Sunday, August 4, 2013

Tournaments and Trick Plays

After spending five weeks on their New Jersey tour, the Neshanock are now in the midst of the tournament/festival portion of their schedule.  Two weeks ago was the Gettysburg Vintage Base Ball Festival, while yesterday was the Old Bethpage Base Ball Festival at Old BethpageVillage on Long Island, the birthplace of vintage base ball.  Ably hosted by the New York Mutuals, the event featured 12 teams playing over two days.  While I've never been involved in organizing a tournament or festival, I'm guessing festivals are the preferred format since pre-set schedules are more manageable than everything involved in some form of elimination tournament.


Photo by Mark Granieri

In the first of their two matches on Saturday, the Neshanock took on the Red Onion Club of Connecticut in a game played under 1873 rules.  After the Red Onion tallied twice in the top of the first, the Neshanock sent 13 men to the plate in the bottom of the inning,  tallying 10 times before the side was out.  Big leads are harder to hold in the 1873 game and the Connecticut club rallied several times, but Flemington kept adding runs and prevailed 25-19.  As might be expected given the score, a number of players on the Neshancok side had good days at bat.  Of special note was Jack "Doc" Kitson who had five hits in six times up, missing a clear score by one at bat on a well struck ball caught by the left fielder.


Photo by Mark Granieri

The second contest of the day was against intra-state rival the Hoboken "Nine," this time played under 1864 rules.  Back on July 5th, the Neshanock dropped the second game of a doubleheader to Hoboken in a low scoring contest where Flemington managed only two tallies.  When both sides went out without scoring in the first inning, it looked like it would be another low scoring match, but the Neshanock put up three tallies in the second and added five more in the third for an 8-0 lead.  Although Flemington only added three more runs over the course of the match, it was more than enough as the Neshanock completed a successful day with an 11-4 win, bringing the club's overall record to 17-13 heading into the National Silver Ball Tournament in Rochester next weekend.


Photo by Mark Granieri

Of special note in the second match was a play on the defensive side.   In the top of the fifth, the opposition had runners on first and second with one out when the striker hit a fly ball to Neshanock left fielder, Dan "Sledge" Hammer.  It was a routine fly ball and Sledge could easily have caught it on the fly or one bounce for the second out.  However, seeing the runners staying close to the bases, Sledge shrewdly let the ball bounce off his hands and hit the ground twice, thereby creating force plays at second and at third.  Using his speed, the Neshanock left fielder tagged out the runner heading towards third and then flipped the ball to second base for an inning ending double play.


Dan "Sledge" Hammer 

Although I didn't hear it myself, there was apparently some feeling the play was somehow inappropriate.  It was reminiscent of a similar play last year when in the same situation, Neshanock shortstop Tom "Thumbs" Hoepfner let a pop fly drop to start a double play which also generated a negative reaction.  That play, of course, wouldn't have been permissible under today's rules as it was the classic infield fly rule, but there is no such prohibition even today to similar plays in the outfield.


Photo by Mark Granieri

Thinking about this led me back once again to Peter Morris's excellent A Game of Inches: The Story Behind the Innovations That Shaped Baseball.  Interestingly one of the first documented instances of the infield trapped ball play involved a New Jersey club, the Eureka Club of Newark which was well known for its defensive prowess.  Morris quotes an 1864 game account from the New York Clipper where Eureka pitcher, Henry Burroughs didn't catch a pop fly so he could record a double play.  The article not only describes the play in detail (suggesting it was an early instance), but praises the strategy that went into it.  While the reporter's name is not given, Peter speculates it was Henry Chadwick who was typically critical of "sneaky plays", but favored "heady play and a knowledge of the rules."  It was also interesting to learn the strategy would have had no value before the 1859 season as prior to that balls caught on the fly were "dead" so that base runners were not at risk of being doubled off.



Photo by Mark Granieri

The Clipper account confirms there was nothing inappropriate about the play which was used for another 30 years, most notably by Hall of Famer George Wright, before being outlawed when the National League adopted the infield fly rule prior to the 1894 season (according to Eric Miklich, the Players' League adopted it for its sole season in 1890).  While there may not be a direct connection, the outlawing of the infield trapped ball was followed by usage of the outfield trapped ball (Sledge's play of yesterday.)  Early in the 1894 season, Tom McCarthy of the Boston Beaneaters pulled off the exact same play in the exact same situation.  Some sportswriters treated the play as a new innovation, but others, probably correctly, believed it had a long history and had simply fallen out of favor.  The play was not without its risks, George Van Haltren of Baltimore tried it with the bases loaded, only to see the ball bounce not into his hands, but over his head for a grand slam home run. Perhaps not surprisingly Van Haltren was traded shortly thereafter.


Photo by Mark Granieri

Peter's research demonstrates that not only were both plays permitted, they were considered to be sound strategy.  It occurs to me that one of the things we do in re-creating base ball under its early rules is begin to understand why some plays were outlawed and others were not.  That happens best, I think, when after experiencing the play, it's the subject of further research and discussion.  It's just my opinion, but through that process, I think I understand why the infield trap ball play was outlawed, but the outfield version was not.



Photo by Mark Granieri

At the most basic level, the spirit of base ball rules is about each side having more or less an equal chance.One of the most elementary things we learn in base ball is going half way on a fly ball that is apparently going to be caught.  Doing that gives the offense (the base runners) a chance against the outfield trap play.  Had the opposition players gone half way yesterday, Sledge's chances of getting two out on the play were much lower so he would have been more likely take the sure out of the catch.  That equal chance, however, does not exist on the infield trap because of the proximity of the infielder to the bases which doesn't allow the runners any real chance to avoid the double play.


Photo by Mark Granieri 

This is the second week I have drawn heavily on Peter Morris' research and while I hope I have given proper credit and attribution, I want to go a step further and highly recommend his book, A Game of Inches.   If you are interested in how base ball developed, or know someone who is, this book will provide hours of enjoyable reading.  

3 comments:

  1. Richard HershbergerAugust 6, 2013 at 7:32 AM

    The interesting thing to me is the notion that this is somehow dirty play. I am trying to figure out where that comes from. Perhaps it is because of the modern infield fly rule (overlooking that the play in question wasn't an infield fly)? How would they feel about the hidden ball trick (documented to 1859)? If the influence of the modern rule is the key, then we have a mental barrier of the tacit assumption that 19th century ball was pretty much like modern ball, but quainter. Or perhaps they see the play as hyper-competitive, like a runner cutting a fielder's legs out from under him in a casual softball beer league. Come to think of it, this would probably also rule out the hidden ball trick.

    In any case, they clearly aren't particularly interested in recreating 19th century baseball, making their choice of hobby a bit peculiar.

    Oh, and a fair ball caught on the fly was only dead from 1857-1858. Prior to that, runners could advance freely on fly balls, caught or not. The change was introduced as a sop to the fly game advocates, making catching the ball on the fly worth more than on the bound. In 1859 this was changed to the modern rule so that the fielder could potentially put out a runner caught off his base, so as to further raise the value of catching the ball on the fly. This had the unintended consequence of allowing the runner to tag up and advance after the ball was caught.

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  2. Richard HershbergerAugust 6, 2013 at 12:33 PM

    P.S. An antedate of the intentionally dropped fly ball play:

    [Atlantics v. Mutuals 8/3/1863, Atlantics at bat, Ticknor on first base, A. Smith on third:] "...Start hit a high ball for [second baseman] Brown to take on the fly... Ticknor, who runs the bases well, watched Brown closely, and running the chances of his dropping the ball and picking it up on the bound, which Brown often does to get two outs instead of one, ran for his second, and was close to it, when Brown missed the ball not only on the fly but on the bound too. Had A. Smith been quicker, he might have got home in the excitement, but in this match Smith made several errors in running his bases, thereby losing the reward of several good hits that he made. Galpin was the last striker, he going out on three strikes; and as [catcher] Wansley caught the third ball, seeing Smith off his base at third, he made a fine throw to [third baseman] McMahon, and the result was that Smith was out." New York Sunday Mercury August 9, 1863

    Note the statement that Brown tries this often. It wasn't new. We also see here the counter of the runner paying attention to the fielder, and the chance of the fielder ending up with no outs at all. That last bit explains why the infield fly rule wasn't instituted until decades later, when gloves had advanced to the point that the risk involved in trying this play was minimal.

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  3. Thanks for the comments and the additional information. I would like to think that a lot of the negativity was heat of the moment emotions and that with reflection people would realize there is nothing wrong with either play. I wondered if someone would offer a contrary opinion to the post, but not so far.

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