On brisk, clear October afternoons on Main Street in front of The Salt Lake Tribune in downtown Salt Lake City, if you listen hard, you can hear the echo. Really. It might be faint at first, and it helps some to squinch your eyes closed. But you can hear it, if you want to. It isn't actually the sound of traffic, not the motorized kind, but the murmur of voices, lots of voices. Mostly male, but some female and the occasional youngster.
The sound pervaded the downtown area on October afternoons for almost thirty-five years from 1915 on, give or take a couple around 1925 or so. It was the heyday of "Old Ironsides," a metal baseball-diamond scoreboard fitted out with broadway lighting activated by electric contact wheels and so designed as to duplicate virtually any condition or situation possible in the game of baseball.
"Old Ironsides" was the brainchild of J.F. Fitzpatrick, a Tribune executive destined to become publisher. He was a sports fan who saw similar layouts used in New York and Chicago and recognized how such a scoreboard display could be made to work here in the heart of the mountains. To describe Fitzpatrick as "a sports fan" is understating his enthusiasm. He was an encyclopedia of baseball trivia who, as a better-than-average shortstop in high school, could even then quote batting averages of players in the majors. J.F. Fitzpatrick was a fan!
Under the watchful eye of sports editor John C. Derks, who was also an experienced telegrapher, the giant baseball board was lifted up and installed each year on the front of The Tribune building at 145 S. Main, one door south of today's office. (In 1938, the diamond was moved to the new Salt Lake Tribune building at 143 S. Main).
In a manner of speaking, the electric board was like a giant pinball machine with flashing lights tracing the play of the actual game thousands of miles away. Old Ironsides (the community's name for the scoreboard) wasn't original with The Tribune, but it was the newspaper's way of sharing the game's popularity with its readers. In fact, one only had to stroll across Main Street in 1915 to the then-Pantages Theatre to enjoy its version of the "Philadelphia-Boston World Series" each noon on the "Electrical Ball Player" and its telegraphic returns. But admission was 25 cents, and The Tribune's edge was the freebie of its day: Two bits saved was two bits earned.
Fans could stop in the street and watch the proceedings for a few minutes or stay for the whole game--no charge. The board showed lineups of each team in batting order and position played. An electric bulb was lighted next to the batter's name. The playing diamond, some four feet square, was arranged to show foul balls, fly balls to left field, left-center, right-center and right field, as well as a delivered pitch from mound to home plate. All were connected by a series of white light bulbs, activated by hand-operated contact wheels. The flight of the ball was tracked in white lights, the baserunners by red lights.
There was no play-by-play announcer in those early days; that was still a decade away. For twenty-three years, all the action was transmitted by telegraphers. In a second-floor office near the street window, Sports Editor Derks sat at the large control console, an array of contact wheels facing him and the assistant by his side (usually another sportswriter). Derks would listen to the telegraph clicking out the game description, and he repeated the message to the man next to him. "Pitcher delivers" Derks would turn the contact wheel marked "pitch" clockwise. The eleven white bulbs would light briefly and trace the ball from mound to plate in sequence. "Ball!" The assistant would switch on one of the four lights marked "ball." Derks turned the wheel counterclockwise to return the "pitched" ball to the mound.
Operation of the panel required great concentration and coordination between those at the controls.Copy boys stood ready to change bulbs that burned out, to update inning-by-inning totals and to keep the running score current. In the years before 1928, Fitzpatrick--or so the story is told around The Tribune--enjoyed taking a few friends on a tour of the operation at World Series time. Cautioning them not to disturb Derks' concentration, the then-publisher would usher his party to a corner where they could watch and listen without disrupting the play. After a few moments, Fitzpatrick would remark that baseball was becoming predictable, and point out that he could anticipate most pitches and what the batter might do.
John W. Gallivan, publisher emeritus, remembers with a chuckle that "Fitz used to bet lunch he could predict the next pitch." He rarely lost the wager. "I'm not sure if they ever figured out that he had been a telegrapher once and could understand Morse code. He heard the game description at the same time John Derks did and knew exactly what was happening," Gallivan said.
The Tribune initially used the board to follow the fortunes of the Salt Lake Bees when they played "crooshul" road games in the Pacific Coast League from 1915 to 1925. But the Buzzers left the PCL in '25, at the same time the New York Yankee organization bought the Bees' young star Tony Lazzeri, whom John Derks had forever nicknamed "Poosh 'Em Up" after his incredible achievement in the 1925 season with Salt Lake when he smacked sixty home runs. Babe Ruth in 1921 had hit fifty-nine and would not reach the magic sixty mark himself until 1927.
The 21-year-old was destined to join the Yankees in 1926 in time to become part of the celebrated "Murderer's Row" batting order, which included Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth and now "Poosh 'Em Up" Lazzeri. Baseball was the sport throughout the country, and, of course, when young Lazzeri became a major leaguer, Utah interest percolated to slightly less than frenzy.
Old Ironsides was brought out only at World Series time after Salt Lake dropped from the PCL. But those October days saw crowds jam Main Street during the noon hour, and motorists had to drive slowly and carefully to avoid annoying the spectators craning for a good look at the electric scoreboard.
In 1928, Old Ironsides was modernized in a big way. The Tribune negotiated a contract with the fledgling NBC radio network for rights to hook up a public-address system to the board and tie it in with an on-the-scene play-by-play description. Old Ironsides was a huge success, and watching the October classic in front of the newspaper became as much a tradition as lighting the community Christmas tree.
In the 1930s, Derks was joined by Phil McLeese, who later became Tribune sports editor; after Derks' retirement, John Mooney worked the console with McLeese. Most of the sports staff had a turn at the big arcade during the 1940s and '50s: Bill Coltrin, Don Brooks, Jack Schroeder--There are still those who remember Mooney and McLeese, shrouded in a thick pall of blue cigar and cigarette smoke, rubber gloves to their elbows (to protect against electrical shock from sweaty hands), dialing those wheels as the game announcer (Red Barber, Mel Allen, Russ Hodges come to mind) described the action.
It was the kind of "on-hands" journalism that wasn't taught in school. With the advent of television, the electric board became passe. Now the relic of baseball as it used to be rests in the newspaper's warehouse, with the echoes of its past. There's no World Series this October, but if you listen closely on Main Street in the early afternoon--you can just make out the crowd noises. Listen, hear it?