In 2007 Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were ranked 1 and 2 among the world’s men’s singles tennis players. But they excelled on different surfaces: Federer had not lost a match in five years on grass courts, and Nadal had been undefeated on clay for three. And neither player had defeated the other on his favored surface. So they held an exhibition match on a special court that was half grass, half clay.
The court took 19 days and $1.63 million to create. Before the match, Federer said:
We are both looking forward to this absolutely new event. The idea really appeals to me, as we both dominate one of the surfaces. Rafa holds the record of 72 victories in series on clay, and I have not been defeated on grass since 48 matches. It’ll be fun to find out what it’s like to play on a court with mixed surfaces! And it ought to be interesting to see who chooses the better tactic. People have been talking about this event for quite a while. Now it’s coming up pretty soon already, and I like the fact that the stadium — which is very nice, by the way — is located on Majorca, Rafa’s home. He has been to Basel, after all, and now I’ve got the opportunity to play at his place for once.
Nadal won 7–5, 4–6, 7–6(12–10). “It has been a nice experience,” he told the BBC, “although before the match I thought it would be a disaster because I felt it would be very difficult for me to adapt to the court. I have had a good time and that is important.”
Human-scale chess has been played for centuries — the Italian town of Marostica has staged a game every two years since 1923, and the photo above shows actual soldiers (and cannon!) in a game in St. Petersburg in 1924.
In 2003 Sharilyn Neidhardt organized a game on a board represented by 64 city blocks on the Lower East Side of New York. Two expert players played the game on an ordinary board at the ABC No Rio gallery, in the middle of the street grid. Each time one of them made a move, the corresponding piece received a call or a text message (“go to f7”) and had to travel to the corresponding square, on foot or by bike or roller skate. If you were captured you became an ordinary person again.
Players were recruited online; each had to have a working cell phone, “be excruciatingly on time,” and be willing to spend about three hours awaiting orders. Neidhardt warned newcomers: center pawns can expect to be captured early, bishops and knights will cover a lot of territory, and kings will have a low-key opening and a busy endgame.
How can an umpire be sure a runner has reached first base? In 1875 inventor John O’Neill suggested fitting it with a bell to “indicate clearly and positively, without chance of error, the exact moment when the base is touched by the runner.”
The trouble is that the “enunciating base” will also sound when the first baseman steps on it. Ten years later William Williams suggested an electric bell, which could be heard more clearly by a single umpire behind home plate, but it faced the same objection. Both were forgotten.
IBM nanophysicists have made a stop-motion movie using individual atoms — carbon monoxide molecules arranged on a copper substrate and then magnified 100 million times using a scanning tunneling microscope. The molecules remain stationary because they form a bond with the substrate at this extremely low temperature (-268.15° C); each CO molecule stands “on end” so that only one atom is visible.
The result, “A Boy and His Atom,” holds the Guinness world record for the world’s smallest stop-motion film.
New York playwright Augustin Daly was walking home one night in 1867, ruminating about a play he had begun to write, when he stubbed his toe on a misplaced flagstone. “I was near my door,” he said, “and I rushed into the house, threw myself into a chair, grasping my injured foot with both hands, for the pain was great, and exclaiming, over and over again, ‘I’ve got it! I’ve got it! And it beats hot-irons all to pieces!’ I wasn’t even thinking of the hurt. I had the thought of having my hero tied on a railroad track and rescued by his sweetheart, just in the nick of time, before the swift passage of an express train across a dark stage.”
Here it is, the first appearance of that memorable device, from Daly’s play Under the Gaslight. Laura is locked inside a station when Byke, “a villain,” catches Snorkey, a messenger:
Snorkey: Byke, what are you going to do?
Byke: Put you to bed. (Lays him across the railroad tracks.)
Snorkey: Byke, you don’t mean to — My God, you are a villain!
Byke (fastening him to the rails): I’m going to put you to bed. You won’t toss much. In less than ten minutes you’ll be sound asleep. There, how do you like it? You’ll get down to the Branch before me, will you? You dog me and play the eavesdropper, eh! Now do it, if you can. When you hear the thunder under your head and see the lights dancing in your eyes, and feel the iron wheel a foot from your neck, remember Byke. (Exit L.)
Laura: O, Heavens! he will be murdered before my eyes! How can I aid him?
Snorkey: Who’s that?
Laura: It is I. Do you not know my voice?
Snorkey: That I do, but I almost thought I was dead and it was an angel’s. Where are you?
Laura: In the station.
Snorkey: I can’t see you, but I can hear you. Listen to me, miss, for I’ve only got a few minutes to live.
Laura (shaking door): And I cannot aid you.
Snorkey: Never mind me, miss; I might as well die now, and here, as at any other time. I’m not afraid. I’ve seen death in almost every shape, and none of them scare me; but, for the sake of those you love, I would live. Do you hear me?
Laura: Yes! Yes!
Snorkey: They are on the way to your cottage — Byke and Judas — to rob and murder.
Laura (in agony): O, I must get out! (Shakes window-bars). What shall I do?
Snorkey: Can’t you burst the door?
Laura: It is locked fast.
Snorkey: Is there nothing in there? No hammer? no crowbar?
Laura: Nothing. (Faint steam whistle heard in distance.) Oh, Heavens! The train! (Paralysed for an instant.) The axe!!
