This article was written by Dan Schoenholz
This article was published in Spring 2021 Baseball Research Journal
On February 15, 1928, the University of California baseball squad took on a local semi-pro team by the name of the Ambrose Tailors in an early-season exhibition game. Such a contest normally would have generated little interest from the baseball-viewing public, who tended to wait for intercollegiate play before turning out to support the Bears. But on this day, “a crowd of 500 fans, two motion picture cameras, and four newspaper photographers” made the trek to West Field on the Berkeley campus to watch the action.1 Spectators were treated not only to a seesaw affair that saw California pull out an 11–10 victory in the bottom of the ninth; they also witnessed what they had come for in the first place, a field trial of Coach Carl Zamloch’s proposed revision to the rule books, what he called “reversible” baseball.
What exactly was reversible (also sometimes referred to as “left-handed” or “ambidextrous”) baseball? Simply put, batters were given the option of running to either first or third base after putting the ball in play. Fielders were forced to take note of where the batter was going, and to adjust accordingly. If a batter chose to run to third base and reached safely, all offense in that half inning was reversed: other hitters in that frame would have to follow their teammate’s lead. For example, if the leadoff hitter singled and ran to third instead of first, the subsequent batter would need to run to third base on a single to left, and the runner might attempt to go from third to first on the play.
Though the results from the experimental contest in Berkeley garnered considerable publicity, the innovation proved divisive: Traditionalists felt reversible baseball was radical and unnecessary, while others, like Zamloch—the son of a world-famous magician and a noted vaudeville performer in his own right—argued that the new rule would add needed excitement to a game that had grown too predictable.
Whether due to its opponents or simply to inertia, reversible baseball never caught on. Still, as organized baseball struggles to re-invigorate the game in a challenging sports and entertainment marketplace, now is perhaps an opportune time to revisit the short history of Zamloch’s attempt to do exactly the same thing almost 100 years ago.
CARL ZAMLOCH: BALLPLAYER, COACH, AND MAGICIAN
Carl Eugene Zamloch was born on October 6, 1889, in Oakland, California. His father, Anton, a native Austrian, was a magician who performed throughout the western United States and by the end of the 19th century had become famous as “Zamloch the Great.”2 Carl learned sleight of hand under his father’s tutelage and sometimes performed in his act, but magic was not his only talent. He was also a pretty good ballplayer, and in 1912 won 36 games, including some for Missoula (Montana) of the Class D Union Association, pitching alongside his roommate, “Bullet Joe” Bush.3
Zamloch’s fine season led the Detroit Tigers to purchase his contract, and he broke camp with the team in 1913. His shining moment in the big leagues came on May 18, when he outpitched the great Walter Johnson but lost, 2–1, when the Nationals (aka the Senators) scratched across two unearned runs.4 Soon thereafter, he developed arm trouble and was sent to the minors—never to make it back to the majors, as it turned out.
In 1916, Zamloch was hired as the baseball coach at the University of California, winning the Pacific Coast intercollegiate baseball championship in his first year at the helm.5 After the college season ended, still interested in playing but unable to pitch regularly due to his arm woes, Zamloch joined Spokane of the Northwest League as a utility man. He flourished in his new role, putting up a .464 batting average in 56 at-bats. Over the next decade, he repeated this pattern often, leaving Berkeley once the collegiate schedule was completed and catching on with such minor league clubs as San Francisco and Seattle in the Pacific Coast League and Calgary in the Class B Western International League. His final stop as a regular player was in 1926 as player-manager with Twin Falls of the Class C Utah-Idaho League, where he batted .391 and was awarded a shotgun as the league’s Most Valuable Player.6 All told, Zamloch batted .316 for his career in over 1,600 at-bats.
