Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Everything You Never Imagined You'd Know About the Hidden-Ball Trick

I met Bill Deane at the Baseball Hall of Fame library in 1991, when he was the Senior Researcher there, and I've been marveling at his research expertise ever since. He's in the handful of top researchers (by that I mean dogged, tireless, and ingenious) I've ever watched in action, along with Tom Shieber, Peter Morris, and Herman Krabbenhoft. So when Deane comes out with a book that reflects searches over a three-decade period, I pay attention.

Finding the Hidden-Trick: The Colorful History of Baseball's Oldest Ruse (published by Rowman & Littlefield, available at www.rowman.com) began as one of a legion of odd-incident lists Deane compiled while poring over microfilm game accounts and box scores. For instance, a list published in the Home Run Encyclopedia covered incidents when a player's final career at-bat was a home run. As the compilation of hidden-ball tricks grew, in part thanks to the arrival of retrosheet.org and a greater availability of batter-by-batter game accounts, even more possible successful ruses cropped up. Enlisting the aid of SABR brethren who tracked down documentation of this or that possibility, Deane found enough published coverage confirming 264 of them to create a whole book about this unique and controversial sports stratagem. I for one am very glad he did.

One of the delightful things about reading this book is the discovery that the hidden-ball trick (HBT henceforth, following Deane's example) has always been controversial. It involves a degree of deception that preys on the unwary. Like a three-card-monte artist, the perpetrator of the HBT uses both visual and verbal distractions; Deane titles the chapter about 1950s HBTs "Step Off the Base a Minute, Will Ya?" The ball has to be hidden somewhere, and the cooperation of the pitcher is vital, as he must stall in the vicinity of the mound until the runner can be induced to leave the safety of his base. Rules have been enacted to charge a balk to a pitcher who takes the mound with a ball, which means that to execute the HBT, the man without the ball often works harder than the man who has it. In addition, the umpire has to call it! We also learn that in recent decades, more of the blame for being caught has fallen on base coaches than on the runners.

Because it can be seen as crossing the lines of sportsmanship, the HBT has faced opposition, notably from Ban Johnson, who tried to outlaw from his precious American League. The Sporting News editorialized against the play as late as 1945. The National League took the longer view that if a runner is stupid enough to get caught, that's his lookout. Despite all the arguments, ejections, and even fights resulting from HBTs, that view has prevailed. The earliest HBT documented by Deane occurred in 1872--in the major leagues. It occurred many times in baseball's even more primitive days, which is why it was first called "an old trick" as early as 1876. It has been an old trick ever since, but one that spikes excitement in the ballpark. It still endures, though only five successful attempts have been made since 2000.

We learn about the controversies and the excitement mainly through Deane's decision to include nearly every newspaper account of the 264 successes as well as chapter about near-misses. This is a double-edged sword. The good news is that it allows us to hear over 125 years' worth of reporters' voices. As anyone knows who has read newspapers of a century ago, the styles were highly entertaining, and they are all of that here. As a sample, here is I. E. Sanborn of the Chicago Tribune in 1910: "J. Evers was made the victim of the moth-ball-scented trick by none other than Fred 'Bone' Merkle. . . .Merkle stabbed him, and the umpire saw it. There was great joy among the bugs who love the Trojan, we don't think so."

The bad news is that we get less of Deane's own voice. Apart from the introductory chapters and brief comments before the decade-by-decade discussions, Deane is satisfied most of the time to provide the "according to" for the next HBT account and to add a smidgen or two of color to summarize the event. I miss the authoritative, wryly humorous narratives and patient, judicious explanations of his previous book, Baseball Myths. Not that this tone is absent from the parade of HBTs--it just isn't there often enough.

As always, Deane is meticulous about presenting his research. He has identified the greatest perpetrators of the HBT--Bill Coughlin, a third baseman with Washington and Detroit in the early years of the American League, was the leader with nine and likely the target of Ban Johnson's indignant abhorrence of the play. He also pulled off the only HBT in the World Series, playing for the 1907 Tigers when he tagged out Jimmy Slagle of the Cubs in a play labeled by the Spalding Guide  as "ancient and decrepit."

Second all-time was the wily Miller Huggins, a Cardinals second baseman whose brain power propelled him to a Hall of Fame managing career. The only other Hall of Famer to turn the trick at least three times was 19th-century first baseman Dan Brouthers. On the other hand, plenty of Hall of Famers have been victimized by the HBT, 32 to be exact. Notable names on the roster of dunderheads include the quick-witted trio of Tinker, Evers and Chance, Willie Mays (though, regrettably, no details are provided), John Montgomery Ward (twice in one season), Jimmie Foxx, Orlando Cepeda, Gary Carter and, most recently, Rickey Henderson (victimized by first baseman Rafael Palmeiro in 1998).

This treasure-trove of baseball tales makes for a fast, entertaining read. My own reading of it was somewhat marred by alarms going off in several Pet Peeves areas of my baseball-editor antennae. It grates on me to read about "a Cub victory" or a "Brown shortstop," but it grates more when an author is inconsistent in usage, as when Deane, in the space of half a page, refers to a "Robin rookie," a "Reds first baseman," and "the Giants' Jim Hamby." They can't all be right; two of them are, which is why the third grates on me. Deane is also inconsistent about verb tenses. Though his own text is in present tense, applying the present tense to quoted passages written a hundred years ago can get tricky. When a present-tense quote is followed by Deane informing us that someone else "recalled" it years later, I find it disconcerting. Finally, he keeps telling us that The Sporting News or another publication "writes" the quote that follows. Newspapers do a lot of things that people do; they report, note, declare, assert, explain, suggest, and even say things, but the one thing the papers do not do is write. Only people write.

Despite those fleeting annoyances, I recommend Deane's book for many reasons: the sheer wealth of lore he excavated; the shrewd way he organized it; his compelling quest for documentation, and the sometimes glowing, sometimes grumbling accounts by generations of reporters.


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