April 12th, 2011
On March 1 of this year, Commissioner Selig named me Major League Baseball’s Official Historian. In mid-month he announced my major duty over the next two years: to chair a special Baseball Origins Committee. Among its eleven panelists are five top-drawer baseball scholars—David Block, James Brunson, Adrian Burgos, Steve Hirdt, and Larry McCray—and six baseball-loving individuals who are also broadly concerned with history: Ken Burns, Len Coleman, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jane Leavy, George Will, and the Commissioner himself.
To those of a suspicious cast of mind, some questions may leap to mind. First, if a historian is official is he still a historian? Or is he oxymoronic, like a jumbo shrimp? To that I answer with confidence that no predetermined conclusions await my endorsement. Second, why would baseball, as a multibillion dollar business thriving in the internet age, care about its origins? The answer to that is more complex, and hints at the continuing importance of baseball in America even as it may relinquish its status as the nation’s most popular sport.
“The best part of baseball today,” Larry Ritter, author of The Glory of Their Times, was fond of saying, “is its yesterdays.” The old marketing adage is that in any field there are two positions worth holding: the first and the best. And it is because of baseball’s current success—the game on the field is unquestionably superior to that of a century ago—that a special quality of interest pertains to its early years. The paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, a noted baseball enthusiast, observed, “Most of us know that the Great Seal of the United States pictures an eagle holding a ribbon reading e pluribus unum. Fewer would recognize the motto on the other side (check it out on the back of a dollar bill): annuit coeptis—‘he smiles on our beginnings.’” That is why we now look to study baseball’s origins—in the England, Iceland, or Egypt of long ago, as well as the more recent serial beginnings of the game in Texas, or Idaho, or the Dominican Republic, or Japan.
In the labors of the new Baseball Origins Committee over the next two years, archival data gathered by scholars including myself (my new book is titled Baseball in the Garden of Eden) will be supplemented by fans’ memories and perhaps artifacts. The public may be expected at first to care little about who threw a ball to whom in 1823. The idea is to branch from “who first played the game, ever, anywhere” to “who first played the game in your town” and “who first played the game in your family.” Aided by the vast resources of mlb.com and perhaps such social networking tools as Facebook and Twitter, we can build an international, national, regional, local, and family album of baseball’s beginnings.
In this space I will continue to discuss the aims and efforts of the origins committee, but not to the exclusion of more recent events and personalities in baseball’s marvelous history. In baseball as in no other sport, honored ghosts cavort on the playing fields alongside today’s heroes.
Clearly I love the game’s earliest days—my next book will have a working title of Cy Young’s America—but history begins with last night’s box score. The past is everywhere present. I hope you’ll write to me with suggestions or questions, or stories about how baseball has been a part of your family album. You may count on me to be interested.