In addition to his baseball pursuits, Zamloch had his own offseason vaudeville act.7 Occasionally, he combined his two interests: In a September 1919 Pacific Coast League contest, he delighted fans and players alike by performing magic. “Before he went in as a pinch-hitter, Carl Zamloch pulled one of his sleight of hand stunts by yanking a yard or more of hot dogs out of the shirt of [pitcher] Cy Falkenberg. Zamloch pretended that he was searching Cy for emory or sandpaper and Cy rather resented being pawed over, but he had to laugh when Zamloch finished his trick.”8
As the son of a showman, Zamloch had traveled extensively as a boy. As a coach, he saw many benefits of combining baseball with travel, both for his players and for the game itself. Throughout the 1920s, he organized summertime barnstorming tours of Hawaii and Japan for the Cal squad, as well as exhibition games in Berkeley against visiting Japanese teams.9 These tours to Japan fed the growing popularity of baseball there.
In 1927, Zamloch organized the new California Intercollegiate Baseball Association, initially consisting of Cal, Stanford, St. Mary’s, and Santa Clara. UCLA and other California schools would join later.10 It was Zamloch’s belief that college baseball needed a stronger organization and that focusing on intercollegiate competition would increase its popularity. His efforts proved lasting: the CIBA was the governing structure for conference play until the Pac-8 conference was created in 1967.
THE BIRTH OF REVERSIBLE BASEBALL
But helping the game grow internationally and strengthening the conference were just two of Zamloch’s ideas to expand baseball’s popularity. In early 1928, he announced his intention to employ reversible baseball in exhibition contests in the coming season. In Zamloch’s view, reversible baseball had several selling points:
- More excitement for fans. “Baseball has not increased in popularity in comparison with our population. Football has made wonderful strides. I think that is partially because the fans cannot anticipate the play. In baseball we all know that when a man singles…he is going to first base. If we mix that procedure up a bit it ought to increase the interest.”12
- Rewarding players for braininess. “By allowing a batsman to run either to first or third base, it makes for strategy and teaches the players to think.”13
- Eliminating the advantage of batting left: “The way the game is played now, a right-handed batter is penalized for being a right-hander. He stands on the other side of the plate from first base. Then after hitting the ball his swing carries him a bit farther away from his destination—first base.… What is the result? A left-handed batter has every advantage on his side.”14
Zamloch initially hoped to use reversible baseball rules in the Bears’ annual early-season contest against the Pacific Coast League’s Oakland Oaks, but Oaks manager Del Howard wasn’t having any of it. “If these college boys want to play baseball with us we’ll entertain ’em, but if they want to play some funny game invented by Coach Zamloch, then that is something else again,” said Howard. “How do I know what they may do after running from the plate to third instead of first? Maybe the next rule calls for skipping second base, taking a cup of tea or reading a book or something. …I’m certainly not going to let the Oaks play left handed baseball.”15
Undeterred, Zamloch secured an agreement with the aforementioned Ambrose Tailors to play an exhibition using reversible rules. In the days leading up to the game, Bay Area newspapers and the wire services devoted considerable ink to the upcoming contest. Interest was high: Among the curious fans and media representatives who attended were former major leaguer Bill Rodgers, by then the manager of Little Rock in the Southern Association; Pittsburgh Pirates scout Joe Devine; and St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Taylor Douthit, whose brother Rolly patrolled center field for the Bears.16
Spectators were rewarded with an afternoon that the Oakland Tribune described as “an uproarious success in more ways than one,” and they didn’t have long to wait.17 In the bottom of the first, Cal catcher Walter Wyatt walked, went to third base rather than first; then stole second. Pitcher Gus Nemecheck came to the plate and promptly knocked the ball out of the park, “but from force of habit he started trotting toward first when the ball was hit and [he] was declared out just as the sphere sailed over the fence.”18 As noted in the Berkeley Gazette, Nemecheck thereby “won the honor of being the first person in baseball history to knock out a home run that wasn’t even a hit.”19
The Bears did not have a monopoly on reversible-induced misplays. “Three times during the game, [Tailors’ third baseman] Bill Marriott, former Oak and third sacker for Boston, was caught napping and runners were safe at third when Marriott started to throw the ball to first.”20
Other highlights noted in the Oakland Tribune’s account of the contest included watching the Tailors’ infielders attempt a “reversible double play” (second to third, presumably) and the reactions of passers-by “when they saw men being run from first to home.”21
Cal built a 9–4 lead through seven innings before the clubs agreed to revert to traditional rules. The Bears quickly blew their lead, falling behind, 10–9, before rallying in the bottom of the ninth to score two on a Rolly Douthit double for a walk-off 11–10 victory.
