The Joe Borden Story

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Richard Hershberger

Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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  1. Avatar El Muneco
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    Where the previous year his pitching was better than his win-loss record shows, this year it was worse. His WAR was -0.2. They didn’t know that, of course, WAR being far far in the future. But they knew bad pitching.

    “Great Scott, Marty! The sports almanac only lists Borden’s WAR! ERA won’t even be an official statistic until 1912! How will we convince them?”

    “Doc, he can’t pitch. Just look at him.”

    “Oh, right.”Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to El Muneco
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      says:

      At the risk of being serious, one of my long-term ambitions is to sort out the development of statistics.

      By 1876 they had largely worked out BA, though what constituted an error was something of an open question, as was how to count bases on balls. But at least they had figured out what should be the numerator and denominator.

      Pitching stats took longer. I have in my notes a clear statement of what we now call ERA by 1879, but it was not yet generally accepted. Don’t get sidetracked by whether or not a stat was official. That simply meant what was sent in by the official scorer to the league secretary. There were other stats that newspapers were reporting that weren’t official.

      As for WAR, in all honesty I have my doubts about how applicable it is in this period. I suspect that there are some assumptions about the game that aren’t valid under 1870s rules. But I have doubts about all the other stats, too, and WAR is quick and easy to use, so what the heck.Report

      • Avatar El Muneco in reply to Richard Hershberger
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        You won’t get any argument from me, but then I was (under my real name) active on rec.sport.baseball back when the guys who would go on to form Baseball Prospectus still walked the earth with us mere mortals.

        Being a stathead from way back (I remember having to shake up my all-time rosters on SSI’s commodore 64 Computer Baseball when I learned about the foul-strike rule), I find the history of the game on the field and the parallel development of record-keeping and analysis just as fascinating as the personal insights you have been bringing. So I’d personally love to see more.

        In particular, riffing off of what you are saying in the last paragraph, I think that including statistics and their limitations dovetails nicely with the narrative of the evolution of playing style from era to era. One example off the top of my head, chances vs. errors for discussing fielders, and how institutional inertia led to a static mental model of the game without regard to changes in e.g. equipment, fields, and offensive strategy. For years and years.Report

  2. Avatar Vikram Bath
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    says:

    before catchers had mitts or masks

    Wait. What did you say?Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Vikram Bath
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      says:

      Catchers were manly men. The word used at the time was that they had “pluck.”

      But seriously, the development of the catcher’s position and how it complemented the pitcher is a complicated subject. Catchers tended to play further back than they do today, especially if the bases were empty. Protective equipment came about in response to faster pitching, and in turn allowed for pitching to be faster yet.

      The catcher’s mask was invented in 1876 by William Thayer, a Harvard man, Harvard men notoriously not being as plucky as the general population. It came to widespread notice in 1877. There were those who questioned the necessity, but catchers themselves were noticeably enthusiastic about the idea. Al Reach, in his capacity as sporting goods manufacturer, jumped on it and bought the patent rights from Thayer in 1878. Al Spalding, also in the sporting goods manufacturer capacity, cheerfully infringed on those rights, leading to a lawsuit in 1883. I don’t know how it turned out.

      As for mitts, they didn’t come in until., um…, late 1880s or early 1890s? I’m not sure. In the 1870s catchers wore gloves, but they were actual gloves, albeit fingerless, and were worn on both hands. There is this notion that they were considered shameful, but they were included in sporting goods catalogs. I don’t think they were shameful so much as unremarkable, and hence tended to go unremarked.Report

      • Avatar El Muneco in reply to Richard Hershberger
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        says:

        Also, this. Not sure if it’s the actual first instance, but it’s a good story.

        “On Opening Day in 1907, [Roger] Bresnahan began to experiment with protective gear. Though Negro league catcher Chappie Johnson wore protective gear and Nig Clarke wore similar gear in MLB in 1905, most catchers did not wear any protective equipment. Bresnahan practiced in shin guards that are worn in cricket during spring training, and debuted them on April 11, 1907. Fans, used to seeing catchers play without protective equipment, threw snowballs on the field.”

        Of course, they were playing Philadelphia, and Philadelphia fans don’t need an excuse to throw snowballs at anyone.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Richard Hershberger
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        They had “pluck,” and 10 crooked fingers.Report

      • Richard Hershberger: Al Spalding, also in the sporting goods manufacturer capacity, cheerfully infringed on those rights, leading to a lawsuit in 1883.

        This random place on the Internet says:

        The catcher’s mask in baseball was invented by Frederick W. Thayer, a Harvard baseball player, who once played the game in Omaha. He modified a fencing mask which enabled the catcher to move closer to home base and receive the ball without fear of being struck in the face. Thayer received a patent for his invention early in 1878. Later in the year, A. G. Spalding and Brothers Company, the leading American sporting goods dealer, began selling the Thayer Catcher’s Mask for $3. In 1883 Thayer sued Spalding for patent infringement, and Spalding was ultimately forced to pay royalties.

        Also, for $25, the New York Times will sell you an unframed 8×10 of one of the drawings from the patent filing.Report

      • The word used at the time was that they had “pluck.”

        They often sprained and broke fingers, and that word they used was not “pluck”.Report

        • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Mike Schilling
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          says:

          Someday I will do a post on period cursing. Mostly the newspapers discreetly overlooked it, but occasionally they took notice, particularly if it provided an opportunity to criticize the populace of a rival city. Here is the Chicago Tribune of May 27, 1877 criticizing crowds in St. Louis:

          The writer has heard a lot of boys and men who must have gone through the grand stand if they were honestly in the ground, shout out to John Glenn while he was running for a fly within a little distance of where they party stood, “God d–n your black soul to hell, drop that ball you — of a —–,” and then a moment after, when he was running for a foul, “You black-hearted — —, drop it or I’ll cut you in two.”

          I have not seen anything that one wouldn’t hear today. The difference is that what I see in these pieces is a subset of the full range. They favored blasphemy and questions about parentage, but (Deadwood notwithstanding) not descriptions of sexual acts (unless that is what followed ‘black-hearted’).Report

      • The catcher’s throat protector was invented in 1976, after Steve Yeager’s esophagus was pierced by a shard from a shattered bat. (Oddly, he was on deck at the time, not catching.)Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Vikram Bath
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      says:

      What could possibly go wrong?Report

  3. Avatar Burt Likko
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    says:

    I love Joe Borden’s story: the first pitcher to throw one really great game and parlay it into a major contract — and then, he became the best-paid groundskeeper in MLB history. Except for the groundskeeper part, this is a story we’ve seen replayed many times.Report

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