Baseball’s Unchanging Past: A Necessary Illusion

I delivered this keynote speech yesterday morning at the 24th annual Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture. I am honored to address such a passionate and learned gathering. The title of this keynote speech—Baseball’s Unchanging Past: A Necessary Illusion—evokes not only our oddly hallowed location, this lovely place where baseball was not invented, but also America’s enduring fascination with its national game, always changing in ways so minute that it seems to remain, comfortingly, the same.

Kierkegaard has written that life may only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. For the duration of this conference at least, we will do our best to reverse that dictum. Hoping to grasp what happened in baseball and the larger culture—and why—we will plant our feet in the sands of the past and wiggle our toes a bit, just to see what it felt like to be alive then. The overlay of modern analytic constructs will not be worth much until we do that.

Baseball’s popularity is primarily about the present, but its charm, its essential appeal, is about the past. A proud and vibrant anachronism, baseball is determinedly out of fashion—slow to move with the times, yet always in fashion, always our game. A museum of America’s original democratic values and ideals about the player and the team, baseball serves as a monument to who we once were … and might be again. It is our Eden, our Garden, its gates long since closed yet to which we might enter once again.

Baseball’s Eden is located, of course, not here in Cooperstown, or New York City, or Hoboken, or Pittsfield—or England or Egypt. It is no place—the literal meaning of utopia—but between our ears, where it has always has been, from the game’s very beginning.

In preparing this speech it occurred to me, truly for the first time, that thirty years ago, when I commenced the research for my most recent book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden, I was also completing the manuscript, with Pete Palmer, of The Hidden Game of Baseball. I wondered back then why so many people had expended so much energy in trying to shape and control the creation myth of baseball; to return to an Edenic past, real or imagined; to create the legend of a fall from grace, instigated by gamblers and drunkards, baseball’s stand-ins for the Serpent. I was also wondering at that time what role baseball metrics played in supporting that vision of Paradise, an age when giants walked the earth, or at least routinely hit .400 and won 30 games. So, to prepare for today’s address, I have had cause to revisit the germinal thoughts that precipitated those two books.

***

As individuals,we embrace the notion of a historical Baseball Eden because we sense that we catch a glimpse of it during any particular baseball game. Played or watched, our national pastime moves us past time itself, recalling youth and deferring death. It is a fine trick we play upon ourselves, and no other American institution makes for as artful a magician’s assistant.

As we grow older, we bear less and less outward resemblance to the child left behind at adulthood’s door, yet that child lives on within us, remaining an essential part of our identity, if not the essential part. Life’s cares make it more and more difficult to touch base with the child within, which needs a regular dose of attention if it is to sustain us. Thinking about baseball—steady, comfortable, unchanging baseball—brings us into a unifying relationship with the child, the part of us that loves the game, even if it is the adult that comes to understand it. Because the game is so evocative, on the deepest level, of our childhood, it is not surprising that the impressions of the game sharply formed during that period are the ones that stay with us for all time, forming a personal, if not overly factual, Eden. 

The game moves along slowly, seamlessly, from inning to inning, game to game, season to season, giving a special poignancy to the passage of time when change becomes all too visible. The heroes of our youth grow old—“the boys of summer in their ruin,” emphasizing the key part of Dylan Thomas’s verse—yet to ourselves we seem the same … forever young. That’s why such occasions as Old Timers’ Day or the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies are so sadly sweet; better, we may think for a moment, to preserve these heroes in our memories as they were, frozen in a baseball-card pose, undiminished.

If historic America survives anywhere as more than a roadside marker, it is in baseball, that strangely pastoral game in no matter what setting—domed stadium, open-air ballpark, or Little League diamond. Even those whose entire lives have been spent in big cities feel the call of the grass, the undertow of the past.

Hindsight improves upon reality—we might call that phenomenon, more simply, illusion—so that the endless monotony and grinding physical labor of agrarian life before the Revolution were soon thought quite romantic and morally superior. This strange longing only accelerated as young bachelors fled the countryside for employment in the burgeoning cities. For all its pull toward the good old days, for all its statistical illusions of an Olympian era when titans strode the base paths, for all its seeming permanence in a world aswirl with change, baseball has in fact moved with America, and improved with it.

