“Baseball by Electricity”

11 Jul

In 1886, The Electrical Review told the story of the first attempts at “reproducing almost instantly a vivid view of the exact situations and plays in a game of baseball.”

The original plan was hatched by three telegraph operators in Nashville, Tennessee who “turned their enthusiasm for baseball to good account.”   J. U Rust, E.W. Morgan, and A.H Stewart made the first attempt to transmit a game between Chattanooga and Nashville in 1884:

“To do this they leased a wire from Nashville to Chattanooga, one end of which was on the ball field, with an expert operator, who was accurately informed in baseball playing, seated watching the game and immediately telegraphing each play as it progressed.  At the Nashville end of the wire were two other telegraphic and baseball experts.  As they received the record from their partner, one man reproduced it verbally to the audience, while the other man manipulated cards bearing the names of the players, around a painted view of the ball field which was placed in full view of the audience.”

The following season Southern League games were transmitted to opera houses in several of the league cities by Morgan & Co. “the ingenious firm” created by the three telegraph operators.

On July 9, 1886 Morgan & Co. transmitted the game between the Detroit Wolverines and the Chicago White Stockings from Chicago’s West Side Park to the Detroit Opera House. The “unique entertainment before a crowd of 600 persons,” was described by The Electrical Review:

“On the stage was a huge landscape—it would have done well as a drop curtain—having a well-painted perspective view of a baseball diamond and outfield.  At the points on the picture representing the positions of batsman, pitcher catcher and basemen, are openings into which may be shoved cards bearing the names of the players, and into which these names are placed as the telegraph operator seated at his instrument reads to the audience the progress of the game, even to the smallest details.”

The crowd at the Opera House “was wrought up to a very high pitch of enthusiasm.  For instance, when the operator read—with (Abner) Dalrymple’s name appearing as batsman—“foul fly to left,” the audience fairly held its breath, and when the next instant the operator called out, ‘and out to (James “Deacon”) White,’ there came a storm of applause, just such as heard on a veritable ball field…the excitement was intense.”

The Chicago White Stockings defeated the Detroit Wolverines 8-2 on July 9, on there way to the 1886 National League championship

The Chicago White Stockings defeated the Detroit Wolverines 8-2 on July 9, on their way to the 1886 National League championship

By the end of the 1886 season, games were presented in opera houses in Chicago, Boston, New York and Cincinnati.  By the end of the decade the practice would become commonplace in all big league cities.

By the mid 1890s the system for presenting games to the public had become much more advanced.

The Baltimore Morning Herald said in September of 1894:

“The ball game today between the Baltimore (Orioles) and Louisville (Colonels) clubs will be given as usual from the stage at Ford’s Grand Opera House at 4 o’clock by electricity.  The system utilized for the first game in the city is ‘The Compton Electric Baseball Game Impersonator.’   It has been used in New York and elsewhere with unbounded success.  It is a contrivance so ingenious that the slightest move of the players is visible, and the anxiety and interest of those present is just as great as though they had been occupying the grandstand.  Every strike is recorded and illustrated, and, whether at the bat, running the bases or in the field, all the players are known and watched…a visible reproduction of the game is given to the minutest detail.”

By the end of that season the Compton system was used to transmit games to fans in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, and it, and numerous systems developed by competitors would become commonplace over the next four decades.

The Chicago Examiner sponsored the "automatic Baseball Playograph" exhibition of the 1913 World Series between the New York Giants and Philadelphia Athletics.

The Chicago Examiner sponsored the “automatic Baseball Playograph” exhibition of the 1913 World Series between the New York Giants and Philadelphia Athletics.

Usually sponsored by local newspapers, the exhibitions were an especially popular method for following the World Series in real-time.   It was not until 1938 (when the New York Yankees, New York Giants, and Brooklyn Dodgers became the last teams to have their games broadcast on radio) that the technological descendants of Morgan & Co. became completely obsolete.

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