May 2011

Cardboard Gods

I was a newcomer to this country in 1949, a German-speaking boy trying to fit in as an American. My parents had conceived me in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart as affirmation of their survival and as revenge against Hitler. Somehow they conveyed to me very early on that the world was not a safe place and that caution and seclusion were essential life skills. Thus reticent by nature and circumstance, all the same I longed for risk and inclusion.

Baseball cards were my way in, and my way out. These cardboard gods were my tickets of admission to the street games of the Bronx and passports to a larger sense of being somehow American. I learned to read from the backs of the cards, those magically encapsulated hagiographies, and discovered I had an unusual memory for facts and figures that in the older gang into which I sought admission lent me the jester’s motley of amusement and license. I flipped cards passably, too, and delighted in winning a Jackie Robinson while risking only a Wally Westlake. Cards were currency in more ways than one.

My parents of course viewed my street-corner competitions as unserious and unworthy—if I was such a prodigy that I could read baseball cards, why not the Talmud? Chubby and unathletic, I was permanently “it” in games of tag and a figure of fun at hopscotch or ringolevio. Until my teen years when, sprouted and slimmed, I was miraculously able to play the game I had till then known only through its fetishes, my bubble-gum cards provided safe passage through rings and ring leaders. Like all games, as I was later to learn, they provided early instruction in the rules of adult society: mimicking its rules of inclusion and exclusion, sublimating its rites of war, and creating a bazaar of barter and status.

Fast forward half a century. The games that had connected a lonely boy to his peers and had provided a peephole into the adult world—what do men DO?, a boy wondered—now connect a grandfather to his youth, with reminiscent pleasure, certainly, but always questions, questions. Now a historian of sport, an analyst of play, I collect stories rather than cards as my trophies. And I recently came across a good one, in an 1891 issue of the American Journal of Folklore (today known as The Journal of American Folklore) by Stewart Culin, one of the giants of folklore studies but at that point unknown to me.

As with the long-standing question of when baseball began, to which I have been supplying tentative answers for some time until finally placing my cards on the table with Baseball in the Garden of Eden, I had wondered when baseball-card flipping and trading commenced. For me it was 1952, but I knew that in the 1880s photographic and chromolithic cards were inserted into cigarette packs, whose purchasers were presumably not children. Culin, in “Street Games of Boys in Brooklyn, New York,” cites thirty-six games described to him by “a lad of ten years, residing in the city of Brooklyn, N. Y., as games in which he himself had taken part.” From hare & hounds to red rover, from leap frog to kick the can, Culin details games that many of us recall from our own youths, however many years since. The thirty-sixth game I relate verbatim:

“PICTURES: This game is a recent invention, and is played with the small picture cards which the manufacturers of cigarettes have distributed with their wares for some years past. These pictures, which are nearly uniform in size and embrace a great variety of subjects, are eagerly collected by boys in Brooklyn and the near-by cities, and form an article of traffic among them. Bounds are marked of about twelve by eight feet, with a wall or stoop at the back. The players stand at the longer distance, and each in turn shoots a card with his fingers, as he would a marble, against the wall or stoop. The one whose card goes nearest that object collects all the cards that have been thrown, and twirls them either singly or together into the air. Those that fall with the picture up belong to him, according to the rules; while those that fall with the reverse side uppermost are handed to the player whose card came next nearest to the wall, and he in turn twirls them, and receives those that fall with the picture side up. The remainder, if any, are taken by the next nearest player, and the game continues until the cards thrown are divided.”

Boys badgered men coming out of tobacconist shops for the pictures in their cigarette packs, or they took up smoking early, incentivized by the lure of the cards. That the cards were worthless to most adults may have added to their value for children … such is the spin of generations. Once it became clear who the “customers” for the cards truly were, the candy and gum manufacturers got into the act, including cards with their own products; by 1920 or so baseball cards ceased to be packed in with cigarettes. The cards entered a golden age that coincided with my own boyhood of the 1950s, as the Topps Gum Company issued cards of surpassing charm that today are auctioned at Sotheby’s rather than skipped over pavement to lean against apartment-house walls.