Snorkey: Cut the woodwork! Don’t mind the lock, cut round it. How my neck tingles! (A blow at door is heard.) Courage! (Another.) Courage! (The steam whistle heard again — nearer, and rumble of train on track — another blow.) That’s a true woman. Courage! (Noise of locomotive heard, with whistle. A last blow — the door swings open, mutilated, the lock hanging — and Laura appears, axe in hand.)
Snorkey: Here — quick! (She runs and unfastens him. The locomotive lights glare on scene). Victory! Saved! Hooray! (Laura leans exhausted against switch). And these are the women who ain’t to have a vote!
(As Laura takes his head from the track, the train of cars rushes past with roar and whistle from L. to R.)
(From Gordon Snell, The Book of Theatre Quotes, 1982.)
This would have livened things up: In 1890 inventor Emile Kinst promoted an “improved ball-bat” that he said would set baseballs spinning: “The object of my invention is to provide a ball-bat which shall produce a rotary or spinning motion of the ball in its flight to a higher degree than is possible with any present known form of ball-bat, and thus to make it more difficult to catch the ball, or if caught, to hold it.” It would also enable hitters to drive the ball more easily to every part of the field.
“Owing to the peculiar form of my bat, the game becomes more difficult to play, and therefore much more interesting and exciting, because the innings will not be so easily attained, and consequently the time of the game will also be shortened.” The Major League Rules Committee said no.
BTW, in recent weeks I’ve come across two sources that say that Ted Williams once returned a set of bats to the manufacturer with a note saying, “Grip doesn’t feel just right.” The bats were found to be 0.005″ thinner than he had ordered. I don’t know whether it’s true. The sources are Spike Carlsen’s A Splintered History of Wood and Dan Gutman’s Banana Bats & Ding-Dong Balls: A Century of Unique Baseball Inventions (where I found the bat above).
Buster Keaton’s 1925 silent comedy Seven Chances contains a remarkable transition — Keaton gets into a car and the setting dissolves into his destination. The car never moves. In 1964 interviewer Kevin Brownlow asked how this was done:
KEATON: Now that automobile’s got to be exactly the same distance, the same height and everything, to make that work, because the scene overlaps but I don’t.
BROWNLOW: Now, what about lighting on it?
KEATON: Standard lighting.
BROWNLOW: It was interior.
KEATON: No, all exterior.
BROWNLOW: If it was standard lighting and the sun wasn’t in the right place, the shadows would …
KEATON: We made sure of that, same time of day so the shadows would [be in the same place]. But for that baby, we used surveying instruments, so that the front part of the car would be the same distance from [the camera], the whole shooting match.
Keaton was also rumored to have relied on surveyors’ tools in 1924’s Sherlock Jr., but he said it wasn’t so. “Every cameraman in the picture business went and saw that picture more than once, trying to figure out how in hell we did some of that. Oh, there were some great shots in that baby!”
(From Kevin W. Sweeney, ed., Buster Keaton Interviews, 2007.)
In 1953, 150 golfers participated in a “Golden Ball” competition in which they teed off at the first tee at Cill Dara Golf Club in Kildare, Ireland, and holed out at the 18th hole at the Curragh, about 5 miles away. A prize of £1 million was offered for a hole in one, which would have been well earned, as the distance is 8,800 yards.
In The Book of Irish Golf, John Redmond writes, “The hazards to be negotiated included the main Dublin-Cork railway line and road, the Curragh racecourse, Irish army tank ranges and about 150 telephone lines.” The trophy went to renowned long hitter Joe Carr, who covered the distance in 52 shots.
In 1920, Rupert Lewis and W. Raymond Thomas played over 20 miles of countryside from Radyr Golf Club near Cardiff, Wales, to Southerndown Golf Club at Ewenny, near Bridgend. Most onlookers guessed that they’d need at least 1,000 strokes, but they completed the journey in 608, playing alternate strokes. “At one time, the pair had to wade knee deep to ford a river,” writes Jonathan Rice in Curiosities of Golf, “but dried out by jumping a hedge while being chased by a bull.”
Inspired by the P.G. Wodehouse story “The Long Hole,” eight members of the Barnet Rugby Hackers Golf Club played 23 miles across Ayrshire in 1968, from Prestwick, the site of the first Open Championship, to Turnberry, the site of that year’s event. They lost “only” 50 or 60 balls while negotiating “a holiday camp, a dockyard, a stately home, a croquet lawn, several roofs, the River Doon,” and another bull, for a final score of 375 to 385.
N.T.P. Murphy gives a few more in A Wodehouse Handbook: In 1913 two golfers played 26 miles from Linton Park near Maidstone to Littleston-on-Sea in 1,087 strokes; Doe Graham played literally across country in 1927, from Florida’s Mobile Golf Club to Hollywood, a distance of 6,160,000 yards (I don’t have the final score, but he’d taken 20,000 strokes by the time he reached Beaumont, Texas); and Floyd Rood played from the Atlantic to the Pacific in 1963 in 114,737 shots.
The object of golf, observed Punch in 1892, “is to put a very small ball into a very tiny and remotely distant hole, with engines singularly ill adapted for the purpose.”
03/25/2017 UPDATE: Reader Shane Bennett notes that Australia’s Nullarbor Links claims to be the world’s longest golf course — players drive from Ceduna in South Australia to Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, stopping periodically to play a hole. Par for the 18 holes is only 73, but the course stretches over 1,365 kilometers. (Thanks, Shane.)