December 12th, 2011
Today we think of baseball as an anachronism, a last vestige of America’s agrarian paradise—an idyllic game that takes us back to a more innocent time. But baseball as we might recognize it originated in New York City, not rural Cooperstown, and in truth it was an exercise in nostalgia from the beginning. Alexander Cartwright and his Knickerbockers began play in Madison Square in 1842, and the city’s northward progress soon compelled them to move uptown to Murray Hill.
When the grounds there were also threatened by the march of industry, the Knicks ferried across the Hudson River to the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, a landscaped retreat of picnic grounds and scenic vistas that was designed by its proprietors to relieve New Yorkers of city air and city care. In other words, the purpose of baseball’s primal park was the same as that of New York’s Central Park or, much later, Boston’s Fenway Park—to give an increasingly urban populace a park within the city, a place reminiscent of the idealized farms that had sent all these lads to the metropolis in pursuit of work.
Thus the attraction of the game in its earliest days was first the novelty and exhilaration of play; second the opportunity for deskbound city clerks to expend surplus energy in a sylvan setting, freed from the tyranny of the clock; and third, to harmonize with an American golden age that was almost entirely legendary.
Simple charms, simple pleasures. In the late 1860s, advancing skills led to heightened appetites for victory, which led to hot pursuit of the game’s gifted players, which inevitably led to sub rosa payments and, by 1870, rampant professionalism. (Doesn’t that chain reaction put one in mind of college football or basketball?) The gentlemanly players of baseball’s first generation retreated from the field, shaking their heads in dismay at how greed had perverted the “grand old game”—now barely 20 years old—and probably ruined it forever.
Sound familiar? It should—the same dire and premature announcements of the demise of the game have been issued ever since, spurred by free-agent signings, long-term contracts, no-trade provisions, strikes and lockouts, integration, night ball, rival leagues, ad infinitum. The only conclusions a calm head might draw from this recurring cycle of disdain for the present and glorification of the past are that (a) things aren’t what they used to be and never were; (b) accurate assessment of a present predicament is impossible, for it requires perspective; and (c) no matter what the owners or players or rules makers or fans do, they can’t kill baseball. All three conclusions are correct. In baseball, the distinction between amateur and professional is not clear-cut: an amateur may play for devotion to the game (amat being the Latin for “he loves”), but a professional does not play for pursuit of gain alone; he plays for love, too.
When contests were true, and the sight free to all, and home-runs in plenty were made?
When we lay on the grass, and with thrills of delight, watched the ball squarely pitched at the bat,
And easily hit, and then mount out of sight along with our cheers and our hat?
And then, while the fielders raced after the ball, the men on the bases flew round,
And came in together. four batters in all. Ah! That was the old game renowned.
Now salaried pitchers, who throw the ball curved at padded and masked catchers lame
And gate-money music and seats all reserved is all that is left of the game.
Oh, give us the glorious matches of old, when love of true sport made them great,
And not this new-fashioned affair always sold for the boodle they take at the gate.
That doomsday ditty was published in 1886.
This is an excerpt from “Baseball: Our Game,” First Digital Edition ISBN: 978-0-9848629-1-7 Copyright © 2011 by John Thorn. All Rights Reserved. Publisher: Thinker Media, Inc. It is available for 99 cents on the Nook; Kindle; iTunes, iPad, and other Apple devices.