And yet somehow the real event was no less bizarre. In fact, this year marks the 100th anniversary of what one newspaper described as “the greatest sporting novelty” the world had ever seen.
Of course, the newspaper that called it that was the newspaper that created it: the Washington Times. (This Washington Times was founded in 1894 and closed in 1939 and had no connection with the newspaper of the same name today.)
Imagine the time before television, the time before radio. If you were a fan desperate to see a sporting event, you had to be there. You could read about it in the next day’s paper, but to feel what the crowd was feeling—staying on every field, resenting every foul ball, celebrating every home run—you had to be there. And just as a movie in a packed theater can be better than seeing one alone at home, nothing quite compares to the community experience.
Inventors had tried various ways to remotely recreate baseball games. In early 20th century Washington Heinrich Rodier built a device called the Rodier Electric Baseball Game Reproducer. This was a billboard-sized plaque adorned with an illustration of a baseball field. The board was dotted with lights that could be illuminated to indicate a ball’s or runner’s path.
The board operator received a telegraph feed from the live game and turned on the appropriate lights. In 1909, Rodier rented a building in DC, installed his board, and charged people a quarter to “watch” a Washington vs. St. Louis game.
The Washington Post was among the newspapers that hung so-called Play-o-Graph machines in front of their buildings and drew crowds.
Before unveiling his electric ball field, Rodier was a typesetter for the Washington Evening Star. Perhaps his standing in the district’s newspaper community inspired the inventor of the pantomime ball Harry Coleman, who ran the Washington Times’ photography and engraving department. Coleman’s innovation was replacing the lightbulbs with real people and replacing the rented auditorium with a real ballpark.
On Sunday, October 1, 1922, The Washington Times ran a full-page advertisement inviting readers to watch the first game of the World Series that Wednesday at American League Park, the ballpark near Howard University. “Something new!” the ad promised.
As a matter of fact. The newspaper had hired two teams of Marines – one from the Navy Yard, the other from Marine Corps Barracks – to mimic the action at the Polo Grounds in New York, where the New York Giants would face the New York Yankees.
The action would be transmitted south via four telegraph lines installed specifically for the event. Then four stenographers transcribed the plays, which were distributed to the waiting Marines, who rushed onto the field and acted them out.
“Perched comfortably in the stands, Washington fans will be able to watch a hands-on recreation of the World Series games, just as they are played in New York,” the Times promised.
It was called pantomime because no balls were used. Rather, the Marines imitated the pieces and literally went through the motions. Between innings, the 60-piece Navy Band entertained the crowd.
Admission was free. The Times claimed that 8,000 people attended that first game, which the Giants won 3-2.
As the series progressed, the crowd grew. At the Yankees pitcher Ball Joe Bush loaded the bases in game five, a mime reliever warmed up and fans chanted for Bush to be drawn. More than 20,000 fans attended this final and watched the “Giants” defeat the “Yankees” and claim the crown.
The Washington Times wrote, “It sounds a bit tame, but the thousands who saw it work got a mighty kick out of it.”
In 1923, the same two New York teams met again in the World Series, and the Times again sponsored a simulated game Clark Griffiths Stadion.
“Mime baseball is no longer an experiment,” the newspaper wrote. “It’s the most effective method of reproducing ball games. Authorities state that pantomime is the next thing in the game without lacking in thrills.”
But radio was on the rise. The 1921 series was the first to be broadcast, and that medium grew in popularity.
In 1924, pantomime baseball didn’t exist in DC. Griffith’s Stadium was needed for something else: the actual World Series, which the Washington Senators won in seven games.