Although the contestants of today are very different in their abilities, physiologies, attitudes, and training, in a quick glance the game on the field looks the same as that of 1896 or 1956: the rules are pretty much the same; game scores are about the same; and individual performances are about the same. The seamless web of baseball is an illusion, the seams smoothed over by statistics. In the Olympics of 1896, the winning time in the 1500–meter run was 4:33.2; in 2008 it was 3:33.9, a clear statement that in this event, the top runner of today is capable of performances 20 percent better than his counterpart of 1896.

Baseball in 1896, however, saw four men hit over .390, a level of performance seemingly unattainable today. If Jesse Burkett hit .410 to lead the National League in that year—he was one of four men to hit over .390—why does no one today bat 20 percent higher, approaching .500? Or if Burkett was a superman, look at the league average of .290: Why would today’s league averages be lower rather than higher? Was the average player better a century ago? In unmediated sporting competitions, times improve with each generation. In baseball, we move the finish line ever so slightly, with a predictable stabilizing effect on statistics.

Take a football fan of today to a gridiron contest played by the rules of 1896 and he might fairly say that the game and its equipment were so different from the one he knew that it might not be the same game at all. From the size of the players to the nearly spherical shape of the leather-covered pigskin bladder, from the ban on passing to the restrictions on substitution to the scoring values accorded to field goals and touchdowns, football reinvented itself, from a low-scoring game of mass momentum and dangerous formations to one of quick strikes and long gains. The same might be said of basketball at the turn of the century—that with the center jump, lumpy ball, and brutal play at the rim, the low-scoring fracas seemed like nothing so much as football without the padding.

Yet baseball was always baseball. The early game, however you define or demarcate it, was indeed different from the one we see on the field today. Yet players in big-league parks at the turn of the century, packed with thousands of paying spectators, knew that they were taking part in the very same game that had been staged for free at the Elysian Fields of Hoboken only fifty years before. As Bruce Catton noted in American Heritage in 1959:

“The neat green field looks greener and cleaner under the lights, the moving players are silhouetted more sharply, and the enduring visual fascination of the game—the immobile pattern of nine men, grouped according to ancient formula and then, suddenly, to the sound of a wooden bat whacking a round ball, breaking into swift ritualized movement, movement so standardized that even the tyro in the bleachers can tell when someone goes off in the wrong direction—this is as it was in the old days. A gaffer from the era of William McKinley, abruptly brought back to the second half of the twentieth century, would find very little in modern life that would not seem new, strange, and rather bewildering, but put in a good grandstand seat back of first base he would see nothing that was not completely familiar.”

Baseball permits its revelers to defy not only time but also reason. One of the first lessons a fan learns is that in baseball anything, absolutely anything, can happen. Every year something happens that never happened in baseball before. I could point you to David Freese and the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 6 of last year’s World Series. But I prefer to cite a lesser known, relatively recent singularity: In the deciding game of the 2004 Northern League championship series, the St. Paul Saints, trailing 6–3 with two outs and one on in the bottom of the ninth and twice down to their last strike, proceeded to score seven runs, climaxed by a walk-off grand slam, to defeat the Schaumberg Flyers 10–6. In 160 years of recorded baseball history, no team had ever won a championship this way.

Through baseball we sublimate our martial instincts; we emulate our heroes, whom we appoint as champions or surrogates for our hopes and fears; we experience thrills and agonies vicariously, and, in a magical act of transference, we become more truly ourselves—more primal, less inhibited … more like, say, Adam, or Eve. At the ballpark or even in front of the television, fans are, for the interlude of a few hours, different from whom they are in everyday life—masquerading no less than people do at Mardi Gras or Carnivale to revel in life and taunt death. In the drama that is a baseball game the fan imagines himself not a spectator but a participant, as if the fervor of his rooting will have a bearing on the outcome. Like Walter Mitty, he becomes in his mind a player.

When did this illusion of transference and time travel begin? Certainly before the Knickerbockers, Gothams, and Eagles of New York City relocated their home grounds to Hoboken, New Jersey in the 1840s. It was at this time that newly arrived urbanites first began to imbue rural life with a romanticized nostalgia—a Greek compound that literally means “the ache of not being able, ever, to go home again” [nostos, homecoming + algia, pain].

