From Usenet to the World Wide Web: the Early History of Baseball Online

A little while ago I decided to look up some things on how talk about baseball emerged on the Internet, starting in the ‘80s with Usenet and moving into AOL, Prodigy, Compuserve, etc., and then the first year or so after Mosaic and Netscape started the browser-based web experience and the term “information superhighway” started to be obsolete. Here, from Google Groups Usenet archives, is the announcement of apparently the first-ever Strat-O-Matic baseball simulation played online, on September 29, 1984 (you’ll have to pardon the bad line breaks in the list of members):

After almost 5 months of preparations and delays, the net-Strat-O-Matic Baseball league is ready to open its first season. We have five players and ten teams, all from the 1983 season, as follows:
Name                            Address                                     Teams

Josh Rosenbluth    houxm!hounx!jhr2        Reds, Expos
Peter Barbee           fluke!tron                            Orioles, Dodgers
Jeff Houston           dual!jeff                              Giants, Brewers
Shane McDonald     sask!mcdonald              Mets, Cardinals
Ken Kaufman          uiucdcs!kaufman           Pirates, Red Sox

Needless to say, the mechanics of playing this game PBM are quite difficult, as games could take months if rules were followed to the letter.

There are many decisions encountered in the game and given the turnaround time of electronic mail, a large schedule would normally be unplayable. Therefore, I have assumed the role of gamemaster, as well as player, and will do all the dice-rolling. In order that the players won’t have to approve decisions on every situation that comes up, they have all sent me policy sheets which cover most situations. I will still continue to question them where necessary. Of course, as gamemaster, so that I don’t have an unfair advantage, I have also written out such a sheet and sent copies to the players. I will follow it to the letter. Several rules have been changed to add to the simplicity; the players have been informed of these.

There are a couple of other relevant rule alterations. All teams will use the DH. This is mostly to balance the game for AL teams whose pitchers are otherwise at a hitting disadvantage. And, due to the shortness of the schedule (see below), the severity of injuries will tend to be reduced. This will be done by referring twice to the injury chart, and taking the lesser result.

The schedule will be initially set at 8 games with each team playing each team owned by another player. After a few games, when we all get a feel of how it’s going, the players will choose whether to leave it an 8 game slate, or to up it to 16, 32, or even 64, as was suggested a few months ago by one of the players. Regardless, the top two teams will meet in a 4-of-7 series for the title. Should there be a tie for the second playoff spot, we’ll use a 2-of-3 to decide it.

Then, in 1993, one girl made a threat against Cal Ripken Jr. on Prodigy and got in trouble for it. The Seattle Times of Friday, August 20, 1993 :

A 14-year-old girl logged onto the Prodigy computer network’s bulletin board and typed out a death threat against baseball superstar Cal Ripken Jr.

It was meant to get a rise out of her boyfriend in New Jersey, who idolizes Ripken, said Joe Race, police chief in Medina, Wash., a suburb of Seattle, where the girl lives.

It got a rise all right — but out of Prodigy security officials, who screen the messages from their headquarters in New York. Prodigy contacted New York police and provided the phone number that was assigned to the message.

An officer in New York called Seattle police, who contacted Medina police and security officials at Seattle’s Kingdome, where Ripken and the Baltimore Orioles were playing the Seattle Mariners earlier this week.

Kingdome officials immediately tightened security. “We do take these things seriously,” Kingdome spokeswoman Carol Keaton said.

One reason for the concern, Kingdome security chief Pat Murphy said, is that Ripken is closing in on Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-games-played record. Gehrig, the great New York Yankees first baseman, played in 2,130 straight games before he was forced from baseball by the fatal disease that eventually was named after him. Ripken, in his 12th season, has played in more than 1,800 games, and some fans are concerned that he may break a record that once seemed unapproachable.

This spring, another computer message about Ripken created an outcry on the Internet, an international computer network used by universities, corporations, governments and other subscribers.

In that message, sent to a bulletin board for baseball fans, it was suggested that someone should hurt Ripken before he broke Gehrig’s record. Soon after, the bulletin board was deluged with condemnations of the message, and one respondent said he notified the FBI about the incident.

Two King County police officers were assigned to guard Ripken during Monday night’s game. A third accompanied him back to his hotel after the game.

“He was aware of it, but he was very calm,” Murphy said of Ripken. “It didn’t seem to bother him.”

Apparently not. Ripken went 1 for 4 and scored a run, even as the Orioles lost, 8-6.

Monday night, police began staking out the address provided by Prodigy. By 2 p.m. Tuesday, the 14-year-old arrived home with her 28-year-old sister.

The girl admitted she sent the message and was “very embarrassed and apologetic,” Race said. The girl received a stern lecture from police, but no criminal charges will be filed.

And the next year, in August 1994, the Akron Beacon Journal carried an item about how Cleveland Indians fans were using a Usenet newsgroup to talk about their team during the strike:

Chuck Grim didn’t know the thrill of cheering a Cleveland Indians team through a pennant race until he went halfway around the world to Bulgaria.

Unfortunately, Grim, a 35-year-old native of Chatham Township in Medina County, doesn’t get to see or hear many of the games. He doesn’t even get to read much news about the team.

Yet he knows more about the ins and outs of Tribe baseball than most folks lounging on the banks of the Cuyahoga River or stuck in traffic next to Jacobs Field.

And if you’re looking for opinions about how the baseball strike affects Tribe fans, he has more than a few informed ones.

How does Grim manage? The Internet, in general; cle.sports, also known as the Cleveland Sports Mailing List, in particular.

“This group is the only timely info I get about Cleveland sports,” Grim said in an interview on the Internet. “Between it and a Purdue sports group, I have to piece together the rest of the sports world.”

Cle.sports (cle-dot-sports in Internet -speak) is a newsgroup dedicated to electronically discussing Cleveland sports teams that can be accessed around the world by subscribers to Usenet, a network of several thousand newsgroups on the Internet . It is run in conjunction with the Cleveland Sports Mailing List, which sends the same electronic discussion through Internet electronic mail to those who do not have access to Usenet.
The group of contributors, which was started in November 1991 by then-Cleveland State University student Richard Kowicki, has been around for about two years. It’s basically a bunch of knowledgeable Cleveland sports enthusiasts from around the country getting together on a daily basis to discuss Cleveland sports.

Ron Graham, a longtime contributor to the cle.sports newsgroup, said the idea grew out of necessity.

“Because of the negative image that Cleveland sports teams have, Cleveland fans are lightning rods for flames (negative comments and e-mail abuse). A few of us were Usenet defenders for Cleveland sports and we got together.”

Graham, 36, of Lakewood, says he started hanging out in the Usenet site rec.sports.baseball.

“That is one mean place,” he said. “Nobody likes the Tribe there. Never mind that the Tribe organization has figured out (how) to win.”

Graham said the Cleveland fans ended up spending most of their time defending their team and very little time discussing what they wanted to discuss, so they banded together and formed the Cleveland Sports Mailing List.

Kowicki, who now administers the mailing list, set out two simple goals: to provide a forum for discussion about Cleveland sports teams and to provide news and information that most out-of-towners couldn’t get otherwise.

“We are more statistics- and analysis-oriented than other media sources,” said Kowicki. “The readers we have like this. The discussions are generally fact-based and maybe a bit more intellectual.”

Kowicki says the list now reaches Australia, the Netherlands, Canada and England — and Grim in Bulgaria.

“Finding Cleveland sports info in Massachusetts is difficult at best,” wrote one grateful contributor. “Finding anyone who actually wants to talk Cleveland sports is even more difficult.”

Earlier this year, the mailing list was added to the Usenet list of newsgroups and has grown significantly.

In the past few months, cle.sports has been near the top of the Usenet usage lists for the Cleveland Free-net, ranking up there with the usual high-traffic areas like alt.binaries.pictures.erotica, alt.sex.stories and usa-today.news.

Kowicki, a 31-year-old computer programmer from Garfield Heights, said since baseball ‘s Opening Day, the mailing list has logged more than 1 million messages, occupying 2.2 gigabytes of memory (that’s 2.2 billion bytes — the average computer has 40,000 to 80,000 kilobytes).

The core members of the group have given themselves assignments, the same way reporters in a newsroom would get assignments. Some specialize in specific sports, others in certain statistics.

Graham, for example, specializes in tidbits that are off the beaten path.
His most recent contribution includes items on Jon Bon Jovi catching passes from Mark Rypien, the Toledo Mud Hens breaking a single-game attendance record and a tip of the hat to Leroy Kelly and his touching induction ceremony speech in Canton at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“This has become something that nobody else is doing,” Graham said. “And now we have contributors from all over the world.”

That gives subscribers to the newsgroup a strong background in Cleveland sports, which makes for lively discussion. And now with the baseball strike in full force, contributors have been feverishly posting their thoughts and possible solutions.

Most support the players and they can argue from several points of view — including social, public policy and labor-based arguments.

