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A Technology of Ruin
By Staff Writer
Got an e-mail in the mail yesterday. My pal Dieter Ismagil goes on-line, prints out my e-mail, and mails it to me from his home in Belize. See, I've got trouble working a mouse. Can't get that double-click. I'm always clicking too slow or too fast or something, so I made a deal with Dieter: he opens up my AOL down in Belmopan (beautiful down there, you should go sometime); he gets my e-mail, prints it out, and mails it to me. In return, I mention him in my column. All right, so it's a little one-sided. He's young and charitable; I'm old and cranky. That's life.
Anyway, this e-mail came from Merle Townsend's grandson. I mentioned Merle in the last column: he invented the first mechanical pitcher by rigging up a machine gun that fired baseballs instead of bullets. There were problems, to be sure (some accuracy troubles that led to a few concussions), but he showed that technology can be baseball's friend. Which brought to mind the great pioneer of mechanical baseball instruction tools: Al "Sloppy" Hines. Sloppy was a diminutive Irishman, impeccably neat, who hated his nickname. So, naturally, in the thirties, everyone insisted on calling him by it. Sloppy grew up in New Jersey near Menlo Park, and he imagined himself the Edison of baseball. He loved the game and at the point he realized he'd never be good enough to play professionally, he convinced himself it was because he had lacked the training tools. It became his mission to create a single machine that could train any young ballplayer.
He started with hitting. His first tool was simplicity itself: he drilled a hole through a baseball and tied it to a ten-foot rope. He'd swirl the ball in a circle, like a cowhand lassoing a steer. A student batsman would whack at it. This was fine; this worked. He'd whip it high or low, and his students (mainly the chubby kids in the neighborhood that nobody picked for their team) started to hit better. But that wasn't good enough for Sloppy. He had to mechanize the apparatus. For Sloppy, mechanization was always the next step. He devised a sort of carousel that revolved on a three-horsepower base. By attaching two balls on opposite sides, one high and one low (he called it the giraffe side of the carousel and the hedgehog), the batter would alternate between the high fast one and something low and away. That worked, too. It was compact, you didn't need a big cage, and the ball always came back.
By this point, Sloppy had settled into what they call the Irish RivieraSpring Lake, New Jersey, along the coast. Pretty town. Old-fashioned. Lots of open fields. Its beaches filled up in the summer with rotund Irishmen turning a brilliant pink. Sloppy's baseball carousel became something of a local landmark. "Sloppy's Whirligig" they called it. Kids would spend hours hitting and Sloppy was happy. Not so much because the kids liked it as it fulfilled his unifying theory of baseball instruction: the ball needs to come back.
Sloppy felt the basic problem with teaching baseball was that the ball went away. You hit it, it goes away. If you misfield it, it goes away. Throw a wild pitch, it goes away. You waste half your training time tracking down baseballs. Anyone who's coached Little League knows that one: Hit a grounder; shortstop fires it over the first baseman's head. First baseman runs after the ball, tracks it down from the weeds, throws it to the catcher. Catcher mishandles it; ball rolls into the dugout. Five minutes later, you're finally hitting another grounder. Just too much damn time spent chasing balls.
How do you practice hitting and throwing and still contain the baseball? Sloppy decided to expand on his carousel. He added a third ball on a rope. This rope was sixty feet, six inches long; the distance from pitcher to the plate. Now a kid could throw a pitch, quickly pick up a bat, and take a cut at two pitches. Sloppy thought he was on to something. He added a fourth ball, the catching ball. Now a kid could do four things: Pitch the ball; pick up a bat and hit the oncoming high fastball on a rope. Pick up a glove and catch the next ball coming his way. Pick up the bat again, hit the low and away pitch, and then reel in the pitching ball and throw itsetting the whole thing in motion again.
It worked. Sloppy got ambitious. He doubled the works. Eight balls spinning, whipping around, training young Irishmen to be future Delahanty's. Get those reflexes bone tight. It all worked too well, as Sloppy tragically found out one afternoon in 1943. Buddy Dinsmore, the chubbiest kid in Spring Lake, was devoted to Sloppy's Whirligig. He practiced for hours, perfecting the intricate timing and motion required to hit every ball, catch every throw, pitch a perfect strike each time. That afternoon, with the Battle of Britain fresh in every mind (which plays a distant but significant role in the story), that afternoon Chubby Buddy was in the zone. Faster and faster he threw the ball; harder and harder he hit it. The Whirligig spun beyond its usual stately motion, powered by Buddy's whacks. It swirled like a roulette wheel, gyrating in tight revolutions until suddenly bolts snapped, rigging popped, and the entire Whirligig rose into the air.
It was a helicopter, at least for the three minutes it took for it to sail toward the beach. It floated over the field, above Buddy's astonished head, above the tree line, and over the town square. It was at this point that Mr. O'Hoolihan, ever vigilant on Civil Defense duty, spotted it. He radioed his friend Brendan Joyce at the anti-aircraft station. Brendan had just finished a mid-afternoon pick-me-up, but in a testament to his training, he quickly lined up the sites of his World War I issue howitzer on this strange craft, undoubtedly a Heinie spy plane. He drilled it good. He hit for the cyclenailed three balls and the engine. With a sputter and a spark, Sloppy's Whirligig fell like the earthbound object it should have remained and landed heavily on the boardwalk, narrowly missing a sunburned grandmother.
It remained there for a few weeks, like a broken amusement ride awaiting repair. Sloppy wanted to fix it, but it was wartime and the metal carousel poles and base were requisitioned for the war effort. That took the wind out of Sloppy's sails. He fixated on his theory of the baseball-that-would-not-run-away and invented the Sloppy Ball: a heavy, soggy ball that could be hit but was so bloated and heavy that it was guaranteed not to go anywhere. Somehow, this never caught on. What a shame.
Merle's grandson pointed out to me that his grandfather was on to something good, just ahead of his time. Folks are afraid of a new technology. Who knows? The Sloppy Ball might be selling on the Internet right now if people weren't so darn afraid of a new machine. But I guess I'd never know if it was, unless Dieter mailed me the news.
Thankful that the technology of upholstery has never changed much, I'm Staff Writer.
Other than changing his underwear pretty regularly and his old typewriter's ribbon every once in a while, STAFF WRITER is pretty much just an old-fashioned crank.© 2000 Elysian Fields Quarterly
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