Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Getting a Ball at a Game - Then and Now

Base ball games at almost every level of play can produce a wide range of experiences.  At the low end are days that can only be described as long and frustrating which aptly captures the Neshanock's experience this past Saturday at Rahway River Park, the home field of the Elizabeth Resolutes.  It's a nice venue, but there is very little positive to say about the day's play, at least from the Flemington point of view.  In the first match, played by 1870 rules, the Resolutes exploded for a 10 run second inning and although Flemington battled back, the deficit never got closer than 7 before Elizabeth won 20-10.

Photo by Mark Granieri

That was bad enough, but the second game played by 1873 rules was longer and far more frustrating.  This time the Neshanock got off to a big lead, but Elizabeth kept battling back and trailed by only one run headed to the top of the ninth.  After the Resolutes scored twice to take a one run lead, the Neshanock quickly tied it and put the winning run on third with only one out.  With almost unlimited ways to close it out, Flemington didn't get it done and the match moved to extra innings.  Having tempted the base ball gods, Flemington paid the price as the Resolutes scored twice in the top of the tenth and held on to complete the sweep of the two games.

Photo by Mark Granieri

While there weren't many positives for the Neshanock, Dave "Illinois" Harris did earn a clear score in the second game.  "Illinois" suffered a painful wrist injury late in the match, but in typical manly fashion finished his last at bat, reaching base before retiring from the match.  Gerard "Jacks" D'Angelo also had a strong offensive day, falling one at bat short of a clear score in both matches.  Other than that there wasn't much else about the day which will go down in Neshanock history.

Dave "Illinois" Harris 

Earlier in the week, I had two experiences which led me to think about how one aspect of base ball has changed over the centuries. During one of the matches last Sunday in Gettysburg, I heard a man behind me tell his son that if he had gotten to a foul ball, he couldn't have kept it.  Clearly the boy thought that like a professional game, he could have gotten himself a souvenir.  Then this past Thursday, Paul Zinn and I were at the Mets-Braves game at Citi Field and were extremely fortunate to come up with a ball thrown into the stands by Mets first baseman, Josh Satin, after he recorded the last out of the top of the fourth inning.

It was interesting, first of all, to think about how the opportunities to get a major league game ball have increased over the last 20 years or so.  Prior to that (I'm not sure of the exact time period), the only chances were foul balls hit into the stands as well as home runs and ground rule doubles that ended up in the seats in fair territory.  Added to those possibilities today are the balls from the last outs of most innings, almost every foul ball that stays on the field and even some of the balls used for infield practice.  It's still a unique experience, but there are more chances.

Photo by Mark Granieri

Back in the 19th and a good part of the 20th century, however the chances were almost non-existent and also illegal.  I recalled some of this from the research on our book about the 1916 season, but rather than trust my memory went back to Peter Morris's excellent book - "A Game of Inches: The Story Behind the Innovations that Shaped Baseball.  As I thought, for all of the 19th century and more than I realized of the 20th century, fans at major league games were required to return balls hit into the stands (this was also the period when the number of balls used in a game was very limited).  The policy was so strictly enforced that in the early 1900's, fans in Washington and New York were arrested for trying to hold on to foul balls.  This reached the level of the absurd in 1921 when an 11 year old boy in Philadelphia spent the night in jail for not returning a foul ball.  Fortunately a judge who had wisdom beyond the letter of the law released the boy saying the act was one, "I would do myself."

The initial change in this restrictive and unpopular policy actually came prior to the 1921 incident when at the beginning of the 1916 season, Chicago Cubs owner, Charles  Weeghman announced that fans could keep balls hit into the stands.  Weeghman's act was far from universally popular with the other clubs as the Philadelphia Phillies wanted to be reimbursed for the eight balls hit into the stands during batting practice.  Given the condition of baseballs used during games in 1916, one can only wonder what balls suitable for batting practice must have looked like.  It wasn't until the end of the 1920's, that clubs for the most part, gave up the effort to retrieve foul balls.

Photo by Mark Granieri

That adults over 100 years ago were willing to risk arrest in order to hold on to their prize says something about the strong desires stirred by the possibility of getting a ball at a professional game, feelings which are no less strong today.  Part of it, no doubt, is the scarcity.  Even with more chances today, I'd say there are probably no more than 50 balls hit or thrown into the stands during a game, but even if it was a 100 in a crowd of 20,000 the probability of success is still very small.  A second motivation is that the ball is tangible evidence of that day of the ball park.  The need for that kind of evidence apparently isn't limited to fans.  After the top of the eighth inning last Thursday, Mets second baseman, Daniel Murphy threw the ball into the stands after the last out, only to come out of the dugout a few minutes later to ask for it back in exchange for another ball.  I have no idea what was important about the original ball, perhaps it meant something to the Mets relief pitcher, LaTroy Hawkins, but the point is it had importance to someone with regular access to game balls.

Photo by Mark Granieri

I also think the tangible nature of the souvenir has a deeper meaning.  The major leagues are obviously the highest level of the game we love and all of us at some point had dreams and hopes of one day playing in a major league game, dreams and hopes which were never realized. Instead we participate in the game in multiple ways - watching on television, listening on the radio and going to games.  Yet no matter how much we enjoy watching or listening, there is a barrier between us and the game itself so anything that takes down that barrier even temporarily is attractive.  That's probably part of the appeal of fantasy camps, running or strolling (for seniors) around the bases, ball park tours and the like.

Bringing a ball home from a game is, I think, much the same thing.  Every ball that goes into the stands has been in a major league game.  Foul balls have been thrown by a major league pitcher and hit by a major league hitter as have home runs and ground rule doubles.  Even infield balls have been thrown and caught during a major league game.  Inning ending balls may be the most complete because they have been pitched, hit, thrown and caught, pretty much everything that can happen to a ball.  When we succeed at getting that ball, the rare and, for most of us, unattainable experience of being in a major league game, becomes in some unexplainable way part of our lives.  As Paul said on Thursday, it was a great father and son moment, not likely ever to be forgotten and one quickly passed on to the next generation whether she understood it or not.

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