Idyllic America had not disappeared, for in fact it had never existed. The young men who now streamed into the cities ached for their backwoods Paradise Lost, and regained it, however briefly, through play at the Elysian Fields. In the park within the city, they could go home again.

For two decades before baseball games began to be played there, the Elysian Fields had been New York’s favorite “place of general resort for citizens, as well as strangers, for health and recreation,” wrote its proprietor, John Stevens, in 1824. “So easily accessible, and where in a few minutes the dust, noise, and bad smells of the city may be exchanged for the pure air, delightful shades, and completely rural scenery. . . .”

The urban malaise to which Stevens contrasted his sylvan settings was not mere rhetoric. Thousands of New Yorkers had died in the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1822.  Ten summers later, cholera would kill another 3,500, representing one death for every 65 inhabitants at a time when the city’s population was 230,000 (of whom fully a third fled the city that summer). An equivalent mortality in today’s New York of 8 million would be more than 123,000. Because the folk wisdom was that pestilential vapors returned every twelve years, one might well imagine the dread overhanging New York in the mid-1840s.

In these years there were many testaments to baseball’s hygienic properties (“Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms . . . the game of ball is glorious,” Walt Whitman wrote in the Brooklyn Eagle of July 3, 1846). Might the generalized fear of disease, and cholera in particular with its cycle of return—rather than the march of industry upon the former playgrounds of Manhattan—have been the impetus to ballplayers’ flight to the Elysian Fields in the mid–’40s? It is pleasing to think that baseball, as a safe-haven game, would have come to the fore at this perilous time. 

Late in life, Henry Chadwick—pioneer writer, consummate moralist, and architect of baseball as a national game—wrote in a letter to the editor of the New York Tribune, “I am thankful to say of the great National field games of England and America, the grand old game of cricket and the comparatively new game of baseball, there is not a brutal feature connected with either of them, and yet both develop the highest qualities of true manhood, courage, endurance, pluck, nerve, honorable competition, and”—here I emphasize his last itemized attribute—“the chivalry of sport.” Yet it had been in some measure the very brutality of early baseball, when brave men donned neither glove nor mask and wore their bruises, shiners, and shinplasters as badges of honor, which attracted devotees and left the lemonade drinkers aghast. And, as I have argued in Baseball in the Garden of Eden, gambling was a necessary prime mover in the progress of baseball toward becoming “America’s cricket.”

As baseball had drawn a newly urban America back to its pseudo-Edenic past, it now helped to carry forward, into a new and increasingly corrupt body politic, the hypothetical democratic values of a bygone age. The newly organized and systematized game, built upon baseball prototypes that had been played in America long before the Revolution, now took on the purity that came with posterity. As more and more baseball clubs organized in the 1850s, the idea of a distant Eden—set not in Revolutionary America but in Medieval England—was in full flower. Courtly rites ripped from the pages of Ivanhoe rendered Walter Scott, even more than Henry Chadwick, the architect of the gentlemanly game favored by the Knickerbockers of New York and the Putnams and Excelsiors of Brooklyn. Early on, the new game of baseball resembled not the raucous old one, of stinging throws and side bets, but the game of England’s stately mansions, cricket.

It was as if, having turned our backs on the Mother Country, we might have been feeling a bit lonely and having second thoughts. In our land of immigrants, united not by class or creed or culture, the ties that bind were those of family, ethnic heritage, faith, and community—all of them local rather than national. Baseball gave promise, early on, of serving as America’s de facto religion, connecting us across all divides of time and space, while rejuvenating the national heritage. “It’s our game,” wrote Whitman, “America’s game . . . it belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our Constitution’s laws; is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.”

***

In today’s technological, impersonal, and brittle age, baseball is, in Daniel Boorstin’s phrase, “an oasis of the uncontrived.” It is also our national theater, but with unscripted outcomes. New records are added every day, stretching limitlessly to the horizon line, yet it is the game’s past, appearing to extend equally far in reverse, that binds. Early on, records transformed a boyhood game into a sport, thus “modernizing” it. Yet records also link each present achievement to a prior, sometimes unapproachable, standard. (Think, for example, of Cy Young’s 511 wins, or Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.) Indeed, the early years of major league play provide records that, to one not familiar with the prevailing rules and conditions, are unfathomable: pitchers Jim Devlin of Louisville, Bobby Mathews of New York, and George Bradley of St. Louis each accounting for all his team’s victories in 1876; Will White completing all 75 of his starts in 1879 while pitching 680 innings; Hoss Radbourn winning 59 games in 1884; Tip O’Neill batting .485 in 1887. Were these men of iron, compared to the namby-pambies of today? Of course not.

