June 2011

Rube Waddell: Baseball’s Peter Pan

George Edward “Rube” Waddell was baseball’s most kaleidoscopic character. In 1903 he began the year sleeping in a firehouse at Camden, New Jersey, and ended it tending bar in Wheeling, West Virginia. “In between those events,” wrote Lee Allen, “he won twenty-two games for the Philadelphia Athletics, played left end for the Business Men’s Rugby Football Club of Grand Rapids, Michigan, toured the nation in a melodrama called The Stain of Guilt, courted, married, and separated from May Wynne Skinner of Lynn, Massachusetts, saved a woman from drowning, accidentally shot a friend through the hand, and was bitten by a lion.”

The stories go on and on about this wild and crazy guy and, remarkably, most of them are true. Playing marbles under the stands at game time while his teammates searched for their starting pitcher; being paid his year’s salary of $2,200 in one-dollar bills because he was so impulsive a spender; hurling both ends of a doubleheader just so that he could get a few days off to go fishing; calling his outfielders to the sidelines, then striking out the batter.

The Rube was not merely an oddball, like Germany Schaefer, or an entertaining tippler like Bugs Raymond, or a braggart like Art Shires, though he was all of these things and more. The eccentric “sousepaw” was an original, a boy who never grew up yet was a giant among men on the ball field.

A quick look at Waddell’s career record reveals seven strikeout crowns, six of them in succession in 1902-07; a lifetime ERA of 2.16 with a single-season best of 1.48; and four straight 20-win seasons. But a closer examination shows just how awesome he was at his peak. In 1902 he won a commendable 24 games for the Philadelphia Athletics—but he didn’t pitch for them until June 26, by which time he had already won 12 games with Los Angeles of the Pacific Coast League. He won 10 games for the A’s in the month of July, a feat unmatched by any hurler in any month since. His 24 wins for the A’s came over a period of only 87 games the club  played. In 1904 Waddell fanned 349 batters, a total not surpassed until Sandy Koufax came along in 1965; more than a hundred years later, Waddell’s mark is still the best by an American League lefthander. In 1955, at age 93, Connie Mack called Rube the greatest pitcher, in terms of pure talent, he had ever seen—and Connie had seen them all, from Hoss Radbourne and Amos Rusie through Cy Young and Walter Johnson, on up to Lefty Grove and Bob Feller.

Rube married three times, verifiably. Although he did spend some time in jail in 1905 for throwing flatirons at each of his in-laws (an impulse with which some of us may empathize), this man-child had a good heart. On more than one occasion his penchant for running after fire engines led him to rush into a burning building to effect a rescue. And his premature death, at age 37 in 1914 (on April Fool’s Day) resulted from a severe cold he contracted after standing for hours in icy waters up to his armpits, placing sandbags in advance of rising waters from a broken dam.

No one Waddellian tale conveys the heroic quality of the man; Rube’s whole life had the quality of legend, the kind that sustained our nation in the years before The Great War. Before the frontier closed, before radio and rural electrification truly united our states into a homogeneous national culture, America gave rise to such icons as Paul Bunyan, the all-powerful lumberjack landscaper; Mose the Bowery B’hoy, the common rough, comic boor, and guardian angel of the underprivileged (and, like Waddell, pride of the volunteer fire laddies); and Sam Patch, the foolhardy millhand who won fame by jumping off bridges and immortality via his failed leap over Niagara Falls. (Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of him, though the words might as easily have been applied to Waddell: “How stern a moral may be drawn from the story of poor Sam Patch!… Was the leaper of cataracts more mad or foolish than other men who throw away life, or misspend it in pursuit of empty fame, and seldom so triumphantly as he?”) These three, along with other folkloric figures of America’s formative years, culminate in the form of Rube Waddell.

In baseball, he descended from a line of hell-raising, hard-drinking heroes like King Kelly, Arlie Latham, and Radbourne. When college man Christy Mathewson came along to contend with Waddell for favor in the first decade of the century, the moralists at last had a suitable role model in baseball; but the conformist Matty never captured the hearts of boys as the Rube did. While adults clucked their disapproval, Rube’s sense of mischief and disregard for adult ways endeared him to youth. He was them, figured large, with the power not only to move about in the adult world but also to transform it, to make it uniquely his. The arrival of Babe Ruth marked a restoration of the rebellious spirit in sport, as did that of Dizzy Dean and Mark Fidrych. But while both were “naturals” like the semi-demented Waddell, the Babe was neither a clown nor a yokel, and Ol’ Diz played the rube act with self-promotional cunning.

Why do we glorify natural athletes when hard workers, conscientious practitioners of their craft, are so much more admirable as men? Because in their untutored excellence these fortunate few seem to be touched with the divine, the mysterious gift of the gods—a spirit of play akin to the inexplicable animating force of art. Waddell was a legend while he was alive; that he has ceased to be one in death is testament to how our country has changed. Why are heroes today so colorless, so pale? Even our greatest talents tend to be personally boring. Why do we still gravitate toward the bad boys, the rebels, even when their abilities are beneath those of the goody-two-shoes of the sports world? Conformists may be admired, but nonconformists are adored and/or feared.

Man’s attraction to fame is like that of moth to flame. The moralists among us—like Hawthorne in his dispatch of Sam Patch—delight in the failure of heroes, affirming that man should not be so filled with hubris as to presume to deity. Thus is played the inevitable cycle of fame, paralleling that of life itself: hero to celebrity to commodity to trash. Rube Waddell sidestepped that descent by dying young, but perhaps more importantly, by never really enlisting as a functional adult. Like a messenger of God, or one who has struck a pact with the devil, in the cadences of conventional life Rube was always an outsider. He stood outside civilization, culture, rationalism, team play, the work ethic—all Western, Christian values. He was an individualist, nonconformist, rebel, hero—honored and scorned at the same time, for he was also a rube: a bumpkin, rustic, hayseed, farmer, yokel, hoosier, backwoodsman, fool.

The term “rube” derived from Reuben, a hinterlands name that provoked mirth among the city swells and traveling gents and those rural types who fancied themselves “in the know.” Waddell began pitching for Butler, Pennsylvania, at age 18, in 1895, later moving on to pitch for the Prospect nine. When he showed up at Franklin in 1896, green as any farmboy ever was but hoping for an audition, one of the Franklin men called out, “Hey, Rube!”—the circus/carny term used as a cry for help, or rallying charge, against outsiders, like those who would cut the canvas to gain free admission. (Often as not, the call “Hey, Rube!” would lead to a heyrube—a fracas or hubbub, what Red Barber and other Southerners came to call a rhubarb.) The Franklin players were not only mocking the hayseed Waddell (“Reuben”) but also rallying the clan against an outside intrusion.

Rube the rural figure of fun was an outsider when he stepped onto the ballfield of Franklin, but perhaps less so when he went on to pitch for big cities like Philadelphia and St. Louis. The enclosed ballparks there were designed to give an increasingly urban populace a park within the city, a place reminiscent of the idealized farms that had sent all those rubes to the metropolis in the first place. After all, baseball itself is inextricably tied to the land, deriving as it does from a pagan rite of fertility.

And George Edward Waddell was also an outsider in that he was lefthanded (sinister, evil, endowed with sorcery) and dimwitted. The age of magic in baseball was in full flower during Waddell’s career. Society at large feared the misshapen as manifestations of God’s wrath, regarded the feebleminded as signs of God’s humor, and imbued the lame and the halt with heightened goodness, like Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol. Major league teams employed mascots like Louis Van Zelst, a deformed boy, who drew luck to the A’s until he died in 1915; tiny Eddie Bennett, who brought pennants to the White Sox in 1917 and 1919, then to the Dodgers and Yankees; and the aptly named Victory Faust, a hayseed mental defective who “helped” the Giants to pennants in 1911-13. All of these mascots sat in uniform on the bench or, in the case of Faust, entertained the crowd before the game.

In baseball’s version of the Faust legend, Douglass Wallop’s The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant and the ensuing musical version, Damn Yankees, the devil stops time so that the aging process of a fiftyish salesman can be reversed, transforming him into the heroic Joe Hardy, savior of the downtrodden Washington Senators. For Rube Waddell, the aging process was simply halted–as it was for Peter Pan and the lost boys who died before reaching manhood. Waddell was the ultimate man-child, with the body of a man and the brain of a child, an emblem of what baseball is all about—to play, to play past when your mother calls you in for supper, to play and play and play until mortality itself is cheated.

Sam Crawford, who faced Rube Waddell many times in his years with the Detroit Tigers and went on to join Rube in the Hall of Fame, said in his later years: “Rube was one of a kind—just a big kid, you know. He’d pitch one day and we wouldn’t see him for three or four days after. He’d just disappear, go fishing or something, or be off playing ball with a bunch of twelve-year-olds in an empty lot somewhere. You couldn’t control him ‘cause he was just a big kid himself. Baseball was just a game to Rube.”

It was never just a game to him, of course; he was paid to play, and so he was termed a professional. But he was at heart an amateur, playing the game because he loved it. That was part of what made him a hero, and it is the same essential condition of heroics on the playing fields today: we admire proficiency, but we cherish the men who have retained their zest for play.

Green kids breaking into professional ball today are no longer called Rube. Maybe this is a good thing; it is a divisive name, a mean one. But it would be fine if baseball were again to be visited by an outsider who conveyed the Rube’s message: honor your childhood, cherish a sense of play, and show a healthy disrespect for convention and order.

