The History of How We Follow Baseball

Last weekend, Rick Santorum was caught watching a college football game while Newt Gingrich gave a speech at an event. While a breach of protocol, it didn't exactly cause an uproar. People have always liked to follow along with sports -- and have never really liked to listen to political speeches.

He's just lucky he lives in this century. Its a luxury of modern sports that you can bring the game with you. Santorum was watching football on a small tablet; he could as easily have been streaming a ballgame over an iPhone, or watching a constantly-updated gamecast. Should he have had more discretion, he could at a minimum have peeked at scores over the web.

A hundred years ago, sports fans -- read: baseball fans -- were not so lucky.

In 1912, the Red Sox played the New York Giants in the World Series. Here's how people in Washington watched that game:

Scoreboard Far.jpg

And here's a close-up of what they were all gathered around to look at:

Scoreboard Close.jpg

Player position and game status are indicated on either side with lights; the current scoring line appears down the center. If a ball were hit to left field, the left fielder would illuminate. Each team's lineup appears below the ersatz diamond: pitching for the Sox, Smoky Joe Wood; for the Jints, Jeff Tesreau. (The two would face off three times in the eight-game series; game two was suspended on account of darkness after 11 innings.) You can see the operator behind the scoreboard at left; an announcer, tracking the game by phone or over the wire, would give a live (albeit slightly delayed) play-by-play.

Compare that display with ESPN.com's Gamecast, and the rich statistical environment fans now have for adding context to their experience of the game's action:

Gamecast.jpg

One year after that 1912 World Series, the Coleman Lifelike Scoreboard made its debut in Washington's National Theater. If the scoreboard above was like watching a game from a small television, the Coleman was the equivalent of a widescreen.

Coleman Front2.jpg

Pictured here in 1924, the Coleman Lifelike was a sheet of painted fabric depicting a ball field. Looking carefully, you can make out the ghost-like images of players in the outfield and on the base paths. Where the magic of the Coleman happened, though, was backstage.

Coleman Back.jpg

There, a series of lights shone through the thin fabric indicate the progress and location of hits, base runners and fielders. At right in the photo are ball, strike, and out lights. This was not a one man job. Several controlled the indicators, one acted as announcer. At far left, a young man sits at a teletype machine, ready to relay the action.

Similar displays also existed in more private confines, such as the one depicted in the 1988 movie Eight Men Out. In this scene, the gambler Arnold Rothstein is expecting the first batter for the Cincinnati Reds to be hit by a pitch, indicating that the White Sox plan to throw the series.

Once the pitch is thrown, you see an announcer read from the teletype, as another man moves a small figure -- an icon, if you will -- from the batter's box to first. Simple, effective, and, with a crowd present, probably more fun.

However, no visualization could compare to the now all-but-forgotten Jackson Manikin Baseball Indicator (JMBI). Someone from the Society of American Baseball Researchers stumbled across a mention of the JMBI in an article from 1916 in the Toronto Star. Patented by Thomas Jackson of Scranton, the JMBI system was installed in Atlantic City, Rochester, NY, Washington, DC, (apparently an epicenter of real-time baseball technology) and at Jackson's home.

Presented by

Philip Bump is a former politics writer for The Atlantic Wire.

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