Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
From the Play-O-Graph to the Jackson Manikin Baseball Indicator, the forgotten history of simulated ballgames.
Finding a place to watch sports isn't hard in this country—especially baseball. This week and next, bars around the country (and pretty much anywhere with a TV in Kansas City and San Francisco) will be showing every single World Series game. Just about anyone who wants to can catch them.
A century ago, however, fans keen to watch the game had to be much more resourceful, settling for "game simulations" in rather un-stadium-like locales.
In the 1880s, baseball lovers would crowd for hours in opera houses, watching as behind-the-scenes workers gathered pitch-by-pitch updates via telegram and displayed them on stage.
On a Library of Congress blog, media historian Mark Schubin writes about an Augusta, Georgia opera house, which in 1885 would configure a blackboard that had each team's lineup, a baseball diamond, punched-out holes for bases, and flags representing a baserunner's progress. Admission to the board: Ten cents.
A more elaborate scheme could be found in Atlanta's opera house. Dug up by Hannah Keyser of Metal Floss earlier this year, an April 1866 article in the Atlanta Constitution tells of "actual running of the bases by uniformed boys, who obeyed the telegraph instrument in their moves around the diamond."
Sounds a little more stimulating than a blackboard. "Great interest prevailed and all enjoyed the report," according to the newspaper.
By the 1890s, electric-powered simulators dominated the scene, with each new invention inspiring another one. There was the Compton Electric Base Ball Game Impersonator, the The Nokes Electrascore, the Play-O-Graph, and the Jackson Manikin Baseball Indicator, among dozens of others. Between 1899 and 1927, at least 44 U.S. patents were issued for various viewing systems, according to Schubin.
If they weren't on the stage of an opera house, many of these game simulators were attached to the facade of a building—often a newspaper's headquarters, since employees were already receiving telegram updates for their sports reports. Baseball fans, famously stat-obsessed, gathered in downtowns by the thousands to watch these elaborate game simulators update each pitch, swing, and baserunner's advancements. (A filmed example can be found in this 1919 World Series newsreel.)
Crowds sometimes ended being up larger than what a typical stadium could fit. During Game One of the 1911 World Series, the New York Telegram reported a crowd of 70,000 watching the Herald building's Play-O-Graph. That was nearly twice the amount of actual attendees at the Polo Grounds in nearby Washington Heights. During other major games, downtown property owners complained of blocked access to their businesses.
But with the 1930s came advancements in broadcast technology, and gathering in front of a giant scoreboard to observe fake baseball began to feel a little antiquated. In 1934, Major League Baseball sold its first sponsorship rights to a World Series radio broadcast. In 1947, an estimated 3.9 million Americans watched a World Series on TV for the first time. Simulators faded from mass popularity.
Yet traces of the Play-O-Graph and its relatives can be still found today. Fans without access to a TV often look to free, online services like ESPN's Gamecast and MLB's Gameday, where digitized baseball games help visualize each play, along with real-time stats.
Of course, it's not quite the same as enduring a sea of highly vocal strangers. Nowadays, that's a suffering reserved for those actually visiting the stadium.