David Block, the Baseball Archaeologist

This is a fascinating story in Grantland about David Block and his quest to find the origins of baseball:

Block was coming to the subject of baseball’s paternity not as a historian but as a book collector. “Historians are driven by story and issue,” said Thorn. “David was driven by artifact.” As he scoured eBay in the late ’90s — back before anyone knew what their junk was worth — it was Block’s brainstorm to bypass books about baseball. He was looking for books that mentioned baseball, books historians might have missed. “I always liked to go where no one else was looking,” Block said. His collection grew big enough that he decided to write a bibliography of early texts. The bibliography became a proper book.

In 2001, Block got ahold of a copy of a 1796 German book with the ungainly title of Spiele zur Uebung und Erholung des Körpers und Geistes für die Jugend, ihre Erzieher und alle Freunde Unschuldiger Jugendfreuden. His copy has green and white marbled boards and brown binder’s tape on the spine. An inside page carries the stamp “D. Schaller,” a previous owner. Block ran his finger down the table of contents when he saw a reference:

                    3. Ball mit Freystäten, das engl. Base-ball

A translation confirmed what Block suspected. Here was a reference to baseball 32 years before the first literary reference to rounders. And the German book, by J.C.F. Gutsmuths, wasn’t the only example. The 1744 A Little Pretty Pocket-Book mentioned baseball. So did a letter of one Lady Hervey of England, from 1748. Even Jane Austen included the word “baseball” in her novel Northanger Abbey, which was published in 1818. If baseball had descended from rounders, Block wondered, then why did baseball keep popping up in the historical record before rounders?

Block began to get a little nervous. The historian Thomas Altherr, who talked to Block during this period, said Block was worried he was imposing on the work of others. For Block had confirmed that both the Doubleday theory was bunk. But he had also discovered that the rounders theory was bunk. Everything we knew about baseball’s parentage was wrong.

A reference to baseball, according to Block, can be traced as early as 1755:

In 2007, Block was on a computer terminal in the British Library in London. He came across a comic novel called The Card, by John Kidgell, which was published in 1755. He found this passage:

… the younger Part of the Family, perceiving Papa not inclined to enlarge upon the Matter, retired to an interrupted Party at Base-Ball, (an infant Game which as it advances in its Teens, improves into Fives, and in its State of Manhood, is called Tennis.)

On English baseball: 

Block offered an alternative proposal for baseball’s paternity. It was both simpler and more complex than any previous theory. First, Block said that baseball had descended from … baseball. What the authors of the BA’SEBALL dictionary entry and John Kidgell and William Bray and Jane Austen were describing was a primitive version of the game played in English fields. Block calls this English baseball.

And how was this English baseball played? Block offers that there were no bats (players used their hands), and that the game was social rather than competitive/athletic:

There were bases of some unknown counting. The pitcher threw to the batter underhanded. The fielders tried to catch the ball on the fly or retrieve the ball and throw it and strike the runner when he was off base.”

Fascinating throughout.


Note: If this topic piques your interest, Block wrote a book called Baseball Before we Knew It that has stellar reviews on Amazon.

The Rise of the One-Day Contract in Sports

What do Donovan McNabb, Jason Elam, and Hideki Matsui have in common, besides being professional athletes? As this story explains, they’re part of a growing number of players who have signed a one-day contract, typically to close out their careers:

The one-day contract has become a rite of passage for the modern athlete — a select few, anyway — before he retreats from the spotlight. Matsui, a former outfielder who signed his one-day deal Sunday at Yankee Stadium, was treated to an pregame ceremony behind home plate. In his final capacity as a team employee, he was responsible only for throwing out the first pitch. He wore a tie beneath his jersey.

You’d think Jerry Rice would have wanted to get paid for his one day contract:

With his 1989 Super Bowl ring swinging from a chain on his neck, Rice signed a deal for $1,985,806.49, which commemorated his rookie season (1985), his uniform number (80), his retirement year (’06) and the 49ers. The sum was ceremonial, and Rice was not actually paid a cent.

Will Pujols sign a one day contract with the Cardinals? Why didn’t Michael Jordan do the same with the Chicago Bulls?

The Erosion of the First Pitch Tradition in Baseball

A New York Times articles explains how the first pitch tradition is being eroded in Major League Baseball:

In a sport that clings to its traditions — from managers wearing uniforms to the playing of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch — one time-honored feature at the ballpark has taken an absurd turn, at least for the game’s purists: the ceremonial first pitch.

I had no idea it was this bad until I read about animals throwing out the first pitch:

For decades, the honor was extended only a few times a season to a rarefied group that included presidents, mayors and military veterans. These days, it is regarded as a marketing opportunity, a sweetener in sponsorship deals between baseball teams and groups that want a piece of the spotlight.

