walks have balanced the decrease in errors and triples. Baseball is a game of delicate balance, and at the outset Father Chadwick was sensitive to its nature.
This is a guest column by David Block. While filming the Major League Baseball documentary “Base Ball Discovered” in England, he and director Sam Marchiano met Tricia St. John Barry, who responded to a BBC piece on the film crew being in country, looking at the roots of baseball. (For more about that film, see: http://goo.gl/5M9h9P.) She claimed to possess a volume of a previously unknown William Bray diary that contained one of the earliest-known references — and at that time the oldest extant original reference–to baseball. Until the MLB.com crew met her, the only known Bray diary volumes were held by Surrey History Centre, and dated from 1756-1832. The newly discovered journal, which covers Bray’s life from 1754-1755, contains this entry from Easter Monday, March 31st, 1755: “Went to Stoke church this morn.- After dinner, went to Miss Jeale’s to play at base ball with her the 3 Miss Whiteheads, Miss Billinghurst, Miss Molly Flutter, Mr. Chandler, Mr. Ford and H. Parsons. Drank tea and stayed til 8.”
Block’s landmark book on the subject, Baseball Before We Knew It: A Search for the Roots of the Game, was the recipient of the 2006 SABR Seymour Medal, the 2006 NASSH award, and was named to the New York Times Reading List of sports books for 2005. David serves on MLB’s Origins Committee as well as on the editorial board of Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game, in which this article appeared in the Fall of 2007.
The Story of William Bray’s Diary
During the course of my recent trip to England, I had the pleasure of tagging along for several days with a video production team from MLB.com, which was over there collecting footage for a documentary film on the origins of baseball. I was serving as the project’s unofficial historian-in-tow, traveling through southern England with the filmmakers as they captured video images of various old bat-and-ball games that comprise baseball’s family tree.
One morning, as we drove away from a village in Kent—where the previous evening, in a pub yard, we had obtained images of a match of “bat and trap”—we abruptly smashed into a parked car. Our driver, an American, had not quite gotten the hang of driving on the wrong side of the road. Fortunately no one was hurt, but our rental van needed to be replaced, and there were insurance matters to be dealt with. Because these tasks required that two of the MLB.com people stay behind, one of them being producer Sam Marchiano, I was deputized to be her substitute producer and interviewer.
Because our cameraman and soundman were driving in a separate car, I was able to proceed with them to our next stop, a girls’ school in the town of Horsham in Sussex. Our mission there was to obtain footage of a game of rounders, and conduct interviews with the players, school officials, and the director of the National Rounders Association.
As I was making my directorial debut, we had another unexpected development. A second video production crew—dispatched by BBC news—showed up at the school. Apparently the network had received word that the MLB filmmakers were touring the English countryside in search of baseball’s origins, and determined that this was a newsworthy event. So the BBC crew began filming our MLB crew, which was in turn filming the game of rounders. The BBC reporter also conducted interviews with me, the rounders official, and several other people at the scene.
That evening, the story of the MLB.com film project appeared on BBC South’s 6 p.m. news program. It included clips of their interviews with us, and reported, among other things, that Jane Austen used the word baseball in her novel Northanger Abbey, first drafted in 1798. By the time of the BBC broadcast, the project members we had left behind in Kent had obtained a replacement van and had rejoined us in Horsham. As we were driving to cover a Little League baseball game (yes, American baseball is alive and well in Sussex!), Sam Marchiano’s cell phone rang. It was the BBC. It seems that immediately following their airing of the piece about us, they had received a telephone call. A woman from nearby Surrey had rung up their studio to report that she knew of a reference to baseball far earlier than Jane Austen’s. The caller said that she had an old diary in her possession, the work of a young man named William Bray, in which he wrote about playing baseball in the year 1755. Naturally, we were all excited by this news, as 18th century references to baseball are exceedingly rare, and for the MLB.com film project to be the catalyst for the discovery of a new one would be an unexpected coup. We immediately phoned the woman—her name is Tricia St. John Barry—and arranged to visit her home the following morning.
Her home, it turned out, was a 16th century cottage down a country lane near the Surrey-Sussex border. At 11 A.M. we approached her door in force: Our group consisted of me, the four-person MLB.com crew, fellow SABR member Larry McCray, and John Price, the head of the Sussex stool-ball association, who was our local host in Horsham. Tricia answered the door, but instead of the smiling welcome we were expecting, she was in a state of great agitation. She was mortified: She couldn’t find the diary! It had been in a Marks & Spencer bag next to her filing cabinet, she was certain of it, but it simply wasn’t there. She had been searching her house high and low all morning, but to no avail.
One look at her cottage and you could tell it would be easy to misplace something there. It was all a jumble, its small, ancient rooms filled with piles of books and papers. Tricia is a delightfully charming lady, but a tad disorganized, and it turned out she hadn’t actually seen the diary in several years. She had obtained it about twenty years ago, and was in the process of transcribing it, albeit very slowly. She had made photocopies of the whole thing, but, alas, she believed they were in the same bag as the diary. Still, she had no doubts whatsoever about its mention of baseball. She had first noticed the entry about fifteen years earlier and, knowing it to be an American game, had at that time taken it down the road to show it to some American neighbors.
So there we were—with a great story, but no diary. Tricia may be a little eccentric, but there was no reason to question her credibility, and we were all convinced that the diary was buried somewhere in her house. She insisted that it would come to light; it just might take a little time. So the MLB.com team went ahead and interviewed her, and shot footage of her house and garden. We trusted that it was just a matter of time before the diary would appear.
Shortly thereafter the MLB.com crew returned to New York, and I resumed my family vacation in England, hoping that Tricia would find the missing diary before I returned to the States myself. About a week later, while traveling in Northumberland, I received an email from her: “Eureka! I found it!” This was great news. I called Sam in New York to report the find, and she said she would try to line up a freelance cameraman
to accompany me to film the precious document. The next day I called Tricia to tell her I had received her message, and to arrange my next visit to her cottage. In the course of our conversation, one small detail became apparent. It seems Tricia hadn’t actually found the diary itself, but only the photocopies! True, this was better than nothing; but I had to bite my tongue to hide my disappointment. I consoled myself by knowing that at least I’d be able to return home with a copy of the 1755 reference—that is, if the photocopies hadn’t disappeared again before I returned to Tricia’s house.
Two days later, at a library in Cornwall, I had another chance to check my email. A new message from Tricia: “Eureka again! I really found it this time!” And she really had. So five days later, on my final day in the UK, my wife Barbara and I returned to Tricia’s cottage along with a cameraman. Also along for the big show was John Price of the stool-ball association, the BBC crew again (by now, they too had a stake in this discovery, and came to tape another spot for the evening news), and Julian Pooley, a Surrey archivist and historian who is the foremost expert on William Bray, the author of the diary.
As it happens, Bray was a notable historical figure of his day, a prominent 18th century lawyer and antiquarian who wrote a three-volume history of Surrey that is still the authoritative work on the subject. More importantly, Bray had a vast range of interests that spanned science, politics, literature, and the arts, and a lively curiosity in all of the new developments of his age. And he wrote about them diligently in the diaries and journals he kept. He lived to the age of 96 and his journals span almost all of his adult years. The bulk of these—beginning in 1756, when he turned 20 years of age—are located in the Surrey History Centre, and have been studied extensively because of their unusual insights into the goings-on of that era.
At some time in the past, a single volume of Bray’s diary—the one spanning the years 1754 and 1755—was separated from the others. Until recently, its very existence was unknown to scholars. It first surfaced 20 years ago when a neighbor of Tricia’s, knowing that she liked “old things,” gave her a call to see if she was interested in a stack of old papers. It seems this neighbor’s deceased ex-husband, who had once worked on the Bray estate, had stored a collection of old documents in a tea chest in a shed on their property. She was threatening to “dump them on the bonfire” unless Tricia wanted them. The William Bray diary was among this lot, and Tricia immediately recognized it as a treasure. It’s just taken her a bit of time to let the rest of the world know about it.
OK, now for the baseball part. William Bray doesn’t reveal anything about how the game was played; just that he played it and whom he played it with. His entry for Easter Monday, March 31, 1755, reads as follows:
Went to Stoke Ch(urch) this Morn.—After Dinner Went to Miss Seale’s to play at Base Ball, with her, the 3 Miss Whiteheads, Miss Billinghurst, Miss Molly Fluttor, Mr. Chandler, Mr. Ford, H. Parsons & Jolly. Drank tea and stayed till 8.
Despite its brevity, this early reference offers some tidbits of information that help inch forward our understanding of baseball at its infancy.
1. William Bray was 18 or 19 at the time of this entry (his birth year, 1736, is known, but not his precise birth date). From other writings in his diaries, we know that the companions he names as participants in this baseball game were all young adults like him, indicating that baseball was not simply a pastime for children in the 1750s.