Card-flipping was clearly a game of the city, where sidewalks outnumbered grassy fields or even sandlots. Culin, a picturesque writer, notes that like other street games, it had been “modified to suit the circumstances of city life, where paved streets and iron lampposts and telegraph poles take the place of the village common, fringed with forest trees, and Nature, trampled on and suppressed, most vividly reasserts herself in the shouts of the children….” The baseball-card craze in my boyhood was not baseball, surely, and yet as its surrogate it retained something of the larger game’s spell. There was joy and reverence in the handling of our totems, some of whom we withheld from corner-crunching confrontations unless the reward equaled the risk.

We were oasis traders more than we were ball players, but we felt we were a part of the game. Duke Snider and the Dodgers were sure to prevail at Ebbets Field if an artful wrist-snap could lean him against the stoop, vanquishing all the cards beneath him. And in the power transference that accompanies such magical acts, we were heroes too.

Where Triples Go to Die

In today’s baseball we are witnessing a paradox of progress, in which we recognize that the game on the field is vastly better than it was fifty or a hundred years ago, and yet to many veteran observers it somehow feels worse. Today’s ballplayers are bigger, stronger, better conditioned, and better trained. In the field they make plays on a daily basis that would have been season highlights not so long ago. Pitchers, long perceived to be in general decline, are in fact better than ever as they struggle to overcome minuscule strike zones and cozy fences.

It has always been this way. If left unfettered, pitching would have annihilated hitting long ago, driving league-wide batting averages below .180; ever since the beginnings of major league play in 1876, each time batting averages dipped below .250 for an extended period, the owners saw the peril to their profitability and enacted changes that sent offense soaring. In a 1921 column Ring Lardner wrote “I got a letter the other day asking why didn’t I write baseball no more and I usen’t to write about nothing else, you might say. Well friends, may as well admit that I have kind of lose interest in the old game, or rather it ain’t the old game which I have lose interest in, but it is the game which the magnates has fixed up to please the public with their usual good judgment.”

I second that emotion. Mark Gauvreau Judge, grandson of longtime Washington Senator first baseman Joe Judge, wrote ruefully about the man who invented the Big Bam game: “Ruth was the catalyst for baseball as we know it today — a Las Vegas slumber party, with epochs of lifelessness punctuated by the occasional blast from a slugger. What the game needs is what Joe Judge offered: hits, stolen bases, fielding, movement.” Pride of bloodline aside — Gramps was a solid but unspectacular player from 1915 to 1934 — this sentiment strikes a chord with me.

From its earliest period, when a runner could be retired by a thrown ball, baseball was a game defined by its adventurous circuit around the bases. The ancient field games — before bats and balls and other implements came into play — involved chaotic chasing, eluding, and capture. When baseball began it was primarily a game for runners and fielders rather than the batsman or the pitcher. The new game of ball took its name from its hallmark feature: the base, a safe haven symbolizing a bay or harbor amid the perilous homeward course.

The national taste of earlier days sustained a game marked by running and fielding; the appetite of the modern era has been for the contest of pitcher and hitter. It has been a long while since a home run generally involved running. In recent years we have had to endure the Whacks Museum of tableaux vivants, the macho posturing, the one-flap down home-run trot, the lazy fly ball wafting over a wall that has no business being there. When did baseball’s primal activity cease to be athletic? How, precisely, did behemoths who can’t run come to define the game that Lardner loved, the one of Mathewson and Cobb and Wagner and Johnson?

Looking at Joe Judge’s record, this is what popped out at me: in 15 years as an everyday player, he hit 154 triples, yet his average of 10 per season was unremarkable. He never led his league in that category, and even the three seasons in which he hit 15 triples left him no better than third best. Doing a quick study embracing three major-league seasons, representing the high point of Lardner’s interest (1911), the first year of league expansion (1961), and the 2006 season (which provided a recent high-water mark for home runs) I calculated these results, for both teams in an average major league game:

Home Runs

1911: 0.42 per game

1961: 1.90 per  game

2006: 2.22 per game


1911: 1.06 per game

1961: 0.53 per game

2006: 0.40 per game


1911: 2.64 per game

1961: 2.78 per game

2006: 3.76 per game

Not surprisingly, home runs per game were nearly five times greater in 1961 than they had been in 1911. Then they increased by a mere 17 percent in the subsequent period of 45 years. That’s not a lot to justify our carrying on so about the “home run explosion,” is it?

