The Game's Greatest Writer on the Game's Greatest Years
by Red Smith
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HELSINKI -- They played a ball game here last night, and if there's a stone left upon a tomb in Cooperstown today it's an upset. What the Finns did to the game which Doubleday did not invent shouldn't happen in Brooklyn, not even under its Finnish name "Pesapallo."
Although Pesapallo is only about thirty years old, it is a monstrous infant that has grown up to be Finland's national sport. It was invented by Lauri Pihkala, a professor who wears a hearing aid and believes his game was modeled on baseball. Somebody must have described baseball to him when his battery was dead.
"Well," explained a tolerant Finn, "he took baseball and, ah --." He paused to grope for a word meaning adapted, "-- and, ah, mutilated it," he said.
Somebody then performed the same service for the English language while composing program notes to explain Pesapallo to foreigners.
"The batsman, or striker,' wrote this Helsinki Rud Rennie, "must try by power of hit of his own and teamfellows to run from base to base with home-base as final objective. The striker is allowed three serve; i.e., a serve rising at least one-half meter above his head and falling, if not connected by the bat, within base-plats with a diameter of 60 cm."
If that doesn't make you see the game with vivid clarity there seems little use of further elucidation. Stick around, though, if you've nothing better to do.
Pesapallo hasn't yet achieved Olympic status and was presented merely as an exhibition for about 25,000 spectators in Olympic Stadium. Two nine-man teams came trotting in from the outfield in single file, converged in a "V" at home plate and removed caps. Their captain stepped forward and shook hands with the referee, a joker in cinnamon brown carrying a bat, possibly in self-defense. The players wore baseball uniforms, white for one team, malevolent red for the other.
Four other jokers in brown did a lock step on to the field. These were "assistant controllers" or base umpires. A tasty shortcake in gay peasant costume threw a hall out to the referee and dropped a deep curtsy. The referee fired the ball -- which is about the size and weight of a 10-cent "rocket" -- to the server, blew a long blast on a police whistle, the game was on.
A Pesapallo field is a lopsided pentagon 278 feet long and 131 feet at its broadest. The pitcher stands across the plate from the batter and tosses the ball straight up like a fungo hitter. Base runners all act like Dodgers gone berserk.
That is, they start for third base and then get lost. First base is just where Phil Rizzuto likes to place his bunts; in Yankee Stadium it would be between third base and the mound. If Finns didn't use chalk lines instead of fences, second base would be against the right-field wall. Third is directly opposite, on the left-field boundary. The route from there home is a dogleg to the left. The plate is a trash can cover, two feet in diameter.
The pitcher may fling the ball as high as he chooses but if it doesn't drop on the garbage can lid it's outside the strike zone. Two successive faulty serves -- they must be consecutive -- constitute a walk, but the batter goes to first only when there are no runners aboard. Otherwise the runner who has advanced the farthest takes one more base.
The batter gets three strikes but nobody is required to run on a hit except on the third strike. Players are retired only on strikeouts, pick-offs or throws that beat them to a base. On a fly that is caught, the batter is only "wounded"; he is not out.
A wounded man just stands aside and awaits his next turn at bat. One who has been put out may not bat again in the same inning; if his turn comes around, they skip him. An inning ends after three putouts or after all men have batted without scoring a run. (This can happen if enough men are wounded.)
That's about all, except that over the fence would be a foul ball if there were a fence. Hits must bounce in fair territory. A Ralph Kiner would be a bum in Pesapallo; a Leo Durocher whose fungo stick is a squirrel rifle that can brush a fly off an infielder's ear, would be a Finnish Willie Keeler.
This game progressed at bewildering speed with the ball practically always in motion. There is no balk rule. The server would fake a toss for the batter and whip the ball to a baseman on an attempted pick-off. The baseman would fake a throw back and try the hidden-ball play. Infielders, outfieldiers, and the pitcher-catcher, they heaved that apple around with the sleight-of-hand of the Harlem Globetrotters.
They played the hit-and-run, with the batter clubbing the ball into the earth like a man beating a snake, then standing still at the plate while base runners sprinted across the landscape. Everybody show-boated frantically. Base umpires lifted cardboard signs to signal "safe" or "out" and the referee announced decisions on his whistle in a sort of morse code of dots and dashes.
Finally a guy named Eino Kaakkolahti slapped a bounding ball past one infielder, through a second infielder, and past an outfielder, with one runner on base. It was a triple, which counts as a home run in Finland. That was as much as one foreigner can take.
From Red Smith on Baseball Copyright © 2000 by Phyllis W. Smith. Used by permission.