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Classic Tales of Old Dorp: Outdoor playboards let fans 'watch' World Series a century ago

Classic Tales of Old Dorp: Outdoor playboards let fans 'watch' World Series a century ago

Classic Tales of Old Dorp looks back a century ago when outdoor playboards let baseball fans follow

The Daily Gazette is reprinting excerpts of the late Larry Hart's long-running column, “Tales of Old Dorp.” Today, people keep up with big baseball games through television, radio and even cellphones. But there was once a time when fans put on their coats and stood in the streets to cheer during the World Series. This look back at the fabulous “Play-o-graph” and other big board sports originally was published after the 1974 Series between Oakland and Los Angeles on Oct. 22, 1974.

The World Series having just ended, it might be interesting to reflect on what sports buffs did to keep abreast of the big games in the days before television or, heaven forbid, even radio.

The fan who can remember “way back when” may embellish the circumstances a bit, but there were ways he could check on the game results — other than going to the ball park, which was less likely then than now.

The old reliable was the (newspaper) “extra,” which was on the streets as soon as the news was available and could be rushed into newsprint. Before radio began broadcasting the Series in the early 1930s, there was a rush to the morning newspaper to catch all the details, inning by inning. Movie houses often carried excerpts of the games about a week after the Series ended, and these were well patronized by baseball fans.

However, the citizens of Schenectady had an old reliable play-by-play informer for many years right in the business district. It was the Gazette playboard, annually serving World Series addicts for nearly three decades after the beginning of this century.

Early edition

No one knows for certain now just whose idea it was to render this play action service to the public, but somewhere around 1910 the Gazette began operating the popular playboard. It was a huge contraption — including the baseball diamond and information as to runs, hits and errors — mounted on the second floor front of the early Gazette building (then half its present size).

As the wire service improved, so did the pace of the reconstructed play action. The crowd outside often spilled into the street and stopped traffic — both trolley cars and wagons and carriages — to the frustration of the drivers but not the police on duty (who also were watching the “game”).

In 1927, the Gazette bought and installed a “most ingenious invention” (so reputed), which was a marked improvement over the old playboard. It was placed on the one-story structure next to the Gazette on the west side of the railroad crossing and was so large it could be seen across the street or from almost any angle in that block.

It featured a mechanism called the “moving ball,” in which a regulation league-size baseball was invisibly suspended in front of the playing field and as the ball was pitched, batted or fielded, it traveled to all parts of the field in exact duplication of the action being received by wire service. In commenting on the new board, the Gazette noted it was “imposing in size and appearance, readable from a distance and as clear to understand as a first-grade reader.”

The technique of the game was not lost even to minute detail. As an example, if a batter struck out, the Play-o-graph showed whether he fanned out or was called out on strikes by the umpire. Another important feature was the play sign — fly balls, bunts, hit batter, balk, error, etc.

“These points and features are all shown in connection with the flight of the ball and base runner, giving a sensational and realistic performance, affording a clear understanding of each play reproduced in its vivid manner within a few seconds of the actual game,” reported the Gazette. In order to make the Play-o-graph workable, special wires were installed direct from the ball parks, insuring speed and accuracy.

Souvenir of game

In addition to seeing a complete portrayal of the World Series action, Schenectady fans also had the opportunity of obtaining a brand new baseball as a souvenir of the occasion. Each time a home run was hit, a baseball was tossed into the throng below. If no home runs were made, balls were tossed out at the end of that game.

The last year the Play-o-graph was used was for the 1934 Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers (which the Dean Brothers, Dizzy and Paul, practically won in tandem for the Cards in seven games). Radio broadcasts of the series were picked up by the major networks by then, so there was little reason for people to go downtown to watch the Play-o-graph.

It did, however, serve a good and useful purpose during those earlier years. Never had a bouncing ball received such cheers as in the days of the Gazette Play-o-graph.

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