Not Good, but Good for You

That was how I characterized a pioneering 1866 book by Charles A. Peverelly when I provided an introduction to a modern reprint of its baseball section some years ago. The original title of the book was The Book of American Pastimes, Containing a History of the Principal Base Ball, Cricket, Rowing and Yachting Clubs of the United States. The truncated reissue, titled Peverelly’s National Game, was no page-turner but it was, in my estimation, a vital addition to the bookshelf of anyone who cared about baseball history. That equivocal assessment might apply to any number of recent books about the game’s past, including my own.

For those of you unfamiliar with Peverelly or his odd masterwork, let me tell you why you might wish to check out either the illustrated Aracdia reissue from 2005, edited by John Freyer and Mark Rucker, or the complete work, available as a free download at: http://books.google.com/books/about/The_book_of_American_pastimes.html?id=1o8EAAAAYAAJ.

On September 24 and 25, 1844, at the St. George Cricket Club Grounds along the East River in Manhattan, the first international cricket match took place between the United States and Canada. The American team was drawn from several New York, Philadelphia, Washington City, and Boston clubs, all hotbeds of the game. The match drew over 20,000 spectators, according to contemporary reports, many of them with a gambling interest in the outcome.

A year later, almost to the day—September 22, 1845—a four-oared regatta was held at Hoboken’s Elysian Fields, a pleasure ground for New Yorkers, especially the legions of country lads who had streamed into the city looking for work. Rowing was America’s first modern sport, in that competitions were marked by record keeping and prizes yet also provided spectator interest for those with no pecuniary interest. The first boat club to be organized in the United States was named the Knickerbocker, in 1811. As reported in the New-York Mirror of July 15, 1837.

My Bark is My Courser, 1831, honoring New York Boat Club

This club suffered a suspension during the war [that of 1812], and for many years subsequently the boat which bore its name was hung up in the New-York Museum, as a model of the finest race-boat ever launched in this port. Subsequent attempts to revive the association fell through; and though many exertions to form new ones were made, yet the first effort that succeeded in establishing the clubs upon their present footing—viz., building their own boats, wearing a regular uniform, and observing rigid navy discipline, was made in the year 1830, by the owners of the barge Sea-drift, a club consisting of one hundred persons, which could boast of one no less distinguished in aquatick and sporting matters than Robert L. Stevens for its first president, with Ogden Hoffman, Charles L. Livingston, Robert Emmet, John Stevens, and other good men and true for his successors. To this club the rudder of the old Knickerbocker was bequeathed, with the archives thereto pertaining: nor was anything spared by the members, during the first years of their existence as a club, to give spirit to its doings.

Baseball historians, take note. The new organization of 1830 referenced above was named the New York Boat Club.

It may not have been a coincidence when on the day following the regatta of September 22, 1845 some New York City gentlemen who were already playing the new game of baseball at the Elysian Fields organized themselves into a club, which they called the Knickerbockers. The game had been played earlier, of course. Recent finds have substantiated that a game called baseball had been played as early as 1823 in New York and 1791 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. But the Knickerbockers claimed the palm for being the first true club not because they were first to play the game; they knew that the New York Ball Club had played the game before them. Rather, like their upstanding brothers of the scull, sail, and wicket, the Knicks created a constitution, had regular days for play and practice, admitted members upon due consideration, and conducted themselves in accordance with written rules. Also, in what has been a neglected consideration, they were accorded pioneer status because their name left no doubt as to the heritage upon which they were based: the universally applauded Dutch rather than the reviled British.

It is this fluid state of American sport that Charles A. Peverelly sought to document in 1866 with his Book of American Pastimes. The author had witnessed the explosion of interest in baseball over the previous ten years, but he could not have known how soon cricket would forever lose all claim to being an American pastime. Nor could he have anticipated the tertiary role that yachting and rowing would come to have in his own lifetime.

What John Freyer and Mark Rucker did in extracting the baseball content of Peverelly’s bookwas commendable and overdue. Apart from Peverelly’s National Game, as it is now retitled, being the first baseball book (not counting paperbound annual guides and other ephemera), this book has been unavailable for so long that much of its information had become lost to researchers and aficionados of the early game. What did the early team uniforms look like? Where were their playing grounds located? Who were their officers, year by year since their founding? Those features alone, plus the extensive treatment of such pioneer clubs as the Knickerbocker of New York and the Olympic of Philadelphia, made the republication of Peverelly’s baseball section worthwhile.