Pilgrim Stoolball and the Profusion of American Safe-Haven Ballgames

With this second of sixteen articles by scholars of baseball’s earliest period, a picture will begin to emerge of how the game first flowered in America. (For regular readers of the Our Game blog, my own contributions will be interspersed with these excerpts from Base Ball.) The article below, by Brian Turner and Larry McCray, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball.  McCray, the guest editor for this Spring 2011 publication, is the founder of the invaluable Protoball Project, a website where many of the early game’s top scholars have shared their finds. He is also a panelist on Major League Baseball’s Origins Committee, which I chair. Brian Turner works at Smith College and is conducting research on ballplaying in the Colonial, Federalist, and New Republic eras. His past baseball publications include The Hurrah Game: Baseball in Northamption 1823–1953 (co-authored with John Bowman, Historic Northampton, 2002) and articles in The National Pastime and Base Ball.

These articles constitute only a portion of the complete special issue and appear courtesy of the publisher. Each article is keyed to the larger Protoball Chronology appearing at http://www.retrosheet.org/Protoball/; for example, the article below, indexed as 1621.1, reflects that it is the first Protoball entry for the year 1621. As the journal's editor over its first five years, I encourage you to consider purchasing the "Special Origins Issue" or, better yet, subscribing to the semiannual. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/baseball.html.

1621.1 Pilgrim Stoolball and the Profusion of

American Safe-Haven Ballgames

Brian Turner and Larry McCray

[M]ost of this new-company excused them selves and said it wente against their consciences to work on ye day. So ye Govr tould them that if they made it mater of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he … left them; but … at noon … he found them in ye street at play, openly; some at pitching ye barr, and some at stoole-ball and shuch like sport…. Since which time nothing hath been attempted that way, at least openly.1

On Christmas Day, 1621, the game of stoolball was played at Plymouth Plantation. The “better informed” Plymouth Pilgrims2 regarded Christmas not as a holiday but as just another day of work. Newcomers could mark Christmas according to their “consciences,” but when Bradford discovered that stoolball had broken out, he promptly confiscated the “implements.” In England, for centuries, stoolball had thrown the sexes together, often at Easter, with open flirtation and further personal liberties a predictable result. Such revels were not to be tolerated at Plymouth.

From evidence in hand, English stoolball as played in Pilgrim times bore slender resemblance to what would emerge in about 240 years as America’s national pastime. Stoolball certainly involved fielding (including, probably, the use of the fly rule), throwing, and innings; much less certain is the use of pitching, hitting, or baserunning.3 And the game never enjoyed the popularity here that it had in England; in fact, very few subsequent U.S. references to stoolball play have been found.

The Plymouth stoolball game is the earliest known reference to an English ballgame being played in America. The number and variety of subsequent baserunning games, many also imported from England, is greater than most baseball followers realize. Past baseball histories have pointed to a New England–style baserunning game, to town ball, and to English rounders as early American ballgames. However, recent research points to a score of distinct games, summarized below. More variants will likely come to light, if researchers continue to seek them out.

American Cricket
There is a single reference to American cricket, a game introduced in Chicago in 1870 as a new hybrid of English cricket and baseball.4 The only reported features taken from baseball were a third running base and foul territory, which one assumes was defined in relation to the triangular infield.

Bandy Wicket
In July 1779, an American soldier in Pennsylvania reported playing bandy wicket.5 Bandy wicket was “old-fashioned” cricket played with a “bandy” (a thick, curved club) rather than with the flat cricket bat introduced into English cricket during the 1760s.6 In America, the term bandy wicket was seen in the Mid-Atlantic region until the mid–19th century.

Barn Ball
A batter-runner tries to run to a nearby barn and back before his opponent/pitcher could retrieve the ball and return.

Bat-and-ball has now been identified as a distinct game played along the New England coast from Boston through Maine in the late 18th to early 19th centuries.

A game banned near public buildings in Pittsfield, Mass., and Northampton, Mass., in 1791.7 Pilka Palantowa, a Polish ball game reportedly played at Jamestown in 1609,8 translates as “bat or hit ball.” So, too, German Schlagball translates as “bat or hit ball.” The latter involved pitching, batting, and running to a base, as well as taking players “captive.”9 An 1834 reference likened American “bat ball” to English “bandy,” a game resembling field hockey.10 Whether it was a safe-haven game or a hockey-style game, bat ball produced broken windows, hence those 1791 bans.

Base, or Base Ball (sometimes called goal ball)
A game long played in much of the U.S. Northeast, akin to English base-ball—possibly under rules that varied regionally in ways yet to be discovered.

Played in the Virginia area in the mid–nineteenth century, chermany (sometimes “chumney”) is reported to have had similarities to modern baseball.

This English import was played throughout U.S. history, and was once the most popular adult baserunning game for Americans.

Dutch Long
An 1867 Ohio source describes dutch long as an “out of date” game that resembled baseball,11 but in which a “tosser” stood near the batter and lofted the ball high into the air. If the batter could strike it and then circle the three bases before the ball was fielded and returned to the tosser’s hand, his at-bat continued.

Long Town Ball
We have a handful of pre–1840 references to long town ball in Pennsylvania and nearby midwestern states. This game was described as having only one base other than home. One account has two batsmen running when the ball is hit,12 and if a fielder “crosses” either runner (throws the ball between him and the base he is running toward) the fielder immediately takes his place. This version does not, thus, feature team play. Another variant allowed more than one runner to occupy a base at a time.

Philadelphia Town Ball
This baserunning game was played in Philadelphia from about 1830–1860. A variant was popular in Cincinnati. More generally town ball was played by that name in scattered parts of the U.S. to the south and west of New Jersey. Only retrospectively—considerably after the Civil War—did writers begin to apply the term broadly to games in other regions as a generic term for any pre-modern game thought to resemble baseball.

The old-cat games (one-old-cat, two-old-cat, etc.) likely varied by region, over time, and according to the number of players. One common feature was that the ball was delivered to batter-runners at any of the bases, which were sometimes holes in the ground. Non-running and non-team forms of the game have been found. In the Atlantic Monthly in 1866, a rudimentary description of old cat cites three players, one to throw the cat, one to bat, the other to catch.13

Four-old-cat is sometimes described as essentially equivalent to early baseball and to round ball. This game was reportedly used as a warmup exercise at Elysian Fields by the Knickerbocker Club, was still played at Harvard in 1855, and appeared in boys’ handbooks of games well into the 20th century.

Round Ball/Massachusetts Game
Round ball was fairly common in eastern New England,14 and is thought to have been the basis for the Massachusetts Game as codified in the late 1850s. The plugging of runners, the absence of foul territory, and a smaller/softer ball are among the traits of round ball that distinguish it from the New York game. Round ball appears to have spread to western New York and the upper Midwest, where it was eventually displaced by the New York game.

Round Cat
One account places round cat in Virginia prior to the Civil War, and the game was found in the American South for decades.

Round Town Ball
Accounts of round town ball are associated with Pennsylvania before the Civil War and with Virginia at an unspecified date.15 It evidently used a “gum ball,” a smallish paddle or a clapboard instead of a bat, and an all-out-side-out rule. One version allowed multiple runners to stay at a base, and another employed the bound rule.

Three-Base Ball
Colonel George Oakey recalled playing “many a game” of three-base ball at Erasmus Hall Academy in Brooklyn prior to 1845.16 His spare description of the game mentions the sometimes painful plugging of runners and the fielding positions of pitcher, catcher, outer, and hinder. We have found only one other plausible reference (also in Brooklyn) to this game.17

Games of this category comprised several varieties, including one that bears some resemblance to baseball. A pitcher tosses the cat (a short length of stick) to batters stationed at holes or bases arranged in a circle.18 Batters hit the cat, and then run. (David Block points out that Albert Spalding’s description of American four-old-cat is identical to the four hole version of tip-cat described in 1848,19 with bases arranged in a square.) Tip-cat was also played on Boston Common in the 1850s, according to James DeWolf Lovett.20

Touch Ball
The few scattered references to touch ball do not give a clear picture of the game or games known under that name. One writer in the Fort Wayne area recalled touch ball as “the favorite” local game before the New York game appeared there in about 1866.21 That version featured plugging, and seems to have used only home and a single “field base.”22

Two-Base Town Ball
Writing of ballplaying by Southern troops in the Civil War, B. I. Wiley noted that the game “might be of the modern version, with players running four bases, or it might be two-base town ball. The bat might be a board.”23

This game was played in western New England and in several Northern Plains states into the Civil War years. A baserunning game, this pastime employed two wicket-style bases and a large solid ball that was delivered to a batter wielding a hefty club. It had some resemblance to the very early form of English cricket as played around 1700.

What, No Rounders?
This list omits the game of Rounders, seen by Henry Chadwick, among others, as the direct predecessor to modern baseball. It was the rounders theory that competed with the Doubleday legend in best-forgotten debates about the origins of American baseball. It is missing here because no contemporary reference to rounders play in the U.S. is known—not in the letters, in the civil ordinances, or in the newspaper accounts of the day. In addition, current evidence shows the game called “base ball” was played in the U.S. decades before a game called rounders was written about in Britain.

A Typology of Ball Games?
Discussions of the evolution of ballplaying often founder over matters of nomenclature. Which of the games listed above, for example, should be counted as among baseball’s kin, and which are more distantly related?

