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Mathematics and Primary Sources: The Many Faces of Baseball

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This post is by Michael Apfeldorf of the Library of Congress.

The 1906 Spalding Indoor Baseball Guide includes a story of how on Thanksgiving Day 1887, several members of the Farragut Boat Club in Chicago started batting around an old boxing glove with a broken-off broom handle. One of the players offered to draw up some rules, and “indoor baseball” was born! The sport eventually caught on, and athletes throughout the country began playing to stay in shape during winter months, often in front of enthusiastic audiences. Reflecting on related primary sources can provide students with a fun way to employ mathematical thinking to understand the history of sport up to the present day.

Introduce the topic by showing students the “World Champions” photograph and asking them to make observations, reflections, and questions.

World’s champions, 1905-1906, Owosso, Mich., West-side indoor base ball team, 1906

Students may note that this appeared to be an organized version of baseball dating back to 1905. They may wonder why the athletes are indoors, why there is drapery to the right, or why the ball shown in the photograph is so large. They may wonder exactly how this sport was played and what relationship it has to what they experience today.

Subsequent pages from the Spalding guides provide the opportunity to use mathematical reasoning to investigate these questions further.

For instance, students might compare and contrast the layout of the indoor baseball diamond with the outdoor one shown in the 1906 outdoor Spalding Baseball Guide, exploring concepts such as shape, angle, perimeter, and area. As they do so, they can speculate on the reasons for these similarities and differences, and what impact these factors might have had on game play.  For example:

  • Shape: What is the shape of each layout?
  • Angle: What is the angle between the base paths?
  • Perimeter: How far does a runner travel around all base paths?
  • Area: How much ground is included in the playing area?

Other pages within the indoor Spalding guide may also be explored, such as a list of rules that clarify the layout dimensions and introduce additional concepts such as ball size (larger and softer indoors) and number of players (fewer required indoors).

Image 84 from Official indoor base ball guide containing the constitution, 1906

Image 357 from Spalding’s official base ball guide, 1906

As an extension, students might make connections to the present day. For instance, beginning with the total dimensions of their own school gym or classroom, can they determine if the official indoor layout could be used there? If not, how would they have to scale down the playing area? What, if any, rules or equipment changes might be considered? Students may also be interested to know that indoor baseball eventually moved outdoors and became softball, with 60-foot base paths.  Why do they think these changes were made?

Just as with the many ball games that exist today – including baseball, softball, kickball, and wiffleball – the possibilities for student investigations are many.  Let us know what your students come up with!

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