Watching Remote Baseball Games Before TV

Today, Joyce Kilmer is best known either for his poem “Trees” or for an eponymous service area on the New Jersey Turnpike. But he was also a journalist. In a story in The New York Times, Kilmer wrote that Peter Pan creator James Barrie insisted on changing rooms at the Knickerbocker Hotel in 1914 so he could spend “many hours breathlessly watching” baseball games outside his window.

There were just two problems: The Knickerbocker Hotel (right) was in Times Square, not in view of any ball field.  And, although today it’s almost impossible to find a building in Times Square not covered with video screens, that certainly wasn’t the case in 1914. Yet, strange as it might seem, fans across the continent had already been regularly watching remote games for 30 years by the time Barrie made his room change.

The story really begins another 40 years earlier. On May 24, 1844, Samuel F. B. Morse sent his famous “What hath God wrought” telegram, opening the first commercial telegraph service in the United States. The first lengthy newspaper account of a baseball game appeared in the New York Morning News the following year.

By the time ball teams started traveling to away games in 1860, the press was ready to cover them telegraphically. But what fan (short, after all, for fanatic) would be willing to wait for the morning newspaper to learn the score if there were an alternative?

According to Peter Morris’s excellent baseball reference, A Game of Inches, “the prototype of the sports bar” might have been Massey’s billiard hall in St. Louis, where, in 1875, telegraphed bulletins, provided every half inning by Western Union, were posted on a blackboard. So there was a mechanism for conveying data from the ball field to the viewer. The next step was providing something to view.

In 1884, three telegraph operators came up with a plan. They painted a ball field onto a large poster, which they placed in a theater in Nashville. One went to Chattanooga and telegraphed the plays back to the theater, where the second read them while the third moved cards with the players’ names around the poster. The theater soon sold out, so they moved to the much larger opera house. The opera house in Augusta, Georgia came up with its own system, and so did another one in Atlanta (1886 headline below).

In Atlanta, DeGive’s Opera House actually hired young boys, dressed them in the uniforms of the players, and had them run around a ball field on the stage, recreating the plays. The Boston Globe reported in 1885 on “a miniature ball field, on which every movement of the game will be shown.” Meanwhile, the Nashville system expanded to Chicago, Cincinnati, and Detroit and to “a drop curtain having a well painted perspective view of a base ball diamond and outfield,” according to an 1886 report in Detroit’s Free Press.

Here’s a bit more from the July 9 Free Press report of a Detroit-at-Chicago game viewed at the Detroit Opera House: “The audience… was wrought up to a very high pitch of enthusiasm. …when… the operator called out ‘and out to White,’ there came a storm of applause, just such as is heard on a veritable ball field.”

Two years later, newspapers, themselves, got into the act, starting with Joseph Pulitzer’s The World in New York. They erected a ball-field diagram with holes for colored, numbered pins representing the players. It quickly attracted a crowd estimated at about 6,000 people (right), blocking traffic on the nearby Brooklyn Bridge.

That seemingly trivial display system was patented by its inventor, editorial writer Edward Van Zile, at the insistence of Pulitzer’s secretary Edwin Grozier (Van Zile didn’t think it could be patented). Grozier bought the patent rights and was issued a patent of his own the following year for an improved version in which the pins could be moved from base to base by a mechanical system (left).  Between the the two patents, Grozier earned enough in royalties by 1891 to buy a controlling interest in The Boston Post. Those were the first two of at least 44 U.S. patents that would be issued by 1927 for remote baseball viewing systems (and some of the most popular weren’t even patented).

Then electricity entered the picture. In 1891, Samuel Mott, a former Edison employee, received a patent for his system (right), involving light bulbs and motors. In 1894, when their local team beat New York, the crowd at Ford’s Opera House in Baltimore was driven into a frenzy by the Compton Electric Base Ball Game Impersonator. And that year yet another new technology was introduced: android robotics.

