This Day in Baseball and Rangers History for February 4

* 19 days until the Feb 23, 2024, spring training season opener with KC
* 53 days until the Mar 28, 2024, regular season opener against the Cubs

Today there are two general baseball stories connected to Feb 4 -- (1) the generally forgotten "Winter Ball" from the 1860's to the 1880's -- baseball played on ice skates; and (2) the AL's first experiment with the announced intentional walk without the need for throwing pitches, along with a thumbnail of the origins and rocky history of the intentional walk.

February 4, 1861
The Brooklyn Atlantics Win the First Baseball Game Played on Ice
A Thumbnail History of Twenty Years of Ice-Skating Baseball, 1861-1880's

On Feb 4, 1861, in front of a crowd of 12,000 spectators, the champion Brooklyn Atlantics defeated the Charter Oak Club, 36-27, in the first baseball game played on ice skates, on frozen Litchfield Pond in South Brooklyn.

Understanding the phenomena of ice-skating "Winter Ball", which was popular generally in the NE US but particularly in NYC area from the 1860's through the 1880's, requires noting a few historical points.

The 1850's - 1870's was the period in which amateur baseball clubs became immensely popular in the NE US. During this period prior to 1880, some of the best baseball players and teams were amateurs (who were supported by employers or sponsors who provided them with employment while they focused on baseball), not necessarily players on the first fledgling salaried professional baseball teams.

The most popular winter public participation sport and exercise in the NE US during this same period was ice skating -- for men, women and families. Most baseball players naturally skated in the winter as part of staying in shape. In the early 1860's, the first private outdoor ice-skating "ponds" were designed, developed and opened in NYC in the form of private clubs, and they became immensely popular. The clubs charged annual fees and staged various athletic events to promote the club and membership. "Washington Pond" (popularly called "Litchfield Pond" because of its location) was among the first private outdoor skating-rink clubs to open in 1860. It occupied the same location as the polo fields that would later become the "Polo Grounds" for the NYG stadium. Most of the promotional on-ice athletic events involved ice racing, but racing paled in popularity to baseball. While forms of stick-and-puck games such as bandy, shinny and ice polo had been around for centuries, ice hockey rules were not officially promulgated until the mid-1870's in Montreal, and ice hockey was not yet popular in the NE US.

"Winter Ball", as it was then called, drew large crowds to watch the same amateur and later professional players and teams as the spectators watched during the regular season. Winter Baseball games were immensely popular and were originally covered in NYC newspapers in the same manner as regular games. But by the latter 1880's private ice rinks began to shut down due to loss of popularity and a changing urban landscape.

"'Winter ball' in the 1860s well into the 1880s had a decidedly different meaning than today. When the skating ponds opened in December or January, ballplayers laced up their skates and took to the ice with their bat and ball. The rules of the game on ice were basically the same as on land with some necessary accommodations. The ball was softer than that of regulation play and colored red to make it more visible. Bases, three-foot squares, were drawn on the ice and base runners allowed to 'overskate' the bases as they normally would at first base. Teams were comprised of ten players and the game length set at five innings. ... Although one-bound catches constituted an out, as in the early days of the game, difficult fielding conditions generally resulted in high scoring matches. ... The first recorded baseball game on ice was played on February 4, 1861, on Washington Pond between the Atlantics and the Charter Oaks of Brooklyn. According to the Clipper, 12,000 fans ... turned out to watch the novel sport. Spectators stood in lines three deep on the embankment surrounding the pond. Other fans watched from their carriages parked along the streets surrounding the arena. At game time, a mob of fans had to be cleared off the ice to make room for play. ... The Atlantics, champions of baseball on solid ground, were just as adept on ice. ... In 1884, Harper's Weekly reported a series of matches played at Washington Pond [in its final year], which that summer would become home to Brooklyn’s first major league baseball club. A team of professional ballplayers led by Baltimore manager Bill Barnie faced off against students from Adelphi and Polytechnic Institutes, coached by Henry Chadwick. ... At the time of the Harper’s Weekly report, the popularity of baseball on ice was past its peak. Accounts of games no longer appeared in the Clipper or in the Brooklyn newspapers. The private outdoor skating ponds, the major venues for baseball matches, were disappearing. ... For two decades, though, players and spectators in Brooklyn enjoyed the novel game of baseball on ice." [Before the Dodgers below]

James Terry, Long Before the Dodgers: Baseball in Brooklyn, 1845-1884 (2002, pp 91-96)
February 4 (BR Bullpen)
Brooklyn Atlantics (BR Bullpen)

February 4, 1956
The AL's First Experiment with the "Automatic" Intentional Walk
A Thumbnail History of the Intentional Walk

