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No one can say for sure where or when the saying “That pitcher’s got a cannon” originated. However, the first time a pitcher fired a ball with an actual cannon can be pinpointed to June 10, 1897 in Princeton, New Jersey. A baseball gun invented by mathematics professor Charles Hinton got its first trial by fire in a Thursday afternoon game between the Ivy Club and Tiger Inn, both Princeton University social clubs. The gun was used against both teams for three innings and performed pretty well: eight strikeouts, one walk and one wild pitch. Among the spectators were numerous Princeton professors and students, along with Frances Cleveland, the former First Lady, who was five months pregnant.

The pitching gun was held by a player stationed in the pitching box but operated by the batter, who stepped on a pedal wired to the gun’s “trigger.” The ball was propelled by a puff of compressed air and imparted spin with a pair of rubber-coated sled-like prongs. In tHintonportraithe opening frame, batter were noticeably timid about digging in, especially when the gun was tilted to created dramatic breaks. But once they realized every pitch would be over (or at least near) home plate, they mustered the courage to take healthier cuts. Even so, only four player reached base on safe hits.

The original plan was to play nine innings, but because of the time it took to reload the gun—and several pedal malfunctions—only three innings were completed. Two more games were played in the ensuing days, but it became clear that the machine was totally impractical. That being said, it was a national sensation, garnering newspaper coverage from coast to coast. At least one college team—the University of Minnesota—used the device for batting practice.

Professor Hinton (left) was something of a sensation himself. An Englishman, he was one of the very early science fiction writers—he called his stories “Scientific Romances”—and was intrigued by the concept of a fourth dimension. His wife, Mary, was the daughter of George Boole, the founder of mathematical logic. Fans of the Marvel Universe might be interested to know that Hinton introduced the word “tesseract” to the world…as Casey Stengel liked to say, you could look it up.

 

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