2. Clearly, this baseball gathering involved both young ladies and young men, confirming the suggestion from other sources that the game in its earliest years was played by both sexes.
3. At this time, baseball was more of a social phenomenon than a sporting one. Bray’s diaries from these years suggest that he interacted with a circle of friends and acquaintances—men and women—numbering about twenty. They would gather at different homes and estates for various activities: card playing, dancing, lawn bowling, and the like. Baseball seems to have been among these pastimes—something that was played for social entertainment rather than serious competition.
I consider myself very fortunate to have found myself in the midst of this new, early baseball discovery. Curiously, earlier on my visit to the UK, while researching at the British Library, I had come across another reference to baseball from 1755. This one appears in a book entitled The Card, published in London by John Newbery, the pioneering children’s publisher. Newbery also wrote and published A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, the 1744 work that is believed to contain the earliest reference to baseball. The actual author of the 1755 book, The Card, was not Newbery but John Kidgell, a disreputable and scandal-surrounded churchman who eventually had to flee Britain to avoid arrest. The book is a sarcastic and not-so-very-funny satire directed at a fellow writer, and would be completely forgettable if not for its mention of baseball:
… the younger Part of the Family … retired to an interrupted Party at Base-Ball, (an infant Game, which as it advances in its Teens, improves into Fives, and in its State of Manhood, is called Tennis).
A literal reading of this passage would suggest that Kidgell regarded baseball to be a rather rudimentary activity when compared to the more “sophisticated” pastimes of fives (handball) and tennis. Yet, because virtually every sentence in The Card is written with pen in cheek, the author’s intention may have been to poke fun at this family’s choice of baseball by exaggerating the simplicity of the game.
One curious aspect about the presence of the word baseball in The Card is that it hasn’t been detected before. Unlike William Bray’s diary, which was hand-written and buried in a tea chest for many years, The Card is a published book that survives, in its original edition, in more than thirty American libraries. And a reprint facsimile edition, published in 1974, exists in more than one hundred libraries! So while this particular reference to early baseball has been hidden up until now, it seems to have been hidden in plain sight.
Whether you consider the unearthing of references to baseball from 1755 to be of considerable historical significance, or simply to be quaint bits of trivia, their rarity cannot be disputed. Fewer than ten mentions of baseball from the 18th century are known, and most of those date from later in the century. That two such discoveries surfaced within two weeks of each other is an extraordinary coincidence. Moreover, these two references quite possibly may be the earliest tangible mentions of the term baseball in existence. Two frequently cited earlier appearances of the term—in A Little Pretty Pocket-Book from 1744 and Lady Hervey’s letter of 1748—are, in fact, only presumed to have existed. Though published in 1744, no known copies of the first edition of A Little Pretty Pocket-Book have survived, nor, for that matter, have any copies of that book’s first nine editions. The earliest example we know of is a single copy of the 1760 10th edition residing in the British Library. And in the case of Lady Hervey’s 1748 letter describing the family of the Prince of Wales playing baseball, it’s known only because her collected letters were published in book form in 1821. But that original letter of Lady Hervey’s from 1748 cannot be located. So, if you want to lay your eyes on actual surviving evidence of the term baseball from the mid–18th century, give Tricia a call to arrange a look at William Bray’s diary, or find yourself a library copy of The Card. [In 2013 the author revealed an earlier find in a 1749 newspaper, detailed here: http://sabr.org/latest/new-discovery-sabr-member-david-block-confirms-baseball-was-played-royalty-england-1700s.]
My five-week odyssey to Britain culminated on that wonderful final day at Tricia’s house. We took new video images of her cottage, many shots of William Bray’s diary, and even went down the road to film the shed where Tricia had found the document 20 years earlier. After conducting interviews with Tricia and Julian Pooley, I switched sides of the camera and became the interviewee myself, with my wife Barbara, always a good sport, agreeing to toss me some questions. With any luck, some of the footage we took that day will survive the cutting room floor and make its way into the MLB.com documentary, due to be released this fall.
When you go over to Britain and start mucking around, you never know what you’re likely to find.
This is a guest column, penned by my friend and colleague, Richard Hershberger, who thinks and writes inventively about the early game. His recent articles in the journal Base Ball include one on Philadelphia Town Ball (2007), one on baseball and rounders (2009), “The New Marlboro.’ Match Base Ball Co.” of 1863, and two on, respectively, baseball in New York in 1821 and Philadelphia in 1831.
The annual convention of the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) met on the evening of March 27, 1859. There were delegates from twenty-one of the twenty-five member clubs, as well as from nineteen clubs applying for membership. Among the applicants was the Tiger Club, and therein lies a minor mystery of baseball history.
Many clubs from this era are obscure today. Even specialists in early baseball history are unlikely to be conversant with the details of the Tiger club’s fellow applicants such as the Katydid or Esculapian clubs. But while these clubs are obscure, they aren’t mysterious. One could comb through newspaper accounts easily enough and find such details as where these clubs played and who were their officers, and find accounts of matches played against other clubs.
The Tigers, by contrast, are a cipher. There was, until recently, no known record of their existence apart from their membership in the NABBP. Not even their home city was known.
Furthermore, their name is unusual. The taxonomy of antebellum baseball club names is fantastically varied, but animal names are largely absent. In modern sports it is common to name teams after animals, particularly species holding traits a team might wish to emulate. This is a later pattern. The only prominent early club named after an animal was the Eagle Club of New York, and this was most likely chosen for its patriotic associations. So while “Tiger” is an unremarkable team name today, it is very unusual for 1859.
The mystery of the Tigers was solved when I examined the New York Sunday Mercury for 1858. The Sunday Mercury was one of the most important baseball newspapers before the Civil War. It is largely overlooked today, probably because the issues are scattered among various libraries. Researcher Robert Tholkes and I have undertaken to gather these scattered issues. (Unfortunately, the years 1855-1857 appear to be entirely lost.)
The issue for September 5, 1858 includes a brief notice solving the mystery of the Tiger Base Ball Club:
The members of the Light Guard have organized a new club, entitled the “Tiger Base Ball Club,” and will play at the Red House grounds, Harlem. Their dress consists of red pants, white shirt, with black patent leather body belt, and white cap trimmed with red cord.
The Light Guards were an example of the characteristic 19th century phenomenon of private military volunteerism. Vestiges of this remain today with formations such as the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry. The Light Guard survives as part of the Old Guard of the City of New York.
The Light Guard was founded in 1827 as an independent company of the New York militia. The militia was reorganized in the 1850s, eliminating independent companies, instead requiring them to be part of regiments. The Light Guard first joined the 55th Regiment, which had been formed by French-American immigrants. It initially had six “French” and four “American” companies, including the Light Guard. This arrangement was short-lived, as the 55th soon reorganized as a fully French formation. The Light Guard needed to find a new regiment. In August of 1858 they voted unanimously to join the 71st Regiment, the “American Guard,” of the New York State Militia as Company A. This marriage of convenience would not be entirely happy.
The 71st Regiment was organized in 1850 with ties to the nativist “Know Nothing Party.” Their service included the riot of 1857 between the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys. The 71st was called out to assisting in putting down the riot, during which they captured an eight pound howitzer.
There were several sources of discontent between the 71st and its new Company A. The regiment retained its suspicion of foreigners. The Light Guard’s recent association with a French-American regiment did little to endear it. A rumor spread that the Light Guard included several members of foreign birth, resulting in a protest meeting by the other companies.
The regiment is put in a better light by its regarding itself as a “working” unit, with the ambition “to excel all others in their drill and efficiency as a military body,” while the Light Guards had a reputation more as a social company, being “too fond of pleasure trips, balls and dinner parties.” They might not have been placated by the advice that “We hope our friends of the 71st will not act hastily in the matter, but remember, in the first place, the ‘Light Guard’ is composed of gentlemen in every sense of that term, and when on parade, good soldiers.”
This concern was not baseless. The Light Guard’s soirees and outings and visits with other socially elite units were widely reported in the newspapers. Furthermore, the Light Guard never really tried to fit in with the rest of the regiment. They continued their tradition of company balls, always emphasizing the name “Light Guard” and overlooking their regimental affiliation. They also retained their own uniform: and a resplendent uniform it was, with epaulettes and sash and bearskin shako.
In the event, the regiment was called to three month duty in 1861, and fought at First Bull Run. While this was a rout of the Union forces, the 71st as part of Burnside’s Brigade reportedly performed its duty well. They mustered in for a second three month term in 1862, when they were deployed as part of the defenses of Washington, and again for 30 days as part of the emergency response to Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania, where they skirmished with Confederate forces.
