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May 3, 2011

Wezen-Ball

How "Scientific Baseball" Has Changed the Game

by Larry Granillo

The illustrious Tommy Bennett passed along a link yesterday that could only be more in the Wezen-Ball wheelhouse if it was about Ferris Bueller doing a home run trot while reading Peanuts. Needless to say, I couldn't help but write about it.

Every Sunday, the website Sunday Magazine publishes interesting articles that appeared in the Sunday issue of the New York Times exactly 100 years ago. Over the weekend, they finally got around to publishing articles from the April 30, 1911, edition of the paper. Among the stories featured was a well-illustrated article called "Scientific Baseball Has Changed The Old Game". That's right. "Scientific baseball" has changed the "old game". In 1911.

The uncredited author of the piece explains his point in the initial paragraphs:

Scientific baseball of to-day — “inside ball” they call it — consists in making the opposing team think you are going to make a play one way, then shift suddenly and do it another.

The modern game has developed quick thinkers and resourceful players such as the pioneers of the game never dreamed of. There are few of what were known as “good all-around” players nowadays. The inside game has developed teams made up of baseball specialists. They excel in one position, are trained with that object in view, and are never called on to play in any other position.

The article then spends the next 2,000 words or so describing some of the best examples of this newfangled "inside baseball." Beyond that, the article also does a good job explaining how and why these "inside baseball" methods tend to make the teams practicing them better. For example, the 1908 World Series champion Chicago Cubs are called the "best demonstration of what is known as 'inside ball'" and described as a "baseball machine [that] was twenty-five years in the making... the Cubs were probably as near perfection as a ball team ever has been."

To illustrate this intelligence and perfection, the article cites an "excellent example" from the '08 World Series:

Brown knew that Cobb would try to bunt, and Cobb knew that Brown knew it. Cobb expected that the Cub pitcher would send up a ball that would be difficult to bunt, but Brown fooled him here by pitching a ball that he could easily bunt. The instant the ball left the pitcher's hand he ran as fast he could toward the third base line where he knew that Cobb would lay the ball. That was exactly the place where the bunt went, and, with the big start, Brown was able to turn quickly and force O'Leary at third base, not only preventing the runner from advancing to third, but also accomplishing a put-out which would have been next to impossible if the play had been tried at first.

This marvelous bit of "inside" ball so surprised the Tigers that Sam Crawford stood off second astounded. Evers, ever watchful, crept up behind him, took a quick throw from Kling, and put him out.

"Inside baseball" from 1911 was apparently just pure, simple strategy. Other examples given: are giving signs to your teammates (and trying to steal opponents' signs), bringing in pinch-hitters or pinch-runners, changing style of play (e.g., playing aggressive when you're normally not), shifting the defense depending on batters' tendencies, and not stealing a base when the pitcher expects it, thereby causing the pitcher to get behind in the count with a few pitch-outs. The game was so young, though, that these strategies really were new, adapted to the players, managers, and rules of the game as it matured from its nineteenth-century roots. The squeeze play and hit-and-run are also mentioned as being a part of the game's "inside baseball", but they're each said to have been around for a long time (it does allow for a great story about John McGraw, though, who said that he doesn't do squeeze plays because a pitcher can see when they're coming and prevent it by "throwing towards [the batter's] head, which makes him back out of the batsman's box").

Changes in pitching, defense, and baserunning are also said to be a part of "scientific baseball". The "tight defense" of the infield is described as "one of the most remarkable features of modern baseball". Comiskey, for example, is described as a bit of a genius for realizing that first baseman could field grounders while the pitcher covers first. Outfielders are also praised for the ability to read the ball off the bat and run to the proper part of the field to play the ball.

The most interesting parts of the article, though, are the descriptions of the various pitches that have come to be thrown in the league (along with a couple of diagrams). The "moist ball" and the "fadeaway" or "drop ball" are given several paragraphs each, with instructions on how to throw them and comments from Christy Mathewson on when and how he used his fadeaway.

The only real criticism of this "scientific baseball" is mentioned early in the article, after describing the Cubs "machine":

Many baseball critics believe that inside baseball is overdone. They say it is elimination the individual player and makes a machine of the men. One man doing all the thinking makes the men mechanical, ready to act only on the suggestion of others. He is afraid to take the initiative.

It's a pretty tame criticism, considering how widespread and drastic these changes were.

In case you couldn't tell, I really enjoyed this 100-year-old article. It's filled with great illustrations and provides a take on turn-of-the-century baseball I hadn't considered before. If you're at all interested in this kind of thing, I highly recommend checking out the article.

1 comment has been left for this article.

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