25 September 2011

CDOBC: But Didn't We Have Fun? Chapter 3

For more about the book club and books on the agenda click here.

But Didn't We Have Fun? An Informal History of Baseball's Pioneer Era 1843-1870
by Peter Morris

Chapter: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | App 1

Chapter 3: The New York Game Becomes America's Game

One of the major reasons why the Knickerbocker's style of play grew beyond their influence on the Burroughs was the transition between centralized news and the telegraph.  On December 6, 1856, the newspaper Porter's Spirit of the Times printed the Knickerbocker rules.  Oral transmission of the rules of the game limited how far the game could travel and how accurate the transmission of these rules would be.  By using print, the rules could be effectively communicated by the letter.  News at this point was beginning to be decentralized from Washington and New York with the development of the telegraph system, allowing newspapers in Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, etc. to have first hand accounts with their own perspective as well as being able to join news associations who would offer stories for print.  This period of transition allowed for the exact Knickerbocker rules to spread across the country.  The aura of New York sophistication could be helpful to ball players who were maligned for spending time playing a children's game.  If you can point to New York and say this is played there, it gives you more credibility.

However, technological achievements and a country still somewhat looking to the East Coast for instruction were not alone in spreading the game.  These things help convince people to try a game that is played in New York City as their was certainly respect for a perceived sophistication back east, but it would not make people continue playing the game.  It had to be enjoyable as well.

I touched on it slightly in the last chapter review, but I think the spread primarily had to do with this: no soaking, foul balls, and what became the use of a harder ball.  With the elimination of soaking, there was no longer a need for a fairly soft ball.  No longer worried about injuring a person with a hard one, they could use balls that could travel a greater distance.  This is important because there was no longer foul territory.  The field would be too collapse with a short distance ball, a harder ball extended the field of play.  This meant that you no longer had to be a lean, athletic, and fast person to be able to play.  The importance of power and speed became far more balanced.

By balancing power and speed, it enabled a few things that make the game enjoyable.  First of all, it increased the population able to play the game.  People with body types that are not especially suited for chasing down runners and then soaking them were not well suited for the town ball games.  Baseball enabled them to hit the ball far to avoid being chased down as well as allowed them to use their arm to throw at the bases which required less skill than throwing at a moving target.  Second, I think it made baseball more enjoyable for spectators.  Town ball was a spectacle of players hitting the ball in front of and behind home plate, often intentionally glancing batted balls to go no further than 50 feet.  The idea was often just to get to first and successfully get to bases in run downs.  If one chose to hit the ball well, it would go about 120 to 150 feet.  Town ball was essentially a series of guys chasing each other and hitting them with balls.  The Knickerbocker rules lengthen the field and the fans largely enjoyed the long ball.  Everyone seems to love a good feat of strength.

What I find interesting is how a major current discussion in baseball is the relative worth of a game relying on good pitching versus good hitting.  That is where we are now.  Back then, it was about good fielding versus good hitting.  Pitchers were considered merely one of the nine fielders.  The spirit of the rules primarily limited a pitcher back then to merely serve up balls for batters to hit and fielders to field.  Over the next few chapters we are bound to see the development of pitchers changing their own role.

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