That an organization such as the Light Guards might form a baseball club in 1858 is seemingly unremarkable. New York City was in the grip of baseball fever. All sorts of organizations were branching out into baseball. Ball clubs were formed by everything from volunteer fire companies to literary societies. A militia company would seem to fit right in, but this is not the case. Baseball would be a frequent camp recreation during the war, but no other militia company is known to have organized a baseball club before the war. The Light Guard, in forming a baseball club, found another way to set itself apart from other companies, and it stayed aloof by not playing match games with other clubs, instead restricting itself to intramural play.
As for the “Tiger” name, this mystery is also explained. This was a common nickname among militia guard companies, including the New York Light Guards. While it was not a normal name for a baseball club, it was a natural choice for the Light Guards.
It is not known how long the Tiger Base Ball Club lasted. Clearly it was a going concern into 1859, but the only mention after that is as a member of the NABBP in 1860, where it is among the clubs not voting whether to adopt the fly game rule. It is not clear if it sent a delegate. There is no record of the Light Guards playing baseball while in the active army, or of the Tiger Club after the war. While no longer a mystery, they remain the most obscure member of the NABBP.
1. New York Sunday Mercury March 13, 1859.
3. Undated article from the New York Express, quoted in Lowen, George Edward, ed., History of the 71 st Regiment, N.G., N.Y. pp. 32-41; The Veterans Association 71 st Regiment, N.G.N.Y. 1919.
4. Ibid. p. 66.
5. Ibid. pp. 59-60, quoting the New York Express August 25, 1858 and New York Atlas August 29, 1858.
6. Reports of Col. Ambrose E. Burnside, http://www.civilwarhome.com/burside1stmanassas.htm
8. New York Sunday Mercury March 18, 1860.
This is the foreword I provided to Inventing Baseball: The 100 Greatest Games of the Nineteenth Century, a book published this week by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). I post it to Our Game for its own interest, but also to suggest that 19th-century baseball will hold considerable fascination for any fan of today’s game. My additional sly motive is to persuade those of you who are not yet SABR members that you consider joining; see http://sabr.org.
Modern baseball—the very mention of that hideous phrase will curl the lip of any real historian of the game, and ought to bring a sickly silence upon any who would consider a truncated set of great players, great seasons, great moments. And yet “modern baseball” has attained a broad currency among journalists, announcers, even advanced fans, for whom the term may signify different things. Some will hold that modern baseball begins with the turn of the century in 1901, for no other reason than the march of time. Others will say that modern baseball begins with the first World Series in 1903, ignoring the reality of postseason championships played under that and other names since 1884. Some will hold out for 1920, when Babe Ruth came to New York, hit 54 home runs, and single-handedly, in an instant, swept out the deadball era. The socially conscious fan will aver that until Jackie Robinson stepped on a big-league field on April 15, 1947, major league baseball was bush league. Others will point to the first year of expansion, 1961, as the dawn of the modern game.
Among those in this Baseball Babel, however, one truth is held in common: the national pastime of the 19th century was a morass of quaint custom, ill-considered rules, unmatchable records, and unconscionable exclusion. Major League Baseball’s record keepers, when they proclaim new “firsts” or search the archives to find an appealing nugget for broadcast chatter, dismiss the passé century without a moment’s misgiving.
This book, then, stands as something of a corrective. Its title, Inventing Baseball, is in part ironic, as the game was not invented but instead evolved. Yet it is a fine title, because baseball continued to change in so many fascinating ways, from the 1840s on, that an air of invention could be said to have characterized the entire era. Not only was baseball’s rise and flower unsteady and halting, its status as the nation’s game was by no means guaranteed by the creation of what only much later came to be called Major League Baseball. Baseball’s fate hung in the balance as the 20th century dawned, following upon a brutal decade of interleague warfare and suicidal cartel practices, and contemporary observers thought that college football or competitive bicycling might surpass it by the dawn of the new century.
Early baseball, however you define or pinpoint it in the years before 1901, was indeed different from the game we see on the field today, yet there can be no doubt that it was baseball. Players in the big-league parks of the 1880s, packed with thousands of paying spectators, knew they were playing the same game that had been staged for free at the Elysian Fields of Hoboken in the 1840s.
Take a football fan of today to a gridiron contest played by the rules of 1890 and he might fairly say that the game and its equipment were so different from the one he knew that it might not seem to be the same game at all. From the size of the players to the shape of the pigskin bladder, from the ban on passing to the restrictions on substitution to the point values accorded to field goals and touchdowns, football reinvented itself, from a low-scoring game of mass momentum and dangerous formations to one of quick strikes and long gains. The same might be said of basketball at the turn of the century—that with the center jump, lumpy ball, and brutal play at the rim, the low-scoring fracas seemed like football without the padding.
Yet baseball was always baseball, as Bruce Catton noted in American Heritage in 1959:
The neat green field looks greener and cleaner under the lights, the moving players are silhouetted more sharply, and the enduring visual fascination of the game—the immobile pattern of nine men, grouped according to ancient formula and then, suddenly, to the sound of a wooden bat whacking a round ball, breaking into swift ritualized movement, movement so standardized that even the tyro in the bleachers can tell when someone goes off in the wrong direction—this is as it was in the old days. A gaffer from the era of William McKinley, abruptly brought back to the second half of the twentieth century, would find very little in modern life that would not seem new, strange, and rather bewildering, but put in a good grandstand seat back of first base he would see nothing that was not completely familiar.
And that is precisely our point, we several authors of this project, to identify the hundred greatest games before the 20th century, some of them played decades before the idea of league play was even a glimmer in the eye of Harry Wright or William Hulbert. Undertaken by members of the 19th Century Committee of the Society for American Baseball Research, of whom I am proudly one, Inventing Baseball provides the intrepid reader with a peephole into a little known and unfairly neglected period of the game, populated not with old heroes, feats and tales but new ones … or, to paraphrase Satchel Paige—ones that ain’t never been heard of by this generation. Maybe the reader will know King Kelly or Albert Spalding or other men honored today with plaques in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but what of Doc Adams, or Jim Creighton, or Fleet Walker?
Until Bobby Thomson hit “the shot heard ’round the world” on October 3, 1951, most veteran baseball observers believed that another game involving Brooklyn—the victory by that city’s Atlantics over the Red Stockings of Cincinnati on June 14, 1870—was the greatest in the game’s history. Where it will rank for the reader as he considers the entire panoply of baseball’s epic contests cannot be guessed, but this writer, who thirty years ago wrote a book titled Baseball’s Ten Greatest Games and was constrained by its publisher from dipping into the 19th century, will find it hard not to include that game in his unconstrained top ten.
Roger Angell wrote an essay for the New Yorker some decades back in which Smokey Joe Wood, hero of the 1912 World Series, sat in the stands watching a dazzling pitching duel between Yale’s Ron Darling and St. John’s Frank Viola. “The Seamless Web” he called his piece, to signify that these three great pitchers, separated by seven decades, belonged to the same fraternity, were made from the same fabric, were part of it. The writers in Inventing Baseball know that Joe Wood was also part of a tradition into which he entered, one that went back to John Clarkson and Hoss Radbourn, to Asa Brainard, Frank Pidgeon and the legendary Creighton. They were heroes all, those who graced the game in its formative years. They lived and labored in a thrilling period of invention. They made the game we love.
And these men deserve to be recalled by all baseball fans of today in their greatest moments, in the glory of our times as well as theirs. To know that Albert Pujols and Derek Jeter are part of a seamless web with Roger Connor and John Ward makes the experience of today’s games richer than merely to compare our stars with those since 1901.
Some of the names and games in this book may seem obscure even to knowledgeable enthusiasts (as fans were called before that term was coined in the 1880s), but the story of baseball has been played out on fields other than those of the National League, and by others than those whose playing records may be found in the encyclopedias (because they played “major-league ball” in the years since 1871). The writers/selectors of these hundred games to follow will have their personal favorites, in some measure reflected by their decision to speak for the editor’s assignment of a particular game. But every game reported in this book had numerous advocates and may be commended to your attention.
Editor Bill Felber has charged his crew to select and depict games of historic significance as well as visceral thrills. It would have been easy to choose a hundred cliffhangers, but then we might have overlooked the game that was first to be played before a paid crowd, or the game that for a moment made Fort Wayne the capital of the baseball world, or another in which the forces of good and evil seemed to be pitted against each other (cast in the uniforms of, respectively, Boston and Baltimore) for the National League title of 1897.
I could go on, highlighting more personal favorites or piquant inclusions, but it is time to move on, to read about the first games, or some in the middle, or ones at the end. They are arranged chronologically rather than in any kind of ranking. However, one may dip into this book randomly, as if it were a box of Cracker Jack, and provide oneself with an individualized nonlinear experience.
