You would think someone like myself obsessed with technology, baseball and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle would have already heard of a 1950 experiment at Ebbets Field in which MLB tested an “electronic umpire.” I hadn’t, though, until reading Richard Sandomir’s smart New York Times account of such. Dodgers President Branch Rickey, who was progressive in myriad ways, including being a Moneyballer long before Beane was born, didn’t want to sweep umps from behind the plate but hoped to use the tool to make hitters more aware of the strike zone.
The sport should definitely today exploit advances in sensors and computers to automate ball and strike calls at some level of the minors, with an eye toward replacing the human element behind the catcher in the bigs. Even the best umpires are wrong on balls and strikes about 10% of the time, and that wiggle room damages the integrity of the game.
One day in March 1950, a batting cage at the Brooklyn Dodgers’ spring training camp in Vero Beach, Fla., became the setting for an event that looked as if it came out of the future: strikes being called not by a man in a mask, peaked cap and chest protector, but by a machine.
“This was really high-tech stuff,” said pitcher Carl Erskine, recalling the sight of the device during a telephone interview from his Indiana home.
The so-called “cross-eyed electronic umpire” introduced that day used mirrors, lenses and photoelectric cells beneath home plate that would, after detecting a strike through three slots around the plate, emit electric impulses that illuminated what The Brooklyn Eagle called a “saucy red eye” in a nearby cabinet.
Popular Science declared, “Here’s an umpire even a Dodger can’t talk back to.”
The noted British journalist Alistair Cooke, then a foreign correspondent for The Manchester Guardian, weighed in wryly with the “alarming news” that the Dodgers would “try out an electronic umpire in the hope that he will call a decision even the Yankees will not be able to challenge.”
It was the atomic age, but sports were not known for being technologically advanced. Still, the coming decades saw much more: instant replay, slow motion, the virtual first-down line, real-time score boxes in the corner of television screens, the glowing puck, tennis-ball trackers, video review and baseball’s Pitch f/x and Statcast systems.
Chris Marinak, Major League Baseball’s senior vice president for league economics and strategy, said that sharp advances in camera and computer technology had accelerated innovation.•