The batters of 1911 produced nearly seven times as many doubles as home runs, yet today’s sluggers amass not even two times as many doubles as homers. This tells us something about how much less running and fielding we are seeing today, no matter that these are, respectively, faster and better.

But the really illuminating event tracked in the chart above is the disappearance of the triple. Not only did its occurrence drop by precisely one-half over the 50 years from 1911 to 1961, but it has also declined by an additional 25 percent since then.

Harry Walker, when he managed the Houston Astros, once said: “The most exciting hit in baseball is the triple…. You usually have two or three men handling the ball, and if everything fits together, the runner is flagged down on a close play. On doubles and triples, several men must contribute. On a home run, one man does it all.”

In Lardner’s day, Tris Speaker’s glove was described as “the place where triples go to die.” (The phrase was later applied to Willie Mays.) Today that place is any one of the 30 major-league baseball parks.

A Long and Winding Quiz

So you think you know baseball? If you can answer these questions correctly, you (and your family) just might make it to the Hall of Fame. Start with the Little League and advance through the ranks to the minors, the majors and, if you’ve really got what it takes, the World Series. Get the bonus question right, and you may get a call from Cooperstown! This twisty trail through baseball history may be walked by young and old alike; the answers are sprinkled along the path.

Like Ulysses on his twenty-year journey from home to distant outposts and home again, beware of pitfalls — a midseason trade from a pennant contender to a cellar-dwelling club; that ground ball rolling between your legs; that ill-fated attempt to steal. But even if you’re getting splinters in your seat from weeks of bench-warming, one swing of the bat may be all that stands between you and triumph. So … let’s set off for first base.

1. The great American institution started by Abner Doubleday was:
The Civil War. Go to 22.
Baseball. Go to 18.

2. Fans surely benefited from the practice, but an umpire’s realm is confined to the field of play. See 25.

3. Which President of the United States played professional baseball?
Dwight D. Eisenhower. Go to 12.
Harry S. Truman. Go to 20.

4. You may have been thinking of a scenario like this: three singles load the bases. The runner on third is caught attempting to steal home. Then, another runner attempts to steal; he is caught, too. Two more singles reload the bases before the third out. Good guess, but not good enough. See 54.

5. Number 1 is a skinny number, a little number, but a wrong number. See 60.

6. Right. Although Stockton, California continues to stake a claim to being the poet’s inspiration for Mudville, creator Ernest Lawrence Thayer insisted from the poem’s debut in 1888 that Mudville and Casey had no counterparts in real life. Literary sensibilities like yours will be a big plus for the college nine. Go to 61.

7. Which of these rookie prospects signed with a big league organization for the bigger bonus?
Mickey Mantle. Go to 62.
Mario Cuomo. Go to 52.

8. Incredibly early, but true. Only eleven months after Thomas Edison created the incandescent bulb, teams representing two Boston department stores — Jordan Marsh and R.H. White — played a nine-inning night game at Nantasket Beach, concluding in a 16-16 tie. Your first big-league paycheck is in your locker; party on. Go to 48.

9. Here is a little-known lyric from one of baseball’s best-loved ballads: “Katie Casey was baseball mad,/ Had the fever and had it bad.” Which one?
Casey at the Bat. Go to 56.
Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Go to 28.

10. Amazing but true! The architects of this “Eighth Wonder of the World” planted natural grass, believing that the sun shining through the glass panels of baseball’s first enclosed stadium would provide plenty of light for grass to grow. It did — but the players could not see fly balls against the glare. So, the panels were painted over to protect life and limb … but then the grass died. To the rescue (and to the continued muttering of fans) came Monsanto Corporation’s synthetic Astroturf, installed for the following season. High fives — you’ve just been signed to a pro contract! Go to 7.

11. A screwball is:
A “reverse curveball” that breaks in the same direction as the throwing arm of the pitcher. Go to 36.
A floating pitch with little if any rotation and an extremely erratic movement. Go to 47.

12. Ike played a season of pro ball before he went to West Point and later played minor-league ball in the Kansas State League under the assumed name of Wilson. In later years he wrote: “A friend of mine and I went fishing and as we sat there in the warmth of a summer afternoon on a river bank we talked about what we wanted to do when we grew up. I told him I wanted to be a real major league baseball player, a genuine professional like Honus Wagner. My friend said that he’d like to be President of the United States. Neither of us got our wish.” You get yours on Opening Day of your next season — playing centerfield and batting leadoff. Go to 45.