On Feb 4, 1956, the AL announced that it would test during spring training, what it called the "automatic" intentional walk -- that is, an announced intentional walk without the need to throw 4 pitches. Most managers and players, however, refused to participate in the experiment, and it was unproductive. On Jan 15, 1959, the AA MiL Texas League adopted the failed ML announced intentional-walk rule, and it worked quite well. Another successful announced intentional-walk "experiment" would be tried again 60 years later, when Commissioner Rob Manfred ordered it into effect for all the MiLs beginning with the 2015 season. The announced intentional-walk rule was finally adopted in the MLs, when Manfred gets it included in the 2016 CBA with the MLBPA's approval, for use in 2017, as part of his comprehensive changes to improve pace-of=play.

To start with a bit of Rangers' baseball trivia, there have only been 3 intentional walks with the bases loaded in AL history (there have been 4 more in the NL). Two of the 3 were issued against Texas hitters, Josh Hamilton and Corey Seager. Both times they proved to be successful, in the sense that the Ranger's opponent ultimately won the game.

As far as a thumbnail history of the intentional walk in baseball, before there can be an intentional walk, there have to be "called balls" outside the zone for a walk to be issued. Under the 1845 NY Knickerbocker Rules, pitching was underhand and designed solely to deliver the ball to the area indicated by the batter, or "striker" as he was called in those days, in order to put the ball in play. A batter could strike out on 3 swinging misses, but no "balls" or other forms of strikes were called. As NY teams slowly switched to more aggressive and defensive pitches to try to get the batter to swing and miss, huge numbers of pitches either out of the zone or in areas inside the zone that the batter did not prefer began to become common -- sometimes amounting to 50 or more pitches in a single at-bat. As an often cited example, in an 1860 game between the Brooklyn Atlantics and the Brooklyn Excelsiors, pitchers Jim Creighton and Mattie O'Brien threw a combined 665 pitches in the first 3 innings alone.

The "called ball" was originally imposed to stop the pitcher from stalling, and force him to deliver a hittable pitch. The reason that a "called ball" is called a "ball", comes from that early era. When a pitcher purposely threw the ball outside the zone, the umpire or batter would shout out "ball to the bat" as a demand that the pitcher throw the ball appropriately in the zone.

The National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) was created in 1857 in part to revise and update uniform baseball rules, and the game began to change annually at that point. The NABBP eventually changed the equipment used, the dimensions of the diamond and various boxes, and the location and overhand method of the pitcher. In 1858, the NABBP changed the game from the prior 21-run rule to the completion of 9 innings. In 1859, a rule was instituted allowing, but not requiring, the umpire to call strikes if the batter refused to swing at good pitches. A rule allowing an umpire to call "balls" was not instituted until the 1864 season.

When the "called ball" was introduced, it was so controversial that there was no real standard imposed -- its application was left up to the discretion of the umpire. In its initial form, it technically took 3 balls to draw a walk, but only after the umpire lost patience with the pitcher and issued an unspecified number of warnings to the pitcher. Over the next two or three decades, the number of balls thrown outside of the zone that were necessary to draw a walk was fixed without warning. In 1878, a walk required 9 balls; in 1879, 7; in 1883, 6; in 1886, 5; and, finally in 1888, the number of "called balls" required for a walk was set at 4.

The first intentional walk has been traced by baseball historians to a Jun 22, 1870, game between the Cincinnati Red Stokings and the Washington Olympians. But its use was rare until the sweeping 1888 rule revisions. By the 1890's, the intentional walk had become a well-used common strategy in the face of a new generation of hitters. The fans hated it, and the owners wanted to get rid of it. The AL-NL Rules Committee proposed rules to ban the intentional walk in the MLs in 1916, 1920 and especially 1924. They were never formally implemented, as umpires advised the leagues that the prohibitions were essentially unenforceable, since balls thrown out of the zone while the catcher was in the catcher's normal position, worked just as well as when the catcher formally stood at the edge of the catcher's box. So, the intentional walk became entrenched as part of a successful strategy of the game, even though fans hated it.

James Terry, Long Before the Dodgers: Baseball in Brooklyn, 1845-1884 (2002, pp 11-18)
Joe Posnanski, Walk Don't Run: History of the Free Pass in Baseball (Esquire 2023)
Intentional walk (BR Bullpen)
February 4 (BR Bullpen)
Intentional base on balls (Wikipedia)
Bill Francis, No-Pitch Intentional Walks No New Idea (Nat'l BB HoF )
Joe Posnanski, 10 questions about new intentional-walk rule ( 2017)