America's National Game/Chapter 34

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WHILE writing this book, I have purposely avoided touching upon the technique of the game of Base Ball in its several departments, for the reason that the opinions of up-to-date, scientific experts so widely and so honestly vary as to what really constitute important methods that there is no intelligent hope of bringing them together by opening in these pages a discussion of the many playing features of the game.

However, I may, with perfect consistency, touch upon certain beginnings of things within my own recollection, welcoming any amendments to them of fact that may be antedated by the memories of others.

The first glove I ever saw on the hand of a ball player in a game was worn by Charles C. Waite, in Boston, in 1875. He had come from New Haven and was playing at first base. The glove worn by him was of flesh color, with a large, round opening in the back. Now, I had for a good while felt the need of some sort of hand protection for myself. In those days clubs did not carry an extra carload of pitchers, as now. For several years I had pitched in every game played by the Boston team, and had developed severe bruises on the inside of my left hand. When it is recalled that every ball pitched had to be returned, and that every swift one coming my way, from infielders, outfielders or hot from the bat, must be caught or stopped, some idea may be gained of the punishment received.

Therefore, I asked Waite about his glove. He confessed that he was a bit ashamed to wear it, but had it on to save his hand. He also admitted that he had chosen a color as inconspicuous as possible, because he didn't care to attract attention. He added that the opening on the back was for purpose of ventilation.

Meanwhile my own hand continued to take its medicine with utmost regularity, occasionally being bored with a warm twister that hurt excruciatingly. Still, it was not until 1877 that I overcame my scruples against joining the "kid-glove aristocracy" by donning a glove. When I did at last decide to do so, I did not select a flesh-colored glove, but got a black one, and cut out as much of the back as possible to let the air in.

Happily, in my case, the presence of a glove did not call out the ridicule that had greeted Waite. I had been playing so long and had become so well known that the innovation seemed rather to evoke sympathy than hilarity. I found that the glove, thin as it was, helped considerably, and inserted one pad after another until a good deal of relief was afforded. If anyone wore a padded glove before this date I do not know it. The "pillow mitt" was a later innovation.

About this time, 1875-6, James Tyng, catcher for the Harvard Base Ball Club, appeared on the Boston grounds one day, and, stepping to his position, donned the first wire mask I had ever seen. This mask had been invented and patented by Mr. Fred W. Thayer, a Harvard player, now a prominent lawyer of Boston. Like other protective innovations at that stage of the game, it was not at first well received by professionals. Our catcher, James White, was urged to try it, and after some coaxing consented. I pitched him a few balls, some of which he missed, and finally, becoming disgusted at being unable to see the ball readily, he tore off the mask and, hurling it toward the bench, went on without it.

This wire mask, with certain modifications, is the same that has been used by catchers ever since.

In June, 1908, the New York World had the following version of the introduction of the mask:

"Very few, even of the old-time Base Ball fans, could tell who had the distinction of being the first player to don a Base Ball mask. Dr. Harry Thatcher, of Dexter, Me., at that time a resident of Bangor, is the man, and the mask was invented by a Boston man and a captain of the Harvard Base Ball nine.

"It was way back in the '70s that the Base Ball mask was first invented. The national game was a rather crude affair compared with what it is now, but the principles of the game were about the same and the players of those early days realized the troubles of the man behind the bat. At that time catcher's and first baseman's mitts were unheard-of things, and those players caught the ball bare-handed.

"It was a few years prior to 1878 that Fred Thayer, of Boston, at that time a player on the Harvard nine, realized the necessity of a covering for the face of the catcher in a Base Ball game. He set about to see what he could do in that way, and the result was a Base Ball mask. It had its beginning then.

"When Mr. Thayer had a mask which he thought would answer its purpose, he introduced it in the games which the Harvard nine was playing at that time and of which he was captain and third baseman. Harry Thatcher was 'the man behind the bat' on Captain Thayer's team, and it fell to him to don the mask for the first time.

"It is said that Dr, Thatcher did not take to the idea very well, for the players on the Harvard team guyed him not a little for wearing it, as they said that it was 'babyish' and cowardly to wear a protection to the face. So the doctor was not seen very often after that wearing Mr. Thayer's invention, but instead used a rubber mouthpiece to protect himself from foul tips and the inshoots of the slab artist.

"Shortly after Mr. Thayer got out the first sample of his invention Mr. Spalding saw the possibilities of the Thayer invention and sought to get control of it. Finally the matter came to a head in a lawsuit over who had a right to the patent. Finally, February 12, 1878, Mr. Spalding was granted a patent.

