Innovations like the batting helmet, catcher’s mask and padded walls have made the game of Baseball much safer to play since the fatal beaning of Cleveland Indians’ shortstop Roy Chapman in 1920. And if you believe the “Internet,” today represents the anniversary of another one of Baseball’s safety features. On this date in 1949, Major League Baseball owners got together and decided to put warning tracks in every ballpark.
The warning track, for those of you not familiar with the game and the field on which it’s played, is that strip of dirt that makes up that portion of the outfield between where the grass ends and the home run fence stands. The purpose of the warning track is to let outfielders know by feel and peripheral vision that they’re getting close to the fence without having to take their eye off the ball they’re chasing. (Hitters who don’t hit many homers are derisively said to have “warning track power.”)
Yankee Stadium is credited as being the first with a warning track. The story goes that the warning track was left over from an earlier track and field event and that when ballpark designers saw how it helped fielders, they began installing them in their own buildings.
The 1949 “decision” of baseball owners to install warning tracks reported in the numerous history trivia websites that populate the webpages has that quality that the comedian Stephen Colbert refers to as “truthiness.” It sounds kinda’ right but is impossible to confirm.
The 1949 part sounds especially truthy. I know for a fact that in 1942, a promising young Brooklyn outfielder named Pete Reiser nearly decapitated himself by colliding head first into a wall chasing a ball in St. Louis in 1942. (Despite fracturing his skull, Reiser actually flagged down the ball and relayed it to the infield cutoff guy before collapsing.) Reiser eventually returned to the Bigs but was never the same. Branch Rickey, the General Manager of the Dodgers, was responsible for getting warning tracks installed in Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field after the Reiser incident.
But the part of the Internet account about Major League owners getting together and agreeing to install warning tracks sounds fishy to me. Baseball owners don’t operate like that. And I can’t find anything to confirm that any owners’ meeting ever took place in 1949 let alone that it resulted in the decision to install warning tracks.
Still, the story is truthy enough to warrant a column, especially since it gives me an excuse to talk about my 2 favorite topics in the whole world—workplace safety and baseball.