They Weren’t Very Good Fielders Back Then, Either

Perhaps you’ve played vintage baseball, or have witnessed a game of vintage baseball. If so, you’ll know that fielding gloves weren’t widespread before the 1880s. This meant that in the 1860s, fielders had to catch the ball with their bare hands, leading to frequent pain and injury. Perhaps, after witnessing such a retro spectacle in the modern day, you’ve amazed at how deft ballplayers must have been in the 1860s to field adequately without even the most rudimentary equipment. Well, amaze no more.

My last post recalled the Tennessee state championship of 1868 between the Knoxville Holstons and the Nashville club. As it’s the earliest full account I’ve found of a Tennessee match, I thought it might be a useful tool to gauge the actual talent level of the players, at least from a fielding perspective.

So I went through the play-by-play, and noted every time a player “muffed” or “missed” a ball, as well as all the wild throws and passed balls (technically not an error in today’s game, but I’ve included them here). Then I arranged them according to the familiar line score format (see below) to indicate how many errors each team made in each inning. By my count, the two teams combined for 50 errors! Now, the rules of the period required fair balls to be caught on the fly, and not on the bound, as prior to 1865. And many vintage clubs of today decline to steal bases as part of their game, which nullifies the passed ball.

But still, the next time you play baseball bare-handed and happen to muff the ball, at the very least take pride in the authenticity of your performance.

Inning         1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9    Total

Holstons        6 6 1 1 0 0 5 4 7      30

Nashville       5 0 4 2 1 2 4 0 2     20

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