Gather ’round, boys and girls, because I have a brand-new obsession, and it’s too good not to share.
It started a few days ago, when reader Byron Wages sent me the photo you see above (here’s a slightly larger, uncropped version), along with the following caption: “Crowd watching ‘playograph’ at Harold Bldg. World Series. 1911.”
As I quickly figured out, the “Harold Bldg.” was actually the Herald Building in Manhattan, where The New York Herald was published. It was demolished in 1921, although the name Herald Square remains (much like Times Square was named after The New York Times).
But what was this “playograph” mentioned in the caption? Judging from that photo, it was a mighty popular attraction in its day, so I began poking around to see what I could learn about it. Soon I was hooked. Here’s some of what I’ve discovered.
The Playograph — produced and manufactured by the Playograph Company of Stamford, Connecticut — was basically a giant animatronic scoreboard, sort of like an analog version of ESPN’s gamecast feature. In that photo I just linked to, there’s a runner on first (denoted by the X), a runner has been put out at third (the O), and a fly ball has just been hit to right field. Each pitch of the game was depicted, with the ball starting on pitcher’s mound, shooting toward the plate (supposedly with some curvature if the operator wanted to represent a curveball), and then moving toward the appropriate part of the field. It took a three-man Playograph crew to accomplish all of this: one to receive the play-by-play info over a telegraph wire, one to operate the little white ball, and one to control all of the other graphics.
Most of that info comes from this awesome article that appeared in the September 1912 issue of The Yale Scientific Monthly. It’s short, well-written, and engaging — highly recommended.
The article suggests that Playographs were installed “in cities all over the country,” although I haven’t yet gotten a sense of how many of them were manufactured over the years. Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands? I don’t think they were permanent installations; instead, they appear to have been erected specifically for major events, like the World Series, and then taken down. Were they owned or just leased? Were they rotated around the country? Could a given Playograph be used in New York at one point and then show up in Philly later on? Did the manufacturer have a giant warehouse full of them and ship them out to clients as needed? All of these are subjects for follow-up research.
Playographs apparently got a lot of work each year during the World Series. Here’s a great shot of a crowd following the 1926 Series on a Playograph in Laramie, Wyoming (plus a close-up of the Playograph itself), and similar scenes unfolded in Muncie, Indiana, in 1923 and St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1924. They also had a Playograph in Galesburg, Illinois, for the ’24 Fall Classic, although all we have is a written description, not a photo. Ditto for the Cornell campus during the 1932 Series.
Not all Playographs were located outdoors. This 1931 ad indicates that a Playograph was installed in the Tucson Opera House. For the previous several World Series, The Arizona Daily Star had sponsored a Playograph outside their offices. Here’s how they described it to their readers in 1925:
The machine, known as the Playograph, is nine feet high, and will carry the names of the teams, in batting order on each side of the diamond that is in the center of the board. On this diamond the plays are duplicated as they are received from our correspondent at the press box in Pittsburgh.
There are signs showing the progress of the game by strikes, balls and men out. The score by innings is kept currently and at the side of each player’s name, his record in the game is shown by the number of runs, hits and errors that he has made.
Every decision of the umpire is shown directly behind the home plate, so that no matter what happens, the Tucsonans can follow readily.
“Watch the ball” is the slogan that enables the youngest follower of baseball to understand what is happening and on our Playograph we have a ball, regulation size, too, that moves as freely as the ball that is batted in Pittsburgh. Whether the pill is knocked to first base and stopped by the man there, or whether it is slammed over the fence for a homer, the ball goes exactly where it is knocked and everyone can follow.
Were there similar products that competed with the Playograph? Maybe. Uni Watch bench coach Phil Hecken ran this photo as one of his “Guess the Scoreboard” quizzes back in July. The photo is dated October 11th, 1912 — World Series again. But this looks like a slightly different design, and it doesn’t say “Playograph” on it. Hmmmmm.
