Sunday, April 23, 2017

The First Bunt

On April 17, 2017, Cubs slugger Kyle Schwarber made news by bunting. Yes, bunting. You can watch the video here.

Not only was this the first successful bunt of Schwarber's big league career, but it was one of the prettiest bunts I've seen in many, many years. It also reminded me of a discovery I made a few years ago: the first known instance of a bunt. Here's the scoop:

On June 29, 1860, the Atlantics and Putnams, two clubs from Brooklyn, faced one another in a game played at the corner of Lee Avenue and Hooper Street in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. In the second inning, with no one on, Putnam second baseman Edward Brown came to bat against Atlantics pitcher John Price. Here's the account of what happened next as published in the New York Clipper of July 14, 1860:

Here's a transcript:
A circumstance occurred in the 2d innings which we deem worthy of notice: Brown was at the bat, and Price pitched him a low ball, which, in bringing his bat down, Brown hit with the bat in a similar manner to that in which a cricketer blocks a straight ball; judgment was asked, and as the Umpire deemed it an accident, it was decided "no hit," but we think it should have been considered fair, for the reason, that had a player been on the first base at the time, he could easily have made his second base before the pitcher could have fielded it, and the decision may lead to similar accidents on other occasions when such play would have a more important bearing on the game. If, in the act of striking, the ball be hit forward of home base, however light the touch, it ought to be considered a fair ball, otherwise accidents similar to the above will be of frequent occurrence.
This description makes a few things quite clear.

First, Brown's actions were described in terms of cricket: "Brown hit with the bat in a similar manner to that in which a cricketer blocks a straight ball." Today, this would be a worthless explanation to Americans, as very few in our country are familiar enough with cricket to make the parallel. However, in 1860, cricket and baseball were both quite familiar to the sporting crowd, and so the description worked well.

This woodcut, published in The Boy's Book of Sports, Games, Exercises, and Pursuits (Frederick Warne and Co., London, 1869), shows a cricket batsman executing a "forward block," similar to the play made by Brown:

Second, Brown's actions were clearly unintentional. There was no one on base at the time of the play, so there was obviously no intent to sacrifice. And, as it was described as "an accident," Brown was also most certainly not looking to bunt for a base hit.

Third, the play was so bewildering to everyone involved, that the umpire ultimately decided that it should be considered "no hit." In other words, as kids today would say, it's a "do over."

And finally, no one at the game understood the potential of Brown's actions ... not even Brown himself. The fellow who did, and the one who should get credit for the concept of the sacrifice bunt, was the gentleman who wrote the account of the game in The New York Clipper. It was he who realized that by hitting the ball in the manner that Brown did, "had a player been on the first base at the time, he could easily have made his second base."

So, while Brown was the first player to bunt a ball, he was not the inventor of the bunt. That title should go to the very prescient sports writer and future Hall of Famer, Henry Chadwick.