The History of How We Follow Baseball

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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.

Manikin Field.jpg

He must have had a large house. Large enough to fit on a theater stage, the JMBI featured 18-inch-tall players that moved about the field. The killer app, though, was the lighting system. From a 1913 Scientific American description:

At the commencement of the game he calls "play ball." The nine fielding players in their white suits come up through holes in the diamond and take their respective positions, and the batter in his brown suit comes up through a hole near the home plate and with bat in hand takes up his place. A light appears in the pitcher's hand-if he is right-handed, in his right hand, and if left-handed, in his left hand. After "winding up" he delivers the balls to- ward the batter. The light in his hand is extinguished, and if the pitcher is inclined to be wild it is shown in the catcher's hand, the umpire raises his left arm and the announcer calls "ball one." If the batter makes a safe hit-say for two bases to left field- the progress of the ball is shown on the ground from home plate, between shortstop and third base out into left, where the fielder stoops and the light is shown in his hand. He throws to third base, who in turn relays the ball to the pitcher.

The figures themselves (in a patented design) are phenomenal, each clothed in a tiny little uniform, complete with knee-high socks.

Manikin Players.jpg

But for all its creative energy, the JMBI was too complicated and too resource intensive to be replicated widely. 

Within a decade of JMBI's creation, radio brought live games to America much faster and much more cheaply. Radio was great at conveying a ballgame (especially when they added simulated bat-cracks and hot dog venders) that the need for spectacular mechanisms like the JMBI faded away. Radio made baseball ubiquitous games and enabled fans to experience it in the moment, following the voice of an announcer as he relayed what he saw on the field. 

Still, radio was not perfect. Baseball is a game both about the play-by-play and the greater statistical environment (really, the history) in which a game is occurring. Radio gives fans the play-by-play, but is not great at conveying the history. For fans who care about that context, they did what my father did as a kid in the 1950s: he'd listen to a game while keeping score on a sheet of paper. That way, he'd get both the radio's play-by-play account, and the math that baseball fans love.

Despite the deep statistical context available on television game broadcasts and site's such as ESPN's Gamecast, purists keep up the tradition -- even if that purist is just a kid laying on his living room floor, keeping score with a chewed-up pencil and moving baseball cards between spots on the carpet.


Images: 1) Shorpy.com; 2) Shorpy.com; 3) ESPN.com 4) Shorpy.com; 5) Shorpy.com; 6) Eight Men Out; 7) Scientific American; 8) Scientific American.

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