As a baseball innovator, Cardinals outfielder Charlie James was about 60 years ahead of his time.
In 1961, while pursuing a degree in electrical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis during the Cardinals’ off-season, James devised an electronic system for calling balls and strikes.
James presented his plan for an electronic umpire in a 21-page special projects paper he submitted as part of his studies.
Though James said he was certain his plan was doable and would be accurate, Major League Baseball hardly was ready for such an innovation in the 1960s.
More than half a century later, a modernized version of the system James envisioned was on the verge of being accepted.
Major League Baseball began experimenting with a computerized strike zone in 2019 in the Atlantic League, an independent minor league, ESPN.com reported. Plate umpires wore earpieces connected to a phone that relayed ball-and-strike calls from a camera system. It also was used in the 2019 Arizona Fall League.
After more testing, it was expected a computerized strike zone eventually would be implemented in major-league games.
A St. Louis native, James was a football and baseball standout at Webster Groves High School. The University of Missouri recruited him to play both sports and he enrolled as an electrical engineering major.
As a sophomore, his first varsity season at Missouri, James was a halfback in football and an outfielder in baseball. He led the 1956 football team, coached by Don Faurot, in receptions (30) and receiving yards (362), and also rushed for 283 yards on 62 carries. In baseball, he batted better than .300 and drew the attention of big-league scouts.
In a practice session before his junior football season, James suffered a leg injury and spent a week in a hospital. Though he recovered in time to play for the 1957 team, coached by Frank Broyles, James was limited. He led the 1957 team in receptions (12) and receiving yards (132), and rushed for 58 yards on 18 carries, but the preseason injury was a wake-up call.
Concerned he could suffer more football injuries, James decided to pursue the money being offered in baseball. Besides, if he stayed at Missouri, he’d be playing for his third head football coach in three years. Broyles had departed for Arkansas and Dan Devine was hired to replace him.
On Jan. 6, 1958, James, 20, signed with the Cardinals, accepting a $15,000 bonus, and gave up his last two seasons of college baseball as well as a final season of football.
“I’m glad I played football because it helps toughen you, mentally even more than physically, for disappointments and setbacks,” James told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I owe a lot to it and to Missouri.”
The Cardinals assigned James to their farm system in 1958. Determined to earn a college degree, James enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis and planned to attend classes in the fall and winter.
In August 1960, James made his major-league debut with the Cardinals. He was back at school after the season and zeroed in on completing work for his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.
Before reporting to Cardinals spring training in 1961, James finished his paper in which he outlined how an automated baseball strike zone would work.
“It’s based on electric circuits and I can assure you it’s trigonometrically possible,” James told the New York Times.
James said his idea was based on “placing three lines flush on the ground between home plate and the pitcher’s mound.”
He drew for New York Times columnist Arthur Daley three parallel lines with circles at either end. “They radiate upward and a mathematical formula can predict anything that moves in a parabolic path,” James explained.
James told the Post-Dispatch the three detectors in the ground registered “both the horizontal and the vertical path of the ball.”
He said a metering device would adjust the strike zone for the height of each batter.
James’ plan existed only on paper, the Post-Dispatch noted, but “is proved by calculus and theorems to be a practical device, scientifically.”
The electronic umpire had “an infallible eye, but, alas, no heart,” the Post-Dispatch concluded.
James said his device wasn’t intended to replace umpires. He envisioned a plate umpire would remain crouched behind the catcher and would be needed for “calling plays at the plate, determining foul balls, determining check swings and keeping order.”
The goal, James said, is not to eliminate the plate umpire “but rather to improve on his judgment in calling pitches.”
The New York Times concluded, “It can’t automate umpires out of existence, but it will be accurate.”
Others had tried automated strike zones, James told the Post-Dispatch, but had failed.
“An Ohio outfit manufactured a robot that was placed behind the pitcher and didn’t have the good sense to get out of the way on a hit back to the mound,” James said.
At Dodgers training camp in 1950, General Electric introduced an electric eye, “but it sat right on top of the plate and a batter could trigger it, making a ball out of a strike with a wide swing of his bat,” James said.
James was a reserve outfielder for the Cardinals from 1961-63, though he played a lot in 1962 after Minnie Minoso was injured. James hit a grand slam versus Sandy Koufax in 1962.
After he earned his bachelor’s degree, James pursued a master’s in electrical engineering at Washington University. While working on the master’s, which he obtained, James also was an instructor in electrical engineering at the school in the baseball off-seasons.
“Being an instructor forces you to keep up with things,” James said. “I handle four lab sections, with 15 to 20 students in each section. It takes a lot of preparation for each session, and so does the grading. It becomes a 40-hour week, easily.”
After Stan Musial retired, the Cardinals chose James to replace him. James was the Opening Day left fielder for the 1964 Cardinals, but hit .238 in April and .254 in May. In June, the Cardinals acquired Lou Brock from the Cubs and he took over in left for James.
James remained as a backup outfielder for the 1964 Cardinals, who became World Series champions. Afterward, James was traded to the Reds. In April 1966, James, 28, quit baseball because he said he needed to secure his family’s financial future. He became a successful business executive and eventually president of Central Electric, a Missouri company that manufactured electrical power equipment for industries.