The game of baseball is perhaps the most consistently evolving sport ever. While football, basketball, tennis and golf are relatively unchanged from the way they were played a century ago, baseball as it was played in the late 19th century might be almost unrecognizable to most fans today. And I’m not talking about the fact that so many players are of a color other than white.
Most of the changes were not institutional, mandated by the baseball overlords, but rather came about as a result of revolutionary baseball players who saw a way to gain an advantage and seized the opportunity.
One of the most revolutionary baseball players in history stands apart from the crowd in several ways. Unlike practically any of his contemporaries and the overwhelming majority of today’s players, Charles Zimmer had been a college scholar and a member of the Brotherhood, a collection of the best brains in baseball in the late 1800s who were committed to labor reform. Another of Zimmer’s accomplishments was playing an integral role in the transformation of a simple country hurler into a sophisticated pitching machine. The hayseed’s name? Cy Young.
But Zimmer tops the list of revolutionary baseball players by virtue of what he did during the 1887 season. Prior to that time baseball catchers had stood anywhere from ten to twenty feet behind the batter. Take a minute to think about that. If played in the same way today, since the pitcher is sixty and a half feet away from the batter, that means the catcher, depending on his style, would be as much as a third of that distance away from the batter himself. By the time the ball reached the catcher it could have traveled eighty feet. Because of this extra distance, one of the primary tactics used by some pitchers back then was to try for a foul tip that would bounce back into the glove of the catcher. Hard to imagine nowadays, but I’ll bet it was interesting to watch.
At any rate, sometime during the middle of the 1887 season Zimmer decided to try something different. He decided he would move right up behind the batter and stay there for every pitch. In this way he could communicate more effectively with the pitcher as well as spout some encouragement when he fell behind in the count. Don’t underestimate the importance of that. At this time in baseball’s history batters received the benefit of an extra strike; even worse for pitchers, walks counted as hits. Therefore the ability for the catcher to exert more control over the game was a fundamental change, making Zimmer clearly one of the most revolutionary baseball players ever.
Moving around the base path in the direction of a runner, the next revolutionary baseball player we’ll examine is Joe Start. Today’s first baseman stays on the bag only when there’s a bona fide steal threat. But it wasn’t always that way. In fact, from its beginnings until the late 1800s batters who could place a hit between first and second were almost always awarded with a hit because of the huge hole left there due to the first baseman standing on the bag. It wasn’t until Start decided to play off the base and reduce the gap that the game changed. Although the length that Start actually moved is nothing compared to the position that first baseman sometimes play today, it was the first step in a wholesale change.
Dickey Pearce belongs on the list of the most revolutionary baseball players because of the way he changed the nature of the position of shortstop. This position was originally played much deeper than it is now and its primary necessity was in assisting in relay throws from the outfield. At the time, the baseball itself was lighter than it is now and couldn’t be thrown as far; hence the shortstop position as a relay man to get the ball from the outfield to the infield. Dickey Pearce changed the position forever by showing how a player with speed and agility could provide an extra glove in the infield on those hits that were too far or fast for the third or second basemen to get a handle on.
A bunt down the third base line is always a terrific option for a fast runner, but until Jimmy Collins came along you didn’t even have to be particularly fast. Now known as the hot corner, third base didn’t become a glamour position until one of the most revolutionary baseball players in history decided to take a chance on charging the slow rolling bunted ball. Collins was the first third baseman to make a mad dash toward a bunt and whipsaw it underhanded to first. In addition to making the position more exciting to watch, he single-handedly turned third base into one of the leading positions for assists.
No list of revolutionary baseball players would be complete without mentioning the first pitcher to throw a curveball. Unfortunately, nailing down the name of that player is not so easy. Several candidates have bandied about. Arthur Cummings, Bobby Matthews, and Fred Goldsmith have all at one time or another been recognized as the inventor of the curveball. However, only Arthur “Candy” Cummings holds the distinction of being recognized by the Baseball Hall of Fame as officially inventing the curveball. In fact, it was Cumming’s contribution toward revolutionizing the game of baseball that earned him his induction; his record was a mere 145-94.
Although none of these are household names and none certainly carry the mystique of a Ruth, DiMaggio or Aaron, the simple fact of the matter is these five men are among the most revolutionary baseball players of all time.