13. On April 25, 1901, the Detroit Tigers took the home field in their first game as a major league club in the new American League. Falling steadily behind to the visiting Milwaukee club, the Tigers entered the final frame trailing 13-4. Improbably, they scored ten runs to win their very first game, by a score of 14-13. Perhaps even more improbably, not even a month later, Cleveland duplicated the feat against Washington, also winning 14-13. Nothing like it had ever been done since … until your club lost the first three games of the World Series and overcame a ten-run deficit in the final inning of Game Seven! (You, of course, capped the rally with a grand-slam homer, Homer.) Now try your hand at the bonus question at the end … no matter how well (or otherwise) you’ve done up till now, you may get that call to Cooperstown after all.

14. Wear a scarlet “A,” for your answer is amiss. See 39.

15. The Great Depression slashed attendance throughout baseball by one-third. But the woebegone Browns of 1935 drew only 80,922 paying customers all season long, an 89 percent decline from their peak in the prior decade. But are you depressed? Nah. You got a hit in your first big-league at bat! Go to 31.

16. Maybe Hollywood’s Andy Hardy gave rise to Joe Hardy, hero of Damn Yankees, but not to the hero of Casey Stengel’s Yankees. See 32.

17. How many times have opposing pitchers in a game each thrown a no-hitter through nine innings?
Once. Go to 49.
Never. Go to 29.

18. Shame on you. You probably believe in Santa Claus, too. Try No. 1 again.

19. Who was the first African American to play major league baseball?
Jackie Robinson. Go to 42.
Wiliam Edward White. Go to 38.

20. No. The pride of Hannibal, Mo., loved baseball and played it as a boy, but his eyesight wasn’t good enough to allow him to compete … so he served as umpire! See 12.

21. When the St. Louis Browns’ showman owner Bill Veeck signed a 3’7” man named Eddie Gaedel to his team, what number did little Gaedel wear when he came to bat in a 1951 game against Detroit?
“1.” Go to 5.
“1/8.” Go to 60.

22. Yes indeed. Doubleday ordered the first shot in response to the Confederate assault on Fort Sumter. There is no credible evidence that he had anything to do with baseball, or that it was “invented” in Cooperstown, New York. Congratulations on your proper skepticism, and go on to 27.

23. Lynn played Salem under the lights in ‘27, but the correct answer dates back far earlier. See 8.

24. Baseball players first wore gathered pants, or knickers, in the 1860s because:
Players could run faster than in trousers. Go to 40.
Players could show off their manly calves and display colorful stockings. Go to 50.

25. True, as baseball lore has it … although some scholars dispute this. William Ellsworth Hoy was known to one and all, with the directness and insensitivity that characterized the age, as “Dummy.” The 5’4” outfielder was a deaf-mute who, despite his impairment, played with distinction in the major leagues for fourteen seasons. Born in 1862, he threw out the first ball of Game 3 of the World Series in 1961! Let that be a model to you, callow rookie. Go to 11.

26. Logical and true. When a headline writer informs us that Gilhooley has notched his 14th victory or the Mariners have scored three on Chapman’s homer, he is unknowingly memorializing one of the most ancient aspects of the national pastime. And for your extraordinary perspicacity and dogged sleuthing, you are hereby proclaimed a baseball archaeologist extraordinaire and entitled to a trip to Cooperstown. At the ticket window, mention that you have completed this Odyssey Around the Bases, pay the full admission charge, and you will surely be granted entrance to the hallowed Hall of Fame.

27. Which has the greater diameter?
The bat. Go to 44.
The ball. Go to 34.

28. “Katie Casey was baseball mad,
Had the fever and had it bad.
Just to root for the hometown crew,
Ev’ry sou, Katie blew.
On a Saturday, her young beau
Called to see if she’d like to go,
To see a show but Miss Kate said, ‘No,
I’ll tell you what you can do…’”

The rest you clearly know. On to the varsity nine! Go to 33.

29. O ye of little faith! See 49.

30. Alas, no. But even if you tripped on this puzzler, it still ain’t over. See 13.

31. In the nineteenth century, home plate umpires began using hand signals in addition to shouting out balls and strikes so that:
Fans in the distant stands could keep track of the count. Go to 2.
A deaf batter could keep track of the count. Go to 25.

