Saturday, July 31, 2010

Mechanicsburg Nine Wins Over New Cranks

"Two hands, two hands" the players yelled to each other from the field behind the West Shore Evangelical Free Church in Mechanicsburg, PA. The next man came up and hit a ball soaring into the outfield. After it bounced on the dry grass, the outfielder caught the ball with his bare hands and the side was retired. This was obviously not your typical baseball game or church softball league. No, this was the first home game of the Mechanicsburg Nine Vintage Base Ball Club and they were hosting the Eurekas from Bohemia, part of the Elkton (MD) Base Ball club. Both teams are new teams in the Midatlantic Vintage Base Ball League which play by 1864 rules.

When my husband, daughter and I arrived at the field we were handed a paper, "Base Ball: 19th Century Rules & Traditions." This handout provided the fans or "cranks" with some basic information about what we could expect to see differ from a modern day game. We immediately noticed the Nine's authentic-looking uniforms and the equipment they had on their bench which set the stage so we felt as if we actually did step back into the 19th century.

My family was not exactly as excited as I was about going to the game but they were intrigued by the unique aspects of the vintage game. My daughter and I laughed as we learned that "hands" were outs. We discussed that we both had thought that the calls of "one hand" and "two hands" had referred to some rule about making one-handed or two-handed catches. Kayla said, "I thought that made sense until the first time they said "that's three hands!"

The Mechanicsburg Nine did an excellent job of explaining the rules of the game to the spectators. One time a ball came into the crowd and everyone yelled "don't touch it" and "it's still in play." Later, when asked about the play the Nine's first baseman, Justin ("Bulldog") explained that the runner could keep advancing until the ball is returned even if it goes into where we were sitting because, well, "you all wouldn't have been here!" Bulldog took time to check in with the "cranks" and answer any other questions we had about the rules. He even passed around a ball so we could all see what they call the lemon peel design.

After the game, I got a closer look at the bats and the bases, which were stuffed with hay and sawdust. I did not, however, see gloves because there were no gloves! Watching the teams catch the ball barehanded and the fact that the ball could bounce once and be caught for an out were the two aspects of the game my family commented on the most. You might be thinking that the bounce rule made it easier on the players' hands but don't forget about those line drives and even a ball caught on a bounce can sting, I'm sure. Plus, one member of the Eureka's found out what happens when you try to let a ball drop and catch it on the bounce in order to save your hands. He was booed. After the play, one of the Mechanicsburg Nine instructed us that it isn't "manly" and we should boo if anyone does that, even if it's one of their own players.
The fans cheered when the Nine ended the first game with a score of 14-8 over the Eurekas. The Nine did more than win the game, they won over the fans. I knew I would I love taking a trip back to my favorite era of baseball but the Nine made the experience educational and fun for the spectators who are NOT obsessed with baseball history like me. My daughter and husband both said they want to go back to another game!

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Greatest Manager that Ever Stepped in Shoe Leather?

If your favorite team is falling behind, or worse, dead last in the division, it's not time to become depressed. It's time to rustle up hope and start believing in miracles such as the 1914 "Miracle Braves." This point in the season is when the mood started to change for George Stallings and his Boston Braves. They went from last place as late as July 15 to sweeping the Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series. Stallings's unique management approach, while too abrasive for some, seemed to bring out the best in many of his players and played a role in the 1914 team's success.

The Georgia native wore street clothes to manage games but by all accounts his demeanor on the field was in stark contrast to the kind southern gentleman Stallings was off the field. During games Stallings would yell at his players and call them names. He could forgive mechanical errors but would attack players for dumb mistakes. He is sometimes given credit for coining the term "bonehead" in 1897 when referring to his Philadelphia Phillies team. Whether or not the Phillies are the original boneheads (sorry, this Braves fan couldn't resist), the term was one of Stallings's favorites and was used freely.

One popular Stallings story tells of him saying he'll let "bonehead" have a try at pinch hitting and five or six Braves picking up their bat, assuming they were the intended bonehead. Like many anecdotes, the details of this story vary a bit each time it's told and actually the earliest account I could find, a September 1914 newspaper article, doesn't use the term bonehead at all, but "ivory head."

