Baseball Stories

Baseball might be my fourth favorite sport, but with the playoffs in full swing (hah!), I thought I’d post a few baseball stories I’ve been saving up.

Check out this picture:

(photo via National Park Service)

After the War of 1812 – when the British notoriously burned Washington DC – President Madison had a fit of “closing the barn door after the cow escaped” and decided it might be a good idea to build a system of defensive forts on the east coast. Construction on several forts started, including, in 1829, a fort on Cockspur Island, Georgia, between Savannah and Tybee Island.

Major General Babcock was put in charge of the project, but was later replaced by second lieutenant Robert E. Lee. (yes, THAT Robert E. Lee).  By 1833, the fort was far enough along to get a name: Fort Pulaski, in honor of Kazimierz Pulaski, a Polish soldier who fought alongside George Washington in the American Revolution.

The fort was finally completed in 1847, after 18 long years of construction. It took such a long time partly because that’s how long it took to build a fort in a swamp in the 19th century. It also took so long because the fort was made out of brick –  like, a lot of bricks,  like, 25,000,000 bricks – and Savannah just didn’t have the infrastructure to quickly make so many damn bricks.

Then, of course, the Civil War broke out. Georgia governor Joseph Brown ordered the state militia to seize the fort, which became a Confederate stronghold. Meanwhile, Confederate military leaders thought nearby Tybee Island was too remote to be useful for anything, so troops were withdrawn from there. And thus, Union troops moved in.

One of the reasons American sharpshooters were so successful in the Revolutionary War was that they used rifles, not muskets. At their most basic, both guns are metal tubes that one packs with explosives and a projectile, like a bullet or musket ball. You aim the tube at an enemy and set off the explosives. This causes the projectile to travel down the tube at a high rate of speed and (hopefully) hit the enemy.

But rifles were far more accurate than muskets, and that’s because of curved ridges carved into the inner barrel of the gun. Those ridges are called rifling, and that’s why they’re called rifles. The grooves cause the projectile to spin, which greatly increases accuracy. It’s the same reason a quarterback wants to throw a football in a tight spiral rather than just heaving it down the field. Muskets, on the other hand, lack such grooves inside the barrels, which is why they’re sometimes called smooth-bore weapons. That’s also why muskets were inaccurate, like a quarterback under pressure just tossing the football away.

Although the benefits of rifled vs. smooth-bore guns were known to American military personnel as far back as the 1780s, no one had ever thought to build a cannon with a rifled barrel. Until the Civil War. Union soldiers now stationed on Tybee Island were equipped with a brand-new weapon called the James Rifled Cannon. And they unleashed it for the first time ever on Fort Pulaski.

The new cannon were accurate from a much longer range than any smooth-bore cannon, which meant that the Union gunners could shoot at the fort all day, but their Confederate counterparts couldn’t fire back. And because shot fired from the new cannon retained much more of momentum, they were easily able to make giant holes in the massive walls of the fort:

(photo via Wikipedia)

It was your basic “old technology meets new technology” problem: the fort had been built to easily withstand bombardment from distant smooth-bore cannon, not rifled cannon. The rebels were, quite simply, sitting ducks.

Although just a single Confederate soldier died in the bombardment, Union shot came ever closer to hitting the fort’s powder magazine. Colonel Charles H. Olmstead, the fort’s commander, feared that Union cannon would hit the magazine at any moment, which would cause a massive explosion. He also reckoned that reinforcements wouldn’t be able to reach him before Union troops could breach the walls. So he surrendered on April 11, 1862. Within weeks, Union troops had repaired the fort, and all shipping to and from Savannah ceased, cutting off a vital seaport to the Confederate cause.

The picture at the beginning of this article was taken at Fort Pulaski some time after the Confederate surrender. In the foreground, the 48th New York Volunteer Infantry lined up for a photo. But if you look in the background, you just might see something interesting: other soldiers playing a relaxing game of baseball.

This is one of the first known photographs of people playing baseball.

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Most people are right-handed. This has created a major bias against left-handed catchers in baseball, and the reason why is obvious: every time a left-handed catcher would need to throw the ball back to the pitcher, the batter would be standing in the way. The catcher would need to ask the batter to move, or stand and throw around the batter, or at least lean to one side to throw.

What’s amazing to me, though, is the depth of that bias: Jack Clements, who played from April 22, 1884 to October 2, 1900, is the only left-handed catcher to EVER play more than 300 games in Major League Baseball. And since 1902, only 11 games have featured a left-handed catcher.

It’s hard to get the exact numbers because early records are so sketchy, but it would appear that out of the 206,701 total Major League Baseball games played since 1876, only 1,084 have had a left-handed catcher: 0.005244%. And Clements was responsible for 98% of those games!

Incidentally, the last time a left-handed catcher played at all in a MLB game was Benny Distefano back in 1989.

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You might not think about the MLB schedule all that much. But other people do. And someone has done the math and found that, over a ten year period, one could calculate more MLB schedules than there are atoms in the known universe.

The MLB schedule is an amazingly complex affair: 30 teams playing 2,430 games over 180 days. You have to give players rest between games, and MLB and the MLBPA would greatly prefer it if travel was organized into logical sections where, for instance, the Atlanta Braves would travel to San Diego, take a couple days off then travel to Los Angeles… rather than fly to San Diego, fly back to Atlanta, then fly out to Los Angeles.

