“Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our closed rooms… The game of ball is glorious.”

Walt Whitman

The winter in the Pacific Northwest is one of short days and long nights. It’s a lot like Michigan, just not as cold. In Michigan the winters were spent skating on lakes and man-made rinks in friends back yards; here in the PNW, the basketball courts are often covered with a roof to allow year-round play in the rain. In other areas of the country play is directed indoors.

The industrial revolution not only brought the world an array of new consumer and manufacturing items but it brought the need for exercise in an increasingly mechanized world. This need for exercise is best exemplified by the invention of basketball and volleyball in Massachusetts in the 1890s. Of course, at the time the passion of the nation was on one ballgame and it had nothing to do with a pig or a scrimmage. It was baseball that held the pulse of the sporting-mad Americans in the crowded and empty cities that dotted the landscape.

This need for exercise in the long cold months of winter was broached by a group of Chicago gentlemen in 1887. Amongst them was George Hancock, a reporter for Chicago Board of Trade, who took it upon himself to design a new game and undertake it at the Farragut Boat Club. Hancock introduced 19 special rules that were exclusive to indoor baseball. The Mid Winter Indoor Baseball League of Chicago officially adopted these rules in 1889.

But the real push for the game came from a group of fireman in Minneapolis, a city known for its long winters. Fire lieutenant Louis Rober used the game to keep his staff fit. Later, at another Fire Company, he named their team “The Kittens” and soon, the popularity of the game grew in the Midwest and it was often referred to as “Kitten Ball.”

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, The American Sports Publishing Company headed by Albert Spalding published a series of “guides,” some of which were aimed at teaching women the nuances of indoor baseball.

After being recognized by several names such as kitten ball, diamond ball, army ball, mush ball, indoor-outdoor, recreation ball, and playground ball, finally in 1926 Walter Hakanson, a Denver YMCA official, suggested the name softball, which stuck for good.

Eventually those new indoor games like Basketball and Volleyball began to demand gym space and the indoor version of the game waned and became more of an outdoor alternative to baseball for women, mixed groups or folks looking to attack the diamond at a slower pace. One thing’s for sure, the pace isn’t always slow.

Those Crazy Europeans

Pesäpallo (Or Finnish Baseball)

Keeping with the winter theme and the long stretch between pitches, we’ll pull away from the holidays and focus on the wonders that the game brings to those encumbered by the cold, or by the distance from the origins the baseball we watch here in the US of A.

First let’s take a look at an attempt to transfer the game to a different surface, as tried by a group of folks in Cleveland way back in 1920.

Judging by the popularity of that form of the game these days I’ll venture that it didn’t catch on, which in retrospect is too bad, as it probably would have helped heighten the knowledge of global warming.

Moving on, let’s take a look at what I find to be a fascinating version of baseball in the Finnish game of Pesäpallo.

Pesäpallo, a literal translation of baseball, combines many traits of baseball and older Finnish ball games. Pesäpallo was introduced to Finland in 1922 by Lauri “Wheatstone” Pihkala (Finland’s Abner Doubleday) after he visited the U.S. in 1907. Some call it the national sport of Finland; it is often found in other countries that have a larger then usual population of Finns.

The game is most popular on the western coast of Finland; about 10% of all Finns are active Pesäpallo players. While over 2,600 teams play Finnish National baseball, all school children in Finland learn to play the game as part of school curriculum.

So what are the differences?

Too many for me to list, but let’s start with the basics that are listed on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pes%C3%A4pallo).

The more significant differences to baseball are:

  • The back line on the fly counts as a foul ball.
  • A batter’s box is removed and the home plate serves as a pitching plate; there is no catcher. Pitches are thrown straight upwards, and the batter tries to hit the ball when it drops down.
  • The strike zone is rather different, and walking requires fewer invalid pitches.
  • Catching a ball in flight is not an out, but forces all runners not on a base to return to home base.
  • The batter is not required to run after hitting the ball on his first or second strike.

The field is somewhat like the baseball fields we are used to, with significant differences.

The pitcher delivers the ball in this manner, with the batter facing him from the other side of the plate, swinging as if he threw the ball up to himself as he hit fungos to the lads in the outfield.

I found a pocket explanation of the game on the web, and it is as follows:

A pesäpallo game is played in two periods of four innings each. The defensive team (team I in the drawing) has nine players on the field. The batting team (team II) – the offensive team – can use its nine players plus two jokers during one half-inning. The batter has three strikes and he tries to hit the ball out of reach of the fielders, within the boundaries. After a good hit he starts running through the bases (1, 2 and 3). If he succeeds in it, his team scores a run. Team I tries to defend by catching the ball and putting the runners out. If the ball gets to the base first, the runner is put out and removed from the field. An inning ends when three players have been put out. A period is won by the team, which scores more runs. If both teams win one period, there will be an extra, decisive period.

So the game has its baseball-like tendencies, but it’s also the equivalent of the game of Speedball (one of the greatest games ever played in gym class. It is a combination of basketball soccer and football. You can either score a goal (one point), shoot a basket (two points), get a touchdown (one point), or dropkick the ball (ten points). Any time the ball hits the ground the only thing you can do is kick it. You can kick it up for someone to catch. When the ball is in your hands you can only take three steps before you have to get rid of it.)

You know the game, it’s something that isn’t what it appears to be until you change the rules. Somewhat reminiscent of “Calvin Ball”

However, the game is bigger then one would think, it has professional leagues, strict rules and an international site that governs the game. The Finnish championship series is known as Superpesis (http://www.superpesis.fi/index.php). Both men and women compete in their own series.

I imagine somewhere right now, a kid in Finland is practicing his Pesäpallo moves in hope of winning the big game and dreaming of playing in the pros

And perhaps playing for the team that sports this logo.