In 2010 Richard Hershberger suggested that we might define a subset of ballgames as belonging to “the baseball family” if they meet the following criteria:

An arrangement of bases forming a circuit; two equal sides of players—one side “in” and the other side “out”—the “in” side trying to hit a ball and running complete circuits of the bases while the “out” side tries to put them out, as may be accomplished by catching a hit ball or by putting the runner out (with variation in the details of how this is done); and with the game played in innings of the two sides exchanging places.24

Applying these criteria would define the baseball family to include Knickerbocker-rules baseball, early baseball in the U.S. and England, English rounders, Philadelphia town ball, round ball, the Massachusetts game, and several minor past and present games.25

These criteria also would exclude some of the “safe haven” baserunning games that are collected for the Protoball website: cricket, wicket, later forms of stoolball, barnball, one o’cat and two o’cat, and long town ball (all because they use fewer than three bases), scrub and workup (which are not team games) and hornebillets and tip-cat (which use cylindrical “cats” instead of balls).

1. Bradford, W. 1962. Of Plymouth Plantation (pp. 82–83).
2. In the popular imagination Plymouth Pilgrims and Massachusetts Bay Puritans have merged into a uniform band of prim and joyless New England scolds. The doctrinal differences that made the two groups distinct would require more than an endnote to explain.
3. See Item 1672.1 below.
4. The account, reprinted from the Philadelphia Mercury, appeared in the London Penny Illustrated Paper, Dec. 17, 1870, p. 387.
5. See Protoball entry 1779.2.
6. Collins, T., et al., ed. 2005. Encyclopedia of Traditional English Rural Sports (p. 39).
7. See retrosheet.org/Protoball/Sub.bat-ball.
8. Block, D. 2004. Baseball before We Knew It (p. 101).
9. Gutsmuths, J. 1893. Spiele zur Ubung under Erholung des Korpers und Geiste (p. 84). NB: This later edition of Gutsmuths’ classic was revised and augmented to include the passage cited here.
10. Prospective Missions in Abyssinia (Boston, 1834), p. 74. “[W]hole villages engage in a game, which they call Kersa, similar to the English game of bandy, or ball. I presume it’s the same game we call bat ball.”
11. Daily Cleveland Herald: Apr. 24, 1867.
12. Long, T. 1933. Forty Letters to Carson Long (pp. 30–31).
13. Block 2004, 132.
14. Some accounts imply that the names base, baseball, goal ball, and round ball were used interchangeably.
15. Lambert, J., and H. Reinhard. 1914. A History of Catasaqua in Lehigh County (p. 364). Mason, W. 1954. The Journal of William Franklin Mason, from: ftp.rootsweb.com/pub/usgenweb/ky/elliott/mason/mason29.txt.
16. “Sports in Old Brooklyn,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle: Oct. 21, 1894, p. 21.
17. Abraham Mills and William Cogswell recalled playing a three-base game at the Union Hall Academy around 1850. This game featured plugging, the use of flat bats, and the imposition of foul territory when players were few. Cogswell letter to Mills, Jan. 19, 1905.
18. Block 2004, 127–128.
19. Ibid., 128–129.
20. Lovett, J. 1906. Boston Boys and the Games They Played (p. 46). Lovett describes only the cat and cat-stick, and celebrates one batter’s ability to hit the cat as far as possible using the “three strokes allowed in this game.”
21. Sihler, E. 1922. “College and Seminary Life,” in Ebenezer, W. Dau, ed. (p. 253).
22. Touch ball was the local name for rounders in the West Riding area of England, and was then a game played without a bat.
23. Wiley, B. 2007. The Life of Johnny Reb (p. 159). It is possible that Wiley here means to refer to long town ball.
24. Hershberger, R., email of Dec. 17, 2010.
25. Among these lesser games we would find “the bat-and-ball,” round cat, three o’ cat, four o’ cat and the later games of stickball, punchball, kickball, and the modern game of Finnish Baseball, pesapallo.

My 19th Century Pantheon

Before I provide my list of personal pre-1900 household gods, let me run through a brief history of baseball fame to show why we might reasonably be dissatisfied with the nineteenth century’s representation in Cooperstown.  I do not propose that the Baseball Hall of Fame remove any plaques or install any; I am wholly content to create an imaginary pantheon all my own, with the hopeful belief that others may be interested in my views. For some years I was consternated that Morgan Bulkeley was in and William Hulbert was not, but that has been remedied.

In populating my personal pantheon of pre-1900 baseball worthies, I have evaluated not greatness as might be measured by modern statistics, but importance: Could the history of the game, I ask, be written without this figure’s contributions? For some individuals, the findings detailed in my new book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden, will tend to make my case; I am hoping you will read it, although none of what follows was directly addressed there.

The phrase “Baseball Hall of Fame” made its first appearance in the December 15, 1907 Washington Post, in a story about the top managers of the day, “the greatest galaxy of baseball brains.” Barely three years later, Baseball Magazine announced its intention to form (in print, anyway) “The Hall of Fame for the Immortals of Baseball; Comprising the Greatest Players in the History of the Game.” Inspiring the magazine’s editors, no doubt, was the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, founded in New York City in 1900 (many mistakenly think that the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown was the nation’s first such institution).

In the previous century, Henry Chadwick had often rambled about the best players he had seen in his long exposure to the game, and he had done much to espouse statistics as the superior way to judge a player: “Many a dashing general player, who carries off a great deal of éclat in prominent matches, has all ‘the gilt taken off the gingerbread,’ as the saying is, by these matter-of-fact figures,” he wrote in 1864. “And we are frequently surprised to find that the modest but efficient worker, who has played earnestly and steadily through the season, apparently unnoticed, has come in, at the close of the race, the real victor.”

Chadwick’s statistics, rudimentary as they were, were a necessary corrective to the flowery praise that came to so many early players for their pluck, their headiness, their dash and daring. As the number of statistics exploded in the 1870s, it became increasingly difficult to credit such intangibles; who was the greatest hero of the age might still be left to those of a poetic bent, but identifying the best batter or fielder at a position was now a matter of record, in the New York Clipper and elsewhere. Not until the 1890s did newspapers begin to conduct surveys among veteran players as to who had been the top player of all, and the answers were most often King Kelly, Buck Ewing, and Cap Anson. The Reach Guide of 1894 featured a section entitled “Who Is the King Player?” that contained the opinions of such stalwarts as George Wright, Al Spalding, Fred Pfeffer, and Frank Selee, supporting the claims on fame of, respectively, Cal McVey, Ross Barnes, Ewing, Kelly, and Wright himself.

“The problem of selecting [a current] All-America nine,” Baseball Magazine’s editors wrote in the January 1911 issue, “is a slight one compared with the task of picking out the greatest players in history. Here it would seem that the most ardent fan has the haziest kind of a notion, and the conflict among such opinions as are expressed, is very great. The older generation of fans is pretty much of the opinion that the old-time ball players were in a class by themselves, while the younger generation can see nothing but the brilliant feats of some of our present-day stars. The real unprejudiced truth, we imagine, lies somewhere between these two extremes. . . .” 

Over the next six months, Baseball Magazine named 18 men to its Hall of Fame, beginning with “three names of famous ball players who, we feel sure, would be entitled to almost universal consent, to a place in our list.” These three were Cap Anson, Ed Delahanty, and King Kelly. The last three named were the first whose careers were principally if not entirely in the new century: Nap Lajoie, Honus Wagner, and Ty Cobb. Of the twelve in between, six may come as a surprise to modern fans: pitcher Charlie Ferguson and outstanding fielders Ed Williamson, Charlie Bennett, Fred Pfeffer, Jerry Denny, and James Fogarty. Although these six were all well known to fans of 1911, only 25 years later, when Cooperstown began its election process, all of them were consigned to the dustbin of history, their reputations never to revive (as those of, for example, Roger Connor, Mickey Welch and Sam Thompson would do in the 1970s, thanks to The Baseball Encyclopedia’s unearthing of their expanded statistical records).

In 1936 the Baseball Hall of Fame conducted its first elections, polling 226 members of the Baseball Writers Association as well as an old-timers’ committee of 78. The writers elected the “founding five” of Ruth, Wagner, Cobb, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson; failing to get the required 170 votes were Lajoie, Tris Speaker and Cy Young, all of whom were elected the following year. Grover Cleveland Alexander made the cut in 1938 and George Sisler, Eddie Collins, Willie Keeler, and Lou Gehrig entered in 1939. (Keeler thus became the only nineteenth-century player to be elected to the Hall; all the others were selected by committee.) In the veterans’ election of 1936, no one garnered the necessary 75 percent. The two top vote-getters (tied at 40) were Anson and Ewing. By the time the Hall opened its doors on June 12, 1939, they were joined by old-timers Morgan Bulkeley, George Wright, Connie Mack, John McGraw, Henry Chadwick, Charles Comiskey, Candy Cummings, Al Spalding, Ban Johnson, and Alexander Cartwright.

Where Baseball Magazine had tabbed 18 men in 1911, Cooperstown welcomed 25 . . . but only 8 were honored in common. The early candidates for baseball’s best appeared to have been placed on not marble pedestals but greased poles.

When the Associated Press conducted a poll in 1950 to select the “Ten Most Outstanding in Sports,” four were baseball players, if you count Jim Thorpe, the leading vote-getter; the three fulltime players were Ruth (second), Cobb (fourth), and Gehrig (ninth). When the AP conducted its Athlete of the Century poll in 1999, Ruth stood atop the heap, with Thorpe dropping to third. No other baseball player made it into the top 10. Of the 100 athletes named, the only baseball players who commenced their careers after 1965 were Cal Ripken (82) and Mark McGwire (84). The message was clear: baseball is your father’s game.

ESPN’s Sports Century poll of that same year seconded the sentiment. Of the top 100 athletes, 20 were selected for their baseball accomplishments alone, while three were multi-sport stars whose baseball exploits would not have been enough to place them on the list. Although 20 is a very respectable number, more than that for any other sport, this was a list topped by Michael Jordan and included many athletes only recently retired; ESPN’s baseball players all had commenced their careers before 1965.

