THE GREAT AMERICAN GAME
By William Lyon Phelps
Baseball is American in its origin, development and area.It is also American in its dynamic qualities of speed and force, and in the shortness of time required to play a full game and reach a decision. Americans do not love serial games like cricket; in literature they are better at writing short stories than at novels, and they enjoy games where a verdict is soon reached.
back over the history of this national pastime, I can remember when the pitcher
was allowed nine balls before losing his man, and one year in the last century
it took four strikes to retire the batsman. I can also remember when a foul
ball caught on the first bound was "out," when a foul tip-often
successfully imitated by clever catchers-was "out," and I played the
game many years before an uncaught foul was a strike. In order to have a wider
radius for fouls, the catcher used to stand far back, moving up behind the bat
only after the second strike, or when bases had the tenancy of opponents. Every
advance in the rules has been in the direction of speed; and at present the
game seems unimprovable.
Nearly every game has some inherent defect; as putting is sixty-five per
cent of golf, so pitching is sixty-five per cent of baseball. Moral: Be a good
putter, and see that your nine has a good pitcher.
Pitching seems to be a greater physical and mental strain than in the
last century, although the box artist does not pitch so many balls in the
average game as he used to. In spite of that fact, Radbourne of Providence, who
was the greatest professional pitcher I ever saw, won the national championship
for his team in 1884 by pitching every day for a long period.And his team-mate, the late John M. Ward,
who afterwards joined New York, told me that in 1879 he pitched sixty-six
consecutive games! The universal disease of nerves, from which no twentieth
century American is exempt, is probably responsible for the more careful
treatment of pitchers today.
On July 23, 1884, the Providence club, then in the National league, was
crippled for pitchers. Radbourne went into the box from that date until
September 26 when he had won the Na
league pennant, daily, except August 2, 18, 20. He pitched thirty-six games
during that period, twenty-two on consecutive days, and winning eighteen. Of
the thirty-six, he won thirty-one, lost four, and tied one.
Tim Keefe in 1888 broke Radbourne's record for straight games won, by
winning nineteen, and Marquard in 1912 equalled Keefe's. Next to Radbourne
comes Joe Wood, with sixteen straight, won in 1912.
Radbourne's total feat for the 1884 season of pitching seventy-seven
games (seventy-four National league championships and three world series,
winning three straight in the world series -no other pitcher was used) is
another record that stands.
The greatest baseball player of all time is Tyrus Raymond Cobb, of
Georgia. He not only holds an unexampled batting record, his speed in the
outfield was so great that he was moved from right to centre, and in his baserunning
it is not much to say that he raised the art to a higher plane. Ordinarily, the
best of players was content to steal second, but if Cobb saw that the ball was
not going to beat him to the second bag, he kept right on to third.The bewildered second baseman, who
naturally had a psychological caesura when the attempted play failed, had to
begin all over again in order to catch his parting guest at third. And,
flustered as he was by the sheer audacity of the thing, he was apt to be wild
Cobb capitalised his reputation; he knew the basemen were all "laying for
him," and owing to that curse which has always afflicted humanity, which
makes it more difficult to do a thing in proportion to one's desire to do it,
they found it more of a task to retire Cobb than to retire anyone else. If they
had not known it was Cobb, they could have got him. Mr. Cobb told me once that
it was largely a matter of mind reading; he had to out-guess his opponents,
he had to know what they were going to do.
Certainly his stealing of bases has been phenomenal; he would steal first base if he could. His ambitious, fiery, high-strung disposition, which is largely responsible for his success, has also caused him to lose his temper on the field. This is regrettable, and of course, must be punished. And yet I have some sympathy for these lapses, and do not condemn them unqualifiedly as some colder judges do. The anxiety to win is what enrages a player when things go wrong, and I fully understand it though I recognise its sinfulness. Although I myself was very carefully brought up by a pious father and mother, and although I had the unspeakable advantage of being a Yale graduate, I once threw a bat at an umpire when he called me out on strikes. In order to atone for this sin, I have often-like Doctor Johnson-stood unprotected in the rain, when I had no umbrella.
The greatest baseball pitcher in Yale's history was Amos Alonzo Stagg, of the class of 1888. He won the championship over both Harvard and Princeton five successive years, pitching in every championship game. He headed the batting order, was a fine base-runner, and in minor games, played behind the bat, on the bases and in the outfield.He knew baseball thoroughly. He never had great speed, or wide curves; but he had marvellous control and a memory that was uncanny. If a batsman faced him once, Stagg never forgot him, and thereafter never gave that batsman anything he wanted.
Carter, of the class of '95, was a great pitcher and all-round ball player, as different in other respects from Stagg as could well be imagined. Stagg was very short; Carter was six foot four. Carter had blinding speed with tremendous curves. But if you compare his record of championships with that of his predecessor, you will see why I rate him second to Stagg. These two men, are, I think, Yale's foremost box heroes.
Baseball is not so spectacular as football, but in one respect it has a great advantage over its more lusty rival. Everyone sees what happens in baseball; the spectator sees every play, and he knows instantly the reason for every success and every failure. In football the ball is concealed in the line, very few can see exactly what has happened, and no one knows whether a run or a touchdown is going to count or not, until the official has given his consent; and if he withholds his approval, and the ball is brought back, the spectators do not know why.