Walla Walla “Watches” the World Series
Post by Ben Murphy
Librarians and student workers have been busy moving some collections of digitized images to ARMINDA, our institutional repository. We’ve just finished our first large chunk of this project, the Walla Walla Photographs Collection. We’ll be sharing a few highlights from this collection over the coming weeks.
[caption id=“attachment_772” align=“alignnone” width=“3906”] Play-O-Graph[/caption]
The title of this photograph, part of the new collection in ARMINDA, raised the question: “What’s a Play-o-graph”? As it turns out, this was a timely question. Several of us at Penrose are invested in the current World Series matchup between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. The Playograph was how Walla Wallans “watched” the World Series in the early twentieth century. In the photo, a group of local residents are congregated on Alder St., between 1st and 2nd. Not visible in this particular photo is the object of their attention. The Playograph, according the the Walla Walla Bulletin in 1926, was a device that “gives every conceivable play that can be made on a baseball diamond and shows each play graphically on the 15 by 12 foot board.” Several operators would receive updates on the game by telegraph, then move pieces of the board corresponding to the ball and players to graphically represent all the game action. Here’s a closeup that the Bulletin printed in 1926.
Playographs drew large crowds across the United States, especially during the World Series. This image from the Library of Congress shows a crowd watching the 1911 World Series in New York. Here’s another crowd in Muncie, Indiana in 1923. A blogger for Connecticuthistory.org has noted that Playographs lost popularity as radio broadcasts emerged in the 1920s. However, it seems that communities away from major metropolitan areas, like Walla Walla and Muncie, relied on their Playographs through the early 1930s. The Bulletin, the owner of the local Playograph, invited “every baseball fan from Pomeroy to Pendleton and from Kennewick to Toll Gate” to join in the viewing, which was free and open to the public.
In American History Illustrated in 1991, baseball writer Norman Macht described how the Playograph was but one in a series of mechanical and electrical devices, many of which were patented, that attempted to recreate the live action for spectators. These fans would “stand for hours in the streets and parks of cities and towns across the country, in all kinds of weather, watching what we would regard as primitive ‘real-time’ re-creations of the events taking place up to hundreds or occasionally thousands of miles away.”
Before the 1915 World Series, a small advertisement in the Sporting Page of the New York Evening World invited New Yorkers to view the 1915 World Series on the “Famous Jackson Manikin Board.” Macht describes this device as “especially elaborate.” He continues:
“Somewhat resembling a huge pinball machine, this apparatus featured mechanical players realistically imitating real-life actions on a thirty-four-by-fifty-four-foot field that was complete with scoreboard and signs on the outfield fences. The miniature players moved out of dugouts to home plate, swung the bat (either left-handed or right-handed), ran, threw, ‘argued’ with the umpire, and even walked over to calm down a nervous pitcher.”
The Jackson Manikin Board never made it to Walla Walla. As Philip Bumb noted in the Atlantic, “for all its creative energy, the JMBI [Jackson Manikin Baseball Indicator] was too complicated and too resource intensive to be replicated widely.” While it was perhaps not the most technologically advanced viewing device, Walla Wallans still enjoyed “watching” their Playograph. Besides the baseball, the Bulletin reminded readers in its invitation from 1926: “there will be no ban on smoking and concessions will keep the fans filled with hot dogs and the customary drinks.”
For more photos of Walla Walla’s Playograph and excerpts from the Bulletin, see Joe Drazan’s Bygone Walla Walla blog.
Macht, Norman L. “‘Watching’ the World Series.” American History Illustrated. September/October 1991: 49-51.