But 1999 also produced another poll, one unconcerned with other sports and designed to display the diamond of the present amid the glories of the past: Major League Baseball’s All-Century Team. In a dry run in 1969, the centennial of professional baseball, the Baseball Writers Association had named Ruth the game’s all-time outstanding player, outdistancing Cobb, Wagner and Joe DiMaggio, who was named the greatest living player. Thirty years later Joe was gone from the scene and, at a memorable All-Star Game at Boston’s Fenway Park, an ailing Ted Williams, surrounded by the giants of the game, was its heartwarming embodiment of greatness.

A “blue-ribbon panel” (on which I served) had selected the 100 all-time greats from whom the fans, in a nationwide poll, would choose 25. Then, because the popular vote had predictably given short shrift to some indisputable luminaries of yore, the panel added five more (Warren Spahn, Lefty Grove, Stan Musial, Mathewson, and Wagner), plus four stars to honor the Negro Leagues (Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, and Buck Leonard; Satchel Paige somehow integrated himself into oblivion by pitching in the “big leagues” after the age of 42).

The outcome was fascinating, as much for who was out as who was in, and for the disparities in vote totals among players who were statistically quite comparable. The Hall of Fame’s founding five all made the team (though Wagner and Mathewson required a boost from the panel). One active player made it (Ken Griffey Jr.) and six others who had commenced their careers after 1965. Of the original pool of 100 players, 6 were active and 18 others had commenced their careers after 1965. The undertow of baseball’s past was strong but the modern generation held its own. Ruth pulled in the most votes, with 1,158,044, but Henry Aaron trailed him by less than 1,300.

However, an asterisk attaches to Ruth and it may not be blasphemous to think that Williams, Mays, Aaron, Pujols, and Bonds may have been greater players. Reflect that Ruth faced pitchers who threw complete games about half the time (today it is 3.4 percent), and thus faced the same delivery through four to six plate appearances; he faced no relievers as we understand them today. Reflect that Ruth never had to hit at night. Reflect that African Americans never graced the same field as Ruth; had they done so, many white players would have lost their positions and the overall level of competition would have risen. One could add that Ruth never faced a slider or a split-fingered fastball; rarely faced a pitcher who would throw a breaking ball when behind in the count, and on. Ruth may have been better than any baseball player ever was or will be; however, it defies reason to claim that Ruth’s opposition was likewise better. Ruth’s dominance was not only the measure of Ruth; it was also the measure of the competition he faced. To the extent that the league performs at an average level that from a later perspective seems easily attained, a colossus may so far outdistance his peers as to create records that are unapproachable for all time.

When Williams retired in 1960, it was beyond imagining that we could reasonably compare batters of one era against batters of another simply by measuring the extent to which they surpassed the league average; now it is a commonplace. But the large question that remains unanswered, and is perhaps not perfectly answerable, is: how to compare one era’s average level of play to that of another. In swimming, track, basketball, football, hockey, golf—any sport you can name—the presumption is that today’s athletes are bigger, stronger, better trained, and, on average, more proficient. World athletic records—in such competitions as the 100-meter dash, the 1500-meter run, the shot-put, discus, javelin, high jump, 100-meter freestyle in swimming—have all been bettered by at least 15 percent and in some events by far, far more.

Only baseball, with its Punch and Judy battle between pitcher and batter to entertain the public while rules makers and ballpark architects invisibly pull strings from above, labors to maintain the illusion that nothing changes in the grand old game. A dollar in 1900 may not bear much resemblance to a dollar in 2011, but a .300 batting average remains the mark of a good hitter. Only in baseball do fans bemoan expansion, deride talent dilution and deteriorating fundamentals, and imagine that a legendary team, such as the New York Yankees of 1927, would defeat all comers if they could be teleported to the American League East of 2011. This idea is patently silly—the game on the field today is better than it ever was—but it testifies to the grip of the past in this sport and this sport alone. And that is a great thing.

So here is my personal Hall of Fame for the years prior to 1900, listed alphabetically.  Anyone currently enshrined in Cooperstown is enshrined for me, too—even if the basis of his support may today be seen as questionable—but these immortals are not listed below; for a full list of Cooperstown’s elite see: http://baseballhall.org/sites/default/files/all/Documents/hofers_alphabetical4.pdf.

Recall that my principal criterion is importance rather than playing statistics, especially given my belief that the average level of skill in the period was low, and you will understand why many of the era’s best players (Bob Caruthers, Tony Mullane, Pete Browning, George Van Haltren, et al.) are not represented in Cooperstown’s hall or mine. The importance of most of those named below will be evident from a reading of Baseball in the Garden of Eden, but I encourage you to poke around the web, too. Queries and objections may be addressed to me in the Comments section; certainly my views are arguable.

Thorn’s Hall of Fame

Doc Adams

Ross Barnes

Esteban Bellan

Charlie Bennett

Jim Creighton

Bill Dahlen

James Whyte Davis

Bob Ferguson

Bud Fowler

Joe Leggett

Bobby Mathews

Cal McVey

A.G. Mills

Dickey Pearce

Frank Pidgeon

Lipman Pike

Al Reach

Joe Start

Harry Stovey

William C. Temple

Louis F. Wadsworth

Fleet Walker

William R. Wheaton

Deacon White

Polish Workers Play Ball at Jamestown, Virginia in 1609

With this first of sixteen articles by several scholars of baseball’s earliest period, a picture will begin to emerge of how the game first flowered in America. (For regular readers of the Our Game blog, my own contributions will be interspersed with these excerpts from Base Ball.) The article below, by David Block, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball. Larry McCray, the guest editor for this Spring 2011 publication, is the founder of the invaluable Protoball Project, a website where many of the early game’s top scholars have shared their finds. McCray is also a panelist on Major League Baseball’s Origins Committee, which I chair. So is Block, author of the pathbreaking Baseball before We Knew It (University of Nebraska, 2005), a research-intensive investigation of the game’s English roots. These articles constitute only a portion of the complete special issue and appear courtesy of the publisher. Each article is keyed to the larger Protoball Chronology appearing at http://www.retrosheet.org/Protoball/; for example, the article below, indexed as 1609.1, reflects that it is the first Protoball entry for the year 1609.

As the journal’s editor over its first five years, I encourage you to consider purchasing the “Special Origins Issue” or, better yet, subscribing to the semiannual. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/baseball.html.

1609.1 Polish Workers Play Ball at Jamestown, Virginia

An Early Hint of Continental Europe’s Influence on Baseball 

David Block

“Soon after the new year [we] initiated a ball game played with a bat…. We rolled rags to make balls…. Our game even attracted the savages who sat around the field, delighted with this Polish sport.”1

At the Jamestown Colony in Virginia in the year 1609, a handful of Polish craftsmen took a break from their work to engage in a bat and ball game called pilka palantowa, or “bat ball.”2 Among the spectators (according to one of the Polish players who wrote about it later in a memoir), were “the savages,” “who sat around the field, delighted with this Polish sport.”3 One wonders whether the Indians were truly enjoying the ball game, or sharing smiles over their secret plans to launch attacks against this settlement of intruders. Whatever the case, this first recorded instance of Europeans importing a bat and ball pastime into the New World did not become an immediate trendsetter. The Poles would soon pack up their tools and ballplaying equipment and return to Europe; it would fall to later generations of immigrants to implant the seeds of bat and ball play that would evolve into modern American baseball.

Still, as it turns out, that early–17th century appearance of pilka palantowa in America may have anticipated an influence on American baseball not previously recognized. Palant, as the old folk game is more commonly called today in Poland, is linked to an ancient family of northern European bat and ball pastimes that the Danish historian, Per Maigaard, broadly categorized as “longball.”4 In a 1941 article, Maigaard wrote that longball (he spelled it as one word, but it often appears as “long ball”) was played in many variations throughout Scandinavia, as well as in Germany and Poland. In broad terms he described it as a game with two bases (called a “batting home” and a “running home”), in which a batter situated at the batting home was served a ball from a pitcher, and then struck it as in baseball. After hitting the ball, the batter ran to the running home where he could remain, but could also reverse direction and return to the batting home if it was safe to do so. Multiple players were permitted to rest at the running home at the same time. Outs were recorded by fielders catching batted balls on the fly, or by “soaking” the runners between bases.5

In my 2005 book, Baseball before We Knew It, I paid little attention to long ball beyond acknowledging Maigaard’s theory that the game was ancestor to the “modern” ball sports of cricket, rounders, and baseball. I elected not to research the sport myself, believing that most potential source material would be written in languages I didn’t understand. Besides, my focus at the time was on the little-known game of English baseball and its likely role as the immediate predecessor of American baseball. While recognizing that long ball and other continental pastimes might have had some (as yet undefined) influence on the evolution of cricket and baseball in England, I did not at the time give any serious consideration to the notion that long ball might have crossed the ocean and played a role in the development of baseball over here.

Early baseball is a fluid field of study, however, and recent findings have inclined me to reexamine my thinking on the origins of baseball-like play in 18th century America. Because a game called baseball was already established in England by the 1750s, I had long assumed that similar activity on this side of the ocean was mostly, if not entirely, the result of its importation by English children. But this may not have been the full story, given that a growing body of evidence now suggests that the original English version of baseball was not played with a bat (the batter struck the ball with his or her bare hand).6 If I am right about this, it then raises the questions of how American baseball came to employ the bat, and whether European influences other than English ones played a role.

