Monday, March 30, 2009

On Baseball and History

Being the offseason fanatics that we are, my wife and I have been delving into the nostalgic realm of Ken Burns' rather lengthy and thorough documentary "Baseball", which came out about 15 years ago on PBS. Devoting nearly 2 hours to each decade of the game, from the 1860's until modern-day play, it comments on the heroes, villains, changes, and impact of the game upon the people, and nation as a whole, throughout its history. If you haven't seen it, or parts of it, do give it a try. It puts FSN's "Baseball's Golden Age" to shame, just blows it out of the water.

During the first episode they talk about how A.G. Spalding went from being a pitcher, to club owner, to sporting goods magnate over the course of a decade and a half, and about the "Spalding's Guide to Baseball" that young boys and old men alike would read religiously during the formative years of the game. The 1895 edition of this publication was of special note, and I did a little digging and easily found it, in unabridged digital format thanks to Project Gutenberg, for my own reading.

To say the least, the entire human thought process was different in the late 19th century. Outlook on life, man's relation to fellow man, the love of language, and exhibiting professionalism in all aspects of one's life, set them apart from the relative cretins that prowl the earth today. This is transparently evident in the 1895 Spalding Guide to Baseball, and I wanted to share a few passages - for not only their writing, but their subject - are something that we just don't have anymore. The game was very different, and very dynamic during its early years, and although the "problems" don't translate to today's game, I'm sure you can appreciate the passages.

Some years ago, the swiftpitching--which had then about reached the highest point of speed--proved to be so costly in its wear and fear upon the catchers that clubs had to engage a corps of reserve catchers, in order to go through a season's campaign with any degree of success.

They go on to describe how the new invention of a catcher's "mitt" would help in limiting the "wear and tear" on the hands of the catchers. There was a pitcher by the name of Walter Johnson who pitched for the Washington Senators/Nationals, won 417 games from 1907-1927, and had it not been for the team's perrenial offensive struggles, most likely would have been a 30 game winner every year - for 20 years. So apparently this guy pitched faster than anyone else in history - literally, the only person who could hit the guy was Ty Cobb. His all-time strikeout record stood until 1983, when Nolan Ryan passed him. Anyhow, once an umpire as asked how he called balls and strikes for a guy nobody could see. The umpire said that it didn't bother him if the batters argued the calls (which didn't happen), because both he AND the batters had their eyes closed when Johnson was on the mound.

Then again they were told that "another very effective point instrategic pitching, is a thoroughly disguised change of pace indelivery.

Ah, yes. Enter the changeup. In a game dominated by tempers more than skill, the changeup was something a pitcher would be wise to add to his repertoire, were he a man wrought with enough temperance. But don't get too hasty, pitchers with a cool wit...

This is difficult of attainment, and as a general rule it canonly be played with effect on the careless class of batsmen.

Not all the batsmen you will face are subject to the trickery the changeup affords a hurler. Oh no, only those of the careless class.

But hitting, too, plays a large in a teams' ability to win more than they lose. Let's see what the folks at Spalding, and the National League office, say about the offensive side of things.

In fact, competent managers and captains of teams have learned in recent years, by costly experiment, that one of the most potent factors in winning pennants is the method of handling the ash known as good team-work at the bat - the very essence of which is devoting all the batsmen's efforts to forwarding runners by base hits, and not by each player's going to the bat simply to build up a high record of base hits without regard to forwarding runners on bases.

I guess small ball played a large role in the days of old, as it does today. Of course, it took these men to do the dirty work of "costly experimenting" for us, that we may reap the benefits of their labors. For surely, had they not found the most potent of ways to handle the ash, who knows how many decades would have passed before a team discovered small ball, or more precisely, was able to plate more runners than they put on base? They go on to caution against this...

Time and again were batsmen, last season, left on third base after opening the innings with a three-bagger, owing to the stupid work of the succeeding batsmen in trying to "line 'em out for a homer," instead of doing real team-work at the bat.

Remember kids, it's all about real team-work at the bat. Of course, different approaches were taken to the game back then, as things were still up in the air. Different schools of baseball thought were in play during the sport's childhood years, as we see here -

A great deal of bosh has been written--mostly by the admirers of "fungo"hitting--about sacrifice hitting being something that should not be in the game, just as these fungo-hitting-advocates try to write down"bunt hitting" the most difficult place hit known to the game.

The graceful art of bunt hitting was the brainchild of those who would write bosh of "sacrifice hitters", clearly. Who would write such bosh? Clearly, as a later example points out, the pennant-winning team in years past was most often the team who used more team work at the bat, vice the team who dealt mostly in homeruns, who would often find themselves near the bottom of the league standings.

Baserunning, too, plays a vital role in a team's success - as pointed out in the guide.

Any soft-brained heavy-weight can occasionally hit a ball for a home run, but it requires a shrewd, intelligent player, with his wits about him, to make a successful base runner.

Keep that in mind, all you soft-brained heavy-weights. Just you keep that in mind! So, who would make a good baserunner? What qualities would this man among boys have?