32. Yup. And Mickey Mantle often breathed a sigh of relief that his dad gave him Cochrane’s nickname instead of his given name … Gordon. You have just gone 4-for-4 in the final game of the season, with a pair of dingers; your appreciative teammates have given you a nickname — Homer. Go to 3.

33. When mighty Casey struck out, there was no joy in:
Melville. Go to 58.
Mudville. Go to 6.

34. Your eye is keen. The maximum width of the bat is 2.75 inches, while the maximum diameter of the ball is 2.95 inches–a difference of only 2/10 of an inch. You’re not in Little League any longer. Go to 9.

35. On Opening Day 1993, the Colorado Rockies made their debut at Mile High Stadium before 80,227 fans. Add 695 and get the St. Louis Browns’ 1935 attendance for:
A homestand (20 games). Go to 57.
A full season (at that time, 77 home games). Go to 15.

36. Yes. Generally employed to fade away from batters rather than drift in toward them, a screwball thrown by righthanders like Christy Mathewson would be employed against lefthanded batters, while a lefthander like Carl Hubbell or Tug McGraw would use the pitch against righthanded batters. In your freshman efforts, are you finding the screwball no easier to hit than to define? Go to 53.

37. No. It’s a trick question, sure, but who said we couldn’t have some fun just like you? See 51.

38. Right. Jackie Robinson broke the big-league color line in 1947, the first time within the memory of almost everyone in baseball. But in 1879, White played one game for Providence when it was a major league franchise. The majors are not far away for you, either. Go to 21.

39. Yes … though Leaves of Grass was not a position paper on the evils of Astroturf. Whitman was a reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle, covering the exploits of that city’s famed Atlantic Base Ball Club in the mid-1850s. As early as 1846 he reported in the Eagle: “In our sun-down perambulations of late, through the outer parts of Brooklyn, we have observed several parties of youngsters playing ‘base,’ a certain game of ball….” A Whitman you’re not, but the hometown paper assigns you a ghostwriter and gives you a daily column. Go to 24.

40. This is the conventional explanation, but it defies logic: simply reflect on how players today stretch their leggings almost to their shoetops. See 50.

41. Who has the highest lifetime batting average in baseball history of men who played in at least 500 games and batted more than five times?
Ty Cobb. Go to 37.
Terry Forster. Go to 51.

42. Half right, and thus wrong. See 38.

43. Close, but no cigar. The original rules did require that 21 runs be scored for a victory (the nine-inning rule came later), but that’s beside the point. See 26.

44. Look again. See 34.

45. Henry Chadwick, the game’s most prominent early writer, began covering the game around 1856. Which of these masters of American literature preceded him as a baseball reporter?
Nathaniel Hawthorne. Go to 14.
Walt Whitman. Go to 39.

46. Reasonable guess, but you’re one year too early. See 10.

47. This would describe a knuckleball pretty well. See 36.

48. When Mickey Mantle was born in 1931, his father named him in honor of his own boyhood hero. Which one?
Mickey Rooney. Go to 16.
Mickey Cochrane. Go to 32.

49. Each time a pitcher takes the mound to start a big-league game, he has roughly a one-in-a-thousand chance of throwing a no-hitter. Accordingly, the odds against a double no-hit game are one in a million, but it has happened. On May 2, 1917, Fred Toney of the Cincinnati Reds and Hippo Vaughn of the Chicago Cubs matched no-hitters until the tenth inning, when the unfortunate Vaughn allowed two hits and lost the game. You are luckier — a late-season call-up gets you off those bush-league buses. Go to 35.

50. Harry Wright, manager of the pioneer professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, was determined to make his new business pay. Like other promoters before and since, he put a dollar sign on the muscle. It’s midseason, you’re hitting .380, you’ve got a fan club … all’s right with the world. Go to 55.

51. Schoolboys know that Ty Cobb batted .366 over his long career to earn his plaque in the Hall of Fame. But relief pitcher Terry Forster hit .397 (31 hits in 78 at bats), through the end of the 2005 season. But you knew that, because as your team breezed to its spot in the World Series, you’ve had plenty of time to study. Go to 59.

52. The former governor of New York, an outfielder for St. John’s University, was given a signing bonus of $2,000, a lot of money in 1951. At the end of his first year in the Pittsburgh Pirates chain, he was beaned; thereafter politics looked good to him. Mickey Mantle got $1,100. He went to the Hall of Fame. Maybe you will too. Go to 19.