In following this line of inquiry I thought it would be useful to see how long ball might have fit into the picture. A Wikipedia search reveals the following definition for the game: “Danish Longball (sometimes called Swedish longball) is a bat-and-ball game founded in Denmark. It is popular in British secondary schools, and is played recreationally by scouts and by the British Navy and Australian Navy. It is also a popular sport at U.S. summer camps.”7 The Wikipedia article makes no mention of long ball’s antiquity, but does describe briefly how it is played; although a bit simplified, the modern game appears to be the same as the one described by Maigaard. Another website, True-Knowledge.com, adds that “Danish longball” today is “now played regularly in New York’s Adirondack Mountains.”8

That last point is interesting, because a further web search shows a surprising second claimant for long ball. Several sites, including that of the Iroquois Museum, imply that the game of long ball is not European at all, but a traditional Iroquois pastime.9 Can it be more than a coincidence that the Adirondack Mountains, mentioned above as a hotbed of Danish long ball, lay within what was once the territorial homeland of the Iroquois Six Nations? Adding to this curious confusion are some claims from a 2002 article by Dan Ninham that appeared in The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation& Dance. According to Ninham, “Long Ball began among the Iroquois people of New York and continues to be played among the Iroquois in Wisconsin, New York, and Canada.”10 He went on to describe how the game is played, characterizing it as a two-base, bat and ball sport—complete with soaking—that matches closely the various other descriptions of Danish long ball that have appeared in print from Maigaard onward.

I have to say that I am dubious of the Iroquois claim to long ball. Certainly, most American Indian tribes, including the member tribes of the Six Nations, were highly skilled at ballplaying, and practiced a wide variety of traditional ball sports. None of these, according to my own research and to that of the ethnographer Stewart Culin, have been shown to bear any resemblance to baseball, or to related bat and ball games like long ball. Still, you have to wonder how a legend like this took hold.

Whether Danish or Iroquoian, the unexpected presence in modern American society of the ancient game of long ball led me to start digging backwards into history to see how this situation came to be. Was long ball recently reimported to these shores, or has it been here all along? Has it been stealthily creeping along beneath our notice for centuries, quietly influencing the evolution of American baseball, and even, as unlikely as it seems, the possible source for our use of the bat?

Surprisingly, evidence of long ball was not too hard to find. In the early decades of the 20th century it was often mentioned as an excellent game for playgrounds and gymnasiums, with one school official in Dallas gushing that “the game of longball is probably the best of all ball games for a large number of players in a limited space.”11 It is obvious that the pastime being discussed in these references is essentially the same two-base, bat and ball game described above, minus any mention of Danish or Iroquoian roots.

Turning back the clock a little further, I found an 1863 letter from a soldier in the 6th Massachusetts Regiment that appeared in his hometown newspaper. In it he wrote: “Our regiment indulged in various games, including foot and long ball.”12 Evidently, the pastime was bipartisan in those days, because I found another reference to it in an Alabama newspaper published in 1860 on the eve of the Civil War.13

In the inaugural issue of this journal four years ago, Joanne Hulbert educated us about the New England tradition of playing baseball on Fast Days. The game of long ball apparently joined in on this practice too, as the following clip from an April 30, 1847, issue of a New Hampshire paper reveals:

“FAST. This time-hallowed, if not time-honored occasion, was observed in the usual way. The ministers preached to pews exhibiting a beggarly emptiness…. The b-boys smoked cigars, kicked football, payed [sic] round ball, long ball, an [sic] old cat, and went generally into the outward observances peculiar to the occasion.”14

But the earliest evidence of long ball in America that I was able to find associates it with another holiday: Election Day. An 1831 article appearing in the National Aegis of Worcester, Massachusetts, excoriated the state legislature for moving Election Day from May to January. The article detailed the traditional enjoyments of the holiday that would be lost by moving it to winter: “Then amusements were planned; then were hunting matches and fishing parties made; then was the quoit hurled in the air; then were cricket, base and long-ball played; then were sports of every kind, appropriate to the season, sought after and enjoyed with peculiar zest.”15

So it would seem that the game of long ball has been with us in the United States for at least the better part of two centuries, mentioned in the same phrases as the more familiar names of cricket, baseball, and round ball, and yet, to the best of my knowledge, unknown or ignored by all of us who purport to be historians of these pastimes. For the past century we have descriptions of long ball in this country that, more or less, agree with each other. And, it should be noted, such descriptions are consistent with the way European sources describe various forms of the game, whether they be Maigaard’s general description of long ball from 1941, or modern Polish accounts of palant, or the description of a German version of long ball, das deutsche Ballspiel, that author J. C. F. Gutsmuths provided way back in 1796 in his pioneering book on games and sports.16

If, as this suggests, long ball has always, more or less, been long ball, the question is: How did it get here? If the Poles initially brought their version here in 1609, they may well have brought it again at some later date. Certainly, German immigrants to North America in the 18th century were plentiful, and one eyewitness account from 1753 described boys at a German–Dutch settlement in upstate New York playing a bat and ball game.17 Could this have been a version of long ball? There is no dispute that the pastime was played in Denmark, but Danish settlers in colonial America were few and far between, and it is therefore unlikely that they were responsible for implanting long ball over here.

But, wait a minute. There were some earlier Danish visitors, weren’t there? Way, way earlier. You don’t suppose Leif Ericson and that crowd had anything to do with bringing long ball here? In a way, that could explain how after a thousand years the Iroquois could reasonably have come to believe that the game was theirs. Just a thought.

The final question is a big one: Could long ball have been the source for the bat in American baseball? For this, like so many other questions about the early history of baseball, we have no definite answer; yet it does give us something new to cogitate about. Long ball was here in America, apparently all along. It is a game played with bat and ball, and one that is far more baseball-like than cricket. Given that early English baseball was played without a bat, what better candidate than long ball to supply the missing ingredient that transformed the simple English game into its more robust American counterpart?


1. Block, D. 2005. Baseball before We Knew It (p. 101). Translated and excerpted in: Waldo, A. 1977. The True Heroes of Jamestown (p. 128). The original volume: Stefanski, Z. 1625. Memorialium Commercatoris (Amsterdam: Adreasa Bickera).

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Block 2005, 97–98. Maigaard, P. 1941. “Battingball Games,” Genus 5.1–2, 57–72.

5. Block 2005, 261–264.

6. My findings regarding the absence of a bat in English baseball are summarized in the accompanying essay in this issue of Base Ball (“Item 1744.2—A Little Pretty Pocket-Book Published”).

7. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danish_longball

8. http://www.trueknowledge.com/q/facts_about_danish_longball

9. nativevoices.org/articles/tribal_gifts.htm (see also: http://www.iroquoismuseum.org/edprog.htm).

10. Ninham, D. 2002. “The Games of Life: Integrating Multicultural Games in Physical Education,” Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance 73.

11. “School Girl Officers Instructed in Games,” Dallas Morning News: Jan. 30, 1910 (p. 40). See also: Mero, E. 1908. American Playgrounds: Their Construction, Equipment, Maintenance and Utility (pp. 158–159).

12. “Letter from the Sixth Regiment,” Lowell Daily Citizen and News: Jan. 2, 1863, p. 2.

13. “Letter from an Old Man in the Country,” The Daily Confederation (Montgomery, Ala.): Mar. 3, 1860, p. 2 (originally from the Huntsville Advocate).

14. New Hampshire Statesman and State Journal (Concord, N.H.): Apr. 30, 1847, col. B (originally from the Nashua Telegraph).

15. “’Lection Day,” National Aegis (Worcester, Mass.): June 15, 1831, p. 1 (originally from the New York Constellation).

16. Block 2005, 72–73. Gutsmuths, J. 1796. Spiele zur Uebung und Erholung des Körpers und Geistes, für die Jugend, ihre Erzieher und alle Freunde Unschuldiger Jugendfreuden (pp. 57–77).

17. Block 2005, 310. “A Letter from Rev. Gideon Hawley, of Marshpee, containing a Narrative of his Journey to Onohoghgwage in 1753,” Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society for 1794 1.4.

From Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Spring 2011) © Edited by John Thorn by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640. www.mcfarlandpub.com.

Safe at Home

This week, nearly 75 years after his death in New York City, Hall of Fame second baseman Frank Grant received a headstone in the East Ridgelawn Cemetery of Clifton, New Jersey. Buried in a town in which he never had lived, Grant rests in a pauper’s grave in Section 14, Block B, Row E, Number 6. “Maybe there wasn’t enough room,” said Gary Sciarrino, the cemetery’s general manager, “in any of the ones in New York and that’s why he was buried here.”

The announcement in 2006 that the Baseball Hall of Fame would welcome Grant as one of 17 new members was a big story indeed, even though none stepped to the podium at the Cooperstown ceremony to accept a plaque. All were dead, some for more than half a century. This largest induction class in the institution’s history was composed entirely of African American players and executives who made their mark in segregated ball, before Jackie Robinson broke the modern color barrier in 1947.

National coverage at the time tended to focus on two individuals: Effa Manley, co-owner of the Newark Eagles, who became the first woman among the 278 baseball greats immortalized to that time; and Buck O’Neil, at 94 years old the living symbol of Negro League baseball, for whom nine votes inexplicably could not be found on the twelve-person electoral committee. Thrust back into the shadows where they had long languished were the other 16 new Hall of Famers, including Frank Grant, by all accounts the best African American player of the nineteenth century yet one whose life story is barely known.

