Partly cloudy skies this evening will give way to occasional showers overnight. Low 48F. Winds SE at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of rain 50%..
Partly cloudy skies this evening will give way to occasional showers overnight. Low 48F. Winds SE at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of rain 50%.
Updated: October 16, 2022 @ 4:42 pm
If columns can have a sequel, I guess this is one. Back in November 2020, I wrote a piece that featured brief biographies of three historically significant Oswego educators of the 20th century — Dave Powers, Ralph Faust, and Max Ziel.
In profiling Ziel, I made note of a baseball training device that he invented. As a footnote in that column, I threw out a “Hail Mary” and wrote that I’d love to get my hands one of these contraptions. Much to my surprise, my prayer was answered by Dan Dixon, who sent me an email before the ink on that day’s newspaper was dry. Before I share what Dan generously did, allow me to backtrack a bit to explain Max Ziel’s invention.
In the 1930s, Ziel, the World War I veteran-turned multi-sport coach at the Oswego Normal School (later Oswego State Teachers’ College, now SUNY Oswego), created a baseball training aid called “Play Ball.” There were two slightly varying versions of the invention filed with the United States’ Patent Office.
The first was called The Control Developer. In a 1938 newspaper article, Ziel extolled the virtues of his invention, stating, “It will improve control of moundsmen from 50-60 percent.”
The device was made of heavy canvas, 7’ x 9’ in size, with colorful graphics of a catcher, a batter, and the strike zone on it. There were five openings in the canvas backdrop — one in the middle of the catcher’s mitt that was dead-center in the target. Four other cut-outs provided targets (one in each of the upper and lower, inside and outside corners of the strike zone). The canvas was mounted on metal piping, allowing it to be free-standing. Weights could be placed in the base for stability so baseballs striking the target could collect in a pouch on the bottom without knocking it over.
The early prototypes of the Ziel invention were built under the coach’s watchful eye by Oswego Normal School industrial arts students in Ziel’s garage on East Utica Street. When production outgrew the neighborhood, the operation was moved to 353 W. First St., previously the location of the Oswego Manufacturing Company.
The control developer made it to highest levels of professional baseball. It was reported in this newspaper that the world champion New York Yankees had used it at their St. Petersburg, Florida spring training site in 1938, and according to the Syracuse Chiefs general manager Gene Martin, his pitching staff was planning to employ the tool at their spring headquarters in Plant City, Florida in 1955.
Both research and memory have enabled me to piece together the details of Ziel’s Play Ball device because my dad, though some 40 years younger than Max, was a friend of the legendary coach, and was given one for our backyard. I remember when my dad still had aspirations that I would become a big-time ballplayer, spending hours honing my skills throwing fastballs at the target under his encouraging eye.
The second, scaled-down version of the device is similar in design, but more of a game than a training tool. This form was made of pressboard, not canvas, and came with bean bags to throw at the target instead of baseballs. It came with instructions and a scoring grid for friendly backyard contests. In fact, if one looks at the concept, it appears that Coach Ziel invented an early version of what we now call corn hole!
So, back to November 2020 when I received an email from Dan Dixon after my mention of the device appeared in the paper. He wrote that he had a Ziel Play Ball device and offered it to me if I wanted it. It took me about a second to respond, “HELL YES!” I was dumbfounded that there was one of these still in existence, and equally shocked that Dan was offering it to me. Apparently, Dan, the oldest of Marie and Fred “Minnow” Dixon’s boys, was cleaning out 70 years of memories from the family home on Fifth Avenue. He knew the history of the device through his dad’s longtime friendship with Coach Ziel. It seems that Ziel had given the pressboard version of the game to the elder Dixon as a gift for his son, Billy.
So, I am now the proud owner of a Max Ziel original Play Ball game, complete with two original bean bags.
What’s most astonishing is that this nearly 100-year-old keepsake looks as if it was built and painted last week. Well-preserved in the Dixon’s attic for decades, the teal-colored background has maintained its vivid color, and the illustrations of the catcher and the batter are in pristine condition as well. The lettering “Ziel Baseball Company; Oswego, NY; U.S. patent number 2254986” appears the lower right-hand corner.
What am I going to do with it? I wish I knew. My so-called “man cave” is much too small, and my garage is certainly not a worthy place for this piece of baseball history. The Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown might be a more appropriate home base for an artifact with such a great back story.
For now, I’m just grateful to Dan Dixon for the gift and the memories the Ziel Play Ball device has resurrected.
Mike McCrobie is a retired Oswego High School English/Journalism teacher. His column appears here every-other Tuesday. His two books, “We’re from Oswego” and “Our Oswego,” are currently available at The River’s End Bookstore and at amazon.com.
His writing has also appeared nationally in Chicken Soup for the Soul Inspiration for Teachers, Chicken Soup for the Soul My Crazy Family, and Reminisce Magazine.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at email@example.com
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