September 24, 2017

Nineteenth Century Score Keeping : Unlearning My Past

September 1, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

This winter I joined a Nineteenth Century base ball league team as scorekeeper. As I was not sure I would recover from the injuries I suffered as a result of a bicycle accident in time to be a player, I took a sideline role. The Diamond State Base Ball Club is the only Old Time baseball team in Delaware. The players from this team are drawn mostly from northern and central Delaware.

Diamond State plays its home games at Fort Dupont State Park, (hey this is Delaware) in Delaware City, on the Delaware River. The field was used as recently as late in World War II by troops stationed at the Fort. All of the visiting teams compliment ours on the authenticity of our field, which does look a great deal like the Knickerbockers’ Elysian Field of 1845.

The scorekeeper, or in the parlance of the day “tally keeper,” sits at a table set along the first base line, just to the right of the umpire, and records all the hits and runs. This is where I had to unlearn my scoring habits. Nineteenth Century tally keeping has very little in common with scoring as we know it today. Only the symbol K is the same, otherwise it is numbers 1, 2, 3 for the respective bases, HR for the rare four-bagger and FO and PO for balls in play.

Diamond State usually plays by 1866 rules which are pretty much the same as modern baseball, with some notable exceptions. The catcher has no equipment so, naturally, he plays much further back than a modern catcher would. Foul balls caught on a single bounce are outs. Like in the modern game, the umpire determines what is a strike or a ball. However, if the umpire can not make up his mind as to what was pitched, he will call no pitch. The “hurler” receives a warning for the first ball and the batter receives a warning for the first strike if he does not swing. Three balls are a walk and all runners advance a base, whether or not he was forced from the base. The hurler must deliver his pitches underhand.

The bats are thicker in the handles and less tapered than modern Louisville Sluggers, and the ball is a little softer and is stitched in what is termed the “lemon peel” pattern. Baseball historian Bill James likened the game played more than 100 years ago as closer to soft pitch softball than modern baseball. In a sense he is right, except that the skills involved are rather different.

In all honesty, I am probably not a very good tally keeper because I constantly want to use modern notation and must constantly recheck myself before I put a mark on the score sheet. I am finding it very difficult to unlearn a skill I spent my childhood, adolescence and adulthood honing. The tally keeper is more important than the modern score keeper for several reasons. He is part of the action, placed very close to the field of play. A loose bat could clobber him. Also the batters must announce themselves to the tally keeper as they approach the plate (a flat metal disc) and when they score a run.

Looking at these games is to see the roots of America’s pastime. This was the game as it once was, no gloves, flannel or wool uniforms and a rapid pace of play. It is easy to see the modern game in one of these contests but it is impossible in the mind to imagine modern big leaguers playing this game. The skill sets are far too different. Our players are amateurs, bankers, students, clerks and the like, just as players were in 1866. And unlike a lot of major leaguers, all the players in our league play for the sheer fun of it. It’s like being a kid again!

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