I could see then, in the wake of the mass induction, that that I had been circling around Frank Grant for nearly 25 years, since Jerry Malloy of Mundelein, Illinois, sent me a manuscript that I would publish in 1983 in The National Pastime as “Out at Home,” which detailed baseball’s drawing of the color line. Before Jim Crow, blacks and whites had been playing on integrated teams, even at the highest level (Moses Fleetwood Walker and his brother Weldy played with Toledo of the American Association, then a major league, in 1884; William Edward White had played one game with Providence of the National League five years before that). It was in 1887 that race relations came to a boil in the International League, whose star player was Frank Grant of Buffalo, and Malloy told the tale brilliantly.

The light-skinned Grant, described as a “Spaniard” in the Buffalo Express, had batted .325 for Meriden, Connecticut, in the Eastern League in 1886. When that team folded in midseason he joined Buffalo and continued his fine play. The following year he would lead the circuit, renamed as the International League, in home runs with 11 while batting .340 and stealing 40 bases. He played second base so skillfully that he was called “The Black Dunlap,” evoking comparison to Fred Dunlap, the big-league paragon at the position. Grant was joined in the International League by other standout black players, including catcher Fleet Walker, second baseman Bud Fowler, and pitchers George Stovey and Bob Higgins. This prompted Sporting Life to wonder, “How far will this mania for engaging colored players go?” [In some period accounts quoted below, language regarded as offensive today is reproduced verbatim.]

“It’s no disgrace to be black, but it’s often very inconvenient,” wrote James Weldon Johnson in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. The 1887 campaign was damned inconvenient for Grant. According to a Toronto World account of the game that Buffalo played in that city on July 27, “the crowd confined itself to blowing their horns and shouting ‘Kill the nigger!’”

Treatment from opposing players and teammates was scarcely better. Ned Williamson, second baseman of the Chicago White Stockings, told Sporting Life:

“The Buffalos had a Negro for second base. He was a few shades blacker than a raven, but was one of the best players in the Eastern League [original name of the International League]. The players of the opposing team made it a point to spike this brunette Buffalo. They would tarry at second when they might easily make third just to toy with the sensitive shins of the second baseman. To give the frequent spiking of the darky an appearance of accident the ‘feet-first’ slide was practised. The poor man played only two games out of five, the rest of the time he was on crutches.”

Grant and Fowler had taken to wearing wooden shin-guards at second base and thus, ironically, may take credit for inventing what we think of today as catchers’ gear. Although the International League ruled that no blacks could be signed for the 1888 campaign, Buffalo retained Grant’s services. He continued to star, hitting .346 — but he moved to the outfield. By 1889 the league had effectively banished black players and Grant began his long journey into segregated ball and, ultimately, invisibility.

Born as Ulysses Franklin Grant on August 1, 1865, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Frank Grant was the youngest of seven then surviving children born to Frances and Franklin Grant. The family had moved to Pittsfield from Dalton, where Franklin had been employed as a farm laborer, presumably because he had died. By 1870 he was not with the family as it relocated to Williamstown. Just above the Grants’ listing on the census sheet is one for the Perry family, consisting of Williams College professor Arthur L. Perry, his wife Mary, and their five children: daughter Grace and sons Bliss, Arthur Jr., Walter, and Carroll.

Frank Grant would go on to fame, and so would Bliss Perry, as editor of The Atlantic from 1899 to 1909; as a beloved professor of English at Williams, Princeton, Harvard, and the University of Paris; and as a prolific writer of novels, short fiction, essays, studies in poetry, and an autobiography titled And Gladly Teach. In this work he reminisced:

“In the woods and fields I was perfectly happy, and also when I was playing ball. Somehow I had been chosen captain of a nine, at twelve. Two of the players, Clarence and Frank Grant, were colored boys, sons of our ‘hired girl.’ Clarence became, in time, catcher and captain of the Cuban Giants, and Frank (whose portrait I drew later in a novel called The Plated City) was a famous second baseman for Buffalo before the color line was drawn. Rob Pettit, our left fielder, afterward played for Chicago and went around the world with Pop Anson’s team. We called ourselves the ‘Rough and Readys.'”

The Plated City has to do with the people of a Connecticut manufacturing town, given the name of Bartonvale, chiefly concerned in the production of plated tableware. “The central motive of the story, however,” wrote a reviewer in The Atlantic in 1895, the year of the book’s publication by Scribner, “is the racial instinct which in the Anglo-American mind precludes any social equality with a person having a taint of the negro in him or her.”

Unpromising as that potboiler theme may appear, the chapter on baseball is eerily compelling. It depicts an African-American second baseman, Tom Beaulieu, trying to pass as a “Spaniard” named Mendoza while playing for a major-league team, the “Buccaneers,” against the Giants at the Polo Grounds. Alas, a group of excursionists from Bartonvale recognize Mendoza as their hometown player, who had starred in the Connecticut State League the previous year before heading out to play in California. The press reports the odd stirrings among the spectators, and Mendoza’s true identity, with explicit reference to the professional-baseball color line. Mendoza/Beaulieu is released days later.

Clearly the model for the second baseman is Frank Grant. Yet the story, published in 1895, is nearly identical in its outline to the celebrated Chief Tokohama story of 1902 in which Baltimore Orioles manager John McGraw tried to pass off Charlie Grant, another fine African-American second baseman who had played with Chicago’s Columbia Giants, as a full-blooded Cherokee. However, Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey — also with spring-training facilities in Hot Springs, Arkansas — outed “Tokie,” who sheepishly returned to the Columbia Giants. “If Muggsy really keeps this Indian,” Comiskey is reported to have said, “I will get a Chinaman of my acquaintance and put him on third.”

The Washington Post of March 31, 1901 had stated, “There is a report in circulation that Manager McGraw’s Indian player is not a Cherokee at all, but is the old-time colored player, Grant.” The Post writer surely was confusing the two Grants, as Charlie was at most 25 years old in 1901, and had commenced professional play in 1896, while Frank was 36 and had begun his career a decade earlier.

W. E. B. DuBois had the notion that being a black man in America means that one is inherently two people at once: a black man and an American. The mixup with Charlie Grant can only have added to Frank’s sense of expropriated identity. After leaving the Buffalo club in 1889, Frank played for many teams, though mostly for the Cuban Giants. On September 1, 1892, Frederick Douglass came to Washington’s National Park to watch Grant and his Cuban Giants play against the “colored” All-Washingtons. Grant also appeared with top black teams like the Cuban X-Giants (1898-99), the Genuine Cuban Giants (1900-01), and the Philadelphia Giants (1902-03), and barnstormed in towns along the Hudson and Housatonic rivers. After 1905 the trail of his playing record goes cold, though he was invited to play in a 1909 benefit game for the ailing Bud Fowler, an African-American baseball pioneer who had written, “If I had not been quite so black, I might have caught on as a Spaniard or something of that kind…. My skin is against me.”

In the 1910 New York City census, the 44-year-old Frank Grant lived on Minetta Street in Greenwich Village, with his wife of five years, Celia, and her son Frank Moore. He offered his occupation, perhaps nostalgically, as “Baseball Player.”

In later years Grant worked as a waiter, as he and his brothers had in the Perry household way back in Williamstown. He died on May 27, 1937, with no one in baseball knowing that he yet lived.

And yet … when Jackie Robinson made his spectacular International League debut on April 19, 1946, getting four hits in Montreal’s 14-1 rout of Jersey City, the New York Times story concluded thus: “There have been other Negro players in the International League. Ernie Lanigan supplied the information that a Frank Grant played at second base for Buffalo and a Moses Walker caught for Newark in a game between those two teams on April 30, 1887.”

Jackie Robinson stood on the shoulders of others, their greatness shrouded in obscurity.

Ya Gotta Believe

I have written about baseball for nearly four decades now. At first I sat in the stands, looking down at the field and writing about what I saw. Then I began to wonder about what might really be going on, hidden from sight yet discernible from the game’s statistical residue. Over time, as the fascination of numbers waned, I gravitated to the game’s largely unvisited necropolis of ancient worthies and uncharted exploits, the men who grew up with the game in the years before league play.

And there I settled in, hanging out a shingle as baseball historian despite its queasy echoes of real-estate novelist, only to have that title made official this year. I investigated how far back this children’s romp with bat and ball really went, how it came to be Our Game, and why so many have registered claims to paternity.

Lately, however, I have begun to think that instead of surveying the fields of play for the Great Story of Baseball I might better have looked at the individuals surrounding me in the stands, and their antecedents, the ones who more than any ingenious lad made baseball the national pastime. It was the spectator—not a Doubleday or a Cartwright, neither a Chadwick nor a Spalding—who transformed baseball from a boys’ game into a nation’s sport.

Around the time of the Civil War, members of the press used to call the strangely ardent spectators enthusiasts or thirty-third-degree experts concerning the game of ball. (They used to call some of them pickpockets and drunks and rowdies, too.) By the early 1880s the baseball-mad were commonly called cranks or bugs, both terms intended to reference chronic and incurable illness, with more than a dash of lunacy. In the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of April 18, 1884 an ex-Governor of Maryland noted:

“There is a man in the Government Hospital for the Insane who is perfectly sane on every subject except base ball. He knows more about base ball than any other man in America. The authorities have humored him so that he has been able to cover the walls of his large room with intricate schedules of games played since base ball began its career. He has the record of every important club and the individual record of every important player…. He has figured it all out. His sense has gone with it. He is the typical base ball crank.”

On the other hand, baseball had also been recognized as an aid to the “moral management of the insane” at the McLean Asylum—then located in Charlestown, Massachusetts, not too far from Fenway Park—as noted one year before Doubleday’s purported invention of the game (in The Friend; a Religious and Literary Journal, June 23, 1838). When it comes to baseball, evidently, there ain’t no sanity clause.