Both United Press International and the Associated Press carried short accounts of the contest that were picked up by newspapers nationwide, and pundits continued to debate reversible baseball’s merits for weeks afterward. Reviews reflected a wide range of opinion. The Los Angeles Evening Express opined that “Zamloch’s left-handed game would add an element of surprise, hidden thrill, genuine deception to a game that is now just one, two, three—you’re out.”22 The Oakland Tribune noted that “the change makes players use their heads as well as their arms and legs and calls for new techniques.”23 Former New York Giants star George Van Haltren, who had finished his career as player-manager for the Oaks from 1905 to ’09, was also a fan. “Reversible base-running would put more [suspense] into the diamond sport.”24
For every observer who found the change intriguing, however, there was another who thought it was a terrible idea. From the San Francisco Examiner: “The effort of Coach Zamloch… to make boarding-house hash out of the baseball rules, proved just the success that was expected. It succeeded in making a farce of the game. …Baseball has been getting along fairly well for quite a few years, thank you. Let’s confine “new ideas” to ping-pong or something like that.”25 The San Francisco Chronicle’s Harry B. Smith noted the confusion caused by the new rules and admitted, “I confess I cannot see where the pastime will gain from the new order.”26 Succinctly summing up the feelings of opponents, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette stated: “Baseball has done well as it is. Let it stay the way it is.”27
While the idea of reversible baseball continued to generate occasional commentary from pundits in 1928, what it didn’t generate were actual games played under its rules. Contemporary press accounts noted that subsequent Cal exhibition games in February and March 1928 would use traditional rather than reversible rules, but provided few clues as to why. The most likely explanation is that Zamloch had difficulty getting agreement from opponents to play under different rules. By the 1920s baseball was already a sport steeped in its own tradition, and change didn’t come easily.
The last extensive discussion of reversible baseball in print appeared in April 1928 in a syndicated opinion piece authored by Detroit Tigers manager George Moriarty, a former teammate of Zamloch’s on the 1913 Tigers.28 Moriarty’s review of reversible baseball was more balanced than most, noting what he saw as some of the pros and cons of such a rule change. Interestingly, Moriarty credited Kid Elberfeld, shortstop for New York during the early days of the American League, for having come up with the idea of reversible baseball in 1906, although Moriarty noted that it was never tried.
AFTER REVERSIBLE BASEBALL
While Zamloch had abandoned the idea of reversible baseball by 1929, it is worth noting that he continued to promote innovation. An exhibition that spring against alumni featured what may have been the first ever field trial of “10-man baseball,”29 a rule change promoted by National League president John Heydler at the 1928 winter meetings that would add offense to the game by allowing another player to occupy the pitcher’s spot in the batting order. The idea would ultimately be adopted 44 years later by the American League and called the designated-hitter rule.30
Zamloch embarked on the final chapter of his baseball life late in 1930, when he became co-owner and field manager of the Oakland Oaks. After three mediocre seasons, he was fired. He eventually moved into the executive ranks for an oil company while also continuing to perform his magic act. His viewpoint that baseball needed to evolve never changed: In an interview in 1960, three years before his death, he said that games were too long. “I can remember when an average game never went more than an hour and a half. Many of them were faster. I hear lots of fans complaining,” Zamloch said. “Even if the answer is to shorten the game to seven innings, baseball has to do something about it.”31
Increasing offense, improving competition, promoting the sport internationally, shortening games. Zamloch was an early adopter of several ideas that have since gained ground with the baseball establishment as ways of enlivening the sport. As organized baseball debates potential rule changes to increase fan interest, maybe the powers that be should dust off his most radical proposal: reversible baseball.
