An Obsolete Trick Play

Modern baseball was still new in Philadelphia in 1862, when nine players traveled to the metropolis to pick up some pointers. The city slickers in Newark were only too happy to oblige:

“In the third inning the Newarkers taught their visitors one of the “points” they had come to get posted up in, it was as follows. Johnson was on the third base and Loughery was the striker, Loughery struck a foul tip which went out of the reach of the catcher; in returning the ball to the pitcher, Osborne [the pitcher] [allowed it to go past] to short-stop who threw it to the third base man, but in such a way as to miss him; whereupon some one called to Johnson to run home, and, forgetting that the ball had not been in the hands of the pitcher, he did so–the consequence being that the ball was promptly forwarded to the pitcher, and by him to the third base man again, thereby putting Johnson hors de combat and giving the Philadelphians a capital illustration of a fine “point” in the game which they themselves had learned from their old opponents, the Gothams.” Source: New York Sunday Mercury June 8, 1862

Who doesn’t love a trick play? Other than the guy who let himself get tricked, of course. The classic baseball version is the hidden ball trick, which is a very old one:

[Stars vs. Atlantics 10/18/1859] “Flannelly, the first striker, was put out on second base by a dodge on the part of Oliver [the Atlantics’ second baseman], who made a feint to throw the ball, and had it hid under his arm, by which he caught Flannelly–an operation, however, which we do not much admire.” Source: New York Sunday Mercury October 23, 1859

The hidden ball trick is an evergreen. But the “point” the Newarkers played on the Philadelphians is another matter. It is incomprehensible today because of a later rule change: When does a dead ball become live? Nowadays it is when the umpire declares it live, which he doesn’t does until everyone is in position. Things were livelier, back in the day.

How does the ball become dead? There are innumerable ways today, but early on there were only two. The umpire could call time–a rare occurrence at that time. If so, then like today, the ball was live again when the umpire said so. The more common occurrence was a foul ball. When does that become live? They tried a few variants, and settled on its being live as soon as it was “settled into the hands of the pitcher.” A minority opinion was that the pitcher should have to be “in his position” but this didn’t stick, and the pitcher could be anywhere.

Consider a runner at first base. A line drive is hit down the line. No one is going to catch it, but it might land on either side of the foul line. What does the runner do? Nowadays this is easy. He takes off running. If the ball is fair, he has a good shot at scoring from first base. If it is foul, then he simply goes back to the base. This wasn’t so easy in the 1860s. If the ball ended up foul, he had to get back to first base before the ball was made live and sent to the base. The outfielder in our example might chase down the ball and throw it in to first base, where an active pitcher would station himself to take the throw and use his ball-reviving magic. This is very much like a runner today who fails to tag up on a fly ball, except that the pitcher was a necessary part of the process. So runners had to be more cautious, and there were long discussions about whether they had to retouch all the bases along the way back, or if they could cut across the diamond. (The eventual ruling was that they had to retouch the bases.)

This explains the tricky Newarkers’ play. Lougherty hit a foul ball, making it dead. The catcher retrieved it, but rather than throwing it back to the pitcher and thereby making the ball live, he intentionally “accidentally” overthrew the pitcher. The shortstop retrieved it, and “accidentally” threw it past the third baseman. By this time, Johnson, the runner at third, had lost track of the fact that the ball was dead, so he took off for home. At this point the third baseman retrieved the ball threw it to the pitcher, thereby making it live. At this point Johnson had no chance of getting back to third before the pitcher threw it there, even supposing Johnson realized his peril.

The essence of the hidden ball trick is that the runner loses track of where the ball is. This trick is similar, but rather than the ball’s location, the runner loses track of the ball’s being dead. And a good time was had by all.

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