Be it bonehead, ivory head, dunce, clown or simpleton, if he messed up, the player knew one of these jabs was coming his way. The 1897 Philadelphia team didn't respond to Stallings's style of management and he was soon replaced by a more mild-mannered leader. While he had his share of critics, he had as many, if not more, fans. Stallings's style was a strategy and not simply a personality. Harold Kaese explains in The Boston Braves, 1871-1953, "Stallings was a brilliant strategist and tactician, but he excelled as a handler of men. His theme song was, 'You can win, you must win, you will win.' He was a salesman who peddled determination and self-confidence."

Hub Perdue, a pitcher who played for the Braves said, "George Stallings is the greatest manager that ever stepped in shoe leather." He went on to claim,
"On the ballfield Stallings is the meanest man in the world. When he starts to 'ride' you he can tell you things about yourself that you never knew. he will make you wish the earth would open up and swallow you whole. You quit the field thinking that you are ticketed for the minors. But the next day you invariably read in the papers where Stalling says you are the best ball player on this earth or anywhere else."
Purdue claimed the only mistake the manager ever made was getting rid of him!

I can't imagine working for someone who makes me wish the earth would open up and swallow me whole. Well, that's not exactly true. I can imagine it. I've been there. What I can't imagine is wanting to work for someone who makes me feel like that! Stallings had a .495 overall winning percentage as a manager and the Miracle Braves were his only Pennant and only World Series win. Do you consider him a successful manager? Would you have found his tactics motivating?

Friday, July 9, 2010

There's No Place in America That's Not Part of a Major-League Ballfield

"There's no place in America that's not part of a major-league ballfield." I just read W.P. Kinsella's The Iowa Baseball Confederacy and I can't get the image out of my head. Gideon Clarke's father is explaining to him why baseball is the perfect game.
"There's no limit to how far a man might possibly hit a ball, and there's not limit to how far a fleet outfielder might run to receive it. The foul lines run on forever, forever diverging. There's no place in America that's not part of a major-league ballfield."
The realist in me wants to dissect the statement but I had to let go of the realist in order to enjoy the fantasy in the rest of the book, which I did. As I was making the twelve hour drive home from vacation I imagined a baseball soaring over the highway, hit by a slugger in a faraway ballpark. What a magical thought.

Watching a ball leave the park is magical in itself, even if it doesn't cross highways and state boarders after it crosses the wall. This was especially true in the early days of baseball when home runs were less common than they are today and outside the park home runs were almost unheard of. When Roger Connor of the New York Giants became the first batter to hit a ball over the fence of the Polo Grounds in 1886 his home run was just one of 21 for the entire team that season. It took seven years of batters trying to get one out of the park before Connor was successful against Boston Beaneater Old Hoss Radbourn. The New York Times reported that Radbourn threw Connor a solid ball and "he met it squarely and it soared upward with the speed of a carrier pigeon." The crowd cheered as they watched the ball fly over the fence, and Connor was "gazed upon in wonderment by Radbourn and the other members of the Boston team."

Connor is also credited with hitting the first grand slam home run, another feat which left the opposing team gazing in wonderment, no doubt. For 23 years after retiring Connor was the all-time home run leader. When Babe Ruth hit his 139th home run in 1921 he took over the career home run crown. At that time, however, no one was aware that the title had been passed from Connor to Ruth because statistics did not hold the allure that they do to baseball fans today.

In some respects the fans have changed. They are devouring statistics and anxiously following races. In some respects the game has changed. Outside the park home runs are more common than inside the park and no longer warrant a newspaper article. In many ways, however, we have remained the same. Baseball still captures our imagination and binds fans together, binds America together. "There's no place in America that's not part of a major-league ballfield." W.P. Kinsella wrote it in 1986, but William H. Rowe knew it in 1909 when he penned "With New York in 1884," a poem that appeared in Verse and Toast: Series 1. He writes of the 1884 Giants which included Roger Connor:

Buck took the bat and smashed it, The ball sailed like a bird;
It landed in a window At Third ave and Thirty-third.
Connor, Mighty Roger
He knocked it to Central Park.
Van Haltren and Mike Tiernan
Both hit a swimming shark
Away out near Coneys, That island dear and fair,
Coneys, sweet, sweet Coneys, Where your trouble sinks wid care;

There's no place in America that's not part of a major-league ballfield.

Web Statistics