Ruane: The games that broke Retrosheet

From SABR member Tom Ruane at Retrosheet on August 6, 2014:

Back in 2001, when I started developing the software to display box score and play-by-play data on our web-site, I thought I knew how major league baseball was played and so I made assumptions. Most of these seemed pretty straight-forward: nine fielders, three outs to a half-inning – that sort of thing. Of course, there are several other applications designed to parse Retrosheet data and I’m sure many of those handled the games described below with little or no difficulty, but what follows are games that caused my software to misbehave. In many cases, the only way I was able to made peace with these games was to add code that read like “IF (this game is that weird one in 1949) THEN forget everything you thought you knew about the rules of substitution.”

Let’s start at the beginning. Or at least close to the beginning. On July 5, 1872, the Cleveland Forest Citys were in Brooklyn to take on the Atlantics and were traveling with a squad of only ten men. According to the New York Times: “The Forest Citys went through the game with only eight men, Pratt being ill and Wolters absent for some reason peculiarly his own.” Playing with only two outfielders, they lost 10-3. Cleveland was also obliged to play with eight the next day when they faced the Brooklyn Eckfords, but this time the under-manned team routed the locals 24-5. We do not have all of the National Association box scores (we are missing 1873 and 1875), but there was only one other league game in our collection that featured an eight-man team: on July 10, 1874, the Mutuals’ first-baseman Joe Start left the team suddenly, requiring the visitors to take on Hartford short-handed. They lost 13-4.

The next group of troublesome games came about due to something that was allegedly in short supply during the rough and tumble brand of baseball played in the old days: courtesy. Courtesy runners and fielders was the practice of allowing what would ordinarily be illegal substitutions as long as both teams agreed to permit it. It was outlawed in 1950, but before (and in one case, after) that, they resulted in some curious results.

The first example I encountered occurred during the second All-Star game in 1934. Back in the early days of the Midsummer Classic, the rosters were relatively small. Instead of the 80-100 players who normally squeeze into each dugout these days (making each inning resemble a presidential bill signing more than a game of baseball), each team had only twenty players at their disposal in 1934. So when Frankie Frisch sprained his foot in the fifth inning, the only player on the National League’s bench was pitcher Fred Frankhouse. Billy Herman, who had pinch-hit for Carl Hubbell in the third inning, was allowed to re-enter the game to replace Frisch.

There was a related game eighteen years later. Once again, a player re-entered the game, but this time there were a few important differences. First of all, this was a regular season game, not an exhibition. And more importantly, the game came two years after the practice has been expressly prohibited. Nevertheless, when catcher Clyde McCullough was injured making an out in the bottom of the eighth inning, Ed Fitz Gerald, who had pinch-hit in the sixth inning, was allowed to go behind the plate for the top of the ninth. Admittedly, neither team was in a pennant race at the time, but the game was close and the Cubs’ decision to permit the substitution increased Pittsburgh’s chances (albeit slightly) of winning the game.

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Originally published: August 6, 2014. Last Updated: August 6, 2014.