Friday, July 24, 2020

Opening Day

Baseball's back.


Now back to regularly scheduled programming.

Play ball!

Friday, July 10, 2020

In the Big Inning: The Baseball Creation Myth

1839 was a big year for discoveries and inventions.
Consider this, in 1839...
  • Paris, Louis Daguerre announces to the world his new invention, the Dagerreotype, marking the birth of photography.
  • London, Michael Faraday publishes Experimental Researches in Electricity , describing his experiments which defined the true nature of electricity.
  • Philadelphia, William Otis invents the steam shovel.
  • Springfield, MA, Charles Goodyear vucanizes rubber, while...
  • Cooperstown, NY- Abner Doubleday, nowhere to be found, does not invent baseball.
Wait a second... that last one, everybody knows that Abner Doubleday invented baseball, right? 

Abner Doubleday did a lot of things in his remarkable life.
Inventing baseball was not one of them. 
Well not really in fact, no, not at all. Let's go back to the year 1791:
September 5, Pittsfield, MA- At a town meeting on that date, a document written by town lawyer Woodbridge Little stated the following: 
The following ByeLaw, for the Preservation of the Windows in the New Meeting House in said Town...
Be it ordained by the said Inhabitants that no Person, an Inhabitant of said Town, shall be permitted to play at any Game called Wicket, Cricket, Baseball, Batball, Football, Cat, Fives or any other Game or Games with Balls within the Distance of Eighty Yards from said Meeting House; and every such Person who shall play at any of the said Games or other Games with Balls within the Distance aforesaid, shall for any Instance thereof, forfeit the Sum of five schillings to be recovered by Action of Debt brought before any Justice of the Peace to the Use of the Person who shall sue and prosecute therefor...
In other words, "No ball playing allowed."
That bit of legislation was presented to the Pittsfield council to stem the recent trend of damage to the windows of the then under construction First Congregational Parish church, caused by errant balls coming from the above mentioned games.
That mention of “Baseball” is the first known appearance of the word in writing.

But what exactly did they mean by baseball, surely not the same thing we've come to know along with eating apple pie and hot dogs, driving Chevrolets and blowing up things on the Fourth of July as our National Pastime?

Well not really but sort of. If you'll indulge me for a few moments, here's something I wrote a few years ago speculating on the origins of baseball and specifically the Abner Doubleday myth :

The origins of baseball can be traced back to the primordial soup of stick and ball games dating back to Ancient Egypt and beyond. The game's closest contemporary relative is cricket. Like baseball, cricket is a highly organized game with a stringent set of rules governing play. It employs fielders and pitchers (called bowlers) on the defensive side, and batters (batsmen if you prefer) on the offense. The goal of the offense is to hit the ball and score runs. Preventing them from doing so, the goal of the defense is to put the batters out. The game is divided into innings where teams alternate turns at the bat. While one could argue there are more differences between baseball and cricket than similarities, the relationship between the two games in unmistakable.

A case could be made for this man
to be dubbed "The Father of Baseball"
Henry Chadwick's enduring legacy was
as a tireless advocate of the game.
He is responsible for developing
the box score and the system of scoring
that is used to this day. It was his spat with
his boss Albert Spalding, that led to the
commission that came up with the
Abner Doubleday baseball creation myth. 
Now flash forward to 1903. One of the great chroniclers of 19th Century baseball, an Englishman named Henry Chadwick, commented that the American game was derived from the English game of rounders, something he played as a child. The elders of baseball at the time, led by former major league pitcher and sporting goods magnate Albert Goodwill Spalding would have none of it. Baseball they believed, was our national pastime, and as such, had to have been born and bred in the good ol' USA.

Such was the controversy over Chadwick's remarks that a commission to determine the true origin of baseball was convened. After three years of hard work, the conclusion of the Mills Commission (named after the chairman of the committee, A.G. Mills), was that baseball was invented in 1839 in Cooperstown, NY by Abner Doubleday.