This is the game we love, we who have compiled this book for you, and the years before 1900 form our favorite period. We may not convince archivists or reporters of Major League Baseball that the early game was as exciting as the one they are covering, but we hope to convince you.
This is a guest column, penned by my longtime friend Fran Henry, whose trove of Henry Chadwick materials I examined with her kind permission more than two decades ago. How did she come by such wonderful stuff? She is a direct descendant of the man who long before his death in 1908 was called The Father of Baseball. This was not because anyone believed that he invented it–he always credited baseball’s parentage to rounders–but for his hugely successful labors, over half a century, to make baseball America’s national game. In the coming weeks and months Fran will create a special section of MLB’s Memory Lab project. It will create, through first-hand documents and artifacts, a highly personal portrait of a man most of us today know principally by his plaque in Cooperstown, awarded in the year before that institution opened its doors. Let Fran Henry tell of her most recent attic find:
It seems trite to rifle boxes filled decades ago, unearthing items packed even years before that, perhaps before World War II. Do people still possess attics and basements left untouched for so long that no one alive has seen their contents?
Yet I find myself poring through issues of The New York Clipper from the summer of 1892. They had been folded after being clipped of articles. Perhaps the missing columns concern baseball, stories no doubt written by my great-great-grandfather Henry Chadwick four generations ago when he was a journalist of sports, an arbiter of rules, inventor of the box score, and proselytizer of the game. I wonder if my grandmother, who would have been twelve during that summer, might have helped him to cut and to create scrapbooks, as she later helped him to tally scores and to type what he had written.
I discover a hefty pile of the papers, most marked with a blue or red pencil. I find pictures of Henry’s family, his wife and daughter, and then of my grandmother when she looked eager for adventure and a future. Here also are a few pieces of silver. Henry’s wife Jane must have given a ladle to her granddaughter as it was inscribed “To Avis from Granny.” I wonder if she gave it for a graduation, a wedding, a firstborn. It would not have been for my grandmother’s last child, my father, for her Granny had died three years before my father’s birth in 1918.
Looking further I find a cigar box with a label indicating my grandfather gave the contents to Henry in 1907. I pull out a feather-light carving in wood. Again I wonder what brought this gift to Grandpa Chadwick, as my grandmother always referred to him. In that year, he was 83 and would not live through another. Another item: a metal engraving of a season pass for a ball park.
The occasion for my discovery in 2013 is cleaning the basement of my parents’ home, a place built by my father in 1949 for his new family. My father, John Chadwick Worden, was Henry’s great grandson. Avicia Mortimer Eldridge Worden, my grandmother, was Henry’s third grandchild. Avis had looked after her grandparents as a young woman and had been born and lived within a mile of her grandparents’ summer home in Sag Harbor, New York.
Combing through boxes in 2013 recalled my distress of years before, in 1980, when I came home to Sag Harbor after my grandmother’s death to help my father clean her small cabin of all that she could not let go of, both treasures and trinkets, in her 98 years. I found my father searching corners and heaving nearly everything into the yard. He had no patience for sorting. This legacy had been a burden to his childhood. He remembered when a teenager in the 1930s his mother paying the storage bills for her family’s belongings while the two of them lacked food for the table. With such deprivation, I could understand his desire to pitch all of it. But I asked him to slow down. I found sheaves of poetry by Henry to his wife Jane, memorabilia from her grandparents’ homes in Brooklyn and Sag Harbor, and a few items of baseball lore. And then too my father must have kept a few of his mother’s boxes untouched, and here they were, shelved and forgotten.
In 1978 when I rescued my grandmother’s treasures from certain destruction, I did so because of stories Grandma told me. Avis had stayed the longest near the family home and she had inherited the personal keepsakes. From her, I knew that her grandfather had given his baseball material to Albert Spalding, who gave it to the New York Public Library for cataloging and safekeeping. I remember her saying that Henry was known as Father of Baseball, but not at the Baseball Hall of Fame, where he was enshrined as a sportswriter with the first inductees in 1938. My grandmother had sown a seed of distrust that the Baseball Hall of Fame would see Henry in a fair historical light. I had held onto my grandmother’s heirlooms for a few decades, not knowing what to do with them.
By 2000 I had constructed my own rough outline of Henry and Jane Chadwick’s life. I sold the collection to a private individual, trusting it would be the kernel of a museum exhibit. Now I wonder what my grandmother had hoped would become of all that she had saved. To be kind to her memory and to her admiration of “Grandpa Chadwick,” I must not box these mementos again and forget them. I must find a way to bring them out of the musty shadows.
–Fran Henry, July 2013
The previous post, Richard Hershberger’s article on the 1863 “New Marlboro Match Baseball Co.”, elicited this comment from reader Jim Roebuck: “One thing I’ve been trying to figure out – and I’ve read a fair amount about it, but I’m still confused – is the difference between town ball and the Massachusetts Game. Topic for another essay?” To this I replied, “The two are substantially different, but modern-day scribes have been calling all bat & ball games other than the New York Game “town ball” for a long time. This has bred confusion indeed, and prompted Richard Hershberger to tackle the subject in the journal Base Ball in the Fall 2007 number. I’ll run his full article, ‘A Reconstruction of Philadelphia Town Ball,’ in this space soon.”
Here ya go.
A Reconstruction of Philadelphia Town Ball
Modern baseball is descended from the game played in New York City at the middle of the 19th century. This version, however, was not the only one played in North America. The baseball family extended throughout English-speaking North America, in various versions and under different names, both as children’s games and in formal competitive communities of clubs of adults.
The best documented of these other forms is the game played in New England. There arose in the late 1850s extended communities of clubs in both New England and New York, holding conventions and publishing formal rules.
Smaller communities are known to have existed in various cities including Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Chicago, but none of these published its rules. There is a long tradition of assuming that the game played in these areas was substantially identical to the New England form, but there is little evidence to support this theory. The more conservative belief is that the rules are unrecoverable. A close examination of the evidence reveals, however, that the rules of the game as played in Philadelphia can be reconstructed.
A Brief History of Town Ball in Philadelphia
The American Sunday School Magazine reported in early 1830 that the previous summer a group of 18 adult rope makers met for a game of ball one Sunday afternoon near a Philadelphia orphanage. The matron of the institution remonstrated with them for breaking the Sabbath and invited them into the orphanage to see how the Sabbath was kept there. They heard the orphans sing a hymn, “This day belongs to God alone, He chooses Sunday for his own….” The ballplayers were moved to tears, and sat in perfect silence while hymns were sung, answers from the catechism recited, and verses of scripture repeated. The next Sunday every one of the 18 returned, decently dressed, and witnessed the exercise again. Many returned yet again for a third visit, moved to repent their former ways as Sabbath-breakers. Regardless of the veracity of this tale, it makes clear that the author considered the idea of adults playing ball plausible enough to include it without further explanation. Organized club play appears soon thereafter.
In 1831 a group of men in their mid-20s made the ferry ride across the Delaware River to Camden, New Jersey, to play town ball on Saturday afternoons. At the same time a club under the name “Olympic” convened to play town ball on the Fourth of July, and occasionally on other days as well. Following the example of the Saturday group, they began practicing on the same ground on Wednesdays. This led to a match game—among the earliest known, but with the results unrecorded. Following this the two groups merged, practicing two days a week as the Olympic Ball Club. They absorbed two other groups of town ball players over the years, probably in the late 1840s and early 1850s, the latter said to be graduates of Philadelphia’s Central High School. They played in Camden into the late 1850s, when they moved across the river to Pennsylvania.
This summary of what is known of town ball play prior to 1857 comes from two documents: the Olympic Ball Club constitutions of 1838 and 1866, the latter including a brief history of the club. It is obvious that town ball play was not confined to the Olympics, but the evidence has not come down to us. A hint of its existence is given by the Honey Run Club of Germantown.
Germantown had been an independent borough in Philadelphia County, about six miles from the City of Philadelphia and most famous as the site of a Revolutionary War battle. The Act of Consolidation of 1854 unified the City and County of Philadelphia, reducing Germantown’s status to a mere neighborhood. It was still separated from the urban center by farmland and retained its distinct character for many years.
The earliest evidence for town ball play in Germantown is a record of a game played in September 1857. Twenty grown men who had been schoolmates gathered and divided into teams. The event had a nostalgic air to it: The lot “presented somewhat the appearance of other days” and “the old ‘schoolmates’ seemed to enjoy each other’s company as ‘in days of yore.’” Clearly town ball was no longer a novelty at that point. It is less clear, however, if adults playing the game was. The only clear peculiarity was that the game was reported in the press, via a letter by the pseudonymous “Sport.”