The rite, now carried out nightly, is handed to actors and reality television stars, sponsors’ representatives and contest winners, and people dressed as animals as well as actual animals.

A capuchin monkey carried the ball out for a San Diego Padres game in September. Twice in the last two seasons, the Los Angeles Dodgers have welcomed to the mound Hello Kitty, or, rather, a person dressed as Hello Kitty.

Yikes. Actually, it gets worse:

Sometimes, there are ceremonial second, third, fourth and fifth pitches. The day after making his major league debut this month, John Gast, a promising pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, crouched up and down to catch five pitches. The honorees that day were Edward Jones, a financial planning company; the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency; the Washington University School of Medicine; a local radio station; and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

So next time you’re at the game, you may be witness to something like this prior to the game:


Ichiro Suzuki and His Care for Bats

Very interesting New York Times piece highlighting how Ichiro Suzuki cares for his bats. To Ichiro Suzki, bats are his Stradivarius violins:

Today, after a decade in the major leagues, Suzuki still displays that same reverence on a daily basis, caring for his bats like Stradivarius violins. While most players dump their bats in cylindrical canvas bags when they are not using them, Suzuki neatly stacks his best eight bats inside a shockproof, moisture-free black case that he keeps close by his locker at home and on the road.

Said Suzuki: “In Japan we take care of our instruments, our bats and our gloves…We take care of them well because these things are very important.”

Instagram Photos in Sports Illustrated Magazine

Brad Mangin shares his story of how Sports Illustrated picked up his Instagram photos and is publishing them in the latest issue of the magazine. The set consists of 18 baseball photos spread over six pages. He describes his process in this blog post:

I shoot all of my pictures with the native camera in my phone. All editing and toning happens within the iPhone, too, using a few of my favorite iPhone apps. Once it looks good, I import the final image into Instagram. The final step in my workflow involves uploading the images to my PhotoShelter archive, which is where editors like Nate can easily view and download them for publication.

Some of my favorite apps include Dynamic LightSnapseed, and Camera+. I really love Snapseed for converting images to black and white and for toning my images. Dynamic Light is my favorite app for making a sky look dramatic and for adding great color to images. Once I get the image into Instagram I usually apply the Lo-fi filter and border if I want high contrast and rich color, or rich black and white. If I want muted colors with an old-school look, or if I want to make a black and white image into sepia-toned I use the Earlybird filter and border.

This is good news for photography and Instagram.

The Curious Life of R.A. Dickey

Yesterday, the New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey became the first major leaguer player in 24 years to throw consecutive one-hitters. But it’s his life story that is worth considering. The following nuggets are taken from Wikipedia…

On his ability to throw, when he shouldn’t be able to:

After being drafted by the Rangers, Dickey was initially offered a signing bonus of $810,000, before a Rangers team physician saw Dickey’s throwing (right) arm hanging oddly in a picture. The Rangers subsequently did further evaluation of Dickey, leading to the discovery of a missing ulnar collateral ligament of elbow joint, and reduced their offer to $75,000. Dickey has been quoted as saying “Doctors look at me and say I shouldn’t be able to turn a doorknob without feeling pain,” making his ability to pitch somewhat remarkable.

On tying the record of most wild pitches in an inning, 4:

On August 17, 2008, Dickey tied the record for most wild pitches in an inning, with 4. This came against the Minnesota Twins in the 5th inning. He joins four others including Hall of Famers Walter Johnson and Phil Niekro among others who have accomplished this feat.

On being a studious reader:

One of his favorite hobbies is reading. He keeps a stack of books in his locker at all times, including a Life of Pi by Yann Martel and a collection of works by C. S. Lewis.

If Dickey wasn’t a baseball player, he wanted to be an English professor. Finally, this is the best part, perhaps. He has named his bats for literary swords:

Dickey named his bats for literary swords–Orcrist the Goblin Cleaver (from The Hobbit) and Hrunting (from Beowulf). Dickey mixed up Orcrist and Sting when explaining the origin of the name. This led to what is known to some as the BEST NEW YORK TIMES CORRECTION ever.

Finally, on Dickey being an inspiration to others:

In November 2011, Dickey announced that he would risk his 2012 season salary ($4,250,000) to attempt to climb Mount Kilimanjaro; he credits this aspiration to his boyhood reading of Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro. While climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, he set out to raise awareness of the issue of human trafficking in India. His climb was in support of an organization called “Bombay Teen Challenge” that ministers to victims of human trafficking and their children in the heart of the redlight districts. Dickey returned from this trip in January 2012 with Mets bullpen catcher Dave Racaniello and the Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Kevin Slowey, and together raised over $100,000.

Michael Lewis, Coach Fitz, and Moneyball

Today, Moneyball hits the theaters nationwide. I read this Michael Lewis classic a few years ago, and I intend to see the film. If you’re a fan of the book like I am, you should not miss this classic Michael Lewis piece in the New York Times, “Coach Fitz’s Management Theory.” It’s an endearing read about Michael Lewis’s childhood years, in middle school and high school, and how much he learned from his beloved baseball coach.

