If football could be played with just six players to a side, Stephen Epler figured, why not another sport?
Today, Epler is known as the father of six-man football, the teacher at Chester High School who, nearly 90 years ago, invented a game that small Nebraska schools like his could play.
Some 32 Nebraska schools fielded a six-man football team this fall, illustrating that Epler’s creation is alive and well in his home state.
But hardly anyone realizes that Epler, buoyed by his six-man football success, also tried to invent a way for small towns to more easily play the National Pastime popularized by Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Nebraska native Bob Gibson. To play a variation of the sport the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees and others are now playing as they fight to make it to this year’s World Series.
That’s right: Six-man baseball.
“Like its brother, six-man football, it speeds up the action and makes the game more fun for the players,” Epler wrote. “Each player gets to bat oftener (sic) and sees more action when he is in the field.”
Epler’s version called for a three-base triangular infield, with each team featuring a pitcher, catcher, two infielders (whom he called basemen) and two outfielders (called fielders). Four outs to a side, with two strikes making an out and three balls a walk. A foul ball counted as a half-strike. Epler called for players to rotate positions after each batter but allowed for variations of this rule. Games were meant to last six innings.
“Boys like to bat and six-man baseball brings each player to bat at least twice as often,” he wrote. “At the end of six innings you will probably be more tired than at the end of nine innings of nine-man baseball so this is made the official length for six-man baseball.”
And his dream of six-man baseball became reality, at least for a while.
Epler, writing in the June 1940 edition of The Journal of Health and Physical Education, proclaimed that six-man baseball was off to a strong start, bolstered by a feature article in American Boy magazine a year earlier. “Six-man baseball probably has advanced further in the past year than six-man football did in its first year.” Popular Mechanics included an illustration and brief description in its December 1939 edition.
A junior high school in St. Joseph Missouri played six-man baseball, according to newspaper archives. Columbia University’s Teachers College held a demonstration game. It was played at coaches’ clinics and in an unknown number of small towns where at least one school administrator, parent or player was aware of Epler’s new game.
Ken Corcoran, in his regular column in the Boys Town News in April 1940, promised that Omaha’s Boys Town would try six-man baseball that spring. “It will enable us to run more games at a time. Of course it will be more or less an experience to see how the boys react to the pocket edition size baseball.”
A headline in a Michigan newspaper proclaimed: “That Guy With ‘6-Man’ Ideas is Back – Now It’s With ‘Abbreviated’ Baseball”.
But the sport failed to catch on, and Epler appears to have stopped promoting six-man baseball or even speaking about it as the years passed.
Decades after its introduction, Larry Granillo, writing for Baseball Prospectus, examined Epler’s version of baseball and offered reasons why it didn’t endure. Granillo pointed out that the game, on offense, wouldn’t change much, except for the pace of play.
“Defensively, however, is a different story,” he wrote.
The infielders, to be effective, would have to move up, similar to a drawn-in infield – meaning anything that wasn’t a weak grounder would become a hit “due to the decreased reaction time the fielders would have.” The outfielders would have even more difficulty, patrolling the outfield power alleys and also constantly running into field grounders. “With all the extra grounders they’d be forced to field due to the infielders’ poor reaction times, the two outfielders would find their job that much harder and more tiring,” he wrote.
Epler’s game wasn’t created for “full-on major league play” but rather for kids, Granillo acknowledged.
He lauded Epler’s invention. He praised the “very cool looking field.” But the increase in offense at the expense of defense wasn’t worth it, he wrote. “Of course, if I were a ten-year-old kid hoping to get a full game of baseball in at recess with my schoolyard friends, I might be singing a different tune.”
No one has been talking about six-man baseball for decades now.
Epler’s own daughter, Charlotte Gezi, wasn’t aware of the existence of six-man baseball that Epler tried to popularize. Nor did Epler mention it to Richard Walter, who wrote his master’s thesis on Epler and six-man football.
In Thayer County, a sign in Chester proclaims the town as the “Home of 6-Man Football.” There are discussions underway to create a museum to six-man football, which often features fast-paced action and high-scoring shootouts.
But Jackie Williamson, curator of the Thayer County Museum and Historical Society, had never heard of the other six-man game Epler invented until recently asked about it.
“This is a total surprise,” Williamson said. “The focus always has been on six-man football in Thayer County.”
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