Presence of mind, prompt action on the spur of the moment;quickness of perception, and coolness and nerve are among the requisites of a successful base runner.

Good to know, eh? Ricky Hendersen surely was quick of perception, and cool of nerve, wasn't he? I think he was pretty fast, too. "Fleet of foot" as the saying goes. Speaking of which, what the hell is "footspeed"? Can anyone tell me that? How is that different from good old fashioned "speed"? Why do sports commentators feel the need to modify the term, or, perhaps designate it as it's own category? Just a question.

Back to this "catcher's mitt" you speak of. So, how has this affected the game? Well, fielding percentages, for one, have gone up. Thus batting averages have gone down, albeit marginally.

One reason for this was the introduction of the catcher's "big mitt" in the infield work--something that should not have been allowed. It was due to this fact that the batting scores were not larger the past season than they were in 1893, the big mitt on the hands of infielders enabling them to stop hard hit "bounders" and "daisy cutters" which, but for the use of the mitts, would have been clean earned base hits.

Yes, those daisy cutters surely had met their doom upon the introduction of the catcher's mitt, what with it's width and bredth and overall what have you.

My favorite part of the guide has to be it's dealing with "The Umpiring of 1894". Something we perhaps take for granted today, was more of a luxury back then. And by that I mean, safe, unbiased, and worry-free umpiring. Take a look.

There was one instance shown of the folly of condoning the offence of drinking, which should not have been allowed; a drunken umpire is worse than a drunken player, for no one will respect his decisions.

Surely, truer words have never been spoken. I don't trust a drunken police officer any more than I trust a drunken driver. Nor should you.

Also required of an umpire should be the quality of good character - so no one attached to prize-fighting should be allowed an umpiring position.

When it becomes anecessity to have to engage pugilists as umpires to control hoodlumplayers, then will professional ball playing cease to be worthy ofpublic patronage.

Baseball, during it's early ears, was exceptionally violent in nature. Players on the field, as well as unruly fans, not to mention players fighting with those unruly fans. Just ugly, really. Nothing like Pedro Martinez vs. Don Zimmer, but still pretty bad.

Being an umpire in late 19th century baseball was a dangerous gig, one I'm not too sure I'd volunteer for.

...from the time the umpire takes up his position behind the bat, from the beginning to the end of a game, he finds both the contesting teams regarding him as a common enemy, the losing side invariably blaming him as the primary cause of their losing the game.

Even today we aren't best friends with the umps, but he's no enemy. Nor, on the majority of ball game results today, would we find the Umpire as the reason for one team's winning or losing the game. I guess they really hated the man in the mask - a mask, might I add, the Umpires loudly called for to protect themselves, as it was not originally part of the man's uniform. But who else would wish the umpire harm?

Then, too, in addition to the contesting teams as his foes, there are the majority of the crowd of spectators to be added to the list, the rougher element of the assemblage, the latter of whom regard the umpire as an especial target for abuse in every instance in which the home team is defeated.

So you're telling me that the ump would get booed in New York if the Sox won the game? Well, maybe we've lost something in baseball, but surely this is not only a fan's right, but a fan's obligation? To boo and heckle the man behind the plate? Today, sure. But not back then. I wouldn't trust any of my loved ones in the company of the unruly mob lovingly referred to back then as "fans".

Any more enemies of the umpire?

Last on the list of the umpire's opponents are the betting class of reporters, who take delight in pitching into him whenever his decisions--no matter how impartially he acts--go against their pet club or the one they bet on.

Remember, this was back when there was no small brick wall topped by a 50-foot screen seperating the press and fans from homeplate and it's inhabitants. Reports were usually no more than 20 feet behind or to the side of the batsman, catcher, and umpire. And cursing them, spitting on them, and threatening them the whole time.

Come on now, folks. Let's give them a little slack. After all, it's a tough job calling games! Show a little sympathy, eh?

[they] never give a moment's thought to the ifficulties of the position he occupies, or to the arduous nature of he work he is called upon to perform. There he stands, close behind the atcher and batsman, where he is required to judge whether the wiftly-thrown ball from the pitcher, with its erratic "curves and shoots," darts in over the home base, or within the legal range of thebat.

Calling all bleeding-heart baseball spectators. Have a heart, would ya? It's a tough job, and somebody has to do it.

The startling fact is never considered that several umpires have been killed outright while occupying this dangerous position.

I ask again: surely, isn't there some other job you'd rather have? Shipright? Blacksmith? Farmer? Honestly, you don't have a trade? I even hear that the guy selling score cards at the ball game makes it home safely to his wife and kids.

In fact, the umpire stands there as he one defenseless man against thousands of pitiless foes. The wonderis that half the umpires in the arena are as successful in the discharge f their arduous duties as they are, and the still greater wonder isthat any self-respecting man can be induced to occupy a position whichis becoming year after year more objectionable.

Thank you! Even the league magnates understand this. What kind of man would be an umpire? Perhaps a criminal. Or perhaps a modern-day Cubs fan - they are used to self-inflicted pain and humiliation.

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