Wednesday April 8th, 2009

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Baseball But Were Afraid to Ask

game-of-inchesAs baseball season gets started, it’s a good time for fans to luxuriate in Peter Morris’ encyclopedia A Game of Inches: The Stories Behind the Innovations That Shaped Baseball, published in two volumes, The Game on the Field and The Game Behind the Scenes.

The tables of contents for the two books look more like a legal document, with areas of the game divided and subdivided, and take up a combined 27 pages.

On the Field starts with “The Things We Take For Granted” — nine innings, balls and strikes, overhand pitching, running counterclockwise — and moves on to parse baserunning, uniforms, umpires, fielding and equipment, among other categories. If you’re concerned about thoroughness, Morris has you covered. The sub-chapter on kinds of pitches runs 64 pages, from the fastball (“baseball’s first pitch”) to the Kimono Ball (a pitch thrown behind the back, an invention of Yankees left-hander Tommy Byrne that was immediately outlawed after he used it in a preseason game).

The second volume deals with off-field subjects like scouting, ballparks, statistics and marketing, and it houses the more tangential — often bizarre — material. In a chapter called “Variants,” we learn about baseball on ice. Morris writes, “With baseball and ice-skating both enjoying popularity in the early 1860s, it was inevitable that someone would try to combine them.” Yes, inevitable. In 1861, the Brooklyn Eagle ran this priceless account of one game played on the slippery surface:

It will be readily understood that the game when played upon ice with skates is altogether a different sort of affair from that which the Clubs are familiar with. The most scientific player upon the play ground finds himself out of his reckoning when he has got the runaway skates to depend on, and the best skater is the best player.

Less than five years later (it took that long?), the very same paper had seen enough:

We hope we shall have no more ball games on ice. . . . if any of the ball clubs want to make fools of themselves, let them go down to Coney Island and play a game on stilts.