There was also a football version of the Playograph, called the Gridgraph. That one was installed at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor so Wolverines fans could follow the 1923 Michigan/Wisconsin tilt. (There’s a lot more info about Michigan’s Gridgraphs in this article; scroll about halfway down or just search on “grid.”) Gridgraphs were also set up for fans of the Cornell, Clemson, and Oklahoma football teams, among many others. And in the NFL, I’ve found two references to Green Bay fans following the Packers on Playographs — look here (next-to-last bullet point) and here. Hey, Jeff Ash, does your newspaper have any photos of this in its archives?
Way nifty, right? But the Playograph wasn’t necessarily such a great thing if you were trying to run a storefront business nearby. The crowds at the Herald Building’s Playograph were so congested and unruly that a local jewelry shop sued the Herald for creating a public nuisance and was awarded $729.59 in damages. The Herald appealed, but the damages were upheld. The decision, which is rather amusing, begins at the bottom of this page — again, recommended reading..
Lots of questions remain. What happened to the Playograph Company? Did any of their catalogs or promotional literature survive? Is there any newsreel footage showing Playographs in operation? How long were Playographs in active use? Have any of them been preserved? How can I acquire one for my back yard?
If anyone out there can help answer these questions, or if you have any other Playograph info to share, I’m all ears, baby — hit me.
Preservation Project: Tris Wykes was recently poking around the Dartmouth athletics dept. and came up with this old football. “The best lead is that it is the game ball from the very first tilt ever played at Harvard Stadium in 1903,” he says. “The aging daughter of the Dartmouth captain that day sent the ball to his old school and no one seemed to know what to do with it. Now there’s talk of reconditioning the pigskin (it might actually BE pigskin!) and putting it in Dartmouth’s trophy case.”
Only problem is that they don’t know where or how to have the ball reconditioned. If anyone know anything about such services, please contact Tris. Thanks.
Oh, by the way: New ESPN column today. It’s not uni-related, but I think you’ll enjoy it all the same — look here.
Uni Watch News Ticker: Missouri’s players are allowed to keep their riflery jerseys, and some of the players have interesting plans for them (with thanks to Steve Johnston). … Get this: The baseball winter meetings have their own logo — plus a secondary logo! Enough already (with thanks to Michael Kramer). … Speaking of the winter meetings, Tyler Kepner took a stroll through the trade show and reports that things looked swell at the Twin City Knitting booth. The real question, of course, is whether the apostophe on the Orioles stirrup is upside-down. … Nike is taking over the entire Texas high school system (with thanks to Chris Mycoskie). … Nice uniforms for the Japanese basketball all-star game (with thanks to Jeremy Brahm). … “Was at a family reunion last year and spotted this Blackhawks motorcycle in my cousin’s garage,” says DJ Butenschoen. “And yes he does drive it every day around the ’burbs of Chicago.” … One and done in Seattle. Further info here. … The Red Sox now have two Ramon Ramirezes, which should make for some interesting NOB discussions (with thanks to Ben C. Melancon). … Indiana is doing the “stripe-out” thing this Saturday (as reported by Jordan Owen). … The Red Wings wore white at home last night against the Blues, but both teams wore colored jerseys during pregame warm-ups. Anyone get pics of that? … The Color Mafia has decided which color we’ll all be seeing way too much of in 2010 (with thanks to Brian Holland). … Some kid in Georgia has been getting away with wearing striped socks all season long. I love the look but hate the “Look at me!” aspect (with thanks to Greg Trandel). … Bill Scrowther sent along pics of his old MLB and NFL helmet standings displays. “Shame I’m missing the Vikings helmet,” he says. “My little brother was a Vikings fan, so he probably took it. As for the Bucs helmet being backwards, the logo from the one side was missing, so I had to turn it around.” Someone put this guy in touch with Bill Jones, pronto! … Yesterday I mentioned that reader Jeff Barak had written one of the articles in The Hockey News‘s special jersey issue. What I neglected to mention is that Jeff also has an excellent uni-centric blog, called Third String Goalie — get familiar with it, if you haven’t already done so.