Mark Buehrle and Charles Comiskey

It’s a good day to write about one of the coolest defensive plays the baseball world has seen in a long time. But sometimes, even at the most exciting and memorable moments, baseball offers us something deeper to appreciate. Have a look:

On April 5, opening day of the White Sox’s 2010 season, Mark Buehrle did this:

And the world rejoiced. Hawk Harrelson, who is the announcer who shouts “Mercy!,” is well known for having more, um, personality than any other guy in a baseball booth. His cohort Steve Stone is highly regarded, but with Hawk you either love him or hate him (and many take the latter). But that’s a bit of a digression, anyway.

Charles Comiskey was a cool guy. He played for, managed, and owned major league baseball teams—sometimes at the same time—and, unfortunately, much of what we remember about him today is his alleged involvement in the 1919 World Series scandal.

I’d like to delve into the least-vaunted sector of his career; namely, his playing. During the 1880s, a period of significant baseball expansion, Comiskey was a player-manager for the St. Louis Browns. He started as a pitcher and eventually moved to first base. More importantly for our purposes, he is the man who developed the defensive dynamic that now defines those two positions.

Today, when a ball is hit to the first base side, the pitcher runs toward the bag. If the first baseman fields the ball, the pitcher should get to the bag to make the out. If the pitcher is closer to the batted ball, he fields it and throws to the first baseman (just as Buehrle did in the clip above). This is standard practice even for little leaguers these days, but in those days baseball was still developing.

It can be hard to decipher the historical record, but with a little help from The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, it’s more than possible. Looking at the number of putouts pitchers recorded during the 1880s can give us a sense of when and where the adjustment came into play. Records show that the Browns recorded a very average number of putouts by pitchers between 1882 and 1885 (Comiskey took over as manager during the 1883 season). But then, in 1886, the Browns suddenly began to lead the league in pitcher putouts every year (breaking the league record for the most such putouts as they did so). So it seems that Comiskey did indeed invent this defensive play, in 1886.

So what, you ask? Well, the even somewhat initiated baseball fan can see where I’m going with this. In 1990, Comiskey Park, the home of the White Sox and oldest major league ball park at that time, ended its major league tenure. Since 1991, U.S. Cellular Field (which everyone just calls Comiskey Park, or the New Comiskey Park), has housed the Chicago AL team.

Everyone watched that awesome play and thought, “Wow!” I know I did; I remember exactly where I was when I saw it. But the history behind it hadn’t hit me until Bill James brought it to my attention. Not only was a great defensive play, it was the sort of great defensive play that a pitcher wouldn’t even have attempted before Comiskey made that standard. And it happened in a stadium named after Comiskey, made by a White Sox player. Right on.

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