A glimpse of Coach Fitz’s personality:

When we first laid eyes on him, we had no idea who he was, except that he played in the Oakland A’s farm system and was spending his off-season, for reasons we couldn’t fathom, coaching eighth-grade basketball. We were in the seventh grade, and so, theoretically, indifferent to his existence. But the outdoor court on which we seventh graders practiced was just an oak tree apart from the eighth grade’s court. And within days of this new coach’s arrival we found ourselves riveted by his performance. Our coach was a pleasant, mild-mannered fellow, and our practices were always pleasant, mild-mannered affairs. The eighth grade’s practices were something else: a 6-foot-4-inch, 220-pound minor-league catcher with the face of a street fighter hollering at the top of his lungs for three straight hours. Often as not, the eighth graders had done something to offend their new coach’s sensibilities, and he’d have them running wind sprints until they doubled over. When finally they collapsed, unable to run another step, he’d pull from his back pocket his personal collection of Bobby Knight sayings and begin reading aloud.

On not brandishing one’s accomplishments:

Fitz’s office wasn’t the office of a coach who wanted you to know of his success. There were no trophies or plaques, though he’d won enough of them to fill five offices. Other than a few old newspaper clips about his four children, now grown, there were few mementos. What he did keep was books — lots of them. He was always something of a closet intellectual, though I was barely aware of this other side of him.

This is my favourite passage in the piece:

We listened to the man because he had something to tell us, and us alone. Not how to play baseball, though he did that better than anyone. Not how to win, though winning was wonderful. Not even how to sacrifice. He was teaching us something far more important: how to cope with the two greatest enemies of a well-lived life, fear and failure. To make the lesson stick, he made sure we encountered enough of both. I never could have explained at the time what he had done for me, but I felt it in my bones all the same. When I came home one day during my senior year and found the letter saying that, somewhat improbably, I had been admitted to Princeton University, I ran right back to school to tell Coach Fitz. Then I grew up.

I highly, highly recommend reading the whole thing.

Readings: Pain, Woods+, Jeter’s 3,000th Hit

A few reads from today:

(1) “Thinking Away the Pain” [Wall Street Journal] – author Jonah Lehrer probes this question: can meditation and other alternative methods (including cognitive behavioral therapy, biofeedback, and hypnosis) help with relieving pain?

Pain is a huge medical problem. According to a new report from the Institute of Medicine, chronic pain costs the U.S. more than $600 billion every year in medical bills and lost productivity. Back pain alone consumes nearly $90 billion in health-care expenses, roughly equivalent to what’s spent on cancer.

Despite the increasing prevalence of chronic pain—nearly one in three Americans suffers from it—medical progress has been slow and halting. This is an epidemic we don’t know how to treat. 

(2) “Woods+” [Ftrain] – What is Google+, exactly? This is a hilarious take from Paul Ford. My favourite part is the allusion to the short story, “The Most Dangerous Game.”

I know it’s confusing. But this is their competitor to Facebook basically. Except you can list your friends. That’s the circles. But it’s easier to remember if you call them holes. Like I could have a friend hole and an acquaintance hole and a K-hole. And they give you a list of friends and you stuff them in the hole, like Silence of the Lambs, except you are sending them images and text messages and hanging out with them on video chats. One of the things that can happen, according to the press, is that you can, if you are very lucky, talk with one of the founders of Google, because he’s hanging out using the service too. And you can ask him about user experience, and show him your cat.

(3) “Was Giving Jeter’s 3,000th Hit Back a Dumb Move?” [The Atlantic] – over the weekend, Derek Jeter joined an elite group of baseball players to have accumulated 3,000 or more hits in their MLB career. His 3,000th hit was a home run. The big story revolved around 23-year-old Christian Lopez, who caught the HR and then returned the ball to Derek Jeter. So what’s the issue? If Lopez decided to auction off the ball:

So how much money might the ball have fetched? According to one Bloomberg report, it almost certainly could have been sold for somewhere between $75,000 and $250,000 at auction…

But I think Lopez did the honourable thing here. In return, he received luxury box seats at Yankee Stadium, valued at $40,000+. However, the point of highlighting the article is for this fact, which you learn about in Economics 101:

Criticizing Lopez’s decision as crazy misses the maxim that “money isn’t everything.” But more importantly, it ignores an important aspect of basic economics that supports that maxim: utility theory. It teaches that money isn’t a person’s ultimate goal. Instead, they seek to maximize their personal utility. Think of utility as happiness: while money certainly plays a role in happiness for many people, it isn’t all that matters.

So, to an economist (and to someone like me), Lopez giving the ball back was a completely rational thing to do. It was the right thing to do.