How Baseball is Played by People Who Are Blind
The first documented game of adapted baseball seems to have been played in Louisville, Kentucky circa 1894 (i). At the 13th Conference of the American Association of Instructors of the Blind, an instructor named H.N. Felkel lamented that “There is no game for the blind that will so enlist the emotions, quicken the perception, call fourth determination and excite emulation as does baseball for its votaries.” An interesting response came from an instructor named Mr. Frederick from the Kentucky Institute for the Blind. At what is now known as the Kentucky School for the Blind in Louisville, students had already modified the game for their own play. The pitcher would simply count to three and pitch the ball to the batter, who stood eight feet away. The catcher, who was placed about four feet behind the batter, often caught the ball after the first bounce. Mr. Frederick reported an impressive batting average of 0.400 for his pupils. The students did, however, have to worry about striking the trees that they used for bases. But Mr. Frederick said that once they hit their head on a tree hard enough, they learned to be more careful the next time (ii).
With baseball’s popularity in the 1930s and 1940s came further attempts at adapted games for players who were visually impaired. Unfortunately, these versions sometimes barely resembled the original game of baseball. In 1938, Superintendent R.V. Chandler at the Industrial Home for the Blind in Oakland developed a baseball game played by sound. A playground ball with jingle bells in it was rolled on the ground by the sighted pitcher, who was used by both teams. The batter used a hockey stick to hit the jingle ball, and then ran toward buzzing bases (iii). Another version was developed in 1940, in which the pitcher used a 3-foot rod to slide a ring down a wire that ran towards the hitter. Hearing the approaching ring, the hitter knocked the ring back down the wire towards the pitcher and fielders, who grabbed at the ring as it shot toward them. If the ring passed all of the fielders, it was a home run. Otherwise, the hitter ran to the bases along a guide-rope until the ring was eventually returned to the catcher (iv).
Pic Magazine article title "Blind Man's Baseball" published October 1940
While attending the Overbrook School for the Blind in 1932, a 12-year-old student named Robert G. Allman had already created a much simpler game called “Groundball.” A baseball was rolled down a brick pathway, which allowed the hitter to hear the pitch coming. The batter used a baseball bat with a golf-like swing to hit anything from a grounder to, as was Robert’s case, a 50-foot fly that went through a window. Fielders could judge the movement of the ball by listening to it swish through the grass, or called a home run if the ball was in the air. Robert even learned to pitch curveballs along the path, and eventually struck out 32 consecutive batters. The game spread across the country at schools for students who were blind during the 1930s. And Robert Allman later founded the Mid Atlantic Blind Golf Association (v).
2nd page from Pic Magazine article
Much like that first game played by Louisville students in 1894, adapted baseball began to more closely resemble its namesake in the 1960s and 70s. The “Lewis Game of Baseball” was created at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind in 1972. The batter tossed the ball up and hit his own pitch, and the type of hit was determined by where the ball landed. There was no base running or fielding in the Lewis Game, and the runner was guided to the bases (vi).
At about the same time in the United States, Beep Baseball began to develop. It originated in 1964, when the principal of the Colorado School for the Blind requested an audio baseball be created that students who were visually impaired could swing at (vii). Mountain Bell Telephone employees Charlie Fairbanks and Vernon Grimes designed a beeping baseball by installing telephone equipment in a softball. A telephone workers’ service group called the Telephone Pioneers began to sponsor their project in 1969, and 1,200 of these Pioneer Audio Balls were donated to institutions for the blind by 1973. A Pacific Bell Telephone employee named Ralph Rock adapted the rules of baseball to “avoid collisions,” and the first game of “Beep Baseball for the Sightless” was played in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in April of 1972 (ix).
By 1975, the Minnesota Telephone Pioneers had designed an improved beeping ball, and presented it to John Ross of the Braille Sports Foundation. Ross helped develop and finalize “The Minnesota Rules,” of beep baseball, which even more closely resembled standard baseball. Once the Foundation’s magazine, Feeling Sports, began to publish accounts of their games, national interest quickly grew. The first Beep Baseball convention was held in Chicago in March of 1976, where the National Beep Baseball Association was formed, the official rules were written, and the 1976 Beep Baseball World Series in Minneapolis was planned (x).
Today, the game continues to be played much as it was in the 1970s. The 6-inning game is played with six batters and fielders. A modified softball begins to beep when a pin is pulled just before a pitch in announced and executed. If the batter makes a hit before getting four strikes, she runs to either of the 5-foot-tall, buzzing, foam bases located at either first or third. If the batter reaches the base before the fielders find the ball, it is a run. If the fielders find the beeping softball before the runner makes it to base, an out is called. Any hit that passes the 170-foot mark is a home run. There are believed to be more than 200 teams in the US, with the 2019 NBBA World Series scheduled for July in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
(i) Wanczyk, D. (2019). BEEP: Inside the unseen world of baseball for the blind. S.l.: Swallow Press.
(ii) Proceedings of the Thirteenth Biennial Convention of the American Association of Instructors of the Blind. (1895). New York: Bradstreet Press.
(iii) Baseball Game for Blind is Played by Sound. (1938, August). Popular Mechanics, 70(2).
(iv) Blind Man's Baseball. (1940, October 1). Pic, 8(7).
(v) Allman, Bob with Russ Davis. We Blind Have Fun. (1940. June 22). Saturday Evening Post
(vi) Brownson, G. (1972). Visually Handicapped Persons Play Baseball. CCB Outlook, 25(2).
(vii) Marshall, G. (1978). The Quietest Game in Town. Dialogue, 17(1).
(viii) AT&T News Release, Beep Baseball for the Sightless. (1973, May 10). New York: American Telephone and Telegraph Company.
(ix) Beep baseball: A Baseball League for the Sightless. (1975). Vacaville, CA: Volunteers of Vacaville.
(x) Ross, J. (1998). Feeling sports. London: Minerva Press.