The next record of the game’s appearance in Germantown dates to November 1859. The Honey Run Town Ball Club, “consisting of twenty practised members,” challenged the other clubs in town for a match on Thanksgiving Day. The Balsch and the Charter Oak clubs declined. The Honey Run met to prepare for an intraclub game, when two delegates from the Marion Club appeared to accept the challenge—to play for a supper. Both clubs set to practicing at every opportunity, and music was engaged for the day of the match, again reported by “Sport.” The game came off splendidly, the Honey Run winning by two runs in an exciting finish that prompted “Sport” to provide what is by far the most complete extant account of a town ball game (see sidebar). The Honey Run later presented their ball giver, the hero of the game’s climax, with a gold ring at a festive dinner.The Honey Run make one more appearance the following spring, on Easter Monday, playing an intraclub match, this time reported by “Saint,” and some members turned up in the Army of the Potomac playing town ball in 1863. There are no further mentions of the Balsch, Charter Oak, or Marion clubs.
There were, then, at least four organized clubs in Germantown, apparently playing mostly intraclub games and going virtually unnoticed by the press. The reports of the Honey Run’s exploits result from the combination of an enthusiastic correspondent and the rise of a New York sporting press willing to publish such reports. Both games of the Honey Run took place on holidays; one of the groups founding the Olympic club had existed specifically to play on the Fourth of July. The evidence suggests, then, that there was a tradition of holiday play in the Philadelphia area that evolved—perhaps due to rising urbanization—into clubs formed to organize this recreational activity. A modern equivalent is the Philadelphia mummer clubs, which put on an annual New Year’s parade. Their activities entailed preparing for, participating in, and recuperating from this one day.
A different tradition also developed in the late 1850s: competitive club play. This new brand of ball club closely resembled the New York clubs. By 1859 there were at least four such clubs, some fielding first and second teams. The Excelsior club was active at least by 1859, while the Camden club organized in 1857; the Athletic club organized May 31, 1859. They, along with the Olympics, were playing match games at least by 1858, with the Olympics and the Camdens playing three that year. Gone was the old habit of absorbing and internalizing competition. In its place evolved a competitive ballplaying community much like that in New York, but about five years behind New York in its development.
This new brand of Philadelphia town ball was not to last long. On Thanksgiving Day of 1858 the newly formed “Penn Tigers Social Base Ball and Quoit Club” played Pennsylvania’s first New York baseball game. Late in the following season they were joined by the Pennsylvanias, the Nonpareils, and the Continentals. The spring of 1860 saw the fad for the New York game take off. By May there were not fewer than 10 clubs, with more added as the season progressed. The first interclub match game was played June 11 by the Equity and the Winona (formerly the Penn Tigers), the Winonas winning 39–11. In September the Excelsior Club of Brooklyn visited Philadelphia, defeating a picked nine 15–4, bringing Philadelphia into the expanding baseball fraternity.
The competitive town ball clubs joined in the transition to the New York game. The Athletics voted in early 1860 to switch, and they never looked back. There is no record of their ever playing town ball again, and they nearly forgot they had ever done so. Within a year, 1860 was being published as their foundation date. The Excelsiors held out, playing only town ball the season of 1860; but by 1861 they too had adopted the New York game. The Camdens are a cipher; there is no sign of them after 1860. A Camden club appeared several years later playing the New York game, but there is no obvious connection between it and the town ball club.
The Olympics in May 1860 also voted to make the switch. They didn’t abandon town ball entirely and immediately, playing a match game with the Excelsiors and scheduling an intrasquad game as late as 1862. In 1864, New York journalist Henry Chadwick claimed that the Olympics “favor [town ball] almost entirely; and but for a few members would not play Base Ball at all.” Chadwick certainly vastly overstated the case. He had recently been accosted by a member of the club and threatened with violence over his reporting, and his assessment of the Olympics was not dispassionate. Nonetheless, for the assertion to be plausible to its readers would require that the Olympics were, at least to some extent, still playing town ball. Unlike the Athletics, they embraced their early history and the prestige of seniority. (The Philadelphia press was always ready to point out that the Olympics were older than the Knickerbockers.) The Olympics lasted nearly another quarter century, but with no reports of them, or anyone else, playing organized town ball.
“Town Ball” and “Base Ball”
It is necessary to undertake a linguistic digression in order to define what is and is not accomplished by describing Philadelphia town ball. The baseball family of games was, in the mid–19th century, widely played in both North America and in Britain. Not yet standardized, there were innumerable local variants. The games also went by various names but, unlike the variant rules, the number of names was small.
In Britain the oldest name was “base ball,” while the game was known as “feeder” in the London region. Both names died out, with “base ball” being included in a list of archaic words. Their place was taken by “rounders.” In New England the term “round ball” was used in early days, but largely disappeared over the first half of the 19th century. Two names prevailed in North America: The old term “base ball” dominated in New England, New York, and the Great Lakes region, while “town ball” prevailed in Pennsylvania and the Ohio River and upper Mississippi valleys.
With more local variant forms than there were names, it is obvious that name and game did not always represent clear 1:1 relationships. Into the 1860s this was considered unremarkable, and the press published remarks such as “Base Ball at Ingersoll…The game played in Canada differs somewhat from the New York game…” and “Town Ball at Evansville, Ind….the rules and regulations for playing the game of town ball vary a great deal.” The two forms that were standardized in the 1850s were both called “base ball,” so they were distinguished as the “New York game” and the “Massachusetts game.” This was unnecessary with regard to regions using “town ball,” with the New York press using the unmodified “base ball” to refer to the New York game.
The New York game came to dominate all others over the 1860s, so local variants in the old “base ball” regions came to be described as “old fashioned base ball.” In later years, people became uncomfortable applying “base ball” to anything other than the New York game. The name “town ball” was adopted retroactively in regions that had never used the term, including renaming the Massachusetts game. Just as it was assumed that “base ball” could mean only one variant, so it was assumed that “town ball” must also apply to just one form. Even as astute an observer as Robert W. Henderson, the first serious student of the early game, wrote in 1947, “A town ball team was fully organized in Philadelphia in 1833 and it continued to be played in New England until 1860, where it was known as ‘The Massachusetts Game.’ ” A purported description of town ball followed this quotation, but it actually described the Massachusetts game. Fallacy is layered atop fallacy.
So the reconstruction of Philadelphia town ball presented here is no more than that—a reconstruction of Philadelphia town ball. It should not be taken as a reconstruction of any other regional form, including any other variant also called “town ball.” There is no evidence to suggest that “town ball” forms were any more or less similar to one another than they were to variants of “base ball” or “rounders.” This reconstruction applies merely to the Philadelphia region, and the Philadelphia region stands out only in that its town ball is unusually well documented and thus particularly well suited for such a project.
Finally, the terms used in this article are the “baseball family” to refer collectively to the related forms of the game, whether locally called “base ball,” “town ball,” or “rounders”; the “New York game” and the “Massachusetts game” are so called, to avoid ambiguity. The game in and around Philadelphia is called “Philadelphia town ball” or, for brevity and when the context is clear, simply “town ball.”
The sources used to reconstruct the rules of Philadelphia town ball fall into three categories, in order of decreasing reliability:
Box scores, in particular of three match games: one between the first teams of the Olympic and Excelsior clubs played July 12, 1860, and two between the second teams of the Excelsior and Camden clubs, played July 9 and July 23, 1860. These are elaborate records, including the fielding records and how the players were put out—information not found in modern baseball box scores. They bespeak sophisticated scorekeeping, and are the most objective source of information we have. Box scores of the New York game had not yet been standardized, and ranged from rudimentary records resembling modern box scores, to extended records with fielding and “how put out” records, much like contemporary cricket boxes and comparable to these three town ball boxes. The more elaborate forms were used for important games, implying that the three town ball games were considered significant at the time.
Contemporary game accounts: The account of the Honey Run Club’s game of Thanksgiving Day 1859 is by far the most complete account extant. There are, however, various shorter, fragmentary descriptions that shed light on certain aspects of the game. Narrative accounts are more subjective than box scores, and require more interpretation, but as contemporary texts written by reporters familiar with the game, they are likely to be accurate.
Retrospective descriptions: The most important of these is the historical sketch included with the 1866 constitution of the Olympic club, which shares some text with a sketch of the club published in 1861. Reminiscences are inherently suspect, but in 1866 town ball was still a recent memory, with the club retaining members from its town ball days, while in 1861 a description was only barely retrospective. Also notable is a sketch of the Olympic club published in 1884. The Olympics were still a going concern, and the article includes a hint of reference to club records since lost. It is unique for pieces of such a late date in that it does not rely on the 1866 sketch, yet is still consistent with the known facts.
The previous section emphasized the diversity of the baseball family. Nevertheless, we can still assume a degree of unity amongst the various games.