Teams have to play every other team in their division a certain number of times (at home and away), and other divisions and leagues a certain number of times per year. Oh, and all 30 teams get to submit a list of their own preferred dates, as in “the Atlanta Braves would like to play at home on July 4 so they can have a fireworks show” or “The Yankees can’t play at home on May 5 because of a Drake concert scheduled in Yankee Stadium”.

It’ll almost make your head explode if you think about it too much, but for 25 years the husband and wife team of Henry and Holly Stephenson created the MLB schedule from their home in Staten Island using only a personal computer and a bunch of notebooks. ESPN’s 30 for 30 Shorts did a fascinating 12 minute piece about them:


Apologies for the video. As you can see, whoever posted it captured it from ESPN’s site and uploaded it to YouTube, causing the audio to lose sync. Still, it’s worth a watch!

What I really like about them is their human touch. Sure, computers these days can calculate a full MLB schedule in less time than it takes you to open Microsoft Excel. But, as Holly points out, a computer doesn’t know to have the Orioles play at home when Cal Ripken was due to break his consecutive game record. A computer doesn’t know – or care – to have Chipper Jones play his last home game in Atlanta. And we’re all the worse for it, I think.

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Lastly… you might think some teams have generic-sounding names. Detroit Tigers? Pittsburgh Pirates? But some of the stories behind the names are interesting.

The Detroit Tigers, for example, are allegedly named after the Detroit Light Guard, a local military unit that fought in the Civil War and Spanish-American War. Their nickname was the “Tigers”, so the baseball team was named after them.

The Kansas City Royals are named after the American Royal Livestock Show, held in the city every year since 1899. The city’s Negro League team was known as the Kansas City Monarchs; the “Royals” name isn’t an homage to that… it’s just a coincidence.

The St. Louis Cardinals were originally known as the St. Louis Brown Stockings, which was eventually shortened to just Browns. In 1899, the team decided to have a makeover and changed their colors from brown to a specific shade of red. Although the team called itself the Perfectos, local sports media took to calling them the Cardinals after the color. Within a year, everyone was calling them the Cardinals. However, the “Cardinals” name didn’t appear on team jerseys until 1918, and the bird mascot didn’t appear until 1922.

The Houston Astros were originally called the Houston Colt 45s. But no one asked the Colt Firearms Company for permission to use the name. Colt was especially horrified to find that the team was marketing children’s toys with the Colt name on them. So they politely asked the team to change it. Since Houston was home to NASA, the name “Astros” was chosen as a replacement. The team liked the name so much that they named the Astrodome after it, too.

There is a real bird called the Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula). It’s also the state bird of Maryland, and it got its name because its colors matched the coat of arms of George Calvert, Lord Baltimore. Many Baltimore teams have had the “Oriole” name over the years. The first was an American Association team founded in 1882. When the league folded in 1891, the Orioles were taken in by the National League. But the team folded in 1900 when Brooklyn took many of its best players. The American League was founded in 1901, and wanted a team in New York City to complete with the National League’s Giants. But the National League used its political clout to prevent a new team from being put in NYC, so the American League placed the team in Baltimore instead and called them the Orioles. After a few years, the American and National Leagues smoothed over their differences, so the (new) Orioles moved to New York City and changed their name to the New York Yankees. So a minor league team was founded, also called the Baltimore Orioles. Team owner Jack Dunn lucked upon a hugely talented local player named Herman Ruth and signed him to a contract. Legend has it that Dunn was so protective of Ruth that other players started calling him “Dunnie’s Babe”. So: Babe Ruth. In 1954, the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles. And no, this team has no relation to the St. Louis Cardinals, who were once called the St. Louis Browns.

The Toronto Blue Jays were, basically, a marketing stunt. The team was originally owned by Labatt Breweries. One day, at a Labatt board meeting, John Robards (a board member and former premier of Ontario) mentioned that he saw a blue jay out his window while shaving that morning. At the time, Labatt Blue was the company’s top-selling beer. The name allowed announcers to place a tiny pause in the name and get free advertising: “you’re watching Labatt’s Blue… Jays on CBC”.

The Oakland As were originally located in Philadelphia. Their name points to one of baseball’s origins: the team was part of of the Philadelphia Athletic Club.

Speaking of, the Pittsburgh Pirates were originally known as the Pittsburgh Alleghenys (not, incidentally, the proper “Alleghenies”). Baseball was really complicated in the 1890s: owners had come up with a scheme to freeze player salaries, so players started their own league, the Player’s League, to compete with the National League and American Association. Some cities even hosted three teams from each league!  Two players from the Philadelphia As jumped ship to the Player’s League: Lou Bierbauer and Harry Stovey. When the Player’s League folded a year later, the two were supposed to return to the As. But the As made a clerical error and left the two off the team’s “official” roster. Pittsburgh noticed this, and signed the players to contracts. Philadelphia objected, and the matter was put before an arbitration board. No one was happy about it (except Pittsburgh), but the board found that Pittsburgh hasn’t done anything wrong, and could keep the players. Philadelphia’s management called the Pittsburgh team a “bunch of pirates” and the name stuck.

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