"F. H. Davis, of Bangor, has the mask that was worn by Addison Hamlin, of that city, when the catcher on the Harvard nine during his college course, and it differs in appearance from the modern Base Ball mask very little.

"Of course, it is somewhat cruder in appearance than the finished product of the present day, but it has the same general features. The padding is of cotton batting with long leather strips wound around the wire to keep it in place. The wire shield to the face is different from the masks of to-day in that it comes to a sharp point in front, so that if a ball should hit it it would glance off."

That Dr. Thatcher was not, and that James Tyng was, the first catcher to wear the mask in a regular game it is quite possible to demonstrate by competent witnesses, but in doing this a slight discrepancy in time is introduced. In a letter quite recently received from Mr. Fred W. Thayer, the inventor of the mask, that gentleman writes:

"116 Federal Street,
, May 18, 1911.

"My Dear Mr. Spalding:

"I am in receipt of your favor of the 9th instant. You shall have the facts in regard to the catcher's mask, and I think you can feel assured that the data are all correct.

"In order to give you the whole story I shall have to ask you to go back to the year '76 that you may know what the conditions were in Harvard Base Ball matters.

"Thatcher was the catcher in the season of '76. He left college at the end of the year.

"You will recall the fact that college nines especially had rarely more than one, possibly two, substitutes, and these were 'general utility' men.

"Tyng was the best all around natural ball player of my time. He had played third base, center field, and helped out in other positions, including catcher, in the season of '76. In one or two games in which he caught behind the bat he had been hit by foul tips and had become more or less timid.

"He was, by all odds, the most available man as catcher for the season of '77, and it was up to me to find some way to bring back his confidence.

"The fencing mask naturally gave me the hint as to the protection for the face, and then it was up to me to devise some means of having the impact of the blow kept from driving the mask onto the face. The forehead and chin rest accomplished this and also made it possible for me to secure a patent, which I did in the winter of 1878.

"Tyng practiced catching with the mask, behind the bat, in the gymnasium during the winter of '77, and became so thoroughly proficient that foul tips had no further terrors for him.

"The first match game in which the mask was used was on Fast Day, in Lynn, against the Live Oaks, in April, 1877. Thereafter the Harvard catcher used it in all games.

"I hope this will give you the data which you wish. At all events it gives you the real facts in regard to the Base Ball mask.

"Yours faithfully,

(Signed) "Fred W. Thayer."

In a communication from Mr. George Wright, the famous old-time ball player, bearing date Boston, May 17. 1911, he says:

"The first time I saw the mask and it being used was by Tyng, when catching in a game on the Harvard nine in 1877. What game it was I cannot remember. But that fall Mr. Thayer, by appointment, brought the mask to my store on Eliot street. Harry Schafer, being there, put it on, when we threw several balls at it, which glanced off, he not feeling any jar or effect from them. We pronounced it a success and decided it would come into general use. I made arrangements at the time with Mr. Thayer to patent the mask, control the sale of it, and pay him a royalty, and, as you know, after the above date the mask gradually came into general use. Who the first professional player was to use it I cannot say. The mask was patented 1878."

To Roger Bresnahan, manager of the St. Louis Nationals, belongs the credit of the recent introduction of shinguards for the catcher.

When sliding, as an aid to the base runner, began, I am not prepared to state with authority. I do know, however, that its introduction was not by "King" Kelly, as has sometimes been claimed. As early as 1866 (Kelly began to play as a lad in 1873), at a game at Rochelle, Illinois, Robert Addy startled the players of the Forest Citys by a diving slide for second base. None of us had ever witnessed the play before, though it may have been in vogue. Certainly we were quite nonplussed, and just as surely the slogan, "Slide, Kelly, slide," had not been heard at that time.

All the varied modifications of the slide have been well known for many years, and, but for the fact that different players adopt different methods of "getting there," not many changes have been introduced, some reaching the bases "head-on," others feet foremost, still others sliding sideways, and a few by a low dodge and grab of the sack with one hand.

The bunt sacrifice hit is a comparatively recent introduction to the game. Years before it was thought of much attention had been given to placing hits in exposed portions of the field, and some batsmen had gained considerable proficiency in the science. Others made a specialty of the long, high drive, in the hope of a muff or of aiding base runners to advance after the ball had been caught, with only one man out. But to stop the ball at close infield, with the expectation of giving advantage to base runners, and with the forlorn chance of beating the ball to first, was not adopted systematically as a feature of the game until much later. I regret that I am not able to give the name of the player who introduced this very important innovation or the time of its first presentation.