Now Abner Doubleday was already a man of historical significance. As a US Army officer stationed in Charleston, SC, he was responsible for firing the first shot in the defense of Fort Sumpter, marking the beginning of the American Civil War. After the war he became one of the major investors in the San Francisco cable car system. The commission based its findings entirely upon two letters from an Abner Graves of Denver who stated that sixty five years earlier he was a personal witness to Doubleday's having invented baseball. According to Graves, Doubleday significantly changed and improved upon an already existing game called town ball. Graves also claimed to have participated in some of the very first baseball games. Graves concludes his first letter with this:
Baseball is undoubtedly a pure American game, and its birthplace Cooperstown, New York, and Abner Doubleday entitled to first honor of its invention.
Just in case his motives for writing the commission weren't clear from his first letter, Graves's second letter ends with this:
I would rather have Uncle Sam declare war on England and clean her up rather than have one of her citizens beat us out of Base Ball.
Graves's letters being all the evidence they felt they needed to prove that baseball was invented by an American, a Civil War hero no less, the Mills Commission ran with it. That was their story and they were sticking to it. Never mind that: 
  • Graves would have only been five years old in 1839, or that 
  • in 1839, Doubleday was not in Cooperstown but a cadet at West Point. 
  • Never mind that in all the diaries and correspondences left behind after his death in 1893, Abner Doubleday never once mentioned baseball. 
  • Never mind that Doubleday never once spoke about baseball let alone his involvement in its creation to any of his friends and acquaintances, including A.G. Mills himself, Chairman of the Commission and the former president of the National League! 
Despite very shaky evidence to say the least, the Mills Commission gave birth to a creation myth of baseball that lives to this day.

Contrary to the commission's findings, it's far more likely that baseball was not invented, but rather evolved over a period of time. Long before there was a sanctioned sport in this country known as baseball, there were other stick and ball games such as old cat and the above mentioned town ball, played mostly by children. These games bore as much resemblance to the current playground games of tag and dodgeball as they did to other stick and ball games; runners were "safe" so long as they stood at the bases (which were originally one or more stakes in the ground), but were fair game when running between them. Runners were put out by being hit (plugged in official terminology) by the ball thrown by the fielders. These games were informal contests and could be played by any number of players. Instead of two contesting teams it was often one player (the batter) against everybody else. 

Such was the case with the game that Abner Doubleday allegedly improved upon in Cooperstown. But there is good evidence that these changes were imposed on the game earlier, in varying degrees from region to region. As the game(s) evolved, more formal rules were put into place and adults got into the act. Different areas in the United States boasted their own versions of town ball. One of these versions, the one played in New York, eventually won out over the others and became the game of baseball as we know it.

That New York game was played not in Cooperstown, but on the West Side of New York City, and across the Hudson in Hoboken, NJ, by a men's club known as the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. The Club was organized in 1845 by Alexander Joy Cartwright. The club adopted a set of twenty rules for the game they played, set down by Cartwright on September 23rd, 1845. Although the details are unknown, it's unlikely that Cartwright made up these rules on his own, rather he simply put down in words the details of the game he and his friends had already been playing. 

A daguerreotype of Alexander Cartwright, top center, with his fellow New York Knickerbockers.
Regardless, Cartwright's set of rules form much of the basis of the game we know today, including the layout of the baseball diamond, the establishment of foul territory, three (swung) strikes for an out, three outs per side per inning, batting in pre-determined order, even more obscure rules concerning the dropped third strike and balking. Also, the Knickerbocker rules put an end once and for all to the practice of plugging runners. 

What a shame.

Anyway, the establishment of rules for the game had far reaching results, some of them unintended. Sanctioned rules made the game respectable as an activity for adults, especially as the leisure pursuit for well heeled gentlemen such as the ones who made up clubs like the Knickerbockers. But just as cricket had drawn gamblers for centuries, the rules also opened up the door for serious wagering. The Knickerbocker rules soon became the standard rules of the game adopted by other groups of ball players across the country, serving as the catalyst for making base ball popular. 

But it was the gambling that turned the game from purely a recreational activity into a spectator sport, a big business, and ultimately our national pastime.


