Speaker Falls Flat with Indoor League Attempt

The Houston Astrodome was billed as the eighth wonder of the world because of its size and novelty – home for the first Major League Baseball team to play indoors.

But indoor baseball wasn’t a new concept when it opened in 1965. In fact, an entire indoor league was formed in 1938 – and died within a month.

In the 19th century, as American society became urbanized, people looked for sporting activities indoor. In 1891, James Naismith invented a game to keep football players conditioned during the winter, and it had been referred to as indoor football before getting its current name: Basketball.

Baseball teams had started playing the indoor game – with modified field dimensions and a ball that was bigger than baseball but not quite as big as today’s softball – in 1887, and Reach published Indoor Baseball Guides.

But as the game became the National Pastime in the 20th century, the idea of an off-season indoor league started to take hold. On Nov. 14, 1939, at the Hotel Commodore in New York City, plans were introduced for the National Professional Indoor Baseball League.

The league was the brainchild of former Indians player/manager Tris Speaker, who had led the Tribe to its first World Series win, in 1920. After his playing days ended, Spoke served as manager and owner of a minor league team in Kansas City, but returned to Cleveland to serve as scout and broadcaster for the Indians.

Speaker was a figure in the community, serving as a sales representative for a steel company and owner of a liquor distributor, and chairman of the city boxing and wrestling commission. In 1939, celebrated as baseball’s centennial year, Speaker announced plans for the league, suggesting as the baseball season waned that softball could hold the public’s interest in the fall and winter.

There would be eight teams, one in every Major League city except Washington D.C. The eastern division was New York, Brooklyn, Boston and Philadelphia, while the western division was Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis. The league would play a 102-game regular season, followed by playoffs. Basepaths were 60 feet, instead of 90, and they played with a 12-inch ball.

The manager of the Cleveland team was Bill Wambsganss, who was on the 1920 World Champion Indians, where he became the first and to date only player to make an unassisted triple play in the World Series. Another manager was Otto Miller, who oddly enough, was the third out in Wamby’s unassisted triple play.

Opening Day was Nov. 19, five days after the introductory news conference, in New York. Brooklyn and New York split a doubleheader, but the league collapsed under its own weight after a month. The Chicago team never even played a single game, and the Amateur Softball Association decreed that any player who played in the indoor league would forfeit his amateur status in softball and any other sport allied with the Amateur Athletic Union.

“It is hoped in the future that a change of conditions will make it possible to resume,” he said. But conditions didn’t change. People weren’t interested in paying to see has-beens or players who would never be major league talents.

Two years later, the United States became involved in World War II. Many professional football teams suspended operations (or, in the case of the Pittsburgh Steelers, merged with other teams to stay afloat), and baseball teetered on the edge until President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Green Light Letter,” saying baseball was necessary for national morale and should continue to be played – albeit with players who weren’t suitable for military service.

And 25 years after the league’s demise, indoor baseball was back – on a field with regular dimensions.

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