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Baseball's closest calls.

It may or may not be true that today's baseball pitchers have become so affluent that one manager phoning his bullpen got an answering service. What is true is that the game has come a long way since soldiers began playing at base" in the Continental Army camp at Valley Forge in 1778. Fortunately, baseball has also progressed from the English game of rounders," in which an opposing player put out a base runner by hitting him with the ball. When a runner was i I picked off" base in those days, he often was also picked up and carried off the field, depending upon where the ball had hit him.

Then, in 1839, at Cooperstown, New York, along came Abner Doubleday, a Civil War general, who devised the game of baseball with its name and modern attributes. As recorded in early Saturday Evening Post articles written by authorities on the game, however, baseball in those early days was not all grand slams in the bottom of the ninth. Connie

Mack, a pl y manager, graphically portrayed those former days in a 1936 Post article he accurately titled "The Bad Old Days."

"Baseball was mighty glamorous and exciting to me," he wrote, "but there is no use in blinking at the fact that at that time the game was thought by solid, respectable people, to be only one degree above grand larceny, arson and mayhem, and those who engaged in it were beneath the notice of decent society. The late A.G. Spalding estimated that about 5 percent of the players were crooks. To quote Spalding, Not an important game was played on any grounds where pools on the game were not sold. A few players became so corrupt that nobody could be certain whether the issue of any game in which they participated would be determined on its merits. Liquor selling, either on the grounds or in close proximity thereto, was so general as to make scenes of drunkenness and riot everyday occurrences, not only among spectators but now and then among the players themselves. Almost every team had its "lushers," and a game whose spectators consisted for the most part of gamblers, rowdies and their natural associates could not attract honest men or decent women to its exhibitions.'

"And yet this was the game," Mack explained, "in which I had decided to attach myself, for better or for worse. Looking back at it, I can see every reason why I should not have taken the jump and only one reason why I did. Of course, I have made my living out of it, but more important than this, I love the game."

It had to be love, because Connie Mack's first professional baseball salary was "a noble ninety dollars a month." He was later sold, with four other players, for 3,500 for all five, a big amount for talent in those days, as he recalls. And then there was the game itself:

"The catcher took the ball on the bounce even when I came to the Washington club," he explained. "The pitcher was 45 feet from the batter, and the pitcher's box was 5 1/2 feet long and 4 feet wide, instead of being a rubber block, as it is today. The pitcher would turn his back and take a hop, step and a jump, swinging his arm in a wide circle and letting the ball go with his hand below his hip, in a sort of underhand delivery. But from 45 feet away that ball came mighty fast, especially with all of the momentum worked up by the hop, step and jump behind it. The fielders were still catching them meat-handed. They never could get Bid Pteffer, Cincinnati second baseman, to wear a glove as long as he played.

"In the 80s the rule for major league batters was seven balls and three strikes, except for one year, 1887, when it was four strikes. A foul ball caught on the bounce was an out. The boys wore moustaches up through the early 90s. They began to go out of style in the late 90s, when the fans began to talk of getting a younger set of players."

Connie Mack wrote of the constant state of flux concerning the rules during his early playing days. Among the strangest:

"A present-day fan would laugh if you told him that in 1886 ... a batter was allowed to tell the pitcher what kind of ball he wanted pitched to him. If his strong point was socking high balls, he would tell the umpire that, and the umpire would tell the pitcher to throw them up there between the batter's waist and shoulder. If he liked low-ball pitching, the pitcher had to serve them to him between his waist and knee."

Mack recorded that this pleasant state of affairs didn't last long, however. A year later the rule was changed to allow the pitcher to pitch to a point anywhere between the batter's shoulder and knee. "Under the new rule," Connie Mack confessed, "I couldn't hit for sour apples."

Personal hygiene pretty well kept pace with the rules, according to the article. Mack recalled that the locker room in the Washington ball park had no showers or bathing facilities other than a sort of barrel-like pool sunk in the ground, filled with water. And the water would stay there for a week without being changed.