But there is more, so much more, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Through an act of historical imagination, the reader may place himself in the years immediately following the Civil War, for which he will be richly rewarded with a thousand glittering prizes.

Yes, the prose is arch and, though typical of the period, sometimes even less digestible than that of his peers: “Dodworth’s Band was in attendance to enliven the scene, and all the arrangements were exceedingly creditable to the taste and liberality of the committee who had charge of the festive occasion.” As a sportswriter Peverelly was exceedingly fastidious, more Felix Unger than Oscar Madison. And yes, the book is not a page-turner, driven by a strong narrative; it is a book to peruse, to consult, to take pleasure in the knowledge that it resides on your shelf.

Study the original Knickerbocker Rules. “[Rule] 9th.–The ball must be pitched, and not thrown, for the bat.” So why is that fellow on the mound today called a pitcher and not a thrower? (“Pitcher” is just a vestigial relic of the old game, as is the phrase “McGillicuddy was knocked out of the box.”) “[Rule] 10th.– A ball knocked out the field, or outside the range of the first or third base, is foul.” Does that mean that what we would call a home run was a  foul ball? (Yes. The Knicks’ playing ground was along the North [Hudson] River and they couldn’t afford to lose any of their expensively handmade baseballs.) “[Rule] 11th.–Three balls being struck at and missed and the last one caught, is a hand out; if not caught is considered fair, and the striker bound to run.” Is this the same rule that survives today and once made Mickey Owen infamous? (Yes. It’s as old as three strikes and you’re out, and maybe even older, as it echoes the rules of town ball, in which there was no foul territory.)

Note that each detail in Peverelly’s ledger may extend to a story you know or one day will. “On the 13th of August [1855],” the author writes of the Knickerbockers, “the uniform of the club was again regulated.  Blue woolen pants, white flannel shirt, with narrow blue braid, mohair cap, and belt of patent leather. With the exception of a change of cap, the uniform has ever since remained the same.  On the 27th of August the first flag staff was raised, and the Knickerbocker banner unfurled.” That banner, a triangular pennant with a “K” in a circle on the background of a red panel and a blue one, went to the grave with James Whyte Davis, a Knick since 1850 who kept it on his dresser after the club disbanded in 1882, and insisted that he be wrapped in it upon burial. In 1899 he was.

Born in the Boston area in 1821 or 1822, Peverelly moved to New York as a young man and worked as a bookkeeper and clerk while scribbling a few sports reports, but he led an active social life. In 1846 he had been a committee member of the Young Bachelors’ Society, and thus may have had something to do with staging the annual Bachelor’s Ball, a Valentine’s Day institution in New York since 1827. In 1848 he became a charter member of the Atalanta Boat Club, which lasted nearly a century, and through his reporting of boat races he soon became recognized as one of the nation’s experts. A New York Herald story of June 25, 1869 states that a race on the Hudson was won by a boat named for the “veteran aquatic authority Charles A. Peverelly.” By this time he had abandoned baseball reporting because his eyes were weakening. When he died in his eighty-fourth year on November 7, 1905, at his son-in-law’s home in Brooklyn, Peverelly was the oldest living member of the Atalanta.

Who likes to read in a welcoming comment that the book he is about to commence may not be good but instead is good for him? Yet that may be said of any book approached incorrectly. One does not curl up in bed with the Encyclopaedia Britannica. And one does not look for helpful information about home repair in Gone with the Wind. Having lain unread for so long, Peverelly’s National Game is like a treasure chest with an obdurate lock. But the key, dear reader, is in your hand.

1 Comment

This potential link of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club to a much older boat club organization should be unplowed ground for future research to see if there was in fact a link and what it might have been. Could people like Cartwright, Adams and company been rowing under a Knickerbocker banner prior to 1845? Those straw hats in the old ball team’s earliest photo has always conjured up something nautical to my mind’s eye. It may be a stretch, but certainly worth some examination.

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