As a matter of fact, from the time of the adoption of regular playing rules by the old Knickerbockers, changes in the technique of Base Ball have been remarkably few in number as compared with the great advances in skill and science of play. The ball has been recently improved, but is still of practically the same size and weight. Bats are substantially of the same form and material as at the beginning of professional Base Ball. The masks and gloves and mitts have been somewhat bettered in material and workmanship, and uniforms and shoes are better; but the same general quality of fabric and fashion are yet employed in their making.

In one department of the game, however, the change has been very marked. Pitching has undergone a complete revolution. Indeed, the word "pitching," which was properly applied to the act of ball delivery at first, is to-day a misnomer. The ball as now presented to the batsman is not pitched, but thrown. Whereas, in the early days, it left the pitcher's hand with a peculiar snap of the wrist from an unbent elbow, and below the hip, now it may be hurled in any manner at the pitcher's option.

Perhaps at this point it may be of interest to consider briefly the causes that resulted in the change from the old-time straight arm pitch to the present unrestricted delivery of the ball. First, then, it must be conceded that the method employed at the beginning was never acquired by many men. It seemed to be a natural gift to a few players in the early seventies and before, but, in spite of the earnest efforts of hundreds to acquire the science of delivery as required by the published rules, less than a dozen pitchers were using it up to 1876, and only half a dozen gained eminence as pitchers at this time. These were Brainard, Cummins, Matthews, McBride, Spalding and Zettlein. All the above named, with the exception of Cummins, who began pitching in 1873, were in the game from 1870 to 1876, when the National League was formed, following which, in 1884, after numerous modifications, the straight arm delivery was finally abrogated.

The fact that so few ball players were ever able to acquire the "knack" of straight arm pitching led to many embarrassments at the beginning of professional Base Ball. The game was rapidly growing in favor, new clubs and new leagues were coming into existence all over the country, but the supply of pitchers did not correspondingly keep pace. Something had to be done. As the rules were unchanged, and as only a dozen legal pitchers were in the country, clubs were forced to put men in the box who attempted the straight arm delivery, but who only succeeded in presenting a very poor imitation. The effect of this course was to put the question up to the umpire, and if he ruled against the pitcher there was a disappointed crowd, no game, or an utterly uninteresting exhibition. If the umpire ruled in favor of the bogus pitcher, there was bitter controversy on the field and usually a protested game. Still, it was a fact that there were not enough legal pitchers to man all the teams, and the result of this condition was a growing tendency on the part of umpires to be lax in the enforcement of the rule. In most cases, where the demand of the captain of the club possessing a legitimate pitcher was not too strong, the umpire permitted the unlawful delivery of the ball rather than stop the game and disappoint the crowd.

It should not be understood that no modifications of the straight arm delivery had been made previous to 1884. There had been several changes, but each resulted in partial failure. The original Knickerbocker rules of 1845 required that

"The ball must be pitched and not thrown for the bat."

In 1860 the rule was revised by the original National Association of Base Ball Players, providing that

"The ball must be pitched, not jerked nor thrown to the bat."

In 1875 another change provided that

"The ball must be delivered to the bat with the arm swinging nearly perpendicular at the side of the body, and the hand in swinging forward must not be raised higher than the hip."

The National League, in the first year of its existence, in 1876, made a change providing that

"The ball must be delivered to the bat with the arm swinging nearly perpendicularly at the side of the body, and the hand in passing forward must pass below the hip."

In 1878 the National League again changed the rule, requiring the pitcher to deliver the ball

"Below his waist."

In 1883 the National League once more revised the rule, requiring that the ball should

"Be delivered below the pitcher's shoulder."

None of these changes were satisfactory. The requirement that the ball should be delivered with the arm swinging perpendicularly gave too much latitude to the umpires who did not agree in their interpretation of the term. The provision of 1878 induced pitchers to wear their belts abnormally high to elevate the "waist line" to the shoulder, and the rule of 1883, requiring delivery below the shoulder, was deceptive and differently construed by different umpires.

It was not, therefore, until the change of 1884, removing all bans and permitting the pitcher to use his own option as to his method of delivering the ball, that the need of further change was removed. I was present at the meeting of the League when this action was taken. I do not recall who presented the resolution removing all bans from the pitcher, but I remember that it followed much acrimonious discussion, and I was most heartily in favor of doing away with all restrictions.

The withdrawal of the old-time straight elbow restraint of course enabled pitchers to devote their talents to the development of new methods of delivery calculated to deceive the batsman, but long before this some efforts in that direction had been made.