It is assumed that the competitive Philadelphia town ball clubs played under similar sets of rules. There is no direct evidence for this, but there are no reports of negotiating rules as was sometimes found in other areas. There were conventions among both New York and New England clubs in the 1850s to standardize their rules. There is no hint of a similar convention of Philadelphia clubs in the town ball era. A likelier guess is that the rules of the Olympic Club, as the senior, prestige club, were adopted by the other clubs (in much the same way that the laws of cricket were the club rules of the Marylebone Club in England), or at least that the other clubs adopted field rules with only minor variations. These rules are what this article attempts to reconstruct.
It is also assumed that the noncompetitive clubs such as the Honey Run were playing essentially the same game as the Olympics, although likely in a less formal manner. This is the opposite assumption from that commonly made of the New York game. Modern writers generally acknowledge that some version of the baseball family was long played in New York, but assume that the game the Knickerbockers played as of 1845 was in its essence different from that of earlier generations. The rules of the Knickerbockers have more than their share of peculiarities compared with other members of the baseball family, but there is little direct evidence of the rules under which young New Yorkers were playing in the 1830s. It is not actually known whether the peculiarities of the New York game originated with the Knickerbockers or were inherited by them. That the game of the Olympics was the same as that of the Honey Runs is not provable. Indeed, some of the vocabulary applied to the non-competitive club games is not found in the competitive matches. But unlike pre-Knickerbocker New York baseball, we can compare accounts of competitive and non-competitive Philadelphia town ball and observe that they seem to be similar, and guess from this that the account of the Honey Run’s match can illuminate the Olympic game.
Finally, it is assumed that Philadelphia town ball was a member of the broad baseball family, sharing characteristics of the family. For example, nothing in the accounts of Philadelphia town ball explains what an “inning” is; but since the word is used the same way throughout the baseball family, there is no need to believe that an “inning” in Philadelphia town ball presents any mystery.
The Rules of the Game
The Players: A team consisted of 11 players, unless the clubs agreed to some lower number. A match in 1858 between the Olympics and the Camdens was played with nine on a side. The Germantown games were more variable, as would be expected of the less formal context, with typically 10 or 11 on a side. That 11 was normative, at least among the competitive clubs, is shown by the routine use of “first eleven” and “second eleven” to designate the clubs’ first and second teams. New York clubs used the analogous “first nine” and “second nine,” but the likely source for Philadelphia’s rule was the identical usage—well established by the late 1850s—of first and second elevens of cricket clubs. In November 1859 the Pennsylvania Base Ball Club formed to play the New York game. In their first intraclub game they played 11 on a side, apparently not having carefully studied the New York rules. They realized their mistake, or it was pointed out to them, and by the end of the month they were playing nine on a side.
The only players with assigned positions were the ball giver and the behind, corresponding to the modern pitcher and catcher. It was typical of the baseball family that the other defensive players had no fixed assignments. The New York game abolished the general practice of throwing the ball at the runner and replaced it with tagging the base or runner. This led to the assigning of players to man each base. In other forms there was no need for this, and the players could position themselves as strategy or whim dictated. (A vestige of this can be seen in the modern game, comparing the position of the first basemen with a runner on base versus without.)
The Field: The bases were five stakes arranged in a circle of approximately thirty feet in diameter. The small size of the playing field is perhaps the most surprising aspect of Philadelphia town ball. The sources on this subject are consistent and clear. The 1861 article on the Olympics noted that some older members retired when the New York game was adopted, since “three hundred and sixty feet, compared with the old town ball circle of eighty feet, was enlarging the sphere of action with a vengeance.” The 1884 account described the circles as “about thirty feet.” A circle 30 feet in diameter has a circumference of about 94 feet. It is likely that the distances were not intended to be precise and, as will be seen, the batter probably did not run the entire circumference anyway.
This is the smallest documented size of any field of the baseball family, with about 19 feet between bases. The Massachusetts game had basepaths of 40–60 feet. In 1828 The Boy’s Own Book by William Clarke described the four-base diamond formation with the bases “placed from twelve to twenty yards asunder.” This is usually interpreted as the length of the basepaths, though the Knickerbocker rules of 1845 defined the size of the diamond as the distance between home and second, and first and third. If the 1828 distance is measured similarly this still results in basepaths more than 25 feet in length. The earliest known rules for baseball, published by Johann Chistoph Friedrich Gutsmuths in 1796, placed the bases 10–15 paces apart, making it the variant closest to Philadelphia town ball.
David Block notes a trend within the baseball family of the field gradually expanding. The Philadelphia town ball field seems to have been a uniquely antique feature retained from the ancestral game.
The use of stakes was one standard option in the baseball family, used in the Massachusetts game and surviving in modern rounders in Britain. The relevant sources agree that stakes were used in Philadelphia. These include the 1884 account, which called them “sticks,” and an 1862 account of the history of the Athletics, which poetically described their switch from town ball to baseball as the adoption of “the bases instead of the stakes.” The account of the Honey Run match mentions flags being placed at the corners. “Corner” is a synonym for base found in some later accounts of early baseball. In 1867 the “Home Run Polka” was published by a Philadelphia publisher, dedicated to the National Base Ball Club of Washington. The Nationals had from their inception played the New York game, but the front page bore a strange illustration of a baseball game—apparently drawn by an artist who had never actually seen the New York game played, and conflating elements of the New York game with older forms. It features stakes misplaced halfway down the basepaths, with small rectangular flags. It is possible the artist recalled these from town ball games. There is no evidence of whether or not they were used by the competitive clubs.
The arrangement in a circle is unusual but not without precedent. Early forms of baseball had been flexible about the number of bases. Most later forms standardized this at four bases. The Massachusetts game is conventionally characterized as having five bases, but it actually had four stakes and a designated location for the batter. Placing the batter in the familiar location at home base presents obvious practical problems if home base is a stake. So the batter was moved to the first-base side in those forms of baseball using stakes. The 1884 account of Philadelphia town ball states explicitly that there were five stakes. The only other example of five bases so arranged was described in 1855 in the Manual of British Rural Sports. [Editor’s note: Richard wrote this article three years before the unearthing of the New Marlboro rules and diagram, with their five bases. See: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2013/05/21/new-marlboro/]
This circular arrangement raises the question of where the batter was placed. Following the pattern of other forms with stakes, he likely was about midway between fifth (or home) and first base. This hypothetical reconstruction also shortens the circumference of the path to run to about 85 feet—close to the 1861 stated distance of 80 feet.
Pitching: There is no direct evidence of where the ball giver stood, but every known form of baseball places him somewhere within the area delineated by the bases. This was so strongly assumed that the Knickerbocker rules of 1845 didn’t bother to mention it. There is no direct evidence concerning whether the ball giver delivered the ball overhand, as in the Massachusetts game, or underhand, as in the New York game, but it was almost certainly underhand.
The Massachusetts game featured a swift delivery, attempting to overpower the batter, while the early New York game featured a soft toss intended merely to put the ball in play. The tiny distance between the ball giver and the batter in Philadelphia town ball seems ill suited for a swift delivery. For the games with full box scores it is readily apparent who the behind was, and on one occasion the behind was singled out for praise for his good fielding. But the identity of the ball giver is usually (and conspicuously) omitted in these accounts. Wyn Stokes, the Honey Run’s ball giver, was the hero of their game against the Marions, but for making the game-ending defensive play, not for his pitching.
Finally, there is once again the negative evidence of silence regarding a possible change in pitching style when the New York game was adopted. This difference was a topic of comment in comparisons between the New York and Massachusetts games, so one would expect the subject to have arisen had there in fact been substantial changes.
This all suggests that the delivery was a slow, underhanded form similar to that of modern slow-pitch softball.
The ball and bat: The 1884 article states that the ball was “much lighter and softer than the ball of the present time.” It also states that the players had to make their own balls and bats, and there indeed is no evidence for commercial manufacture of town ball implements. Under the circumstances, it is likely that the balls varied widely, and were probably quite dead.
Various forms of bat were found in the baseball family. Two-handed round bats were used in both the New York and Massachusetts games, but other forms included one-handed bats (used in modern rounders) and flat bats (like those used in cricket) of various sizes, often described as “paddles.” Once again there is an absence of discussion on the subject, suggesting that the town ball bats were two-handed round bats like those used in the New York and Massachusetts games.
Ending the inning: The inning was ended when every player on the side had been put out. This is one of two common versions in the baseball family, the other being the inning ending when one player was put out. The New York game’s feature of ending the inning after three outs was unique.
Getting out: The three 1860 box scores feature “How Put Out” headings for each out, divided into five categories: Fly, Bound, Behind, No Balls, and Stakes. There also is a section recording each player’s fielding record, listing Fly, Bound, and Behind. Modern baseball scoring rules require that every out be credited to a fielder, but Philadelphia town ball felt no such obligation, suggesting that No Balls and Stakes were not considered fielding accomplishments. Table I below lists the percentage of outs made in each category, while Tables 2 and 3 split these: the July ¡2 game between the first elevens of the Olympics and Excelsiors in Table 2, and the July 9 and July 23 games between the second elevens of the Excelsiors and the Camdens in Table 3, with the differences attributable to the varying skill levels of the first and second elevens.
