In Baseball or Life, The Play’s The Thing

"Where is that horse that stepped on the Galveston left fielder's head? - Anything he can do, I can do better!"

“Where is that horse that stepped on the Galveston left fielder’s head? – Anything he can do, I can do better!”

As Leo Gorcey might have apologized in advance as Slip Mahoney of the Bowery Boys, we have to start this column by saying “pardon us for protruding with exertions of reference to Wee Willie Shakespeare that may or may not be totally inaccurate, but we think it was the bard who came up with that ‘the play’s the thing’ line without ever having perspected an actual baseball game in the person because – they didn’t have no such game in jolly old England back in his time and still don’t. The English reasonabalize that they can’t play baseball ’cause it ain’t cricket.”

Reading 19th century newspaper base ball game reports isn’t quite as close to the level of difficulty we encounter when trying to catch the clear meaning and even more subtle innuendo of Shakespearean script or Bowery Boy speech, but its close. Add to that issue the problem of deciphering faded blurry type from well over a century ago and there we have it – the almost perfect storm for misunderstanding whatever the game reporter is trying to tell us. The third ingredient for achieving perfect misunderstanding in these old game reports, aside from whatever lowered intellectual capacities, presumptions, and knowledge of the game and history we bring to the table, are those same qualifiers in the writer of the story from that distant era.

Sports writers don’t write for history, but, until the Internet came along and convinced thousands of us to write one or several books on baseball history, newspaper accounts were, and still may be, the best play-by-play detailed accounts we shall ever own for the purpose of examining the nuts and bolts of each game and season. The problem with using 19th century game narratives and box score stats for that purpose are several: (1) Although we probably do the same in some ways, 19th century base ball writers were notorious for not reporting certain items of information that they “assumed” we local contemporary readers already knew. As a result, the name or location of the ballpark is often either not mentioned or only referenced as “the team’s home field.” A fly ball was caught by “Smith” – leaving us to either know Smith’s exact position or to hope that the story came with a legible box score that “we visitors from the future” could decipher from this newspaper’s type quality and the organizational style of the box score. (2) The writers from the 19th century also assumed that we, “the local contemporary readers”, already knew the rules and ground rules in play at a particular field – and they also assumed that we were familiar with local conditions in the park that serve as a hazard to players during a game.

Friend and colleague Darrell Pittman sent me a beautiful example a couple of days ago from the Galveston Daily News, dated July 27, 1889, and appearing on Page 7. It was from a report on a game played in Houston on July 26, 1889 at “the Houston base-ball park” between Houston and Galveston of the Texas League. Houston would go on to win the game, 7-5, but it’s what happened during Houston’s first time at bat in the top of the first inning that intrigued us. (And yes, that’s right. In 1889, the home team could choose to bat first and often did,)

Here’s the way our anonymous Galveston Daily News reporter described it, leaving us both in awe over what happened in the top of the first, how it was handled, and what we cannot completely decipher in certainty from the information provided. Here’s the part of the article that affects our questions, factual interjections and bold type comments:

“Houston opened at the bat. Joyce (2b) came first and got his base on balls.and when (umpire) Boggiano took his place behind the pitcher Galveston made a big kick but the matter was finally settled and Boggiano held his place. Rogers (c) came next to bat and made a great hit between center and left, brought Joyce in and took third bag himself. Sunday (rf) got first on balls. Kienzle (cf) came next with the weeping willow in his hand and struck the ball such a blow that it went over the left fielder’s (Frank Beine of Galveston) head who in pursuit of it fell under a horse driven (to?) buggy and had his head badly hurt by the animal’s shoe. In the meantime, Rogers, Sunday and Kienzle came in, the ball bounding over the fence from Kienzle’s blow. Everybody sympathized with Works (William Works, Galveston manager) but cheered the runs. (Sympathized with Works? How about some sympathy for left fielder Beine? He’s the guy that got his head stepped on by the horse!) Welkart (p) got first on balls, Isaacson (1b) out on strikes. Peeples (ss) out on (a) foul fly and Flaherty out on three strikes. (Half Inning Summary for Houston: 4 runs, 2 hits, 0 errors, 3 walks, 2 strike outs, 1 man left on base.)”

The unanswered questions for certain are:

(1) What was a horse doing on the field? Darrell Pittman whimsically suggests, perhaps, the possibility that “horse play” was allowed back in the day, but we both more seriously think it most likely because certain areas near the field foul lines were OK for transportation horse and buggy teams as places to “park” and watch from the first drive in service customer business in history. Either that – or they simply were allowed or paid for the privilege of special livery service to and from the games. That still doesn’t explain how the horse and buggy got into fair territory – and it doesn’t sound from the report that the ball in play carried into foul territory.

(2) What was the scoring basis for Kienzle’s home run? (a) When the writer says the ball “bounded” over the fence, does he mean that the ball bounced over the fence – as that word today normally implies? Or was it a clear cut fly ball HR over the fence? Or simply a bounce-homer? Or a ball that the left fielder might have chased down, even over the fence, had he not been busy getting his head stomped by a horse?

(3) No real question here. Just a statement of awe. Frank Beine got his head stomped on by a horse in the top of the first inning, but recovered quickly enough to play the rest of the game in left field. – There obviously was no concussion prevention protocol in effect back in the really far back good old days, was there?

That’s OK. Baseball has improved a lot since those earlier times. As for the reporting, make your own decision. Imagine how ESPN would have handled footage of a left fielder who got his head stepped on while chasing down a home run. And then – the viral potential for Twitter or YouTube are almost imponderable.

Have a mellow Sunday, everybody! Even with Sunday, or maybe, especially on Sunday, the play’s also the thing.

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