Where the term fan came from has long been in dispute, with some saying it was short for fanatic—which would be in line with crank and bug—while others have seen in it a truncation of the eighteenth-century term “the fancy,” a flock of aristocratic fops who enjoyed slumming with the rabble at boxing matches. I am persuaded, however, by Peter Morris’s interpretation that fan was a term players worked up to deride their bleacher nemeses, and that it was a trope for the endlessly flapping motion of all those cognitively detached tongues.

Rooter was not exactly a term of endearment, either. Today we may imagine that rooting has something to do with attachment to our team and the nourishment taken from its native soil … but in truth it derives from the bellowing of cattle, the undifferentiated herd to which otherwise rational individuals willingly surrender their good sense at a ball game.

Whatever one calls the baseball devotee—seam head, stat freak, nerd, and geek are but a few of the recent coinages—the object of the epithet is nonplussed and, knowing that his detractors simply do not understand, he tends to wear the epithet as a badge of honor. For some fans social maladjustment is indeed a lifelong affliction, meriting empathy and respect, yet for most it is temporary and elective: a rented costume and mask, a three-hour license to act badly and get sloshed before the seventh-inning shutdown of the taps. To these revelers the game is irrelevant and the honorable term fan does not describe them.

Rooting is all about vicarious experience, surrogacy, sublimation, and emulation. When we cheer for our favorites or implore them to win we are doing many other things as well: reenacting archaic rites, reliving past glories, transferring powers from our heroes to ourselves and, by emulating warfare rather than engaging in it, ensuring the future of the world. In sharing an experience that, like faith, insists upon no generational divide, boys learn what it is like to be men and men recall what it was like to be boys. The ballpark, even when visited through electronic media, forms a magic circle in which all this metaphysical swirl underlies not a staged drama or religious rite, with their preordained outcomes, but a real life struggle in which risk is everywhere present.

This is what fans do: they congregate (yes, even when alone in front of the television) to invite change, risk, uncertainty into their lives, confronting danger and loss yet emerging to face another day. Spectating is, at a sublimated level, of course, akin to the experience of gambling or mountain climbing—that is, flirting with suicide. Besides the vicarious thrill of an uncertain outcome, fans build belief in themselves for the more significant contests ahead in their own lives. Baseball in America is a sort of faith for the faithless, and its seven virtues are the same as those of religion—faith, hope, charity, fortitude, justice, prudence, and moderation. All these are traits that might sustain a man or a fan.

Adults who come to the game late tend to make rational decisions about which team to embrace, as a forty-year-old might choose a marriage partner; it can be a cold and dispiriting business. A boy, however, selects his team for a range of reasons he only dimly understands at the time, with a cheerful obliviousness about who is choosing whom. It would not be too much to say that reason does not enter into his choice; it is almost entirely a matter of faith. [This applies to girls, too; I talk about boys and men and their pronouns for efficacies of style and because I never understood girls or women.] What must be comprehended at the outset, by even the youngest fan, is that a rooting interest is not to be reversed lightly. A youngster who wavers in his allegiance may not amount to much. If his team loses today or tomorrow, or doesn’t finish first this year or next, it is a challenge to his faith and endurance, but it must be borne.

A fan’s hope is the unreasoning, inexplicable love of Krazy Kat for Ignatz: each blow to the head is merely a love tap, binding the victim ever more closely to the assailant. (Some call it hope; others will call it neurosis.) Maintaining faith, an ongoing, in-the-moment process, can be a struggle in the face of misfortune and injustice (“we wuz robbed!”). But hope is forward-looking and, thanks especially to spring training, is cyclically renewable.

Charity enables the fan to appreciate the human frailty of the players. A child may regard these rented champions for our shires as heroes but a grownup fan may not. Disbelief may be suspended, especially in April, but a real baseball fan embraces reality before the end of October forces it upon him. Closers blow saves; infielders make errors on routine plays at awful times; cleanup hitters strike out with men on base. Yes, playing the scapegoat is part of the tribal role for which players sign on. Yes, this is the game you played when you were young … and from a distance it still looks easy. But No, you would not have done better in their place. As an attitude borne in silence, charity is commendable; voiced in defense of a player sorely abused in your presence—now that is a true virtue.

Fortitude is staying until the game is over, even when your team trails by ten and has lost every game for a week straight and the traffic going home will be murder. In the same summer of 1973 that the Mets’ Tug McGraw declared, “Ya gotta believe,” Yogi Berra famously added, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Less familiar is the knowledge that he left early in Game 3 of the 1951 National League playoff and thus missed Bobby Thomson’s home run. Fortitude need not be exercised solo; rally caps, crossed fingers, thunder sticks, whatever fetishes you need to get you through the game, they’re all okay. Sure the players are important, but the outcome of the game depends upon you. Remember that.

Justice is being fair with others, even talk-radio callers, even fantasy baseball bores, even Yankees fans. Look upon these benighted souls with bemusement. Winning isn’t everything, and debilitates character. Let them pursue victory heedless of the ruin that awaits them in the next life. Can they gnash their teeth as you can? Certainly not. Right conduct and proper belief, even in the face of provocation, will get you somewhere, though not with girls. As Mark Twain said, “Always do right; this will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

Exercising prudence helps one to avoid excesses of optimism. When Tuffy Rhodes hit three home runs on Opening Day of 1994, he did not go on to hit 486 for the season. Don’t extrapolate from today’s good fortune. Don’t bet on the law of averages. Think twice about getting that tattoo of today’s hero. Don’t lead cheers from the stands; in primitive societies the Carnival King dies at revel’s end. Be calm and serene even when your insides are jumping with joy as your team has come back from three down in the ninth. This will deter gloating by others when your team blows that three-run lead in the ninth.

Okay, just kidding on that last virtue. Ya gotta enjoy. And ya gotta suffer. That’s the human condition, not simply the arm’s-length world of fandom.

So to toll the seventh of fandom’s virtues: employ moderation in all things, including moderation. You know that you are not playing shortstop for the Red Sox, though your emotions are racing as if you were. But face facts—there’s no stopping that rush of testosterone or fancied pheromones when your team improbably snatches victory at the last. Winning has its rewards; enjoy them, even while knowing, at the back of your mind somewhere, if you can recall where your mind went to, that losing is the superior instructor.

For this old boy, with more years behind than ahead, baseball is still at life’s core. Not in the same dizzying way as when I was ten years old and my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers left town and, more pointedly, me; not in the same way that the Mets swept to implausible glory in 1969, filling my heart with joy and my mind with the certainty that anything, yes, anything could happen. No longer in the same warming way as seeing my sons become first players and then fans for life. They are grown now, scattered, yet baseball remains a link for all of us. The game is what we talk about when we want to connect not only with each other but with our shared past.

Sport replaces faith for some while enhancing it for others. More importantly for Americans, and more specifically when it comes to baseball, sport constitutes family for the lonely among us and enlarges it for all of us. Albert Pujols and Ted Williams, Pedro Martinez and Tom Seaver form extended family at dinner tables; ballgames of days gone by are stored like holiday snapshots.

Still baseball, after all these years.

The Park in the City

Remember your first time in a big-league ballpark? How dark and cool and secret it felt to prowl the caverns under the grandstand, and how dazzling was that first view of the great green field when you emerged from the tunneled aisle? I can recall my first visit, to the Polo Grounds on May 12, 1957, not as if it were yesterday, which at my age I can only hazily recall, but sharply. My beloved Brooklyn Dodgers, behind lefthander Johnny Podres, shut out the New York Giants 5-0, and my idol, Duke Snider, hit a home run. My father, who knew nothing about baseball except that I was crazy about it, did not let on that I was imposing upon his bounteous good will, and — just like an American, which he had only recently become — even hollered vigorously for the peanut vendor to throw a bag our way. Yet for all the pleasures of that sun-splashed Sunday, the feeling that I can summon up most vividly today is transcendent awe before the great green field.

In the 1960s and 1970s the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field — like so many concrete-and-steel palaces of the 1910s — were replaced by a wave of cookie-cutter stadiums (“concrete ashtrays,” in the dead-on designation of ballpark historian Phil Lowry). Shea Stadium, inaugurated in 1964, the year of the memorably tacky Flushing World’s Fair, became less ugly once those orange and blue panels of corrugated metal were stripped from its exterior; today’s Citi Field is a huge upgrade. Yankee Stadium, built  in 1923, was eviscerated in 1974-75 and was then impersonated by a bowl with the former wedding-cake tracery; today’s Yankee Stadium is likewise far better than the modernized park it replaced.  Baltimore’s Camden Yards and Cleveland’s Jacobs Field — opened in 1992 and 1994, respectively — ushered in the retro era of ballpark design, restoring intimacy and human scale to the old ball game while threatening to make home runs ho-hum and pitchers extinct.

The old ballparks, by which I mean those constructed before 1962, have dwindled to two: Fenway Park in Boston (1912) and Chicago’s Wrigley Field (1914). These parks demonstrate that a venerable building, even if it is not an architectural masterpiece, comes to define its neighborhood, even its city, and becomes, like many landmark buildings, community property. Beyond that, a ballpark becomes a “people’s museum,” in that it is a repository of memory for the entire city: Wrigley or Fenway was the park to which your father took you to see the great green field, where you took your son or daughter and — if preservationists prevail — they will take theirs to have very much the same visual, communal, even religious experience. Where rural communities once were bound together by town meetings, husking bees, and town-ball games, heterogeneous urban communities can replicate that feeling of “belonging” nowhere better than at the ballpark.

