Who’s on First?
By Thomas C. Wilmer
Siilinjärvi, Finland—When my Finnish friend, Marjia, asked, “Would you like to go to a pesäpallo game?” I responded, “Why sure. You did say baseball, didn’t you?”
“No, you heard me right, our Finnish summer pastime, pesäpallo, is similar to American baseball, but there are definite differences. Our version was developed in the 1920s by professor Lauri Pihkala as a training tool for the Finnish military.”
Marjia explained that the game hones critical skills for a soldier’s survival, such as hand/eye coordination, dexterity in throwing a hand grenade, running, sliding and working as a team.
The military’s connection with pesäpallo explains why if you have two strikes against you in Finland, you have been “wounded” twice. And if you strike out, in the game of pesäpallo you’re “killed”.
The game is by no means limited to military preparedness. Marjia commented as we drove past an elementary school playground where kids were practicing Pesäpallo. “We all played the game in school. Today, almost every school kid plays and they have their own national championship games as well.”
As Marjia boasted about the kids’ obsession with the sport, her girlfriend leaned forward from the back seat of the car and whispered to me, “Marjia was a top player at her school but she’s much to shy to tell you.”
Nationwide, more Finnish women play pesäballo than men and more women’s teams qualify to play in the Super Pesäpallo league.”
Marjia outlined the basics of the game as we sat in the bleachers in Siilinjärvi watching the men’s team tromp their rivals. “There are nine players on each team, nine innings per game. After three hitters strike out the teams change places—those are the fundamental similarities between Finnish pesäballo and American baseball.”
She then noted some of pesäballo’s distinctions. The pitcher stands next to the hitter and throws the ball straight up a minimum of one meter. Once the batter has struck the ball the pitcher assumes the role of catcher. In addition to a team’s regular nine batters they also maintain three “Jokers” (as in wild-card) who can step in, as needed, to bat out of sequence.
As we watched the game, I asked the mayor of Siilinjärvi, seated next to me, “Isn’t it quite dangerous for the pitcher to stand so close to the batter?”
“Yah, it sure can be,” he responded, “Why last week, a pitcher caught the bat in his mouth and we had to hunt around in the dirt for a few of his teeth.”
If a fly ball it is caught by an outfielder, the hitter is not necessarily out— the hitter keeps on batting as the fly ball counts as a “wound”. A single bad pitch warrants a walk, and a hitter can pass on a hit and continue batting through three strikes before deciding to run. Confused? So was I.
As Marjia described the layout of a pesäpallo field, I instantly recalled Abbott & Costello’s classic skit, “Who’s on First”.
She explained that the pesäpallo field is not laid out in the familiar diamond shape. Players run diagonally, with first base halfway between American baseball’s third and home. From there it’s another diagonal run to second base, where our first base is located. Then it’s on to third—close to our second base, and then home plate—ah but wait, a home run is scored when a player arrives at third ahead of the ball. Following their homer on third, the player remains on third and continues as a normal runner.
The entire team presently at bat stands in a semi circular ring behind the batter and they chant out in unison the current location of the ball to their fellow players on base.
In contrast to the legendary hand signals and body language associated with American catchers and base coaches, Finnish coaches/managers (called pelinjohtajas) empoy a series of brightly painted sticks, held up in the air like a peacock feather fan, to signal the players on base.
On this day in Siilinjärvi, a town of approximately 21,000, 12 miles from Kupio, approximately four hundred people showed up to root for the home team. Yesterday, though, when the Selanjarve woman’s team played more than 2,000 avid fans were in the stands.
The Siilinjärvi woman’s team plays in the “superpesis” pesäpallo league whereas the men have not yet qualified for upper division play.
When I asked the mayor why so many more fans came too watch the women yesterday, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Many stayed away today because everyone knew they we would win the match.”
There are more than 2,600 teams in the Finnish National Baseball League and more than 800,000 fans come to watch the annual national championship games.
“How much do the players earn each season?” I asked the Mayor of Siilinjärvi, “Oh,” he chuckled, “it’s quite minimal, after expenses they’re paid a percentage of the ticket revenue but it’s really not much at all.”
At the conclusion of this day’s game in Siilinjärvi, the winning team’s outstanding player was awarded, with great ceremony, a set of plastic dishes.
It was refreshing to experience this Finnish national pastime that embodies all of the best attributes of a long vanished age of innocence in America. A time when people played sports because it was fun, period.
For further information about Finnish baseball: