How Fans Followed Baseball Games Before TV or Radio

Library of Congress
Library of Congress / Library of Congress

As it is, I can hardly remember a time when my Giants fandom would have been relegated to reading box scores here on the East Coast. Between television, the internet, and my iPhone, these days it's an anomaly if I miss any one of Tim Lincecum's starts. In the era, I could have caught the Giants on TV whenever they played a hometown team. Go back a little further and I hear the radio was pretty popular. But what about before that?

The first baseball game to be broadcast on the radio was an 8-5 Pittsburgh Pirates victory over the Philadelphia Phillies on August 5, 1921, and even then it took a while to catch on around the league. But that doesn't mean baseball fans before the '20s were satisfied with waiting for the next day's newspaper to find out how their favorite team did if they couldn't procure tickets to the game. And fortunately, they didn't have to.


The invention of the telegram in 1844 allowed baseball scores to be known beyond the confines of the stadium in near-real time. Several sources credit Massey's billiard hall in St. Louis with being the first to take advantage of this technology outside the newsroom. By special arrangement, Western Union Telegraph Co. sent the proto-sports bar scores every half inning, which were then displayed on a bulletin board for the enjoyment and edification of the patrons. Other saloons followed suit, while newspapers—which were already receiving telegraph information for the purpose of reporting on the games—started posting the scores outside their offices. Some club owners attempted to fight back against the dissemination of scores beyond the ballpark, which they feared would erode ticket sales. But that wasn't the case—instead, interest in the game boomed.

But there's more to baseball than the score at the end of every half inning. And as the abundant market for such information was made apparent, entrepreneurs went to work. In the mid-1880s, three telegraph reporters from Nashville, Tennessee devised a way of adding a visual element to the scores: They created a poster that was painted to look like a baseball diamond and equipped with a series of pegs representing players that could be positioned on the different bases. A similar board in Augusta, Georgia was added to the Opera House, where fans paid 10 cents to follow along with their favorite team. The practice quickly spread throughout the country, with each innovator adding their own improvements to the viewing devices.

On December 14, 1888, Edward Van Zile, a reporter at Joseph Pulitzer's The World in New York, was the first person to apply for a patent for his version, called the “Bulletin-Board and Base-Ball Indicator," which was displayed outside the paper's offices in downtown Manhattan. Van Zile doubted the economic viability of such a patent and sold the rights to Pulitzer's secretary, Edwin A. Grozier, who went on to obtain his own patent for an improved version. With royalties from the two patents, Grozier was eventually able to purchase a controlling portion of the Boston Post.

Not all the versions of remote baseball watching took off. "A novel feature of the report was the actual running of the bases by uniformed boys, who obeyed the telegraph instrument in their moves around the diamond. Great interest prevailed and all enjoyed the report," read the Atlanta Constitution on April 17, 1886. (And as if that wasn't enough to entice you, the paper also noted that "A great many ladies were present.") Although this live-action reenactment attempted at the opera house in Atlanta may have been the closest approximation of a real baseball game, it does not seem to have ever spread beyond Georgia.

But even without real athletes (or impersonators), spectators treated these events like live games, cheering along with their hometeam's success as it was recounted by an announcer.


Library of Congress

As the 20th century approached, electricity was changing almost every aspect of life in America, and baseball was no exception. Both Boston Major League teams test-ran a prototype of an electronic scoreboard in 1908, but it wasn't until Yankee Stadium opened in 1923 that a ballpark was built to include an electronic scoreboard. But outside the stadiums, away from owners' fears that scoreboards would negate the sales of scorecards, electric bulletins enjoyed an earlier evolution.

An article in the January 24, 1891 issue of Scientific American described an “Electrical Base Ball Bulletin” invented by Samuel D. Mott, an employee of Thomas Edison. The article stresses that the "ideal bulletin or indicator system must be reduced to the simplest electrical and mechanical organization," but it was still capable of indicating the intricacies and details of a game:

The contestants, time, place and date of the game, umpire, battery, position of men on the field, the inning being played, the side which has the inning, the number of outs in the inning, the man at bat, the number of strikes called on him, also number of balls called. It shows how the last man went out, whether by fly, foul, assist, strike, or sacrifice hit, the base run, home run, base on balls, stolen base, or base on error; the table score or the score by innings. A bell taps when any of these changes take place upon the instrument.

Other engineers followed suit with increasingly elaborate electronic displays. For example, Charles Nichols' invention, which the Hall-of-Fame pitcher submitted a patent for just a year after retiring, featured a string of lights to mark the movement of a batter around the basepaths. Others used lights to not only track the path of the runner but also that of the ball.


The stage versions for which patrons paid an entrance fee soon evolved into three dimensions, with mechanical men mimicking the motions of their flesh-and-blood counterparts. An August 7, 1895 issue of The Electrical Engineer marveled at one such device invented by Frank Chapman.

All the players have their proper positions on the big field, and are represented by dummy marionettes, true to the life and about three feet high. Besides the fielding team, and the man at bat or those on bases, three men of the in team are seen on the bench awaiting their turn; two coaches gesticulate wildly on right and left field, and back of the pitcher's box is an umpire who calls the game and waves his arms quite a la mode. Moreover, the batter at the home plate is provided with a bat which he flings down with a genuinely "sickening thud" when he starts for first base.

Movements became ever more detailed in later versions. Thomas H. Jackson received a patent on February 18, 1913 for the Jackson Manikin Baseball Indicator, which required 10 men to operate and went so far as to depict these miniature athletes arguing with umpires.


Library of Congress

These elaborate models did not fully replace the illuminated scoreboards that could be seen for free from the streets. And as the World Series garnered greater national attention, the bulletins with names like “Play-O-Graph,” “Star Ball Player,” and “Nokes Electrascore” attracted increasingly large crowds. During the 1911 Series between Philadelphia and New York, the New York Times reported on both the games and the "THRONGS AT THE BULLETINS," as one headline read. The story named Time Square, Herald Square, and Park Row as some of the more prominent places to watch the drama on the field.

By the following year, the crowds were getting out of hand. "Times Square was packed with a crowd that was baseball mad yesterday afternoon when the signal went up on The Times electric scoreboard... By the beginning of the ninth inning the crowd reached almost to Forty-fifth Street, and the police had their hands full keeping the car tracks open," an October 11, 1912 Times article read. It didn't help matters when Boston's ninth inning rally fell short, allowing New York to eke out a one-run win. But that sort of enthusiasm lent an authentic feel to these fanatic gatherings: “Some of the more enthusiastic fans called out advice to [Giants starting pitcher Rube] Marquard, just as they often had at the Polo Grounds. In fact, there could have been no more interest shown in the game had the scene been the ball grounds at Boston than in Times Square."

That wasn't the only article of the time to conclude that these electronic bulletins were just about as good as the real thing, if not better. But as technology surged ahead, the electronic bulletins' days were numbered. The unenthusiastic broadcasts of early baseball radio, which were filled with silence, allowed the bulletins to coexist for some time. But as radio broadcasts improved and even newer media developed, the old way of watching games was phased out. Ultimately, the television broadcast of baseball starting at the end of the 1930s rendered the Play-O-Graph and all the rest like it completely obsolete.

Additional source: Electric Scoreboards, Bulletin Boards, and Mimic Diamonds by Rob Edelman in Volume 3, Number 2 of John Thorn's "Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game"