Writing Play Across Space

An extended excerpt from Jules Tygiel's Past Time: Baseball as History, discussing cultural changes surrounding the sport with the advent of the telegraph:

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Playograph - Courtesy Baseball Hall of FameThe scoreboards themselves, of course, had already represented a grand advance into the modern era. Instantaneous telegraph transmissions allowed baseball fans to experience games as they transpired. What sportswriter H.G. Salsinger called an "invisible host of fandom" thus shared in the exhilarating local communal experience of gathering for the games, while simultaneously participating in a national rite of autumn. As early as the 1890s communities began to translate these telegraphic reports of baseball games into visual recreations. At the Atlanta opera house, young boys bearing the names of real players would run the bases on a baseball diamond laid out on the stage. In 1894 the "Compton Electrical System," a ten-by-ten foot board that featured lineups listed on either side of a diamond and lights to indicate which player was batting, the current baserunners, an up-to-the-minute ball/strike count, and other information appeared in many cities. After 1905, when the World Series became a permanent fixture on the national scene, scoreboard-watching became an equally entrenched annual ritual. Newspapers erected large displays in front of their offices, attracting crowds numbering in the thousands in large cities, often snarling traffic for many blocks.

In 1906 the Chicago Tribune began the practice of renting armories and theaters to hold the crowds. The indoor setting allowed scoreboards in the major cities to become increasingly more elaborate. In 1912 Madison Square Garden and other venues in New York City presented the Series on a display that moved the balls and players with magnets. Another model, "The Playograph," used a ball affixed to an invisible cord that emulated the course of the ball while white footprints illuminated the path of the baserunners. A Jackson Manikin Board employed for the 1915 World Series showed mechanical athletes that moved in and out of dugouts, swung the bat left- and right-handed, and even argued with the umpire.

For millions of baseball fans, these recreations seemed truly miraculous, enabling them to "attend" games played hundreds and thousands of miles away. "Before many of the thirty-six thousand spectators at the Polo Grounds were aware that the umpire had called a strike on the batter, fans in Denver, Colorado, and San Antonio, Texas, knew that the umpire had called a strike," asserted F.C. Lane. The fan, explained Salsinger, "visualized each man as he comes to bat. [He] 'sees' every pitched ball, closely follows the course of every batted ball." To Irving Sanborn, the crowds in the ballparks were no "more enthusiastically alive to every critical situation or more loudly appreciative of every fine play than those millions jammed into the various halls or thronging the streets in front of newspaper audiences." Some argued that the man in the street saw the game more clearly than fans at the stadium. The ballpark, after all, offered many distractions. Those watching the scoreboard, however, saw only the raw essentials of the game affording them, according to Lane, "a clearer view of what was happening at the Polo Grounds than was possible to a fraction of the fans who were actually present" (p. 66).

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As Sandy Stone would articulate a century later in her discussion of phone sex workers, telesthesic forms of communication are fundamentally about moving bodies across space. The action of the baseball game, a relatively closed-action sport based upon discrete encounters between offence and defence as well as segmented movements around a circuit of basepaths, was compressed into packets of code that could be transmitted over the telegraph's connected circuit of electricity.

Similar to Stone's sex workers, who would convert an entire erotics of input culled from multiple sensory modalities to tokens of sound that would then be converted to electrical vibrations before being reconstituted into sound and then multisensory affect, those communicating baseball across great distances would convert an entire spectrum of the sport's outcomes to tokens of alphanumeric code that would then be converted to electrical vibrations before being reconstituted as alphanumeric text, incandescent light, or electromagnetic effect.

There is a difference, however. Any of the exteroceptive sense modalities may be converted and condensed to auditory token form during telephone sex — the sight of a fiery red tangle of hair, the fragrance of one's sexual perfume, the caress of a tongue over this or that erogenous zone — a process that is essentially translative. With baseball, on the other hand, only those discrete actions that may be objectively captured in alphanumeric code were transferred across the wires. There was no roar of the crowd, no smell of fresh-cut grass or gently burning pipe tobacco, no feel of the hot summer sun yielding to a gentle twilight breeze — the process was essentially reductive.

Playograph: writing play across space. But what does the technology of writing play — indeed, what do any of our technologies of ludic representation — exclude from the account?


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