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a game of inches

31 December 2006

"In 1969," Peter Morris tells us, "catcher Clay Dalrymple attempted to keep a glove in his pocket that would supplement his mitt. His intention was to switch to the glove if he anticipated a play at the plate, but he was told that he could not use the extra glove" (258). This decision epitomizes the Bowie Kuhn era in baseball. We often see that era as one of innovation in baseball: divisional play, the designated hitter. But those were top-down, corporate innovations. Clever, individualist innovation was anathema. The same inertial forces in American sport that forbade Joe Namath to wear white shoes also cost us Clay Dalrymple's Two Glove strategy.

Morris's Game of Inches is an attempt to document innovations in baseball rules and tactics. Morris tries to include everything, from the first stolen base (1856) and the first curveball (mid-1870s) to the first use of whisk brooms to clean home plate (1904, after the Cubs' Jack McCarthy tripped over one of the large brooms then in use).

Inevitably, the whisk-broom-size details in this book are more interesting than larger matters like the development of platoon play or the positioning of the shortstop. For one thing, the important innovations, as so often, went unnoticed. Nobody quite knows who threw the first slider; one day nobody seemed to, the next everyone was throwing it. But we know who threw the first (and only) "kimono ball": Tommy Byrne of the Yankees, who perfected a delivery in which, while drawing his arm back, he slung the ball towards home plate from behind his back (177). (You guessed it; no sooner had Byrne tried the kimono ball in an exhibition game than the baseball brass outlawed it.)

Morris's gloriously elaborate table of contents enables the reader to find dozens of gems like the extra glove and the kimono ball. Several led to rules changes. A runner on second can no longer try to steal first base, for instance (in hopes of drawing a throw that would allow a runner on third to score, 296). A runner cannot keep running after being put out, in hopes of drawing another such throw from an unobservant fielder (298).

Most of these innovations are 19th-century in origin. A continual theme in A Game of Inches is that anything worth trying has been tried before. Sometimes a tactic goes dormant for decades. Steals of home plate, once common, disappeared in the 1870s and 1880s only to become common enough again in deadball times (and are now again almost as rare as two-gloved catchers).

But sometimes there is something new under the sun that is not immediately ruled illegal. A variant on the "infield in" deployment, where the middle infielders charge in as the pitcher winds up, arose only in the 1990s, according to Morris (and Tim McCarver, 222). Catcher Carlos Hernandez, in 2000, invented the "spontaneous pitchout," whereby when a runner breaks, the catcher springs up out of his crouch and the pitcher, impromptu, throws a fastball far outside (282). Hardly as historically significant as the slide or the shin guard, but in their own way just as fascinating.

Morris addresses many conundrums of the game. One that often arises in discussions is why there are no left-handed catchers (the last major-league southpaw catcher, Jack Clements, retired in 1900). The best answer has usually been "'cause that's the way we've always done it," but Morris unearths a cogent point made by Bugs Baer in 1923: left-handed catchers were once at a great disadvantage throwing to third base with a right-handed hitter at the plate. That supposes an environment with almost all right-handed batters and a lot of steals of third base. In modern baseball, as Baer points out, there are a lot of left-handed batters, making the premium on right-handed catchers less acute. And in 21st-century baseball, steals of third have dwindled, and the snap pickoff throw to first base may be just as common as the throw to third. But at one point, evolutionary disadvantages doomed the left-handed catcher, and tradition continues to reinforce his fate.

I haven't begun even to suggest the richness of A Game of Inches. There are 500 pages of stories where these few came from. The book deserves a wide readership and a widely-distributed paperback edition.

Morris, Peter. A Game of Inches: The game on the field. The stories behind the innovations that shaped baseball. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006.