Arthur Cummins, of Brooklyn, was the first pitcher of the old school that I ever saw pitch a curved ball. Bobby Matthews soon followed. This was in the early seventies. Both men were very light, spare fellows, with long, sinewy wrists, and having a peculiar wrist-joint motion with a certain way of holding the ball near the fingers' ends that enabled them to impart a rotary motion to the ball, followed by a noticeable outward curve.

In 1874 Tom Bond inaugurated the present style of pitching or, rather, underhand throwing, with its in-curves and out-shoots. This style of delivery was then in violation of the straight-arm pitching rules, but umpires were disposed to let it go, and thus gradually, in spite of legislation, the old style gave way to the new.

In the first year of the existence of the National League several of its pitchers began the delivery of the curved ball, that is, a ball which, after leaving the pitcher's hand, would curve to the right or left, and could be made to deceive the batsman by appearing to come wide of the plate and then suddenly turn in and pass over it; or, appearing to come directly over the plate, to shoot out, missing it entirely.

The result of this work on the part of the pitcher was to make hitting much less frequent and small scores characterized all well-played games. In 1877, as a result of the curved ball, a hot controversy arose into which many scientists were drawn. Distinguished collegians openly declared that the "curved ball" was a myth; that any other deflection of a thrown ball than that caused by the wind or opposing air-currents was impossible. Men high up in the game clung strenuously to the same opinion. Col. J. B. Joyce, who had been a ruling spirit in the old Cincinnati Red Stockings, held to this view. It was absurd, he claimed, to say that any man could throw a ball other than in a straight line. A practical test was made at Cincinnati in the presence of a great crowd to convert the Colonel. A suryeyor was employed to set three posts in a row, with the left-hand surface of the two at the ends on a line with the righthand surface of that in the middle. Then a tight board fence about six feet high was continued from each end post, also bearing on the straight line drawn. Will White, one of the most expert twirlers of the day, was selected to convert Col. Joyce. The test took place in the presence of a big crowd and was a success in everything but the conversion. White stood upon the left of the fence at one end, so that his hand could not possibly pass beyond the straight line, and pitched the ball so that it passed to the right of the middle post. This it did by three or four inches, but curved so much that it passed the third post a half foot to the left. Col. Joyce saw the test successfully performed, but he would not be convinced.

The following is from the Cincinnati Enquirer of October, 1877:

"During the entire summer of 1877 the question has been mooted whether or not there is or can be such a thing as curved pitching. Upon the subject a variety of opinions have been freely expressed. Some persons have stoutly maintained that the curve is a reality, while others have as decidedly affirmed that it was merely a hallucination of a willingly deceived imagination. At length the question was taken up by Prof. McFarland, of the Ohio Agricultural College, in the affirmative, and by Prof. Stoddard, of the Worcester University, in the negative.

"Prof. McFarland says: 'Of course, a curve throwing of a ball, causing it to deflect from a direct line, is possible, for if the ball be held in such a way that by a peculiar motion of the wrist and arm it is made to revolve on an axis other than its true one it must continue to revolve on such axis to the right or left as would necessitate from the pitcher using his right or left hand, and hold a positive motion in such deflected direction.'

"Per contra, Prof. Stoddard says: 'It is not only theoretically but practically impossible for any such impetus to be conveyed to a moving body as would be required to perform the action supposed, by inexperienced persons, to control the movement of what is termed a curved ball; for, as is well known, the motion of any body such as the ball is in the direction of the propelling force and that being direct, and the ball itself having no volition or power to alter its own course, how can such a result occur? To cause the ball to curve would require the constant, attendant action of some controlling power along its entire pathway; but as no such accompanying agency exists there cannot possibly be such a thing as a curve to the right or left of the true line.'

"Professor Lewis Swift, of the Rochester University, thus set forth his ideas of the curved ball problem, correcting at the same time the erroneous report that he had predicted the feat as impossible.

