So we're sitting in the booth on Tuesday in Pittsburgh, waiting for the postponement, and high above Jim and me is a muted TV tuned to the MLB Network. And I happen to look up at the exact moment the panel is talking about some article from 1885 about - of all things - launch angles. Okay, not those exact words, but they were showing a screenshot purported to be from the Caldwell (Kansas) Advance from May of 1885 that said "a base ball should be struck at an angle of 23 degrees in order to send it to the greatest possible distance." I was stunned, amazed, and delighted. Someone figured this out 133 years ago? What a story!
But I wanted to know more. Who was the 19th Century genius who had figured this out? Who was the enterprising sabremetrician in 1885 who tracked this guy down and convinced his editor he had to write about the next revolution in the growing game that was still called ‘base ball'? Was this from a long article about the best strategies for a base-ballist to strike a ball? Was this a belated April Fool's Day joke?
The story came from a simple tweet from author and historian Nathan Ward, who passed along a screen shot from the actual newspaper published May 28th, 1885. There was a link to the full page from the newspaper where the "article" appeared. But once I clicked on that full page to see the context, all it did was raise more questions - and deepen the mystery.
There was no article about baseball. There was no context for this item. The incongruity of the whole thing left me searching for a possible, reasonable explanation. Only to realize there really weren't any.
The two sentences about the proper angle at which a baseball should be struck is buried in the middle of three columns devoted to "Local Items" from all the goings-on in Caldwell in late May of 1885. Things in south-central Kansas were clearly hopping. From a sampling of all the news, see if you can spot the item that doesn't fit:
W.E. Campbell returned Monday evening from a visit to Kansas City for his health. He finds himself greatly improved.
Mrs. Norton and children left on Tuesday for a visit to friends at Independence. The washout of the railroad prevented them from going last Thursday.
Frank Terwilliger sold to C.B. Bickford on Monday 67 first-class Texas mares. Also, to a New Yorker 50 head to go to N.Y. City.
A base ball should be struck at the angle of 23 degrees in order to send it to the greatest possible distance. If you can't strike it in 23 degrees, give it a boost in ten, five, or even one, but be sure to bat it in some degree.
Frank Rogers got a tumble with his horse one day last week that came near to placing him under the sod, so to speak. He lay entirely unconscious for over 24 hours. He is up and around now, though, feeling but a little worse for the fall.
First of all, glad to hear Frank is up and feeling okay after the close call. But did you find it? The one item that doesn't seem to fit? Plunked down in the middle of scores of little items that made up the daily life of Caldwell, Kansas (I didn't even get to the lengthy piece about the rabid dog biting its owners and the scathing editorial that followed) are a couple of sentences about the best way to hit a base ball. With absolutely no hint at where it came from. No related story about, say, exit velocities. No attribution. No context.
And I kept thinking - 23 degrees. Really? In 1885 someone just happened to hit upon what is basically the perfect launch angle for a power hitter to drive the ball to the gaps or over the fence? In an era when professional hitters - the very best of the best of that time - combined to put together a league-wide slugging percentage of .325? And an era in which the same ball was used for most of the game and had basically turned to mush by the 4th inning? Someone was advocating hitting that ball into the air so you might, what, hit a corker past the short fielder for a safety?
It made no sense. Something just didn't seem right. In my 60 years on this earth (and after getting fooled far too many times on April Fool's Day), I feel like I've developed a pretty good sense for when someone is trying to pull our collective leg. My BS detector is pretty solid. And my BS-senses were tingling.
As I mentioned, a guy named Nathan Ward tweeted this out. Nathan Ward is an accomplished author of several books, including one on Dashiell Hammett that was an Edgar Award Nominee in 2016. By all accounts, Nathan Ward is a fine writer. Nathan Ward has 35 followers on Twitter. And somehow his tweet got noticed - and went national. As it should have. But, still. The puzzle pieces just weren't fitting together.
After much thought, I've settled on two possibilities. First: this is a hoax. A really good hoax. I'm not too well versed in spotting Photoshop edits - the actual screenshot sure looks very realistic - but maybe a really creative writer who loves baseball and has some electronic editing skills just decided to have a little fun with us. If so, kudos, because it's very good. But let's assume the best of Nathan Ward, and take this item at face value: he just happened to stumble across this amazing tidbit while he was researching a story about, I don't know, Frank Rogers and his brush with death.
The second possibility has to do with - bear with me here - time travel. I'm a big fan of time travel. I love watching movies about time travel and I love reading books about time travel (two favorites: Replay by Ken Grimwood, and Stephen King's 11-22-63. Any suggestions you have are welcome). My kids will tell you, no matter how cheesy a movie may look, if it involves time travel, I'm in. I consider myself a bit of an expert on how this all works. So my current working theory is that this article is proof that time travel is real.
My best guess is that someone like Brian Kenny or Keith Law (let's just say it's one of those two) has found the secret to time travel. And either by design or by accident found themselves in Caldwell, Kansas in 1885. Making the most of a tough situation - not knowing when they might get back to 2018 - and to earn a little money , they did what came naturally: went to the local paper, and convinced the publisher to give them a job. In return for the standard $1.25 a day, they would have to do the Local Items column, but in return, they would get to write about this game called base ball once in a while.
And during the second week on the job, after writing about the Caldwell Nine's 28-16 drubbing at the hands of the Wellington Clippers (see: column three, lower third), they decided now was the time to apply some of their current knowledge of the game - and drop in a little item that just might help the hometown club. Unfortunately, no one saw the item, or those who did immediately forgot about it because they got caught up in the tale of the Cooley family's battle with the rabid dog. There was no one there to retweet it. And that knowledge about the perfect angle at which to strike a baseball sat buried in the Caldwell Advance archives for over 130 years before finally being discovered by a guy who has 35 followers on Twitter, who would then make sure it got national attention. Because, by that point, either Brian or Keith had returned from 1885.
Or - this really could be for real. And will remain a great, unsolved mystery for all time.
Until Nathan, Keith or Brian fesses up.
Here's a link to the May 28th, 1885 edition of the Caldwell Advance: