With the exception of the Wiffle® Ball itself, it might be the piece of equipment most closely associated with the game. The rectangular target strike zone – a tool for automating ball and strike calls – is found in many leagues and tournaments (big or small) across the country. The target strike zone has become so synonymous with the game that these days it is only notable by its absence. The target strike zone varies in size and material by organization but as a general concept it is as prevalent of a piece of equipment that can be found in the modern game.
That was not always the case, however. The sport cycled and recycled through several different models for strike calling before the target strike zone became the industry standard. It was a long journey – and not always a linear one – for the target strike zone to become the indispensable and widespread piece of equipment that it is today.
Human Error: The Problem with Umpires
Throughout the years, many have been inclined to follow traditional baseball as closely as possible as a guide for backyard baseball rules. That has – at times – included utilizing umpires to call balls and strikes.
The most prolific group to utilize home plate umpires was the World Wiffleball Association out of Boston, Massachusetts led by one of the organized game’s most notable pioneers, Rick Ferroli. Ferroli organized the Massachusetts State Tournament from 1977 through 1988. In 1989, the WWA hosted what is widely regarded to the be the first true national championship tournament. The WWA National Championship ran for four years from 1989 through 1992, drawing teams from all over the country. During those four years, Ferroli solicited locals to umpire the games for his week-long tournament. The decision probably seemed like a no-brainer. Baseball uses umpires to call strikes so why wouldn’t a game that uses the Wiffle® Ball follow suit? To make this arrangement work, Ferroli’s rules called for a catcher to receive the pitchers from his teammate. Both the catcher and umpire donned familiar looking masks. From an aesthetic standpoint, Ferroli’s catcher and umpire set up was a hit.
However according to those that were there, the negatives to the setup far outdid the positives. Human umpires are – of course – subject to human error. Untrained human umpires are likely far more susceptible to error than trained ones. Ferroli used locals who may or may not have had prior baseball umpiring experience and training but certainly did not have any prior experience before the WWA with calling balls and strikes for a Wiffle® Ball. With how much the ball moves and how fast it can be thrown, making a split-second decision on a Wiffle® Ball is harder than with a hardball (and that’s not very easy either). All else being equal, the WWA umpires were almost certainly going to make costly mistakes on balls and strikes.
Making the situation worse is that several players who competed in the WWA tournaments have accused the umpires of intentionally making wrong calls in favor of certain teams and certain outcomes. More than one individual has told me that umpires would routinely make egregious calls to the point that favoritism was the only reasonable explanation. Some players tell stories of being hit by a pitch and still having it called a strike. Whether these alleged instances of favoritism are accurate or not, they nonetheless speak to the inherent dangers of using unchecked amateur umpires to officiate balls and strikes.
It should be noted that umpires calling balls and strikes to did not die with the death of the WWA in 1992. The New Jersey Wiffleball Association utilized umpires during their early existence but with a small twist. Rather than have a catcher behind home plate, the NJWA set up a net behind the plate with the umpire stationed just behind the net. This seemingly minor innovation was a step in the right direction as it took away some of the temptation for an umpire to call a pitch based on where the catcher caught it rather than where it crossed the plate.
An Automated Strike Zone
The appeal of the Wiffle® Ball and the games it helped spawn lies in its accessibility. The ball does not travel as far as a hardball, which allows for smaller fields and less players than traditional baseball. Any innovation that adds complexity to the game in terms of additional personnel is counterproductive. The game is about shedding the logistical barriers of traditional baseball, not adding to them.
For that reason, backyard Wiffle® Ball games have largely eschewed the use of umpires to call balls and strikes in favor of simpler solutions that don’t require an additional body. For many, that simple solution was to set up a folding chair behind home plate – or where home plate would be – to determine if a pitch was a strike. If the ball hit the back of the chair, it was a strike. It was a solid makeshift solution that aligned nicely with the simplistic charm of the Wiffle® Ball.
It is also, admittedly, an inelegant solution. A folding chair does the job but for those wishing for a more organized and professional presentation, the folding chair leaves much to be desired. As the competitive game continued to develop, the search for the best possible automated strike zone began in earnest.
In 1995, former Ohio University baseball standout Kevin Priessman organized the first annual North American Wiffleball Championship. By this time, Priessman was employed as the athletic director for the Hamilton County Park District (Cincinnati). His foray into plastic baseball began with annual 4th of July tournaments, expanded to local leagues by 1994, and peaked with the North American Championships that ran from 1995 through 1997.
Priessman is an important if underappreciated figure in the history of the game that moved it forward in many important ways, but his innovation relevant the current topic is the “Hole” strike zone. Priessman is credited by those would know as the inventor of the Hole – a wooden backstop with a hole cut in the middle. A ball that flew through the hole was a strike. A ball that hit any part of the wooden backstop was a ball.
The Hole held several advantages. The most obvious is that it automated ball and strike calls eliminating the need for error prone human umpires. Secondly, the Hole – particularly Priessman’s version – was visually impressive. The wide wooden backstop was a smart and appealing backyard alternative to the fenced backstops baseball fans are accustomed to seeing. Additionally, the structure served a duo purpose of backstop and automated strike caller. A backstop to cut down on the number of wild pitches to be chased after is basically a necessity when it comes to the Wiffle® Ball. Lastly, the Hole – really a window in the backstop – was a clever way to call strikes and one that eliminated any arguments. If the ball disappeared through the backstop, it was a strike. If it clanked off or went around the backstop, the pitch was a ball. Its multipurpose utility and simplicity were the Hole’s greatest assets.
So successful was the innovation that it quickly became the standard strike calling device for the booming late 90’s northeast scene. This period was marked by large 16+ team tournaments from Maryland to Massachusetts, all of which utilized the Hole for strike calls. The NJWA quickly adopted the concept as well.
One obvious downside was that the structure was not very mobile. A thick piece of plywood is heavy enough and the legs – 2X4’s nailed together – made the thing a bulky mess to move. Getting the Hole from its storage point to the field was an ordeal in and of itself.
The major disadvantage of the Hole design – and a complaint that gained steam in the early 2000’s – was that the pitcher was not throwing to anything. Baseball pitchers are trained for years to throw to the catcher’s glove – to hit a target. With the Hole, that mindset was changed 180 degrees. Rather than throw to something, a pitcher had to train his mind and arm to throw through something. It is an unnatural concept and one that even the best pitcher’s of the era never felt quite comfortable adjusting to.
Although no longer a pitcher by this point in time, Jerome “The Legend” Coyle of the Lakeside Kings was one of the players who felt that a pitcher should throw at a target rather than through a hole. Coyle played in Massachusetts with umpires and in Cincinnati and Trenton with the Hole. He recognized the problems of both systems and his solution was for the rest of the country to adopt the method he had used at Lakeside Park in Granite City, Illinois for many years. That system was the metal target strike zone affectionately nicknamed “Johnny” for Johnny Bench.
Johnny took the folding chair concept and gave it a professional makeover. The Johnny was a metal target strike zone mounted on a pole. That pole was placed on a sturdy stand, staked into the ground, or held up by string attached to the backstop in order to prevent it from tipping over. When the plastic ball made contact with the light metal material, an unmistakable clank sound resulted. The sound made balls and strikes obvious. If a batter heard the sound of plastic on metal, he didn’t even need to turn around to see what the result of the pitch was. Most importantly, pitchers threw at Johnny rather than at nothing, which was the most significant issue with the Hole.
It stands to reason that Coyle was not the first to come up with the general target strike zone concept. It is likely that players in backyards came up with similar solutions independently of one another. However, it was Coyle who introduced the concept to the competitive game in the 1990’s and it was Coyle who perfected the design, complete with a cartoon catcher – Johnny – drawn on the face the zone.
Coyle attempted to make the Johnny target strike zone a standard piece of equipment for many years before successfully pushing it through. The concept is included in rulebooks of his from 1980’s as well as the 1993 USPPBA rulebook. In Cincinnati, “The Legend” placed Johnny inside the Hole backstop so that his Lakeside pitchers would have a target to throw to (later on, Coyle would crawl into the hole himself to serve as a real life Johnny for his pitchers to throw to). It took a while for Johnny to replace the Hole, however.
In fact, the northeast based Wiffle Up! group used a target strike zone at its tournaments starting in 1997, which was about four years before Johnny became the standard. Wiffle Up! was a traveling tour that often set up 10 or more fields at a single tournament. Out of necessity the organization needed a target strike zone that could be easily transported and easily set up. What resulted as a target made of PVC and netting that rested on a PVC stand. The target was flimsy and would often blow over on a strong wind. For Wiffle Up’s needs, the target worked well but its flimsy design and bland look left a lot to be desired. Using net on the target was also a downgrade relative to Johnny because players did not receive an audio clue on if a pitch was a strike. Since the entire structure was constructed out of PVC, a ball hitting the stand just below the target area made the same sound as a ball hitting the frame of the target. A pitch that hit the frame was a strike while a pitch that hit the leg was not but there was no way to tell the difference by listening. A ball hitting the net often failed to make a discernable sound at all.
In 2001 – with the emergence of Coyle’s old USPPBA concept as a national governing body – Johnny finally got his moment in the sun. The centerpiece of the USPPBA were the custom designed fields and equipment, of which Johnny was a major part. In 2001, both the east and west coast USPBBA circuits utilized that strike zone model and Johnny was front-and-center for the USPPBA national champions at Lakeside Park that season. The creation was a perfect mix of polish and practical design. Johnny was as practical and useful a piece of equipment as it was professional and aesthetically pleasing.
Unfortunately, Jonny’s tenure was short lived. After the 2002 season, the USPPBA faded out giving way to Fast Plastic and with it the Johnny strike zone ceased being a regular fixture on the circuit. The design lived on, however, most Fast Plastic regions adopted the basic structure of Johnny, just without the painted catcher on the front. From that point forward, the target strike zone – and often a metal one like Johnny – became the standard strike calling device in the sport.
The Present and Future
The success of Fast Plastic and the increased visibility that the Internet and social media have provided the game allowed for the target strike zone model to rapidly spread to various leagues and organizations. Even the NJWA eventually adopted a target strike zone model. (In a recent interview with staff members of The Drop, Mike Palinczar noted that despite using the Hole for so many years he far prefers pitching to the target strike zone.). Today, there is nary a Wiffle® Ball organization that doesn’t use some variation of the target.
The target strike zone had important ripple down effects on the basic rules of some versions of the game. For example, the target strike zone all but necessitates an additional backstop to block balls. Non-base running groups historically recorded outs by merely fielding the ball cleanly while double plays were turned by throwing the ball through the window of the Hole zone or hitting the front of the target. The advent of a backstop behind the target strike zone broadened the possibilities for incorporating throwing into the defensive rules. Eventually things settled on the current preferred method of recording an out (or finishing a double play) by throwing the ball into the backstop. Some groups allow for certain plays to be completed only if the defender hits the strike zone in the air. Those rule innovations – which add very important defensive elements to the game – would not be possible with a catcher/umpire combo or with the old Hole zone.
Although it is now the standard, players and organizers continue to tinker and fiddle with the target strike zone in pursuit of improvements. To ensure that the target remains upright without having to stake the piece of equipment into the ground, some organizations build their target strike zone right into a bucket of sand. Taking a play out of Johnny’s playbook, some groups stick their logo on the front. Other organizations, like Mid Atlantic Wiffle, focus in on the “target” part of the equipment by clearing outlining the outer edge of the zone and providing an inner rectangle on the zone to further aid pitcher’s in hitting their spots. One league places a radar device on the face of their zone to instantly gauge is in violation of that league’s pitch speed restrictions. Wiffle in Southeast Michigan – and now the NWLA tournament as well – uses a clear material for the face of the zone, which allows for a spectators, catchers, and cameras to see the ball all the way to the zone.
What does the future hold for strike calling technology in the game? Although – in the writer’s opinion – Major League Baseball is a far way off from implementing automated strike zone technology, we will certainly be hearing more and more about the possibilities in upcoming years. Lasers and other nonintrusive technologies would appear to be the future for MLB strike zones even if it is a way off. Consumer ball tracking systems – such as the Mevo Flightscope – might make it possible in the very near future to track balls and strikes using a Wiffle® Ballwithout a physical zone at all. If any of these technologies become feasible, they will open a world of interesting possibilities just as the target strike zone did a decade and a half ago. If a strike zone is not needed to call balls and strikes accurately, perhaps a catcher will become more of a fixture in both the base running and non-base running versions of the game. It is exciting to think about.
From lawn chairs to talk of lasers, strike calling has come a long way in our sport. However, no solution thus far has endured as long and become as prevalent as the target strike zone, one of the truely iconic pieces of backyard baseball equipment.