The Richmond Times, on May 7, 1895, quoted a female fan watching Samuel Crowder’s “Little Men” (left) at Mozart’s Academy of Music as saying, “”Why they bow just as sweetly as ‘real live men’ when applauded.” The Electrical Engineer carried a lengthy report in its August 7, 1895 issue about Frank Chapman’s “Automatic Baseball by Electricity” (right). Here’s their description of what happened when a pitch was hit: “…the batter at the home plate is provided with a bat which he flings down with a genuinely ‘sickening thud’ when he starts for first base.” A player on base could “move his legs so that he seems to be running, and of course he can be seen in the very act of trying to steal the next base.”

Different systems were said to be able to show players warming up, being coached, sliding (and, if it happened, breaking a leg), arguing with the umpire, and clapping and dancing for particularly good plays. Indoor systems (in theaters, concert halls, and opera houses) used animated figures (like the Jackson Manikin Baseball Indicator at left); systems intended to be placed on newspaper-building facades needed displays more visible to large crowds. Kilmer wrote that Barrie (shades of Tinkerbell) “spent many hours breathlessly watching the ball of light speed across the mimic diamond” on the Times building. The Nokes Electrascore (right) used 1500 light bulbs that could depict the arcs of balls.

The Electrascore was introduced in 1912 and the Manikin Indicator in 1913, but as early as 1906 demand for remote game displays was strong. Below is a complete story that appeared in the June 5, 1906 issue of The New York Times.

There were already many companies competing in the field, with more to come. Below is a depiction of a Compton display from one of the company’s 1908 promotional packets (from the A. Bartlett Giamatti Research Center at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum). Some might say it looks a lot like a GameChanger modern smartphone game-following app (right, click to enlarge).

The Coleman Lifelike Scoreboard used 400 slide projectors. It was depicted (both in front of the screen and behind) in a post here earlier this year:  A big feature of the Automatic Base Ball Play-o-Graph (left) was the use of a regulation baseball, connected to thin wires that could move it around the field as appropriate.


Whether it was the moving ball or contracts with big newspapers, Playograph (like the much later Jumbotron) became a generic description. It also became a problem. During the 1911 World Series, a crowd estimated at 70,000 (right) filled New York’s Herald Square to watch the games on a Play-O-Graph–20,000 more than attended the game in the stadium a few miles away. Unfortunately, the large crowd prevented customers from getting into shops in the area. A jeweler sued in 1913 and won an injunction against its use.

Injunctions and patent-infringement lawsuits didn’t kill the remote baseball viewing systems; radio did. But it took a while.

The first game to be transmitted via microphone wirelessly was an Army-Navy game in 1920, and the voice was heard only in a naval communications center, which changed the information into Morse code and then re-transmitted it around the world. The first real radio broadcast of a baseball game occurred the following year, when Harold Arlin (left) broadcast a game from Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field on pioneering radio station KDKA.

Unfortunately, baseball is a game of long stretches of preparation punctuated by moments of excitement. Arlin duly announced the plays, but the rest of the broadcast was largely dead air. Listeners actually preferred studio recreations of games, complete with sound effects, which also began in 1921.

That same year, watching the big remote baseball displays–previously said to be “almost like being there”–was said to be even better than being there. According to an editorial in The New York Herald, “Watching an actual game is tame by comparison.” In the October 1921 issue of Vanity Fair, Heywood Broun reported an overheard conversation between two newsboys watching a game in person at the Polo Grounds. “Gee, what would you give to be in Times Square right now?”

The editorial in The Herald said the Play-O-Graph “poured kerosene upon your imagination, and the electric sparks that traced the ball and the hitter touched it off in explosions….”  Broun said of them, “the shifts came with a dramatic suddenness denied to those who see every move.”

In 1931, the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson sponsored Playograph viewing at the local opera house. In 1933, The Roanoke Times tried combining Playograph and radio. And, in 1939, when the first U.S. baseball games were televised, the Vincennes Sun Commercial in Indiana didn’t even bother to put out its Playograph. The “crowd” at the Montrose Daily Press game bulletin that year (right) could be counted on the fingers of one person. It was the end of an era–and the start of another.


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