Gambling in baseball? I'm shocked, SHOCKED! 

But can you think of another reason why working people would spend their hard earned money (which they did) on their one day off of the week to just to watch dandies like the ones pictured above playing a children's game? The part of the game that truly evolved into what we have today happened two rivers across from the bucolic Elysian Fields of New Jersey, the playing grounds of the Knickerbockers, over in Brooklyn. 

But that's a story for another day.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

The Greatest Game Ever Pitched

July 2, 1963, Candlestick Park, San Francisco-  In baseball, there are many ways to judge a great pitching performance. One cannot argue that the pinnacle of accomplishments for a pitcher is to face 27 consecutive batters in a game without allowing a base runner, a perfect game. But perfect games are sort of like unassisted triple plays, they're freaks of nature. While a perfect game certainly requires a tremendous pitching performance, it also takes the perfect alignment of the stars to pull it off. Because they are so rare, some of the most famous pitching performances are the perfect games. But it could be said that the real test of a pitcher's mettle comes when he has to face adversity, having to pitch himself out of trouble in a close game, and still not allowing any runs.

There was a game along those lines that stands above the others, a game some people call the greatest game ever pitched. In that game, not one, but two future Hall of Famers faced each other. Each faced adversity, yet neither allowed a run until the very last play of the game. The game lasted sixteen innings and in the end, both starters figured in the decision.

It took place on a cool, windy evening (what other kind were there?) in Candlestick Park just before Independence Day. The two pitchers were entirely different from one another, yet mirror images. One was a right hander, the other a southpaw, one was black, the other white. One was at the beginning of his career; he would become the winningest pitcher of his decade. The other, his 300th win already two years behind him, would become the winningest left handed pitcher of all time. Both pitchers had ridiculously high leg kicks which prevented batters from seeing the ball until the moment if left the pitchers’ hands. Both were known for their tremendous control and ability to mix up pitches. And both featured a screwball in their repertoire.

In the 14th inning, during his third or fourth visit to the mound, just to check on the health of his young pitcher, Giants’ manager Alvin Dark was told by Juan Marichel:

Alvin, do you see that man pitching on the other side? He's 42 and I'm 25, and you can't take me out until that man is not pitching.

“That man” was Milwaukee’s Warren Spahn. The respective lineups the two had to face were not so bad either. They included the two men tied for most home runs in the National League that year. Marichal had to face the likes of future Hall of Famers Eddie Matthews, Henry Aaron, and Spahn himself, who was an excellent hitting pitcher. Spahn’s task on the mound was even more formidable. He had to face Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Felipe Alou, Orlando Cepeda and several other strong hitters in the Giant lineup. Despite Spahn giving up nine hits and Marichel eight, inning after inning both men just kept posting zeros on the line score. Not that there weren't chances. Willie Mays threw Norm Larker out at home in the fourth. The Giants got a couple of hits in the seventh but to no avail. The Giants’ Harvey Kuenn led off the 14th with a double. With Mays, McCovey, Alou and Cepeda to follow, the game looked all but over. But it wasn't. Spahn got out of that jam too. Finally after Marichel got the Braves out in the top of the 16th, Dark told him he was through. Devastated, he confided in Willie Mays that he would be outlasted by the old man. Mays who was scheduled to bat second in the bottom of that inning told Marichel not to worry.

Twelve years earlier at the Polo Grounds in New York, Spahn gave up rookie Willie Mays’ (who had been 0 for his first 12 at bats), first career hit, a home run. The rest of his life Spahn famously joked:

I'll never forgive myself, we might have gotten rid of Willie forever if I’d only struck him out.

After Spahn’s death, his son Greg said that out of all the pitches his father threw in his illustrious career, the last pitch to Mays on that early morning of July 3rd, 1963 in San Francisco, was the one he wanted back the most.

Mays’ walk off homer in the bottom of the 16th inning won the game for Marichel and the Giants in most likely the greatest pitching duel of all time.

Final score: Giants 1, Braves 0.