Sunday, November 19, 2006

November 19th, 1939

National Professional Indoor Baseball League Begins Play

You read that right, it's the National Professional Indoor Baseball League. In addition to having an absolute mouthful of a name, the NPIBL is another of those wacky ideas that pop up every now and then in baseball history only to vanish almost as quickly as they appeared. Most of them are worthy of having their story told, and the NPIBL is no exception.

For starters, let's get one thing straight. When they say "Indoor Baseball," they don't mean the kind played here but rather the kind played in gymnasiums and the like. Apparently this was quite a popular activity during the winter months in the early part of the twentieth century until basketball began to take over as the primary gym sport. Of course, this wasn't quite moving baseball indoors with no regard for the different environment; the diamond was smaller, the ball more like a softball and pitchers threw underhand. (As you might've guessed, this is generally considered the origin of modern softball.)

During the Depression the game was widely popular with what a contemporary Time article dubbed "the U.S. army of unemployed" under a wide range of names (including my personal favorite: mushball) but generally outside as people now had, not to be glib, a lot more time to stand outside playing games. As the Depression came to a close someone had the inspired idea of taking mushball, moving it back inside and setting up a league.

Teams were placed in every Major League city save Washington and the plan called for a hundred game schedule to be played November through March with a championship series at the end. The Grey Eagle Tris Speaker was recruited to be league president--at a reported salary of seventy-five hundred dollars--while a series of former Major League trivia answers and mediocrities (including Bubbles Hargrave) were recruited to serve as managers.

In a development that frankly should have surprised no one but evidently came as a shock to quite a few people, the American public reacted to the new league with marked indifference. Apparently the thought of seeing a bunch of people they'd never heard of play a scaled-down indoor version of baseball failed to set hearts aflutter, and the league was out of business within a month, thus ending one of the stranger start-up leagues in history.

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