Technology has come slowly to baseball. The advent of instant replay, which the Major Leagues introduced August 28, 2008, arrived more than twenty years after the innovation was adopted by professional football. Would the new rule ruin the game? Or could a second look at close calls simply enhance our national pastime? Some argue that instant replay is long overdue and will prove an invaluable aid to the game. Others are more cautious: umpires and players say the new video playback is a work in progress. Purists warn that replays will spoil the beauty of the game. Hartford’s own baseball history shows how one far-sighted team manager promoted “remote control” umpire technology one hundred years ago this month. It’s a lesson in just how long it takes to modify the game.
In the early 20th century, there was no NESN, no ESPN, no baseball scores by cell phone text messages. Television didn’t exist and even radio broadcasts didn’t start until 1921. So during the 1913 World Series, local fans relied on the Megaphone Man for instant baseball gratification. The Hartford Courant constructed a huge wooden baseball diamond outside its building on State Street. Megaphone Man allowed spectators to follow every play between the New York Giants and Philadelphia Athletics at the famed New York Polo Grounds. The Courant boasted a “direct wire” from the game. Each run and every out was announced as it took place; players “circled the bases” in front of your very eyes.
This technology-- the telegraph wire, the giant mechanical board, the live announcer-- allowed excited fans to root for their teams as the action happened, and gave rise to instant arguments about the umpire’s calls.
Baseball’s arbiters of the past had the same thankless job as today’s game officials. Throughout the last two centuries, Hartford players and managers attacked umpires for bad calls. Enraged fans threw bottles and lemons on the field and sometimes charged from the bleachers. As far back as 1874, Hartford fans were given a stern warning: there would be no hissing the umpires when the team played home games. Connecticut’s “baseball manners need mending” warned a newspaper editorial. No visiting clubs should be subjected to the jeers and insults of “cowardly hoodlums.” Occasionally it was the umpire who actually attacked the fans. Something had to be done.
In 1908, James H. Clarkin offered a solution to game violence that must have seemed like Jules Verne science fiction at the time. Clarkin was president of the Hartford Senators, a club in the Connecticut League. He was disgusted with all the fights generated by controversial calls, so he devised a plan for an “automatic umpire.” A tall box behind home plate would keep the umpire off the “battlefield” and away from argumentative players and fans. The perch was to be equipped with a binocular telescope so the official could watch plays in the outfield. Clarkin envisioned an electric blackboard, connected to the box by wires and a keyboard, where strikes and outs would be projected. The official’s decisions would be quickly relayed to the crowd in an effort to eliminate the “prevalent rowdyism” which afflicted Connecticut games.
The automatic umpire was not the only innovation Hartford baseball helped pioneer. In July of 1890, fans watched a Baltimore team play the local nine, illuminated by big electric arc lights for one of the first night baseball games ever. The visibility was poor under the artificial lamps, but 3000 fans came to see the game anyway.
The Senators’ James Clarkin told a Courant reporter that he had spoken about the automatic umpire to some big league owners who were “favorably impressed.” It took major league baseball several more decades, however, just to introduce the electric scoreboard and field lights for night games.