Have you ever heard of the 1922 Pantomime World Series in Washington?
The 1922 Pantomime World Series excited baseball fans before radio
And yet somehow, the real event was no less bizarre. In fact, this year marks the centennial of what one newspaper called “the greatest sports novelty” the world had ever seen.
Of course, the newspaper that called it that was the newspaper that created it: the Washington Times. (Founded in 1894 and shuttered in 1939, this Washington Times had no connection to the paper of the same name today.)
Imagine the time before television, the time before radio. If you were a fan eager to experience a sporting event, you had to be there. You could read about it in the next day’s paper, but to feel what the crowd felt — to hang on every pitch, fret over every foul ball, rejoice at every home run — you had to be present. And just as seeing a movie in a packed theater can be superior to seeing one alone at home, so nothing could compare to the communal experience .
Inventors had tried different ways to re-create baseball games at a distance. In the early 20th century, Washington’s Henry Rodier built a contraption called the Rodier Electric Baseball Game Reproducer. This was a billboard-size panel adorned with an illustration of a baseball field. The board was studded with lights that could be illuminated to show the path of a ball or a runner.
The board’s operator received a telegraph feed from the live game and switched on the appropriate lights. In 1909, Rodier rented a building in DC and installed his board, charging people a quarter to “see” a game between Washington and St. Louis.
The Washington Post was among newspapers that hung what were generically called Play-o-Graph machines outside their buildings, drawing crowds.
Before he unveiled his electric ballfield, Rodier had been a typesetter at the Washington Evening Star. Perhaps his standing in the District’s newspaper community inspired mime-ball inventor Harry Colemanwho headed the photo and engraving department at the Washington Times. Coleman’s innovation was to replace the lightbulbs with actual humans and to replace the rented auditorium with an actual ballpark.
On Sunday, Oct. 1, 1922, the Washington Times ran a full-page ad inviting readers to watch the first game of the World Series that Wednesday at American League Park, the ballpark near Howard University. “Something Novel!” the ad promised .
Indeed. The newspaper had hired two teams of Marines — one from the Navy Yard, the other from the Marine Corps Barracks — to ape the action at the Polo Grounds in New York, where the New York Giants would be facing the New York Yankees.
The action would be transmitted south via four telegraph lines installed especially for the event. Then, four stenographers transcribed the plays, which were distributed to the waiting Marines who would dash onto the field and reenact them.
“Thus, sitting comfortably in the grandstand, Washington fans may watch a practical duplication of the world series games just as they are being played in New York,” promised the Times.
It was called pantomime because no balls were used. Rather, the Marines mimed the plays, literally going through the motions. Between innings, the 60-piece Navy Band entertained the crowd.
Admission was free. The Times claimed 8,000 people attended that first game, which the Giants won, 3-2.
Crowds grew over the course of the series. When Yankees pitcher Bullet Joe Bush loaded the bases in Game Five, a pantomime reliever warmed up on the sidelines and fans shouted for Bush to be pulled. More than 20,000 fans attended that final game and watched the “Giants” defeat the “Yankees” and claim the crown.
Wrote the Washington Times: “It sounds a trifle tame, but the thousands who saw it worked got a powerful kick out of it.”
In 1923, the same two New York teams met again in the World Series and the Times again sponsored a simulated game at Clark Griffith’s stadium.
“Pantomime baseball has ceased to be an experiment,” the paper wrote. “It is the most effective method of reproducing ballgames. Authorities declare the pantomime is the next thing to the game, with none of the thrills lacking.”
But radio was on the rise. The 1922 series was the first to be broadcast, and that medium would only grow in popularity.
There was no pantomime baseball in DC in 1924. Griffith’s ballpark was needed for something else: the actual World Series, which the Washington Senators won in seven games.