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Monday, August 19, 2013

The Baseball Historian's Notes for August 19, 2013: All Hail the Hidden Ball Trick!

In a sport increasingly known for money, technology and deeds of avarice, the hidden ball trick has to be one of the rarest and time-honored plays in baseball. It’s something that has been utilized since the earliest days of the game, yet still has a place today.

One blog post from several years ago reported there have been less than 300 hidden ball tricks in major league history. It’s a stat that has not been well-documented, so while the exact number is in question. there is no doubting its rarity.

Although the hidden ball trick is as old as soaking runners or jamming wads of chewing tobacco into spike wounds, it is still as cool as ever. It was glorified in a movie and is still a top highlight when occasionally pulled off in today’s game.

The most recent example came on August 10 in a game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Dodgers. L.A. third baseman Juan Uribe was the victim of a particularly well-executed play. Naturally, it was talked about for days after the fact. No matter how big baseball gets, it is small joys like this that make baseball the national pastime.

***Whatever good will Alex Rodriguez had with most fans was likely lost following his recent PED suspension and subsequent highly publicized appeal. Going back to a simpler time in his career, this clip documents a 1996 exhibition home run derby in the minor leagues, featuring Ken Griffey Jr., David Ortiz and Rodriguez. It’s fascinating to see A-Rod, with innocence in full bloom, not to mention a shockingly scrawny Big Papi (before the “big” was apropos).

***One of the most iconic moments in baseball history was Dodger outfielder Kirk Gibson’s 1988 Game 1 World Series home run against super closer Dennis Eckersley and the Oakland Athletics. The full drama of the entire at-bat can be seen via this clip.

Gibson had not started that particular game because of injuries to both legs that left him barely able to walk. Late in the game, he was summoned to the clubhouse, tottered up to the plate and after several minutes of drama slammed a homer against Eckersley; perhaps the best pitcher on the planet at the time.

The Dodgers went on to take the Series against the heavily-favored Athletics. A bonus of the famous moment is that it is called by legendary broadcaster Vin Scully, who can make any magical baseball moment even more special.

***Henry Chadwick, who passed away in 1908, is often referred to as the Father of Baseball. The journalist and voracious scorekeeper had so much influence on the game that he is often credited with its founding. He certainly didn’t invent baseball, but his contributions were significant enough that his enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame is an honor richly deserved.

This look at Chadwick is done in large part by the author going through a treasure trove of his papers. Primary sources is the good friend to any historian, and anything that can illuminate a figure like the Hall of Famer, who is largely forgotten by mainstream society is a reclamation worth doing.

***The Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees have had a rivalry of one sort or another since the Yankees joined the fledgling American League in 1903 (Boston was an original entrant in 1901). This color photo from a 1942 game at Fenway Park between the two teams is an interesting tidbit in the history of those two teams. It’s interesting to note how similar many parts of the stadium are to what stands today. On the other hand, there are noticeable differences to the left field wall, where the Green Monster, which is festooned with advertisements, is not nearly as intimidating as it eventually became.

***Free giveaways have become a staple at baseball games; particularly in the minor leagues. As the swag has diversified, so have the methods of delivery to the hysterical crowd hoping to be one of the lucky few to bask in the glory of free but completely useless crap.

One of the most interesting developments has been that of the t-shirt cannon. Pumping balled up shirts in inconvenient sizes to fans has become strangely popular. The New York Times’ Pagan Kennedy explored the history of the non-lethal weapon, and found that it originated in the 1990s, first appearing as a veritable mortar. It has evolved since then, but become an accessory few baseball teams can now live without.

***If you are a student of a game and a lover of baseball history, it doesn’t get any better than the following clips. In 1993, Bob Costas interviewed Red Sox legend Ted Williams at length about his career and thoughts about the game. Clip 1, clip 2 and clip 3 add up to nearly 40 minutes of pure bliss for anyone who gets chills listening to the Splendid Splinter talk about hitting or baseball.

***And now, your moment of Zen. Most fans of baseball and its history would agree the current game just isn’t the same that it used to be. Fortunately, there’s a way to temporarily transport back in time. Here is a complete radio broadcast of a 1957 game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs. The pitching matchup of future Hall-of-Famer Sandy Koufax against Dick Drott led to a fantastic game (and 12 strikeouts by Koufax!)

In addition to other Hall-of-Famers like Roy Campanella, Ernie Banks and Duke Snider playing, the first three innings are called by a young announcer by the name of… Wait for it… Vin Scully!


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