Thursday, May 5, 2016

Another Thing We Just take for Granted

When you go to a ball game you take for granted that the leftie pitchers are going to throw with their left hand and the righties will pitch with their right. But Toronto's Pat Venditte might use either. In my last post I wrote about the first time that had happened in the big leagues. Another thing we take for granted is that the home team will bat last. Well it hasn't always been that way.

As part of my research for my third baseball novel (working title Big Ed Delahanty: Goliath of Baseball's Gilded Age) I am reading Napoleon Lajoie: King of Ballplayers. The author writes that in one of Nap's (they called him Larry) first games, September 1st, 1896 the home team Phillies batted first against the visiting Reds in the early game of a doubleheader.

Not quite true. Further research revealed that it was really September 2, but that's not the point. The point is that, as is often the case, it sent me scurrying to find out how often that happened in those days.

For the record, it was not until 1950 that The Official Rules of Baseball set out in Rule 4.02 that "The players of the home team will take their defensive positions, the first batter of the visiting team shall take his position in the batter's box, the umpire shall call "Play" (not "Play Ball" for all you amateur umpires out there) and the game shall start."

After a loss to the Anaheim Angels in 2002 Yankee skipper Joe Torre told reporters, "It's tough to lose an extra-inning game at home because you have the advantage of batting last, but we didn't get the hits when we needed them." Conventional wisdom I think you would agree. But not always.

Twirler John Richmond of the Worcester Ruby Legs pitched baseball's first perfect game in 1880. Note below that while Worcester was the home team, they batted first.

Henry Chadwick
In describing a game played by the Brooklyn club at Louisville in 1888, Henry Chadwick, the leading baseball writer of the nineteenth century wrote, "The Brooklyn team won the first game of their Western tour today after a close and exciting contest, in which the rule of being the last at bat was again shown to be of conspicuous advantage. The home team had but one inning left to play while Brooklyn - owing to be last at the bat - had two, and the confidence the knowledge this fact gave them was inspiring, and on this occasion, as on others, it gave them the victory."

Originally - as on the sandlot - the first team to bat was decided by a coin toss. But as of 1887 the National League permitted the home team manager to decide who would hit first. As late as 1894 the home team batted first 41 per cent of the time.

Cap Anson's Chicago Colts
Art Irwin opted to have his Phillies bat first fifty-nine times that year and Cap Anson's had his Chicago Colts lead things off fifty-two times. By the turn of the century both managers had left the game and, though Frank Chance had his Cubs bat first at home on July 16, 1908, the practice of the home team choosing to bat last was commonly accepted. When Connie Mack's A's hosted the Senators for a double header in late June 1913 and the A's batted first in the first and second in the second that was already a rarity.

A February 3, 1911 piece in the Milwaukee Sentinel explained why things had been different back in the day. Managers believed that if they could get first crack at the new ball (only one would be used - if a ball went into the stands it was retrieved) before it had been blackened and softened and "harder to see and land upon" they could grab the lead and demoralize the visitors.

An article in the Detroit News three years later agreed. "Right now all the clubs go to the field first when on their home grounds, the custom has become firmly rooted and no manager thinks of  changing. Yet many years ago it was equally the rule for the home team to bat first and the argument on which the managers maintained the system was the supposed advantage of getting first crack at the new ball."

So, is the now accepted wisdom correct? The most scholarly piece I could find on the subject was a 2008 dissertation called "Last-Ups Advantage in Baseball: A Game-Theoretic Approach" for the Texas A &M Department of Economics by Theodore L. Turocy. After revealing the results of calculations I couldn't fathom in a month of no ball games allowed Sundays he concludes, "There is a way in which an errant belief in an advantage to batting last might have a negative effect on a team's chances of winning. The quantitative results of the model suggest that a manager would do well in ignoring whether it is the top half or the bottom half of the inning and basing tactical results on the inning, configuration of baserunners, and number of outs. If a manager believed in an advantage to batting last he might not behave in that way; in fact a common saying is to play for the tie at home, and the win on the road. If in fact batting last is not an advantage, this would be poor advice." So there.

Back to a world most of us can understand. Has there been any recent game in which the home team batted first? Well, it turns out there was. Due to a large number of rainouts in 2007 a Cleveland Indians home game scheduled for April was played later in Seattle and - as a result of mutual agreement and a recent rule that allowed it - the visiting Indians were given the option of batting last, which they did. And now you have "the rest of the story."

Big Ed Delahanty
A footnote and the obligatory happy ending: Most readers will know that ball games used to take less than two hours to play partly because batters were not allowed to step out of the batter's box as they annoyingly do today. But, as you would discover in Goliath of Baseball's Gilded Age, during a dramatic extra inning at bat, with two out, two on, and two strikes on him, Big Ed Delahanty was actually allowed to go to the bench to get a drink of ice water! Refreshed, he returned to the bat, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, grinned, and slugged a home run to win the game.

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