As for perks, such as today's change of uniforms, transportation, board and room on the road, etc., forget it. A player bought his own glove, shoes, and bats. The club supplied one uniform. In 1887 players were assessed $30 for their uniforms and were compelled to pay half a dollar a day for their board when away from home. If you were unlucky enough to run into a pair of spikes, you brought out your own iodine and arnica to fix up your wounds.

"And you kept on playing," according to Mack, "injury or no injury. There were no players lying around to take your place. You played if you could stand up. That was the custom, and we accepted it as a matter of course."

Nor did the umpire-that's right, one umpire per game-have what you would call a bed of roses. He stood behind the plate until the batter reached base, after which he took up a position behind the pitcher. Smart players would then cut the bases if they could get away with it.

Today, kicking dirt on the ump is reason enough for a player's banishment from the game. Not so in the bad old days, Mack recalled. "The mortality in umpires was high. We seemed to use them up pretty fast. I have seen an umpire knocked down by an irate player, and have seen that player keep right on playing. Perhaps the umpire would fine him five dollars. Perhaps not fine him at all."

Although kill the ump" was the favorite battle cry of many a bloodthirsty fan, umpires and players were not all sworn enemies.

Ford C. Frick, one-time president of the National League, called the umpiring business as he saw it in his 1935 Post article "They've Got to Be Right. " In it he recalled a game in which Earl Whitehall was pitching, Babe Ruth was at bat, and Clarence Rowland was the umpire behind the plate. When the third strike was called, the Babe hurled his bat into the air with vicious disgust and growled something to Rowland. A homicidal roar went up from the fans, who had been riding Rowland all afternoon. They didn't know what the Babe had said, but whatever it was, they were for him.

"The fans raised such a rumpus over the incident," Frick wrote, "that my curiosity was aroused. After the game I went to the umpires' dressing room and asked Rowland what the Babe had threatened to do to him.

"Rowland laughed. " The fans had it all wrong,' he said. The Babe wasn't sore at me. That strike curved over the plate at the last moment as pretty as anything, and that's what made him mad. What he said was, "Clarence, where'd that bird get a hook like that? He never showed me one like that before."

"Another time," Frick reported, "Dolly Stark was behind the plate and 15,000 fans at the Polo Grounds were rooting for Mel Ott, slugging Giant outfielder, to crack one off the left-handed slants of Ed Brandt, of the Boston Braves. But when the ball landed in catcher Hogan's mitt, Dolly called a strike. Ott stepped out of the batter's box, turned toward the stands and said something to the um- pire. The fans went wild: That's the boy, Mel! You tell the big bum! Don't let that blind guy get away with it!'

"But after the game, when I asked Dolly what Ott had said, he grinned: 'Oh, nothing much. Mel knew that one was through the middle, and he said, "Dolly, I'd give five dollars to have that one back again."

Fans today aren't as violent as they used to be, Frick pointed out. "Nowadays they are usually satisfied to discharge their venom in verbal abuse. But not so many years ago. They took the game a lot more seriously, and it was common for an umpire to have to sprint across the diamond, with a mob chasing him, and scramble over the fence to escape bodily harm."

Frick also noted that rather than bolting, Clarence Rowland chose to hide in the umpires' dressing room until he had a chance to sneak out of the runway. Another time, Billy Evans was knocked out by a pop bottle and taken to a hospital. Red Ormsby was also beaned by a pop bottle and taken to a hospital (not a doubleheader, by the way). After one game, when Ormsby was in danger of being mobbed, a policeman rescued him and conducted him safely to the dressing room. Red started to thank the cop for saving him, but the cop gave him a withering look: "Don't thank me, mister. I learned long ago always to help the blind. "

To soften the effects of his decisions, the umpire Bill Byron had a trick of singing them. Frick wrote that when fans were raving, Byron would call a third strike by crooning, "It cut the middle of the plate/and you missed because you swung too late." At other times, he would sing: "You'll have to learn before you're older/you can't hit the ball with the bat on your shoulder."

All things considered, why would anyone want to risk life and limb making 200 to 300 decisions a day as an umpire? Frick's article offered the answer. It came from the old-time umpire Tim Hurst, who, when asked the question, scratched his head and humorously replied, "Well, you can't beat the hours."