“Fly” outs are exactly as they are in modern baseball. The fly out is a universal feature of the baseball family, and even extends beyond it to cricket.
“Bound” outs are balls caught on the first bounce. Philadelphia town ball shared this feature with the contemporary New York game.
“Behind” outs are more mysterious. The breakdowns of outs by fielder lead to the unsurprising conclusion that these outs are credited to the behind (i.e. the catcher). In the July 12 game, all but two of the 70 behind outs are credited to the two players identified in the account as the behinds (the other two presumably made during a defensive switch), and the two behinds each made over twice as many outs a the next-most productive fielder. But what, exactly, was a “behind”? The answer may lie in the apparent fact that the behinds are never credited with other sorts of outs (except when the box score indicates a defensive switch). One would expect the behind to be in a position to catch pop flies and, on the bound, balls tipped backwards into the ground. Both of these were common ways for New York–game catchers to make outs. So the “behind” category may have been created for statistical purposes, distinct from fly and bound outs because the behind had so many more opportunities. A reverse analogy of sorts might be found in the way modern baseball scoring has the distinct categories of passed balls and wild pitches, rather than including them simply as errors.
Fly, bound, and behind outs account for more than 90 percent of the recorded outs. The remaining categories played relatively minor roles.
“No Ball” is a somewhat confusing term. It is not found elsewhere in the baseball family, but it occurs in cricket. A cricket “no ball” is a ball bowled beyond the reach of the batsman, and the fielding team is penalized. The Philadelphia town ball “no ball” is detrimental to the batting team, so it clearly is not the cricket “no ball.” More likely, these outs correspond to the modern strikeout. This was an old feature of the baseball family, going back to the 18th century. If the batter swung at and missed three pitches, he was ruled out if the third pitch was caught, but the ball was considered to be in play if the behind failed to catch it. This is the origin of the modern dropped–third strike rule, and the Massachusetts game had a similar rule. With soft deliveries, “no balls” were not a major feature, accounting for about 8 percent of all outs, and only 5 percent in the first elevens’ games.
“Stakes” are probably, if only through the process of elimination, fielded balls thrown at the runner, striking him between bases. This was a widespread feature of the baseball family, often called “soaking” or “plugging” the runner. Abolishing the practice was one of the major innovations of the New York game. Stakes were quite rare in Philadelphia town ball for reasons that will be discussed below, accounting for less than 2 percent of all outs. But as the account of the climax of the Honey Run–Marion match shows, they could be dramatic.
Running the bases: Running the bases on balls in play is a universal feature of the baseball family. Philadelphia town ball has the variant that the batter lacked the option of stopping at a base—every at bat resulted in a home run or an out. The 1884 account is explicit about this: “The striker was compelled to make a complete circuit upon each hit in order to score.” Every other known member of the baseball family allows station-to-station advancement through the bases. This and the small field size are the two striking peculiarities of Philadelphia town ball, and clearly are connected with one another. The entire circuit was shorter than the modern distance from home to first base, and advancing station to station would be a trivial achievement.
Several accounts of Germantown games mention “grannies.” One of them reveals that this is a score, distinguishing between “regular circuits” and “grannies,” with over 10 times as many regular circuits as grannies. The captain of the Honey Run club in their match against the Marions was described as a “granny runner.” A possibility is that grannies were scores which required the runner to dodge an attempted stake, while regular circuits were made on unfielded balls. No account of the competitive club matches mentions grannies or makes any distinction between different types of runs.
The requirement to make a complete circuit on each hit raises the related question of whether the bases served the role of safe havens. This is a general feature—so much so that it sometimes is considered a defining characteristic of the baseball/cricket family. But if the runner must continue running, the safe-haven status seems moot. The Honey Run–Marion account suggests that the bases did retain this function, if only vestigially. In the climactic play of the game, Righter of the Marions hit the ball and before he had reached the third corner (i.e. halfway around the bases), Wyn Stokes of the Honey Runs had the ball in his hands. “This was a critical time…every player was nervous with excitement. The marksman stood still; Righter afraid to move. Wyn’s arm drew back, and with terrific force, catching ‘Marion’ (just making a fine dodge) about three inches above the ancle [sic] bone.” Was the immobility of Righter and Stokes a tactical decision? Should we chalk it up to nerves? Or was it mere dramatic license by the chronicler? Taking it at face value, one possible interpretation is that Stokes didn’t throw immediately because Righter was touching a base, then Righter made a break for the next base, unsuccessfully attempting to dodge the throw. On the other hand, the scene is very cinematic, and possibly fictional. It seems somewhat likelier that the bases were vestigially safe havens, but by then the runner could not linger and allow the fielder with the ball to approach him.
The complete-circuit requirement removes one of the difficulties inherent in all-out innings: what to do when the batter is stranded on a base. In cricket there must always be two men on offense, so while there are 11 men on a side the inning is over after 10 outs. Many versions of the baseball family have special rules for the last man, typically allowing a home run to cancel the previous outs, restarting his side’s inning. Philadelphia town ball had no need for any such rule, there being no mechanism for stranding a runner.
This also raises a question about the batting order. Box scores clearly show a set batting order, but there is no indication whether a successful batter returns immediately to bat, as in cricket, or if the next man in the lineup takes his place, as in the New York game, cycling through the shrinking roster of batters not yet put out. The latter is more consistent with other members of the baseball family, but the former seems a better fit to this version. That said, there is no direct evidence, since no account combines a batting order with the name of the final batter.
A final possible nicety is that the runner was not required to touch the bases as he went by. In 1862 a reporter from the New York Clipper, probably Henry Chadwick, accompanied a group of Brooklyn players to Philadelphia. His report included advice on fine points such as the need to put down chalk lines to delineate the foul lines, and that the Philadelphia players needed to learn to touch the bases. One reason for this requirement is to prevent the runner from cutting corners; but the town ball stakes would clearly define the circle outside of which the player must run. The Clipper’s advice may indicate a vestige of town ball play.
The Umpire: The office of umpire was much less important than in the New York game. The 1838 Olympic constitution assigned this duty to the scorekeeper, who was a club officer, but this obviously would have been inadequate for matches between clubs. The Honey Run–Marion match had two umpires and a referee. Early New York matches followed the same pattern, with an umpire from each club and a neutral third party should the umpires be unable to reach agreement. It soon became apparent that the club appointees were superfluous and a single neutral umpire became standard. Competitive Philadelphia town ball clubs apparently followed the same progression, as the one mention of the office, in one of the Excelsior–Camden matches, named a single man in the role.
There are no descriptions of complaints about the umpire, nor any of the admonishments against this behavior so common in the New York game. The Philadelphia players were not more virtuous: Such descriptions and admonishments appear soon after the New York game was established there. The New York–game umpire was (and is) called upon to make many close judgments, even before the advent of called balls and strikes: Did the ball land foul or fair? Did the ball arrive at the bag first, or the runner? The Philadelphia town ball umpire’s task was less challenging, with the occasional decision on whether a ball was cleanly caught or the rare staking of a runner. This lesser responsibility brought with it fewer complaints.
Ending the game: How to know when the game is over is normally a straightforward question, but there is no obvious answer in this case. There are two common solutions: playing to a fixed score or playing a fixed number of innings. Both are found in the baseball family. The early New York games played in Massachusetts played to a fixed score: 100 and 21 runs, respectively. The New York game switched to the modern nine innings in 1857. Town ball in Cincinnati was played to four innings. Cricket was played by innings: one or two, depending on what the clubs arranged. So either scheme was freely available for Philadelphia town ball, but neither seems to have been applied. Competitive matches came in variously at 11, 12, and 19 innings. The Honey Run–Marion match lasted a mere two innings. The line scores, where available, make clear that extra innings to break a tie were not at issue. Had games been played to a fixed score, however, one would expect it to have been a round number—but this is clearly not the case. Recorded scores include 119–81, 85–75, 80–42, 87–71, and 71–66.
The remaining possibility is that they played for a predetermined period of time. Several accounts of both competitive match games and of Germantown games mention the time of play, consistently running about four hours. The Olympic–Excelsior match of July 12, 1860, ended at 6:30. This is too early to be forced by darkness (even before the advent of daylight savings time), but it is a splendid time to stop for supper. Playing to a fixed ending time is uncharacteristic of the baseball family, but it was the de facto rule even in modern baseball before the advent of lights, and it was not uncommon for teams to agree on an ending time in the days when teams had trains to catch. It is likely that this was the de jure method of ending Philadelphia town ball games.
