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How Fans Followed Baseball Games Before TV or Radio

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As it is, I can hardly remember a time when my Giants fandom would have been relegated to reading box scores here on the East Coast. Between television, the internet, and my iPhone, these days it's an anomaly if I miss any one of Tim Lincecum's starts. In the pre-MLB.tv era, I could have caught the Giants on TV whenever they played a hometown team. Go back a little further and I hear the radio was pretty popular. But what about before that?

The first baseball game to be broadcast on the radio was an 8-5 Pittsburgh Pirates victory over the Philadelphia Phillies on August 5, 1921, and even then it took a while to catch on around the league. But that doesn't mean baseball fans before the '20s were satisfied with waiting for the next day's newspaper to find out how their favorite team did if they couldn't procure tickets to the game. And fortunately, they didn't have to.

THE EARLY SPORTS BAR

The invention of the telegram in 1844 allowed baseball scores to be known beyond the confines of the stadium in near-real time. Several sources credit Massey's billiard hall in St. Louis with being the first to take advantage of this technology outside the newsroom. By special arrangement, Western Union Telegraph Co. sent the proto-sports bar scores every half inning, which were then displayed on a bulletin board for the enjoyment and edification of the patrons. Other saloons followed suit, while newspapers—which were already receiving telegraph information for the purpose of reporting on the games—started posting the scores outside their offices. Some club owners attempted to fight back against the dissemination of scores beyond the ballpark, which they feared would erode ticket sales. But that wasn't the case—instead, interest in the game boomed.

But there's more to baseball than the score at the end of every half inning. And as the abundant market for such information was made apparent, entrepreneurs went to work. In the mid-1880s, three telegraph reporters from Nashville, Tennessee devised a way of adding a visual element to the scores: They created a poster that was painted to look like a baseball diamond and equipped with a series of pegs representing players that could be positioned on the different bases. A similar board in Augusta, Georgia was added to the Opera House, where fans paid 10 cents to follow along with their favorite team. The practice quickly spread throughout the country, with each innovator adding their own improvements to the viewing devices.

On December 14, 1888, Edward Van Zile, a reporter at Joseph Pulitzer's The World in New York, was the first person to apply for a patent for his version, called the “Bulletin-Board and Base-Ball Indicator," which was displayed outside the paper's offices in downtown Manhattan. Van Zile doubted the economic viability of such a patent and sold the rights to Pulitzer's secretary, Edwin A. Grozier, who went on to obtain his own patent for an improved version. With royalties from the two patents, Grozier was eventually able to purchase a controlling portion of the Boston Post.

Not all the versions of remote baseball watching took off. "A novel feature of the report was the actual running of the bases by uniformed boys, who obeyed the telegraph instrument in their moves around the diamond. Great interest prevailed and all enjoyed the report," read the Atlanta Constitution on April 17, 1886. (And as if that wasn't enough to entice you, the paper also noted that "A great many ladies were present.") Although this live-action reenactment attempted at the opera house in Atlanta may have been the closest approximation of a real baseball game, it does not seem to have ever spread beyond Georgia.

But even without real athletes (or impersonators), spectators treated these events like live games, cheering along with their hometeam's success as it was recounted by an announcer.

THE ELECTRICITY EFFECT

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As the 20th century approached, electricity was changing almost every aspect of life in America, and baseball was no exception. Both Boston Major League teams test-ran a prototype of an electronic scoreboard in 1908, but it wasn't until Yankee Stadium opened in 1923 that a ballpark was built to include an electronic scoreboard. But outside the stadiums, away from owners' fears that scoreboards would negate the sales of scorecards, electric bulletins enjoyed an earlier evolution.

An article in the January 24, 1891 issue of Scientific American described an “Electrical Base Ball Bulletin” invented by Samuel D. Mott, an employee of Thomas Edison. The article stresses that the "ideal bulletin or indicator system must be reduced to the simplest electrical and mechanical organization," but it was still capable of indicating the intricacies and details of a game:

The contestants, time, place and date of the game, umpire, battery, position of men on the field, the inning being played, the side which has the inning, the number of outs in the inning, the man at bat, the number of strikes called on him, also number of balls called. It shows how the last man went out, whether by fly, foul, assist, strike, or sacrifice hit, the base run, home run, base on balls, stolen base, or base on error; the table score or the score by innings. A bell taps when any of these changes take place upon the instrument.

Other engineers followed suit with increasingly elaborate electronic displays. For example, Charles Nichols' invention, which the Hall-of-Fame pitcher submitted a patent for just a year after retiring, featured a string of lights to mark the movement of a batter around the basepaths. Others used lights to not only track the path of the runner but also that of the ball.

BASEBALL IN 3-D

The stage versions for which patrons paid an entrance fee soon evolved into three dimensions, with mechanical men mimicking the motions of their flesh-and-blood counterparts. An August 7, 1895 issue of The Electrical Engineer marveled at one such device invented by Frank Chapman.

All the players have their proper positions on the big field, and are represented by dummy marionettes, true to the life and about three feet high. Besides the fielding team, and the man at bat or those on bases, three men of the in team are seen on the bench awaiting their turn; two coaches gesticulate wildly on right and left field, and back of the pitcher's box is an umpire who calls the game and waves his arms quite a la mode. Moreover, the batter at the home plate is provided with a bat which he flings down with a genuinely "sickening thud" when he starts for first base.

Movements became ever more detailed in later versions. Thomas H. Jackson received a patent on February 18, 1913 for the Jackson Manikin Baseball Indicator, which required 10 men to operate and went so far as to depict these miniature athletes arguing with umpires.

THRONGS AT THE BULLETINS

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These elaborate models did not fully replace the illuminated scoreboards that could be seen for free from the streets. And as the World Series garnered greater national attention, the bulletins with names like “Play-O-Graph,” “Star Ball Player,” and “Nokes Electrascore” attracted increasingly large crowds. During the 1911 Series between Philadelphia and New York, the New York Times reported on both the games and the "THRONGS AT THE BULLETINS," as one headline read. The story named Time Square, Herald Square, and Park Row as some of the more prominent places to watch the drama on the field.

By the following year, the crowds were getting out of hand. "Times Square was packed with a crowd that was baseball mad yesterday afternoon when the signal went up on The Times electric scoreboard... By the beginning of the ninth inning the crowd reached almost to Forty-fifth Street, and the police had their hands full keeping the car tracks open," an October 11, 1912 Times article read. It didn't help matters when Boston's ninth inning rally fell short, allowing New York to eke out a one-run win. But that sort of enthusiasm lent an authentic feel to these fanatic gatherings: “Some of the more enthusiastic fans called out advice to [Giants starting pitcher Rube] Marquard, just as they often had at the Polo Grounds. In fact, there could have been no more interest shown in the game had the scene been the ball grounds at Boston than in Times Square."

That wasn't the only article of the time to conclude that these electronic bulletins were just about as good as the real thing, if not better. But as technology surged ahead, the electronic bulletins' days were numbered. The unenthusiastic broadcasts of early baseball radio, which were filled with silence, allowed the bulletins to coexist for some time. But as radio broadcasts improved and even newer media developed, the old way of watching games was phased out. Ultimately, the television broadcast of baseball starting at the end of the 1930s rendered the Play-O-Graph and all the rest like it completely obsolete.

Additional source: Electric Scoreboards, Bulletin Boards, and Mimic Diamonds by Rob Edelman in Volume 3, Number 2 of John Thorn's "Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game"

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The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before being called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior in 1980 to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song, “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

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The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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