Grim’s idea is based more on free-market economics.
“If owners are too stupid to constrain their own spending without placing artificial barriers on competition, they deserve to lose money,” wrote Grim. “After witnessing the effect of a salary cap and Danny Ferry on the Cavs, I am amazed that anybody thinks it’s a good idea.”

Of course, web browsers were already around in the summer of 1994. Late that November, the Seattle Mariners saw the opportunity, and became the first baseball team to offer a website to the public. The Seattle Times of Wednesday, November 30, 1994 reported:

COMPUTER USERS with an Internet connection now can access information about the Seattle Mariners, communicate with club officials or even buy a hat.

A professor in Denmark had a request. Browsing around the Internet , he had come across a file announcing a “web site” for the Seattle Mariners. By electronic mail, he wrote to the baseball club.

“I saw your site and I want to buy a cap,” the professor wrote.

With that, the Mariners not only made a sale but entered a new dimension in pro sports, as the first team to run its own home page on the Internet’s World Wide Web.

After a week of tinkering with a preliminary version that raised cyber-brows around the globe, the official version was made available today by the Mariners and Semaphore Corp., a small Seattle-based company that helped develop it.

By gliding into cyberspace, the Mariners now offer schedule, ticket, merchandise, spring-training and other information to anyone around the world with a computer and Internet connection.

Whether in Moscow, Idaho, or Moscow, Russia, a Mariner fan can call up player biographies and statistics, press releases and game updates, and send electronic mail to club executives.

In its present state, the Mariner home page offers little information for local citizens that isn’t already available through more conventional media sources. But as the site adds services and becomes more interactive, the club is hoping to attract more of the estimated 20 million Internet users around the globe.

Several thousand people have already tapped into it on a total of six continents, a figure the club expects to grow to 5,000 to 10,000 a day once the season gets going, said Kevin Mason, Mariner financial analyst.

By the start of next season, fans will probably be able to order tickets and merchandise electronically by punching in their credit-card numbers, Mason said. For now, because of security concerns about credit-card theft, the Mariners offer forms that can be printed out and sent or faxed to the club.

The M’s also are considering extending electronic mail to individual players, so fans can communicate directly with their favorite star. Mason concedes that players may not have the time or desire to participate in the exchange. But, theoretically, Ken Griffey, Jr., could sit down for an hour on occasion and answer questions.

Griffey already has been given his own section on the Mariner Web site that includes career statistics, trivia and other individual information. The club may add a section for minor-league pitcher Makato “Mac” Suzuki, who comes from Japan, where the Mariner home page has received significant interest over the past week.

The M’s are encouraged by the visual capabilities of the World Wide Web, which allows Internet users a graphic interface similar to a Macintosh or a PC using Microsoft Windows.

Users can point and click with a mouse to view photos and graphics, or if they have sound cards in their computers, they can hear audio of Mariner broadcaster Dave Niehaus calling big plays from games.

By the start of next season, the Mariners will add video clips to their archives of highlights from big games in club history, said Garth Brown, president of Semaphore.

If the Mariner home page becomes popular enough, the club ultimately would like to provide immediate inning-by-inning progress reports, with video highlight clips and sound bites.

Other sports franchises will be watching. Although Major League Baseball is treating the Mariners as its test case, Mason expects other teams to enter cyberspace, under a league umbrella.

“If this thing gets hot and going, it’s only a matter of time before all the teams join,” Mason said.

Semaphore, a company that specializes in Internet services, approached the M’s about creating their own web site while the Mariners were exploring the concept. The club owners, who include Microsoft executives, readily backed the project, Mason said.

The Mariners expect the web site to cost $20,000 to $40,000 to run the first year, Mason said. They hope to make up the expense through the sale of merchandise and tickets and by getting businesses to sponsor segments on the web site.

For the user, access to the Mariner home page is free beyond the basic cost of Internet access. The club, though, is exploring possible partnerships with an online service that could be more expensive for users.

The Mariner Web site should be extremely popular with fans, said Jay Christensen, manager of a Seattle interactive marketing agency that is not connected to the project. Little is missing from the service, he said, except the ability to get game tickets electronically.

“That,” he said, “and ordering a beer.”

The Mariners’ Web site can be found at the following Internet address: http://www.mariners.org/. There are six information categories inside the Web site.
News Center: press releases and game wrap-ups.
Game Center: schedule and season-ticket information.
Team Center: player biographies, rosters and spring-training information.
Administration: staff directory with e-mail addresses for executives.
Merchandise: photos and information on how to order novelties and apparel.
Sponsors: list of companies involved in development of web site.

Published in: on November 28, 2010 at 10:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
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