Though Major League Baseball has produced only one franchise shift in the past 40years, that from Montreal to Washington, cities fear that they will lose stature and income if a ballclub moves out, while magnates feel confident that the grass is bound to be greener elsewhere. Both feelings persist despite the absence of evidence. Of course, shaking down the city for private gain is a time-honored practice, so we mustn’t be too hard on today’s sports barons. In 1824 John C. Stevens, proprietor of the Elysian Fields, where the Knickerbockers and other clubs would soon cavort,  lobbied New York City for capital to improve his Hoboken site. His request was denied, forcing him to finance his park on his own.

The Supreme Court said in its 1922 ruling (I’m simplifying here) that because baseball is essentially a localized sport and not a national enterprise, it should be exempted from compliance with Federal antitrust legislation. And this ruling, though seen as anomalous today because no other sport receives similar exemption, had precedent as early as 1869, when a W.C. Croesbuck of Lansingburgh, New York, who likely was connected with the famous Troy Haymakers, requested guidance from the Internal Revenue Service in Washington, D.C. His question was whether baseball games for which admission was charged were subject to the same tax as other exhibitions staged for profit. Thomas Hartland, Deputy Commissioner of the IRS, replied that baseball games were not to be taxed “as shows or exhibitions contemplated by section 108 of the Internal revenue laws, nor does [the IRS] regard such clubs as liable to special tax under paragraph 39 or section 79.”

This ruling came seven years before the founding of the National League, and only seven years after Brooklyn’s William Cammeyer launched the first ballpark at which admission was regularly charged, the Union Base Ball and Cricket Grounds. His brainstorm was to enclose the park within a fence so that paying fans might be admitted and freeloaders kept out. Previously, at such venues as the Elysian Fields of Hoboken and the Red House in Harlem, clubs would pay a license for use of the field but anyone who wished to watch was welcome to do so. Cammeyer’s innovation assured that the most powerful man in the game was the one who owned the field.

It’s interesting that until 1923, when the Yankees opened “the house that Ruth built” in the wilds of the Bronx, baseball had no stadium. Before that, the places where professionals assembled to play went by the plain old names that today are applied to amateur lots in America’s hamlets and towns: park, grounds, and field. The pleasure gardens of New York — saloons with ball courts that anticipated the Elysian Fields — the development of Central Park, the rise of the enclosed ballpark, and even today’s theme parks, all have in common the quest for Rus in Urbe: a park within the city or very near it so as to stir nostalgia for an irretrievable past.

The Closer

One week in July 2008 provided baseball fans and, particularly, devotees of the bullpen, with a full measure of sorrow and joy. On Monday, July 19, at age 81, the venerated baseball writer Jerome Holtzman, my predecessor in the post of MLB Historian, died; six days later, on Sunday, pitcher Goose Gossage entered the game’s Valhalla with induction into the Hall of Fame, capping a 22-year career as a relief pitcher of the old school. By that last phrase I mean a reliever who was called in to put out the fire whenever it happened to erupt, not merely a closer in the current style, one who enters the game in the ninth inning with no one on base, succeeds at a rate of 90 percent or higher and, for a winning club, amasses 40 or more saves in a season.

Gossage owed no small portion of his success to Holtzman, who in addition to being “the dean of baseball writers,” may fairly be said to have invented the very thing that measured a reliever’s success: the save. Certainly “inventing” is a term that is fraught with peril for the history of any field of innovation, more so for a game that long embraced Abner Doubleday as its Edison (or Tesla). And it is true that Pat McDonough — who oddly enough went on to become “the dean of bowling writers” — developed a similar stat in 1924 which he called “games finished by relief hurlers”; its first appearance in print came in the New York Telegram three years later.

At about this time the game’s first great reliever, Fred “Firpo” Marberry, had complained that “if the relief pitcher holds the opposing club in check, he gets no credit. The pitcher who preceded him and couldn’t stand the pace wins the game.” As the decades progressed, a little-noticed trend was taking shape: fewer complete games, and more clubs employing relief specialists. From 1876 to 1904, 90.5 per cent of all games were finished by the pitchers who had started them. In 1924 to 1946, that figure was nearly halved (45.9), in then in 1959 to 1978, nearly halved again (25.7). By 2007 the percentage of games completed by the starter had nosedived to 2.3 per cent, producing an all-time low in complete games (112) and, since 1894, shutouts (43).

Holtzman recognized in 1959-60 that something dramatic was happening on the field that was invisible in the box score and, by extension, at the bargaining table when relievers came to negotiate their salaries for the next season. As he told Darrell Horwitz in an interview in 2005: “Elroy Face was 18-1 with Pittsburgh in 1959. I was traveling with the Cubs. The Cubs had two relief pitchers: right-hander Don Elston and left-hander Bill Henry. They were constantly protecting leads and no one even knew about it.” It burned him that Face was piling up wins by blowing saves and then having the Pirates rally for him.

Holtzman, then with the Chicago Sun-Times, came up with fairly rigorous rules for crediting saves, and The Sporting News began listing the league leaders during the 1960 season. In Holtzman’s rules, to gain a save a reliever needed to face the potential tying or winning run and his team had to win the game. Interestingly, a pitcher did not have to finish the game to earn the save, but only one save could be awarded per contest. Think how this definition, were it in force today, might impact managers’ use of their best bullpen pitchers.

By 1969, the year in which Major League Baseball made the save an official statistic, Holtzman’s original definition was simplified to credit only a reliever who finished a game that his team won. In 1973 the save was redefined again so that a reliever had not only to finish the game but also to find the potential tying or winning run on base or at the plate, or, alternately, to pitch the final three innings of a victorious contest (whatever the score when he entered the game). In 1975 the rule was liberalized to include a reliever’s game-ending appearance of one inning or more in which he protects a lead of three runs or less; or his entrance into and ultimate completion of the game with the tying or winning run on base, at bat, or on deck; or his pitching three innings to the game’s conclusion.

Now that the complete game has become a near anachronism — although it has bounced modestly each season since the low point of 2007 — interest focuses increasingly on the closer and his motley band of setup men. In 1979 I published a book titled, now quaintly, The Relief Pitcher: Baseball’s New Hero. Apart from a painfully thorough review of bullpen history from the 1860s to 1978, which I closed with a profile of the Yankees’ new star Goose Gossage, I also made bold to predict bullpen trends.

“Gossage represents the future of relief pitching,” I wrote, “which rests in the hands of the power pitchers. This trend, slowly developing since the introduction of artificial turf a decade ago, repudiates the wisdom of the past 75 years, that in the pinch what was needed was a sinkerballer who could ‘throw those grounders’ and get those double plays….” One day soon, I concluded, “it will be meaningless to think of the starting pitcher as primary and the finishing pitcher as secondary; they will be equally important. We are not really far at all from that being the truth.” If my crystal ball has proved a bit cloudy, I point out in defense that I wrote the book at a time when smaller ballparks were being phased out for larger ones, Astroturf was supplanting grass, and a ball hit in the air was a better outcome than one hit on the ground.

Now that we are deep into the age of the closer, who piles up saves and thereby adulation, not to mention dollars, it may be instructive to contemplate both Gossage’s career, in which he compiled more than 50 saves of two innings or greater duration, and Holtzman’s original definition of a save — which supposed that the crisis in a game could come at any time, not only in the ninth. Any fan who has witnessed the bullpen blow up in the seventh or the eighth while the preordained closer awaited his star turn may testify to the truth of that.

Not all runs are created equal — that is the presumption in MLB today. A run allowed or prevented in the ninth is more valuable because either your team or your opponent will be unlikely to respond. But this is the same thinking that has yielded the illusion of clutch hitting — that a .220 hitter who bats .320 with men on base in late innings is a star rather than a game-long slug and drag on the offense. It has turned out that clutch hitting by lesser players is not a repeatable skill but the product of chance, and the best hitters in the clutch over a career (a stretch long enough to reach a statistically meaningful conclusion) tend to be the best hitters in your lineup … the ones you bat in the middle of the order.

What if “saving” a game by marching on the field in the ninth, accompanied by the blare of your designated song, were as much an illusion as clutch hitting? Bill Felber did an ingenious study of this question for Total Baseball in the mid-1990s. After reviewing all closely contested games in each of three years (1952, 1972, and 1992) he concluded: “Although the styles managers employ to wrap up victories have changed over the decades — and although the salaries paid to relief pitchers have changed even more — the results have not. Major league teams today blow late-inning leads at almost precisely the same frequency they did twenty and even forty years ago, when there was no such thing as a closer or set-up man, bullpens were commonly refuges for failed starters, and managers signaled for relief help only at the moment of absolute peril.”

When Holtzman came up with the save, those pitchers who were not starters breathed a sigh of relief. Gossage made a Hall of Fame career with hard-earned saves; he was not a “designated hero” like Dennis Eckersley, who in 1992 won the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards for garnering 51 saves, only 10 of which reflected his protection of a one-run lead. The system developed by his manager, Tony La Russa, so widely emulated today, disproportionately rewards one reliever in the same way that in football place-kickers seem to win or lose football games in the final minute, minimizing the efforts of real players who spilled their blood over the previous 59.

The former plight of the unrecognized relief pitcher led to the creation of the save. The creation of the save has now in turn yielded the over-recognized closer. And fans are the worse for it, enduring games that are a half hour longer because of bullpen machinations productive of largely nothing. The beauty of baseball has been that it is a players’ game … not, like football, one micromanaged at every stage by coaches.

The predictable end of the relentless advance of specialization in baseball was envisioned by John McGraw in the 1920s. When asked what he thought about the idea of having a designated hitter, he replied that “one might as well go all the way and let a club play nine defensive players in the field and then have nine sluggers do all the hitting.”