Thursday, June 1, 2006
Updated: June 2, 12:11 PM ET
'Who thunk it?' baseball facts
By Jim Baker
Special to Page 2
Sometimes, a forward thinker comes up with an idea before there is a practical use for it. History is littered with such examples, most notably the fax machine, a device that was invented in the 1840s, decades before the pace of commerce demanded the instantaneous transfer of documents. Baseball, too, has seen its share of ideas whose time was not quite right. Today we will take a look at innovations whose introductions predated their usefulness or acceptance by many years.
Fantasy baseball (1858)
According to a packet of letters recently found for sale on eBay, the popular pursuit of drafting players onto personalized teams is actually 150 years old! In a letter dated April 5, 1858, a man named Riggard Melson wrote:
"... Bartholomew, Tilden, Lewis Vraple, and I have worked out a plan by which we will select well-knowns from local nines and assign them to ourselves. A tally will be made of their doings as reported by the papers and the winner amongst us shall receive a silver cup from his fellows. What jolly sport this shall be!"
It wasn't long before the limited scope of record keeping of the day (basically outs and runs scored) began to take its toll, however, as a letter dated June 7 of the same year indicates:
"... hand lost, runs, hand lost, runs -- over and over again. I dare write that ennui has overtaken our enterprise owing to the accounting of a mere two columns for each player. I would trade a fat pig for some variety I would. Bartholomew has told me plainly that he sees no point in a continuance of this pursuit while Tilden and Vraple are only slightly less disinterested. What am I to do with my life now, dear mother?"
Instant replay (1879)
Years before there were moving pictures there was instant replay. As a result of arguments on close plays, the powers that be in the new Northwestern League hit upon an innovation: They would have their umpires watch plays a second time and decide what had really happened. This was achieved by asking the players involved to repeat their actions of a moment before "with a gentlemanly mind toward honesty and no malice aforethought." And, in a precursor to slow-motion, it was also requested that "players effect a more measured pace in so doing so as to facilitate a more favorable view for the umpire." Whatever the best intentions of the league's powers that be, it stood to reason that players would try to gain an advantage in their recreations. This led to further arguments and, in one notable case in a game that pitted Davenport against Omaha, an all-out brawl over the exaggerated actions of players asked to encore their movements.
Of course, it wasn't called "QuesTec" back then, but "Professor Guberman's Patented Pitching Accuracy Cone." Inventor Adolphus Guberman proposed that every ballpark be equipped with a set of various open-ended wooden cones. The large end would correspond in size with the strike zone of a player, depending on his physical configuration. (The Davy Force model being on the small end and the Cap Anson model being on the large.) According to the patent drawings, the cones -- which had a square opening to correspond with the strike zone -- would be set upon a stand in front of the catcher just behind the batter. If a pitched ball was not struck by the batter but missed entering the cone, it was a ball. If the pitcher could heave it past the batter into the cone, it would be a strike. Problems arose when the catcher wanted to retrieve the ball from the cone to throw out an opposing base stealer. Before the kinks could be worked out, a rival device -- "McFringer's Automated Umpiring System" -- was introduced and a patent war ensued, financially undoing both parties.
The Bullpen Cart (1890)
Picture if you will a giant, steam-driven tractor idling in the far corner of a ballpark, waiting for the call to carry a relief pitcher the 200 or so feet from the warm-up area to the sideline closest to the pitcher's box. The problems were obvious: Firing up the boiler took forever, the machine had a top speed of about five miles per hour, its giant metal wheels tore hell out of the turf, and there was always the chance that sparks might fly and set fire to the wooden grandstand. Why anyone thought this was necessary in an era when there might be 20 relief appearances in the course of a 135-game season is anyone's guess. The following year, rails and ties were laid and the huge tractor was replaced by a locomotive, tender and passenger car. While the turf was no longer damaged, the tracks caused a whole new set of problems. Known as "The Replacement Railway" when it debuted in St. Louis of the American Association, it did not survive the team's 1892 transition to the National League.
Today we call it "blogging." When it was first tried in 1907 by a man named Cyrus Dalrymple, it was known as "keying." Dalrymple was a Cincinnati Reds fan who was growing increasingly frustrated with his team's poor start. After the Cincinnatis got blown out 10-2 by the Cubs, Dalrymple ran to the nearest telegraph office and sent an identical message to a handful of like-minded friends:
Ned Hanlon a nincompoop. Stop. Do not care how many pennants won in Balt and Bkn. Stop. What has he done for us. Stop. Show him the door. Stop. Kruger a yannigan. Stop. Lobert a muffin. Stop. Mason could not strike out Mrs. Roosevelt. Stop. More tomorrow.
Soon, Dalrymple was sending telegrams after every game he witnessed to a growing number of people. They became longer and more exasperated in tone as the Reds continued to lose. Telegrams were not cheap, being billed on a per-word basis. After six weeks, Dalrymple had run through his life savings complaining about a team that was clearly going nowhere. By then he had a number of keying imitators in cities throughout the National League but, one by one, they too went broke and gave up the practice.
Artificial Turf (1915)
It wasn't really artificial and it certainly wasn't turf. What it also definitely wasn't was grass. "It was fur," recalled Arthur van Gilder, its creator, in a 1977 interview. "All kinds of fur." Angered that his favorite players often banged themselves up diving for batted balls, van Gilder patented a field made entirely of soft, fluffy animal fur. What was artificial about the concept was that the whole affair was dyed green. "From the stands you couldn't tell," Van Gilder claimed. Buffalo and Newark of the Federal League agreed to play an exhibition game on the surface. Everything went fine until the third inning when it starting raining and a stench began to arise from the fur turf. "It smelled of wet dog, if you want to know," said Newark outfielder Edd Roush.
Diamond Vision (1934)
It stood to reason that once the drive-in movie theater became reality, somebody would try to incorporate the technology in a baseball setting. That somebody was Helfman Luggs, an unemployed paper hanger from Philadelphia who claimed he was the first person to ever sneak into a drive-in movie in an automobile trunk, a feat he allegedly managed in nearby by Camden, New Jersey. Luggs somehow managed to convince the Phillies that a big screen showing ballgame newsreel highlights was just the thing they needed to liven up the moribund Baker Bowl. That the images on the screen were barely visible in broad daylight was certainly a problem but the real end of the experiment was sounded by the fact that Luggs accidentally brought the wrong film cans to the ballpark. Instead of baseball footage, the sparse Philly crowd was treated to a series of "nature" films from Luggs' private collection. While none of the 800 or so men in attendance complained, the Phillies declined to make Luggs and his projector a regular feature of their games.
Jim Baker is a regular contributor to Page 2 and also writes for Baseball Prospectus..