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Game's progressive past

5/13/2004

Baseball certainly must rank as the most conservative of the major team sports. Whether you think that's a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of taste, I suppose. But there certainly have been some radical changes over the years, and below are a few of the highlights:

1887: Platooning
Platooning generally refers to the practice of assigning one position to two players: a left-handed hitter to face right-handed pitchers, and a right-handed hitter to face left-handed pitchers. According to Bill James (in his New Historical Baseball Abstract), the first known platoon arrangement was used by the National League's Indianapolis Hoosiers in 1887, when right-handed hitting Gid Gardner platooned with left-handed hitter Tom Brown in the outfield. (This arrangement couldn't have lasted long, though, as neither player saw action in more than 36 games.)

1905: Rescue Pitcher
What's a rescue pitcher? He was something like our "closer." For all of the 19th century and the first few years of the 20th, the starting pitcher was expected to finish what he started, and if he had a lead there was no way he was coming out of the game. Just wasn't done. In 1902, for example, future Hall of Famer Vic Willis led the National league with 46 starts ... and 45 complete games.

But New York Giants manager John McGraw had his own ideas. In 1905, McGraw used a pitcher named Claud Elliott almost exclusively in relief (10 games, only two starts). But this wasn't just an attempt to get an inexperienced pitcher some action in the occasional blowout. Elliott actually "saved" six games (as statisticians noted many years later), with a save defined simply (as it has been for old-time hurlers) as preserving a lead through the game's end. In 1906 Elliott was gone, replaced by 19-year-old righthander Cecil Ferguson, who pitched in 22 games, started only one of them, and saved seven.

McGraw, like a lot of managers in that era, often preferred to simply use a starting pitcher to preserve late leads -- in 1908, Christy Mathewson saved five games -- but from 1909 through 1913 McGraw relied on Doc Crandall, who saved 24 games over that span (and was also a reliable pinch-hitter).

1946: The Boudreau Shift
It probably wasn't the first extreme shift of fielders designed to thwart a potent left-handed slugger. But it was certainly the most famous, and remains so to this day.

It started on July 14, 1946. The Red Sox were hosting the Indians in a doubleheader, and in the first game Ted Williams hit three home runs and drove in eight runs as the Sox won 11-10. In his first at-bat in the second game, Williams doubled down the right-field line.

Indians manager (and shortstop) Lou Boudreau had seen enough. As Williams would later recall, "Boudreau figured out that whatever he was doing against me wasn't working, so he tried something radical. The Shift."

Boudreau stationed all four infielders on the right side of the diamond, his center fielder in right-center field, and his left fielder in extremely short left field. For the most part, Williams simply refused to take advantage of the shift by bunting or stroking line drives to left center. That just wasn't in Williams' nature, and so he saw various manifestations of the shift for the rest of his career. Considering how well he hit after 1946, it's hard to say the shifts really hurt him much, but the tactic, less radically, is still seen often today, employed against left-handed sluggers like Jim Thome, Jason Giambi, and (of course) Barry Bonds.

1947: Jackie Robinson
Suddenly, a player without particularly light skin was allowed to play in the National League. Radical, huh?

1961-1962: The College of Coaches
Heading into 1961, the Chicago Cubs hadn't finished a season better than .500 in quite a long time; to be precise, not since 1946. So owner P.K. Wrigley decided to try something radical. Instead of one manager and two or three coaches, he would employ eight or nine coaches and no manager. In practice, it worked something like this ... Four or five coaches would work in the minors, four or five in the majors, and one of the major leaguers would temporarily serve as manager. In 1961, four men managed the Cubs, with El Tappe (96 games) out-doing the other three combined.

In '62, Tappe and Lou Klein managed for a few weeks apiece, then Charlie Metro took over in June and managed the rest of the way. A few years ago Metro wrote, "I didn't care all that much for the rotating coaches system, especially switching pitching coaches." Yes, they switched pitching coaches, too.

Over those two seasons, the Cubs went 123-193. In 1963 Wrigley hired Bob Kennedy to join the College, and Kennedy did so well -- the Cubs finished 82-80 -- that Kennedy ran the club all season and the next, effectively ending the experiment.

1973-1975: Finley's Fliers
There's a pretty good chance that you've heard of Herb Washington. But what about Allan Lewis? Washington's famous, but Lewis, dubbed "The Panamanian Express," actually predated Washington as the first Oakland A (officially, they weren't the Athletics then) who was used almost exclusively as a pinch-runner.

Lewis reached the majors in 1967, and occasionally played the outfield and got a few at-bats. Mostly, though, he ran. And in 1973 he never got to step in the batter's box at all: 35 games, 16 runs, and seven steals, but no at-bats and only one appearance in the outfield. That marked the end of Lewis' major league career, and what a strange career it was: 156 games, 29 at-bats, 47 runs, and three RBI.

A's owner Charlie Finley wasn't giving up on his pet idea, though. Rather, he figured he might as well take the strategy to its illogical extreme. With Lewis gone, Finley signed a supposed world-class sprinter named Herb "Hurricane" Washington, who hadn't played an inning of professional baseball, and installed Washington on the major league roster. That season Washington appeared in 92 games, every time as a pinch-runner, scored 29 runs, and stole 29 bases in 45 attempts.

1973: Designated Hitters

Radical? You bet. The Triple-A International League had experimented with the Designated Hitter -- officially, those words always were capitalized -- and the idea had been discussed for many decades. But aside from that experiment in the International League, professional baseball had always been a nine-man game: if you play the field, you bat. That essentially changed on January 11, 1973, when the American League clubs approved the use of the DH, initially on an experimental basis, by an 8-4 vote.

The National League, of course, spurned the DH. After the American League set an attendance record using the DH in 1973, The Sporting News editorialized, "If the DH experiment approaches its 1973 results in 1974 then the National League will have little choice but to follow."

(Also in 1973, the American League raised the possibility of instituting the "DR" -- Designated Runner -- but the suggestion was rejected by the Playing Rules Committee. The idea hearkened back to pre-1950 major league baseball, when the use of a "courtesy runner" was fairly common.)

1997: Interleague Play

At the same 1973 meeting in which the American League approved the Designated Hitter, the AL also voted for interleague play (which had been bandied about since at least the 1920s). The conservative National League didn't go along, though, and of course it takes two leagues to tango. So the idea would have to wait until 1997, when Commissioner Bud Selig convinced enough owners that the time had finally come (he'd already presided over the addition, in 1994, of two new divisions and an extra round of postseason play). Some still complain about the seemingly pointless match-ups (Pirates vs. Royals?), but interleague games have become a permanent part of the MLB landscape.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.