Friday, January 12, 2018

New Pitch - New Strategies

Earlier this month, John Thorn, Major League Baseball's official historian, used his always interesting and informative "Our Game" blog for a two part look at the part Princeton University base ball players might have played in the development of the curve ball (  Both posts drew on Frank Presbrey and James Moffatt's 1901 book Athletics at Princeton, a source I've used extensively in my own research.  My introduction to 19th century base ball research was writing a series of essays on early New Jersey clubs for the book Baseball Founders including one on the Nassau Club of Princeton.  Presbrey and Moffatt's book was an oasis in a desert of limited historical information because the game accounts and box scores included first names making it far easier to research specific players, especially when the University archives maintains files on each alumnus.  More recently, I've had occasion to go back to Athletics at Princeton in preparation for the upcoming exhibition on early New Jersey base ball at the Morven Museum, located in, of all places, Princeton.  The story laid out so comprehensively in John's blog will be part of the exhibit, but in this post I want to explore another aspect of the curve ball's impact on base ball.

Although there were contemporary claims Princeton pitchers Fred Henry and Ed Davis threw curve balls in the 1860's, rules restrictions prior to 1872 reduce the significance of whatever type of deceptive pitch they may have used. By the time Joseph Mann, Class of 1876 arrived on campus, however, throwing a curve was permissible, assuming, of course, the pitcher knew how to throw it.  That was no small issue at a time when there were few, if any, players with prior experience who could help a newcomer master the pitch.   In a June 10, 1900 letter to the New York Times and in Athletics at Princeton, Mann claimed he accidentally discovered how to throw a curve ball in the fall of 1874 during a game between teams made up of students aligned with the Democratic and Republican parties.  Suffering from a sore finger, Mann changed his grip on the ball and to his surprise started throwing pitches that curved as they approached the plate.  Note that the Princeton pitcher didn't claim he discovered the curve ball, but much more modestly, although still importantly, how to throw it.

James McCosh - president of Princeton 1868-1888

Throughout the winter of 1874-75 Mann spent a great deal of time in the college gym practicing and refining his new pitch.  The gym, it should be noted, was relatively new because Princeton president James McCosh used his October 27, 1868 inaugural address to solicit funding for it which was quickly forthcoming showing that even then Princeton didn't lack for financial resources. While building a new gym may not seem significant, two other New Jersey colleges, Rutgers and Seton Hall (much, much smaller schools in the 1870's) didn't even have dormitories much less gyms.  Mann's use of the winter to develop his new pitch is not unlike a basketball player who uses the off season to develop a new move or perhaps how to use his off hand.  While this may not have been the first time this kind of off season player development took place in base ball, it's an early example of deciding to use the winter months to improve and then actually doing it. After a winter of practice, Mann got the opportunity to test his new pitch in an early season game against Harvard. Interestingly both Mann's 1900 letter and the 1901 book draw on an account of that game written by James Tyng of the Harvard team. According to Mann's letter, Tyng described the game in a Harper's Weekly article that appeared "a few years ago," dating so vague that attempts to find the original have thus far been in vain.

James Tyng

Tyng, who later became a very successful golfer, was a good enough base ball player to be the first Harvard graduate to play in the major leagues, enjoying the 19th century equivalent of "a cup of coffee" with Boston and Philadelphia in the National League.  While Tyng went straight from Harvard to the majors, he didn't lack for experience since he played base ball at Harvard for seven years. Obviously eligibility rules were looser in those days.  Ultimately Princeton took exception to Tyng and some other Harvard post graduates' continued appearances in the lineup, conveniently forgetting that Lewis Mudge, the father of base ball at Princeton, played for the Nassau Club after he had moved on to Princeton Seminary.  The dispute eventually led to the formation of the American College Base Ball Association, a league which included four other future Ivy League Schools plus Amherst with stricter eligibility rules.  Tyng has his own place in base ball history as the first player to wear a catcher's mask in an 1876 game against the Live Oaks of Lynn, Massachusetts.

According to Tyng's account, when the two schools met at Princeton on May 15, 1875, eight of the first nine Harvard batters struck out and Princeton led 7-2 heading to the bottom of the sixth inning.  At that point a Crimson player standing behind the catcher noticed the pitches were curving away from the batter which led to a "general exodus" for a better view of this "unheard of phenomenon."  Tyng went on to mention something else, which unsurprisingly didn't appear in Mann's letter, not only was the Princeton pitcher, throwing curves, it was the only pitch he was throwing.  Analyzing the situation (they were Harvard men after all), the visitors switched to the "longest bats we could find" and then laid off what appeared to be good pitches swinging only at those that seemed be coming right at them.  Whether solely due to the new strategy or for other reasons, Harvard scored three times in the sixth and twice in the seventh and the game was tied going to the ninth when the Crimson scored two runs "to pull the game out of the fire" for a hard earned 9-7 win.  Small wonder the Harvard Crimson of May 21, 1875 claimed "it is not too much to say that they [the Harvard team] have never earned so credible a victory" because of the Princeton pitcher's delivery that "suddenly swerves from its course" proved "a very trying one to strike."

Mann's diagram of how his curve ball worked which appeared both in his June 10, 1900 letter to the New York Times and Athletics at Princeton 

The introduction and development of the curve ball is, of course, a watershed moment in base ball history so that stories like those of Mann and his experiences with the new pitch are important in their own right.  What especially interests me here, however, are the strategic adjustments.  First, we have Mann, after having spent all winter practicing his new pitch, use his new weapon to dominate the Harvard strikers.  Mann's performance is such the Harvard players watched closely, analyzed what was going on and developed a new approach in terms of which pitches to take and which ones to swing at.  It's easy to think Mann foolish for throwing only curves, but it's not unlike something more common in football where, for example, a team finding the opposition can't stop the run, stay with it until, and if, they do.  The Harvard players, of course, get full credit, not just for figuring out what was going on, but especially for coming up with a new strategy during the game.  Mann's failure was not in exclusively throwing curves at the beginning, but in not making a counter adjustment to Harvard's adjustment.  All he had to do was throw a few straight balls over the plate to make the Harvard men either reconsider their strategy or strike out in the process.  While the Harvard players had success with their new strategy, it was still a very close game and a slight adjustment on Mann's part might have saved the game for Princeton.

1875 Princeton Team - Mann is seated on the left 

Claiming any base ball first is a dangerous proposition, but it's not excessive to say that this May 1875 game is an early example of in game hitting and pitching adjustments at least at the college level.  Adjustments required because of the introduction of  a pitch which Peter Morris believes changed "the competitive balance of baseball." All the accounts including the contemporary report from the Harvard Crimson agree the curve ball was new to these college players - a strategic weapon demanding adjustments and counter adjustments.  Base ball historian, Richard Hershberger believes colleges were late in coming to the curve so that the pitch's introduction (and corresponding adjustments) came earlier for professional and amateur clubs.  Even so, the experience of the Harvard - Princeton game suggests how the process might have worked at those levels regardless of when it actually took place.  And story of the curve ball is a powerful illustration of base ball's evolutionary nature, a process that continues to the present day.