One of my favorite things written by Bill James is the “History of Platooning” from his first Historical Baseball Abstract (unfortunately left out of the newer edition, along with other classic pieces like “Minor League Baseball Stars”). While George Stallings, buoyed by the success of the Miracle Braves, was the man probably most responsible for popularizing the strategy, James was able to find a platoon arrangement as early as 1905 involving Detroit Tiger catchers, apparently devised by the team’s little-known manager, Bill Armour. But James adds this:
I still get the feeling, somehow, that somebody did platoon, sort of sometime in the nineteenth century. It would have been awkward as hell, but they could have done it. I fully expect some other baseball researcher to take an interest in this subject and find an earlier platoon arrangement. (p. 122)
Well, while looking for something completely different (information on Irvin Brooks’s Brooklyn Royal Giants, as it happens), I ran across this, from the Kingston (N.Y.) Daily Freeman, April 22, 1925:
According to this, Buck Ewing invented platooning in order to hide William “Dummy” Hoy’s (and other players’) vulnerability to left-handed pitching. Buck Ewing actually managed Hoy on the Reds for three seasons, 1895 through 1897. I thought I’d briefly check out the lineups for those teams to see if anything cries out “platooning.”
In 1896 Hoy played in 120 of 128 games in center field, and in 1897 he played in 128 of 134. In neither case does that look much like a platoon arrangement. In 1895 the outfield situation is a little complicated, as Ewing, in his first year with the team, seems to have been switching guys around to find the best combination. Hoy spent time in both left and right, but it’s hard to see the signs of a platoon combination from just numbers of games played at each position. It might have happened.
However: in 1897 Ewing used the left-handed Eddie Burke 94 times in right field, while right-handed Bug Holliday played in 32 games (and switch-hitter Claude Ritchey 10). This does resemble a stable platoon arrangement. Also, switch-hitting Ritchey and right-hander Tommy Corcoran split time nearly equally at shortstop, and at first base the lefty-swinging Jake Beckley played in 97 games, with three right-handed hitters (including Ewing himself for one game) appearing in 39 games.
Ewing sent Hoy packing after that season, but managed the Reds two more seasons. In center field in 1898, left-handed hitter Algie McBride appeared in 115 games, and right-handers Bug Holliday and Harry Steinfeldt in 41. Jake Beckley played in 118 games at first base, while assorted righty hitters, mostly Farmer Vaughn, appeared in 44.
In 1899, the first base situation was more imbalanced, Beckley out-appearing Vaughn 134 to 21, and the outfield is too hard to make sense of: no center fielder played in more than 45 games, Kip Selbach and Elmer Smith were switched between positions, and Sam Crawford was elbowing his way into the lineup.
Obviously, all this would be in principle easy to check in the box scores, though it would take some time. Important context would be the proportion of innings pitched by left-handers. I haven’t taken the time to figure it out, but checking through 1896, it looks like there wasn’t a single team with two left-handers in the top four in innings pitched, and a few teams without a left-hander at all. I’d guess the proportion of innings pitched by southpaws to be less than 25 percent, maybe considerably less.
Before anyone points it out, I’m assuming that someone has already looked into all this, and probably written it up somewhere—so feel free to enlighten me in the comments!
UPDATE 7/3/2008 Whoever wrote this article misremembered Hoy’s nickname as “Dumpy.” I’m not sure which one is worse. Also, there is an article in the 1995 National Pastime on Cap Anson’s experiments with platooning, but I haven’t been able to locate my copy yet.