53. Major League Baseball’s first night game was played in Cincinnati in 1935. But when was the first nocturnal attempt to play the national pastime?
1927. Go to 23.
1880. Go to 8.

54. Right. It can happen like this: three singles load the bases. Then the next batter lines a ball that hits a base runner, producing an out for the team. However, according to the rules, a hit is credited to the batter, who goes to first base. Each of the next two batters produces the same outcome (a single and an out). The season is nearing its end, your club is about to clinch the flag, and you’re a legitimate candidate for MVP. Go to 41.

55. What is the maximum number of base hits a team can register in an inning without scoring a run?
Five. Go to 4.
Six. Go to 54.

56. Like Casey, you have taken Strike One. See 28.

57. An average turnout of 4,000 per game would have been cause for rejoicing in St. Louis. See 15.

58. “Call me Casey” is not the opening line of Moby Dick. See 6.

59. It ain’t over ‘til it’s over, neither in life nor in that more serious matter, baseball. The greatest single-game comeback — the most runs scored in the bottom of the ninth to win a game — was:
Nine. Go to 30.
Ten. Go to 13.

60. Correct. And the outcome was equally ludicrous. The Detroit pitcher, Bob Cain, almost fell off the mound from laughing and walked Gaedel on four pitches — all of them high! You’re hitting .300 and the big club has its eye on you. Go to 17.

61. What kind of grass was installed in Houston’s Astrodome when it opened for play in April 1965?
Natural. Go to 10.
Artificial. Go to 46.

62. You would think so, wouldn’t you? But scouts make mistakes. See 52.

BONUS. The reason we say that we “keep score” in baseball is:
The earliest rules required a score of runs (a score = 20) for a victory. Go to 43.
The tally keeper notched (scored) a stick with his knife, one for each run. Go to 26.

The Color of Baseball

Why does a fireman wear red suspenders? Every kid knows the answer: to hold his pants up. But the better question for curious adults may be why he wears red at all, or why brides wear white and kings wear purple. Color speaks a secret language that our generation hears as white noise, an indistinct hum that we decipher unconsciously. The traces of these ancient meanings have come down to us most clearly in sport, which retained some of the mystical, hierarchical, and military trappings of old, even as society advanced beyond the guild, the village, and the governing church. In the colorful pageant of sport we may see rulers and revolutionaries, capitalists and tradesmen, even valorous firemen and, if not brides, baseball annies.

While the proliferation of sports teams over the past fifty years has created some startling color choices in uniforms and logos, even these must be the product of some thought process, no matter how dubious. The Florida Marlins’ unsettling teal surely is meant to represent Miami waterways, as the Colorado Rockies’ purple signals the nearby mountains’ majesty. The New York Mets’ blue and orange echo the official colors of the 1939 World’s Fair as well as the tinted gowns of the damsels Liberty and Justice, respectively, on the New York State Seal. There are animal associations (Tigers, Cardinals, Diamondbacks) but team colors are not always consonant with life in the wild. And there are frontier motifs (the old Houston Colt .45s) and ethnic lampoons (Indians, Braves … don’t get me started).

But we must start our story somewhere, and Baltimore seems as good a place as any. Its revered football team, the Colts (colors: blue and white) hightailed it out of town for Indianapolis in 1984, leaving fans without the NFL until the Cleveland Browns (brown and orange) left the shores of Lake Erie for those along Chesapeake Bay. This was the second brown-and-orange team to come to Baltimore, as baseball’s Browns had arrived from St. Louis in 1954. Those Browns dropped their name in transit, becoming the Orioles, a venerable name in the city’s baseball history. The oriole (Icterus galbula) also happened to be the official state bird, in part because its yellow-and black coloration matched that in the shield of Sir George Calvert (Lord Baltimore) and was further memorialized in the state flag. (Yes, I know the ball club’s featured bird is orange and black, but John James Audubon’s rendition of the Oriole had been yellow and black, matching the colors of the western Maryland Bullock’s Oriole; the two variants have since thoroughly interbred, and are now combined in a single species … see what happens when you get me started?)