A graduate of UC Berkeley, DAN SCHOENHOLZ is pleased to share the Berkeley-based story of Reversible Baseball with fans and researchers. Though this is his first BRJ publication, his baseball-themed poetry and fiction have appeared in Aethlon, the Journal of Sport Literature; his accounts of baseball roadtrips have appeared in the San Jose Mercury News; and his crossword puzzles, often peppered with baseball-related entries, have appeared in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. When not rooting on his beloved Oakland A’s, Dan serves as Community Development Director for the City of Fremont, California.
The author would like to thank John Cronin for his review and helpful comments on an early version of this article.
- “Zamloch Wins ‘Goofy’ Ball Contest,” Oakland Tribune, February 16, 1928.
- “Magician’s Bees Replace Black Art,” Oakland Tribune, April 3, 1927.
- “California’s Coaches 2 Carl Zamloch,” Oakland Tribune, March 21, 1926. Bush went directly from Missoula to the major leagues, where he won almost 200 games in a 17-year career that included stints with the Philadelphia Athletics, Boston Red Sox, and New York Yankees. See also Kim Briggeman, “Missoula, ‘’Bullet Joe’ and Baseball History,” The Missoulian, October 23, 2008.
- “Walter Johnson Wins 9th Straight from Detroit,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 19, 1913.
- “Carl Zamloch will Coach C.,” Oakland Tribune, February 10, 1916.
- “Zamloch Named Best Utah-Idaho Player,” San Francisco Examiner, September 2, He also had a handful of pinch-hit at-bats while serving as player-manager of the Oakland Oaks.
- “Zamloch on Stage as Vaudeville Star; Has Quit Baseball,” Great Falls Tribune, December 19, 1919.
- “Notes About Players,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 25, 1919.
- The Bears traveled to Japan for exhibitions in 1921, 1927, and 1929 and to Hawaii in in 1923 and 1926. A visiting Japanese squad stopped in Berkeley for a pair of exhibition games in 1928. See, for example, “U.C. Ball Team Is Off on Trip to the Islands,” Oakland Tribune, June 21, 1923.
- “California Colleges Prepare for Eight Club Ball League,” Oakland Tribune, October 5, 1926.
- “Brief History of California Golden Bears Baseball,” Cal Baseball Foundation, https://calbaseballfoundation.org/team/cal-baseball.
- “Sports by Harry Smith,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 15, 1928.
- “New Baseball Game is Given Test by Bears,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 16, 1928.
- “Players Test Backward Baseball,” San Bernardino County Sun, March 4, 1928.
- “Outgoing Mail from Bob Shand,” Oakland Tribune, February 2, 1928.
- “Notables See Bears Win New Ball Game,” Berkeley Gazette, February 16, 1928.
- “Zamloch Wins ‘Goofy’ Ball Contest,” Oakland Tribune, February 16, 1928.
- “Zamloch Wins ‘Goofy’ Ball.”
- “Notables See Bears Win New Ball.”
- “Zamloch Wins ‘Goofy’ Ball.”
- “Zamloch Wins ‘Goofy’ Ball.”
- “The Inside Track with Sid Ziff,” Los Angeles Evening Express, February 21, 1928.
- “Zamloch Idea Adds Zest to Game,” Oakland Tribune, February 21, 1928.
- “Players Test Backward Baseball.”
- “2nd Guess,” San Francisco Examiner, February 17, 1928.
- “Sports by Harry Smith,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 17, 1928.
- “Sports of All Sorts,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 22, 1928
- George Moriarty, “Reversible Baseball Drawing Serious, Humorous Comment,” Lincoln Journal Star, April 20, 1928.
- “Webb Alumni Play Bears in 4 to 4 Contest,” Oakland Tribune, February 7, 1929.
- John Cronin, “The Historical Evolution of the Designated Hitter,” SABR Baseball Research Journal 46 No.2 (2016).
- “Marathon Dodger Games Irk Fans,” Los Angeles Times, June 10, 1960.