May 1992

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The Curveball

Enters Rochester Baseball


Robert G. Koch

In an age of screwballs, sinkers, and sliders, it's difficult to imagine the consternation that the simple curve ball caused during the first decades of baseball in Rochester.

When the 1992 Red Wings open at Silver Stadium, they will represent the latest season in a more or less continuous 130 years of the sport in Rochester. No early club team—the Live Oak, Flour City, University, Lone Star, and later, among many others, the Hop Bitters—represents that continuity by name. Amateur, cross-town rivalries started in 1858: the Live Oaks, for example, defeated the Flour City team 24 to 13 before a crowd of 2500. The following year these stalwarts branched out in sometimes bitter rivalry with teams from Buffalo. But when the Brooklyn Excelsiors came to town, it was bad news for the locals. They trounced the Flour Cities 21 to 1, and the Live Oaks were felled 27 to 9. But Brooklyn allegedly had a professional pitcher in this more or less amateur environment.

After the Civil War, a couple of Rochester ball team names reflected the new sense of American manifest destiny: the Pacific club, west of the Genesee, and the Atlantics, east of it. Syracuse meanwhile had the Arctics. But one Rochester club may have tried instead to get the old-time Brooklyn baseball magic to rub-off, calling itself the Excelsiors.

Once more, however, in the late 1870's pitching magic surfaced amidst controversy. Whether any of this developed in the wake of visits by such professional teams as the Cincinnati Red Stockings or the Chicago White Stockings, or as a native development, as alleged by one local historian, may be less interesting than the skepticism and consternation with which the curve ball was served up to astounded Rochester batters.

The eminent local astronomer and scientist, Lewis Swift, challenged the physics of the errant ball, until a demonstration pitch parallel to a straight wall convinced him in 1877 that it was more than an optical trick.

Another account cites a game in which Lone Star pitcher, Richard Bradfield Willis, turned the tables on the Live Oaks who had previously dominated their rivalry. The game was stopped in the fifth inning to demand an umpire's ruling on the propriety of all those curve balls.

But let Rossiter Johnson, in a 1918 historical paper for the Rochester Historical Society, tell the rest of the story: "The umpire was John W. Stebbins, a well known and able lawyer. As the players gathered around him, all talking at once, and around them a ring of their partisans, and around them a rapidly thickening mass of curious spectators, the crowd became a mob, the shouting and howling were deafening, the umpire was bewildered, either not knowing how to decide, or not daring to decide at all. He looked about for the weakest place in the ring, broke through it, leaped the fence, and was taken into the carriage of a friend which immediately drove away."

© 1992, Robert G. Koch
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