When Baltimore’s first professional baseball team took to the field in 1872 they wore Lord Baltimore’s colors of yellow (heavy silk shirts) and black (flowing pantaloons), striking such a figure of fun that they were called not the Orioles but the Canaries. Indeed, by the following season that epithet had become the club’s de facto nickname. Every other team in the National Association featured the more discreet embellishments that flowed from the original American team sports uniform, that of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York. Many of the gentlemen who founded that organization in 1845 were volunteer firemen, and the fealty and pride they felt for their fire companies gave them a common sense of purpose on the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, where they were eventually engaged by other sturdy “base ballists” playing under their own sedate colors.

As volunteer firemen, the men who would become Knickerbockers might have adopted for their ball play the fire company’s classic red shirt with a shield or dickey on which the number of his company was embroidered in muslin figures; the magic numerals fixed the men’s identity beyond a doubt and gave them a sense of belonging. These jaunty uniforms bound men to their comrades in united purpose, just as the common color of medieval guildsmen might indicate their craft. Fireman’s red was a prestigious color because, like purple, it signified blood, with its connotations of bravery, sacrifice, and passion. In medieval times crimson and scarlet (the latter name actually derived from an expensive cloth that might be dyed any color) were beyond the reach of the peasantry. The word crimson comes from the Sanskrit krmi-ja, a dye mistakenly believed to be produced from a worm (the kermes was actually an insect).

While the fire laddies’ garb formed the prototype for early baseball uniforms (and arguably those of today), the Knicks’ earliest mandated ensemble (1849) consisted of blue woollen pantaloons, white flannel shirt, and chip (straw) hat. While blue and white remained the costume of the club until it disbanded in 1882, the straw hats were replaced by blue mohair caps in 1855. Oddly, the Knickerbockers always wore pants, never knickerbockers (knickers, knee breeches), even after Cincinnati innovated its calf-exposing, lady-thrilling red stockings in 1867. Soon almost all baseball teams in the 19th century went for the “manly display” and many derived their enduring names from the color of their stockings (Cincinnati Reds; Chicago Whites; New York (Mutual) Greens; Hartford Dark Blues; Providence Grays; St. Louis Browns; etc.).

Baseball in the 1860s was dominated by patriotic color schemes of white (symbolizing peace, purity, innocence) and blue (freedom, constancy, justice), with red as the accent color for caps or the cord trim of the pants, which were often cut wide in the style of the French Colonial Zouaves, in sympathy with their exotic mission in Algeria. Furthermore, this red-white-blue combination continued to echo the colors of other nations born in revolt. Even today, of 192 national flags, these three colors constitute the flags of 30 nations, more than any other color or combination.

Baseball uniforms of the 1870s and ’80s erupted into a rainbow owing nothing to national aspiration or the heraldic tradition of few, but intense, colors. Skullcaps of different colors by position played (as with the 1876 Chicago White Stockings, in what a reporter termed a “Dutch bed of tulips”), striped silk jerseys (all major-league teams in 1882), and blood-red flannel uniforms, top and bottom (Louisville, 1888) made baseball players feel like theater folk, prisoners, or “fancy men.” Codpieces and pigeon-breast plates might have been next, but a relatively somber palette returned in the ensuing decades, as stripes and checks were displayed in faint motifs in the uniforms of the Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants.

But flamboyance and color have certainly returned with a vengeance since the disco days of the 1970s. With the digital revolution making thousands of new colors spring into life, the meat-and-potatoes basics of the analog color set began to seem awfully tame. Why do blue and gold when you can specify “Pantone Color 14-4002, Wind Chime” (whatever that looks like). Martha Stewart presents an imagistic palette of 416 colors that reads like a diner menu (“succulent, farm-fresh tomatoes”) yet has the vapory lure of perfume advertising. Imagine going to a ballgame and seeing the New York Flauberts, outfitted in Caen Stone, Rosedust, and Light French Gray, square off against the Boston Brahmins, robed in Acanthus, Aristocrat Peach, and Buckram Binding. (These are real Martha colors.)

So what is the color of baseball? Pastel, tincture, gradient … or the bold colors and noble metals of yore? Whatever the value or the shade, it says here that the color of baseball is green — and not for the reasons you think, bilious reader. Green may indeed be the color of money, which is what defines professional play. Or envy. But even professionals love the game, which makes them, at heart, amateurs who get paid. For the player as it is for the fan, green is the color of spring, of baseball, of hope.