"'In complying with the request to give a philosophical reason for the curvature of a ball by Base Ball experts, I do so the more cheerfully to correct an impression that I am a disbeliever in the performance of such a feat, which statement, unauthorized by me, was first promulgated in your paper. It is true that some time ago, when the subject was first broached to me, I denied that it was possible to do it, but when so many keen-eyed observers asserted that they had seen it repeatedly done, I began to investigate the matter, and soon saw, that instead of being impossible, it was in accordance with the plainest principles of philosophy. I will now as plainly and briefly as I can, consistent with clearness, proceed to give an explanation of what, at first thought, and without having seen it, one would suppose to be contrary to the laws of motion. In the first place, let it be borne in mind that when a ball is thrown with great velocity, and especially against the wind, the air in front is considerably condensed, but if the ball has no rotation, the only effect of the air's resistance is to impede the velocity, but not so when the ball rotates. 1. Suppose a ball to be fired from a rifled cannon—say to the east—the ball emerges with a rapid rotation at right angles to the direction of motion. One face of the ball is continuously in front, the upper, the lower, the north and the south sides of that face, pressing constantly and equally against the air, consequently it has by its rotation no tendency to deviate in any direction. It may be well here to state that the object in giving such a ball a rotation is (as no ball can be made equally dense in every part and perfectly round) to present every part of the forward face on every side of the line of motion, all inequalities, therefore, of density and symmetry are at every instant equally divided on all sides, and the ball will go undeviatingly in the direction desired.

"'2. Suppose a pitcher should throw a ball, say to the east, giving it a rotation whose axis should correspond with the northern and southern horizons. The air in front being more dense than in the rear, of course the friction of the rotating ball will be greatest on the front side, and will cause it to deviate, not to the right nor left, but slightly up or down, depending in which way the ball rotates.

"'3. Suppose the pitcher, at the instant the ball leaves his hand, should impart to it a rotation whose axis would lie in the zenith and nadir like a spinning top, such a ball, because the friction is greater against the compressed than the rarified air, will 'curve' either to the right or left, depending in which direction it rotates. If it rotates from the north, through the east to the south, which is the direction a right hand pitcher would most easily give it, it would curve to the left, and vice versa. If any one believes that the cause assigned is inadequate to produce the observed effect, let him imagine experiment No. 3 to be performed in a dense medium—water for example, and I think he will be convinced that a ball can be curved, but if he still doubts it, let him suppose the ball to be a croquet ball driven full of long, projecting spikes, and sent rapidly through the water, rotating as it goes. It would be the very essence of folly, and at variance with every principle of philosophy, to contend that it would move in a straight line.'"

The foregoing is only interesting from historical and scientific standpoints, since every careful observer in the grandstand, behind the batsman, is able clearly to note the very wide deflection given the ball by modern pitchers of every league.

Other deceptive deliveries than the "curved ball," with its in-curves, its out-shoots, its rise and drop, are later innovations. The "spit-ball," of which more was heard a few years ago than now, is one, and the "fade away," with a line of motion like that described by the undulations of a snake while crawling, is used by Christy Mathewson and a few others, I believe.

The removal of the straight-arm pitching restriction, by the amendment of the rules in 1884, was responsible for the evolution of the "Phenom." He came into the game from Keokuk, Kankakee, Kokomo and Kalamazoo. He was heralded always as a "discovery." His achievements were "simply phenomenal." Once in a great while he "made good." Usually he proved to be a flat and unmitigated failure. The trying-out of these wonders became a very frequent occurrence, and the appearance of one for that purpose was sure to call out the ejaculation, "Hello, here's another phenom. Wonder how long he'll last?"

Ever since the introduction of the "curved ball," as has been already stated, very low scores have become the rule. The pitcher has come to be regarded as the most important man in the game, and, as a result of the strain to his wrist and arm, his numbers have had to be augmented, until now some league clubs employ half a score of twirlers.

Not until recently has there been any change in regard to the pre-eminent prestige of the pitcher in the game. Now, however, there are indications that a new order of things is about to be inaugurated which shall give the batsman great prominence; and this is due to the introduction of the cork-center ball, just adopted by both the major leagues as the Official League Ball.

For some years rule makers and close students of the science of Base Ball have been trying to devise some means by which the batting end of the game might be strengthened. A very low score, in the nature of things, makes a close score. But there is no reason why a larger score, involving sharper work on the part of every player on the team, under conditions equally favorable to both sides, should not still be a close score, with many more incidents to interest the spectator.

The ball that has been in use for so many years had a small core of solid rubber in the center. While it was about right as to size and weight, its resilience was not all that could be desired. It did not leave the bat with that live, crackling sound which betokens the force of the concussion and suggests a long hit. The new ball has a small core of cork, encased by a shell of rubber, which gives to it greater resilience and accuracy of flight.

Although at this writing the season is not over, the games thus far played have been characterized by many more base hits than have been recorded up to this time in recent years. It is possible that pitchers may not be altogether pleased with the innovation, but it is certain to delight the public, and it will incidentally give all other players on the team a chance to strengthen their averages.