Among the plate umpire's duties today is keeping the pitcher supplied with unblemished baseballs. A batter can foul off half a dozen in a row and the game goes on. Not so, prior to 1886, according to Connie Mack.

When a ball was lost, strayed, or was stolen, the umpire called a recess of five minutes while all engaged in a hunt for the missing projectile. After five minutes had elapsed with no success, he was allowed to t a new ball into play. Even if a ball was pounded as flat as a bride's biscuits or shedding its stuffing at the seams, the umpire could not throw it out of the game, except in even-numbered innings.

One other contrast between the good old days of the 1980s and the bad old days of the 1880s Connie Mack referred to as stamina. He's talking here of stealing 156 bases in one season. Of a lead-off man scoring nine runs without making a hit. Of pitching 72 games in a single season. Of playing 25 consecutive innings with neither team scoring. Connie Mack was witness to it all.

One is left to speculate how these early record setters would have fared had the games been played at night. According to Bozeman Bulger, in a 1931 Post article headed "Night Baseball Versus the Mosquito," night ball could at least have provided a unique alibi had they failed.

"Last summer, in Indianapolis," Bulger wrote, "an outfielder came back to the bench at I I o'clock ... having missed a long fly ball that went for two bases and broke up the game.

" I could've et that one up, boss,' the player explained to the manager, but just when I had it judged right, I'll be doggoned if I wasn't hit by a swarm of mosquitoes-not just a mosquito, millions of 'em! I I Not only was this the birth of a brand-new alibi, but it could also have marked the origin of the "scratch hit."

We can't leave the bad old days of baseball without honoring the two good old boys who were baseball's greatest legends: Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth.

"Ty Cobb was the greatest thinking hitter of them all," wrote "Bullet Joe" Bush, onetime pitcher for the Yankees and others, in his 1929 Post article "At Bat." "He could pry into a pitcher's mind and eight times out of ten tell what the pitcher was going to throw next."

After throwing a bean ball, which drives the batter away from the plate, Bullet Joe explained, pitchers usually will come back with a curve ball on the outside. But not against Cobb. They would try to cross him up with a fast ball inside. It seldom made much difference, however. Ty would outsmart them. "Without a doubt," Bullet Joe wrote, "he could judge human nature on the pitching mound better than any hitter who ever lived."

Babe Ruth has been charged with many things-a love for women, a love for hot dogs, a disregard for training rules-but never with thinking too much. On the other side of the base line, however, Bozeman Bulger, in a 1931 four-part Post article, "And Along Came Ruth, " credited the Sultan of Swat with this bit of sound philosophy: Ruth had been asked which he preferred, batting or pitching.

"That's hard to say," Ruth replied after some thought. "I don't believe I could ever get any more thrill than I did in pitching those scoreless innings in the World Series back in Boston. Still, anybody gets a big kick out of taking a cut at that ball and hitting it on the nose.

"I guess the fellow who starts something always stirs up the crowd more than a fellow who stops something. I know I've made a lot more out of socking those long drives than I did from keeping the other fellow from hitting when I was a pitcher. "

But before things get too deep, I'd like to go back to an American League umpire named Jack Kerns, who had a phobia against calling games.

No matter how dark it got, Kerns thought a ball game was nine innings or more. One day in Washington's Griffith Stadium when Kerns refused to call a game, the pitcher in desperation huddled with his catcher and whispered, The thrill of the big sock" turned Ruth's attention to batting. "The public gets a big kick out of seeing a fellow hit em," he said. In this swat, he broke the 419- foot fungo record. "Listen, you keep the ball in your mitt. I'll wind up and pretend to throw it. You pop it into your glove as though you'd caught it."

There were two strikes on the batter. The pitcher set himself and went through his motion; the catcher popped his mitt. "Strike three and out!" Kerns bellowed.

Strike?" the batter screamed. "Why you blind . That ball was two feet outside!"

That's the difference between the old days and now. These days a pitcher gets thumbed out of the game just for putting a little something extra on the ball.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Stoddard, Maynard
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1989
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