By Marty Appel
Imagine the founding fathers of baseball, seated around a wooden table, drinking a little stout, mapping out a playing field, and getting around to the equipment to be used.
They come to the little sphere that will be called a baseball, and have to decide whether it would be woven with stitches to keep the horsehide together, or whether it could somehow be fashioned stitch-free, like a billiard ball or a golf ball. Perhaps dipped in a non-breakable solution that would harden just enough to keep the twine in place.
What they were debating of course, came to be the very essence of the game. Without stitching, there could be no curve ball pitching. And without curve ball pitching, baseball would be only a test of hitting. Speed and control would be all that would count for the hurler. No breaking pitches to keep the batter guessing.
And so the question for scholars and philosophers would be – did the founders have breaking balls in mind when they invented the game, or was it an accidental byproduct of the simple need to stitch the horsehide together. Perhaps they had no idea that curve ball pitching would come from the incorporation of stitching.
The answer, which we really don’t know, is at the very heart of baseball.
John Thorn, MLB’s historian, writing in his Our Game blog, recently reported on a response to an inquiry about these origins by quoting Al Reach, who said, “…my recollection dates from about 1855 or ‘56. The most popular ball in those days was the Ross ball; Harvey Ross…was a member of the Atlantic Base Ball Club of Brooklyn….his home was on Park Avenue, where the made the balls. John Van Horn was a member of the Union Club, of Morrisania, New York; he had a little boot and shoe store on Second Avenue, New York City. These two makers turned out the best base balls for some years, and they were used in nearly all of the match games that were played in the early ‘70s. E.I. Horsman of Brooklyn, New York, also made balls in the early ‘60s for the market, not having the success, however, of the Ross and Van Horn balls among the experts of that day.”
So let us just say, for the moment, that the Baseball Hall of Fame, which has a “wing” for writers and sportscasters, might one day consider one for inventors, without whom we wouldn’t recognize the game we love. It seems like Ross and Van Horn might be there.
And how about some better known American inventors? Let’s have some fun with this.
Without Orville and Wilbur Wright, and their invention of the airplane, we could not have a league that ran coast-to-coast. There would still be a separate league – a Pacific Coast League, as it were, because traveling to the west coast from Chicago or St. Louis, would be prohibitive without multiple consecutive off days for travel.
Let’s induct Orville and Wilbur then, as the second pair of Wright brothers honored in Cooperstown, along with the founding players Harry and George.
Of course, you could still have a league without air travel; it would just be less geographically spread. But you would still need train travel – and for this, we recognize Philip Thomas and George Brown, creators of the B&O (Baltimore and Ohio) Railroad in 1828, which meant that passenger trains were already in place before the National Association, and then the National League, took hold. Thomas and Brown, influenced by British precursors, are in.
And what of Thomas A. Edison?
Think about it – no night games without Edison’s invention of the light bulb! An all day game schedule would keep the game economically primitive. Big bucks from television networks and regional cable networks? Forget about it. We would still be looking at an economic model rooted in the 1930s.
We’re not quite done with Edison yet. While the ancient Egyptians and Romans were working with concrete, it was Edison’s Portland Cement Company that began to supply poured concrete in the construction of ballparks. In 1922, he won a contract to provide 45,000 barrels of cement to build Yankee Stadium – a ballpark whose concrete shell lasted until it was demolished in 2010. Before concrete was used in ballparks, most of the wooden ones eventually burned down. If the major leagues were to truly be “major league,” moving to concrete was an important evolutionary move.
And oh yes, television. How about an induction ceremony for Philo Farnsworth, generally lauded as the lead inventor of television. And while we are at it, how about honoring the Italian inventor, Guglielmo Marconi, generally credited with development of radio? Yes, before television, America fell in love with baseball by listening to the games on radio, beginning in the 1920s. It was the St. Louis Cardinals’ wide territorial range that made them the darlings of much of middle America. Thank Marconi.
And before radio, telegraph wires kept newspapers, fans, and other teams informed of “real time” scores.
While England’s Sir William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone developed a telegraph system in 1837, that same year America’s Samuel Morse, was credited with the development of a version here. “Morse Code” became the great system of transmitting information across the country, and that was well in place by the time baseball came along. And once we had professional leagues, the teams had the need to know what their competitors were doing. Morse Code was perfect for that. Let’s put Samuel Morse into our new wing.
Our teams have to wear uniforms – they always did – and for the mass production of these uniforms, we really have to pay homage to the development of the sewing machine. Again the British were there early on, perhaps as early as 1790, and in 1804, Thomas Stone and James Henderson marketed one in Britain, while a Scotsman, John Duncan, developed one that embroidered. Here in the US, Elias Howe’s machine was introduced in 1845, but the mass marketing of the invention was credited to Isaac Merritt Singer and Edward Clark, who paid Howe a royalty. The Singer Sewing Machine Company was formed in 1856, and yes, Stephen Clark, a grandson of Edward Clark, created the Baseball Hall of Fame and paid for its construction in 1939, and Stephen Clark’s granddaughter, Jane Forbes Clark, is the current chairperson of the Hall of Fame. So yes, Clark, Singer and Howe all belong in the special wing we’re imagining.
And how about baseball bats? They would be really hard to fashion in quantity – and to perfect smoothness – without the invention of the lathe. Again, this goes back to the ancient Egyptians, as does the development of leather, the key ingredient of baseball gloves. Alas, we have no single name to credit for either the lathe nor for leather. Their “plaques” in our imagined new wing, will just have to show two generic Egyptians, in profile of course, as we have come to see ancient Egyptians portrayed.
Finally, what’s a ballgame with a beer and a hot dog?
While the cultivation of beer goes back thousands of years, its sale at ballgames is generally attributed to the American Association (“The beer and whiskey league”) which happily sold beer to customers from 1882-1891, while the National League resisted. As the transport of refrigerated beer was not possible until the 1950s, local breweries became identified with the home town teams. No single individual seems to stand out for merit in the marriage of beer to baseball, but we should at least raise a stein to the six charter teams of 1882 – Baltimore, Cincinnati, Louisville, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, with Cincinnati (headed by Justus Thorner and O.H. Caylor), and St. Louis, (headed by Chris Von der Ahe), being the two teams who insisted on beer sales at games and forced the Association to adopt it as a bylaw.
And finally, the hot dog. This we know: they first appeared on Coney Island in Brooklyn around 1870, when a German immigrant, Charles Feltman, first sold sausages in rolls. Harry M. Stevens soon followed, selling sausages in rolls at the Polo Grounds, as he mastered ballpark concessions and became a fixture on the New York sports scene. Nathan Handwerker created Nathan’s on Coney Island and began marketing hot dogs in 1916 to compete with Feltman. While Handwerker and Feltman were slugging it out, it was Stevens who was making every trip to the ballpark a hot dog day. Stevens gets the imaged plaque in our special wing.
And just when you thought the Hall of Fame didn’t need a new wing; there you have it. A special place for those, without whom, baseball just wouldn’t be baseball.