The Course of Play
The fundamental skills of Philadelphia town ball were identical to those of the early New York game: throw the ball, catch the ball, hit the ball. When the newly formed Mercantile Club lost to the Athletic Club, the Mercantiles ascribed their loss to the Athletics’ experience playing town ball. Based on the evidence at hand, the players’ argument seems entirely plausible. The Olympics were clearly the champion town ball club of Philadelphia, and—following their adoption of the New York game—their title of champion was acknowledged to carry over to the new game. Their play bore this out, and they successfully defended their title for several years.
In strategy, Philadelphia town ball falls short of its relatives. Indeed, it is difficult to see where there is any strategy at all, if we take “strategy” to mean adjusting one’s style of play according to the game situation. In Philadelphia town ball, a “plate appearance” can produce only two possible results: a score (and the right to a subsequent attempt) or an out. There is no possible benefit to be accrued by sacrificing an out, and no partial benefits of getting on base or additional benefits of driving in multiple runs. So there is no reason to bat differently in different strategic situations, and while the fielding team might make adjustments for stronger or weaker batters, this should technically be considered “tactics” rather than “strategy.”
The vast majority of outs were made on fly balls, either caught on the fly or the bound. Unfortunately, there is no record of how most of the runs were made: on uncaught fly balls or on ground balls. The first run of the Honey Run–Marion match was made on a ground ball, but we don’t know if that was common or rare. Given how rare stakes were, it seems that hitting ground balls would be the surest approach. Or perhaps stakes were rare because the fielders played close in, making ground balls dangerous, and batters preferred to hit fly balls. It is a good bet that the ball was dead by modern standards; but one of the vast uncertainties is how dead it was, and, by extension, how far the fielders had to spread out.
The How Put Out box reveals the difference in skill level between the first and the second elevens. The first elevens were twice as likely to catch a ball on the fly, while the second favored catching it on the bound. Journalists discussed the relative merits of the two in the New York game. Much of this discussion was ideological, with fly catches judged more manly, but part of it was pragmatic: On uneven ground the fielder could not count on a true bounce, so a fly catch was, when possible, the more reliable play. Whether for practical or ideological reasons, more skillful players preferred to catch balls on the fly.
Similarly, the second teams had more trouble putting the bat on the ball, being twice as likely to be put out on a “no ball.” But even with the second elevens these represented only 10 percent of all outs. This is low by modern standards, but comparable to strikeouts in contemporary New York games, as can be seen in the extended box score for a New York game between the Olympic and Hamilton clubs, with the clubs combining for five strikeouts.
The Honey Run–Marion match took approximately the same time as the competitive matches, and the final score was similar; yet it lasted only two innings, compared with the 11 or so innings of the competitive matches. There are two aspects that require explanation: why the scoring per inning was so much higher in the Honey Run–Marion match, and why the innings took so much longer to complete.
The likely explanation for the high scoring per inning is that the fundamental skill of batting (in a slow-pitch era) was easier than the fundamental skill of fielding (in an era long before fielder’s gloves). Henry Chadwick long held, in the New York game, that a low score—indicative of skillful fielding—was the true measure of a well played game. This is often regarded today as quaint ideology, and Chadwick undoubtedly held on to the idea long past the time when the game was more about pitching and hitting than fielding. But in the earlier era, the capability of amateur players reliably to catch a ball could not be assumed.
As to the length of an inning, the competitive matches maintained a furious rate of activity. The Olympic–Excelsior game had 240 outs in 11 innings (two short of the expected 242 because the Olympics played the first inning shorthanded) and 158 runs, for a total of 398 game events (defining a “game event” as either a run or an out) in the recorded four and a quarter hours, or a game event approximately every 38 seconds. This is not counting unhit balls and not taking into account the time taken to exchange places between half innings. The Honey Runs and the Marions, being more social than competitive, may simply have played the game at a leisurely pace.
The sum of the evidence strongly suggests that the competitive matches were played more skillfully and more aggressively and, simply put, more happened.
The Massachusetts game is frequently taken as being representative of the baseball family as a whole, which is assumed to be largely uniform. The New York game in turn is assumed to be an outgrowth of this, with certain innovations.
The one idea to take away from this reconstruction of Philadelphia town ball, apart from any interest the rules themselves might hold, is that the baseball family was more variable than is typically imagined. The basic framework was of a bat-and-ball game with bases arranged in a polygon. Within this framework there were various options (e.g. bound outs) and room for unique features (e.g. the absence of station-to-station running in Philadelphia town ball, or three-out innings in the New York game).
With the Massachusetts and New York games and Philadelphia town ball differing so much from one another, it is reasonable to assume that the myriad lesser-known forms were similarly varied. Before the New York game came to displace the other variants, the game was anything but homogeneous. It was a motley, with the New York game being only one form among many.
1. Compare this with the later practice of New York clubs playing in Hoboken. The reasons were the same: Urban development overran convenient playing grounds in the cities but mass transit systems had not yet arisen; it was easier to take the ferry to less-developed New Jersey than to make a road trip.
2. The 1838 constitution is [was] available at http://world.std.com/~pgw/19c/. The only known extant copy of the 1866 pamphlet is in the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.
3. New York Clipper: Sept. 19, 1857.
4. New York Clipper: Nov. 12, 1859; Dec. 3, 1859; Dec. 17, 1859.
5. Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times: Apr. 28, 1860; New York Clipper: Nov. 14, 1863; Nov. 28, 1863.
6. Fitzgerald’s City Item (Philadelphia), October 22, 1859, included them in a list of local “ball clubs.”
7. New York Clipper: Aug. 21, 1858: a letter from the secretary states the club had been organized “about a year.”
8. New York Clipper: May 10, 1862. The traditional date for the founding of the Athletics is April 7, 1860. This in fact is the date when the club voted to adopt the New York game. Their origin as a town ball club is discussed in the Clipper article. They are also included in the list in Fitzgerald’s City Item, Oct. 22, 1859.
9. New York Clipper: May 29, 1858; June 19, 1858; July 3, 1858.
10. New York Clipper: Nov. 27, 1858.
11. New York Clipper: Nov. 26, 1859; Dec. 24, 1859.
12. The Morning Pennsylvanian (Philadelphia): May 28, 1860; New York Clipper: May 19, 1860.
13. New York Clipper: June 30, 1860. The first match game in Philadelphia is often incorrectly identified as that of June 26 between the Equity and the Pennsylvania clubs.
14. New York Clipper: Oct. 6, 1860.
15. Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times: Feb. 9, 1861.
16. The Morning Pennsylvanian (Philadelphia): May 28, 1860; New York Clipper: Oct. 19, 1861.
17. Philadelphia Inquirer: May 21, 1862.
18. Brooklyn Eagle: Aug. 6, 1864; Aug. 3, 1864.
19. The oldest known attested use of “base-ball” is from 1744; see: Block, D. 2005. Baseball Before We Knew It. Lincoln, Neb. (p. 178). For “feeder,” see ibid., p. 138.
20. Halliwell, J. 1847. Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, Obsolete Phrases, Proverbs, and Ancient Customs. London (p. 146).
21. New York Clipper: Aug. 11, 1860; June 9, 1860.
22. The New York game is conventionally said to originate with the Knickerbocker Club rules of 1845, but it was the meeting of the Knickerbockers and three other clubs in 1854 that produced a standard set of rules for interclub match play.
23. Astifan, P., and L. McCray, “‘Old Fashioned Base Ball’ in Western New York, 1825–1860” (forthcoming).
24. Henderson, R. 2001. Ball, Bat and Bishop. Chicago/Urbana (p. 151).
25. New York Clipper: Aug. 4, 1860; Aug. 11, 1860.
26. Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times: Mar. 2, 1861.
27. The Sporting Life: Dec. 31, 1884.
28. New York Clipper: May 29, 1858.
29. The Morning Pennsylvanian (Philadelphia): Nov. 11, 1859; Nov. 28, 1859.
30. Block 2005, 279–280.
31. Ibid., 81–82.
32. New York Clipper: May 10, 1862.
33. Block 2005, 276.
34. New York Clipper: Sept. 19, 1857.
35. New York Clipper: July 12, 1862.
36. Sunday Dispatch (Philadelphia): Nov. 20, 1859.
37. The Press (Philadelphia): July 12, 1860.
38. This is consistent with contemporary accounts, such as that from the New York Clipper, August 21, 1858, reporting a game by the Excelsior Club of Cincinnati of four innings.
39. New York Clipper: May 29, 1858; June 19, 1858; Aug. 4, 1860; Aug. 11, 1860.
40. The Morning Pennsylvanian (Philadelphia): Aug. 2, 1860.
41. Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times: Mar. 2, 1861.
42. The Press (Philadelphia): Nov. 8, 1860.