We cannot come to this conclusion by using conventional statistics and simple comparisons, for the rules tinkerers have flattened out the differences that otherwise would have shown in the averages. We may employ relativist approaches, such as the now classic one first offered in The Hidden Game that equates Carl Yastrzemski’s league-leading .301 of 1968 with Bill Terry’s .401 of 1930—both were some 32 percent beyond league average. Even after this illumination, however, we are still left with the conundrum of assessing the meaning of the league averages themselves.

But these gremlins in the baseball engine have done nothing to inhibit fielding, which has enjoyed a steady ascent since 1876, as measured by the ratio of earned runs to total runs. Anyone who has been watching the game for 30 or 40 years and is of an unbiased cast of mind will tell you that the best fielders of all time, at almost any position you can think of, entered the game after World War II.  Old-timers will tell you stories about Hal Chase or George Sisler, but were they better than Wes Parker or Keith Hernandez? Did Rabbit Maranville range farther and wider than Ozzie Guillen? Did Tris Speaker cover more ground than Willie Mays?

In 1952 Ty Cobb wrote an article for Life magazine in which he declared that the only ballplayers of the modem era that could be compared with those of his day were Stan Musial and Phil Rizzuto. Where today is a man like Cobb, who won twelve batting titles in thirteen years? Where is a Rogers Hornsby, who averaged over .400 for a five-year period? A Babe Ruth, who in 1920 hit more homers than fourteen of the fifteen other big-league teams? A Jack Taylor, who over five years completed 187 consecutive starts? Why were so many all-time pitching records set between 1900 and 1919 and so many batting records over the next two decades? These heroes of yore were great players, certainly … yet men of the same ability, or greater, are among us today, their feats camouflaged by the heightened expertise of those around them.

In football, no one imagines that Red Grange would star in today’s NFL. In basketball, who thinks that George Mikan, the greatest player of the 1940s, would even start for an NBA team in 2012? Yet nearly everyone believes that Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Walter Johnson, if teleported to the present day, would dominate the game as they did in the days of yore. Why do so many of us continue to buy this notion?

In the hands of nearly all its practitioners today, baseball history, like history in general, is a moated activity, in which “what happened” is what matters. Permit me to make a perhaps old-fashioned distinction between History and The Past, the former being rooted in what happened, the latter best described as “what binds and sustains,” or what is useful.

In The Death of the Past, J. H. Plumb described this earlier model for history as the establishment of “a psychological reality, used for a social purpose: to stress the virtues of courage, endurance, strength, loyalty and indifference to death.” Baseball provides us with such a mythology, replete with unmatchable feats, admirable heroes, and awe-inspiring legends. By presenting us with an age of wonders, an Edenic past, baseball equips us to have dreams, to take risks, and to be good Americans.

3 Comments

“One of the first lessons a fan learns is that in baseball anything, absolutely anything, can happen…” – and after last night’s Johan Santana no-hitter, the first in the Mets’ fifty years of “past,” (as opposed to their “history”), truer words were never written. Thank you, John Thorne, for this masterful and moving tribute to the game that binds us to ourselves, each other, our future, and our past.

Terrific article. I can’t imagine anything like this being written about any other sport. I do think that the garden of eden that is a ballpark has been steadily eroded in modern times. I remember distinctly going to Triple A doubleheader in 2007 at a great ballpark, Cheney Stadium in Tacoma. I stayed for both games. When I left the ballpark for the first time in my life I remember actually being glad to be walking away from a ballpark. The noise from the P.A. system was so overwhelming that it made it hard to enjoy the experience of watching baseball being played on a great summer day in a fine ballpark. Looking back I don’t think that the non-stop nonsense from the P.A. system was any louder in 2007 than it was in say 2005, but my ability to tolerate that noise was suddenly different. A spectator transported from the 19th century to the 21st century might be able to see essentially the same game, but that spectator would not be able to hear the same game. These days I get my baseball over the radio or TV and skip the ballpark. I wish it was not so.

Just dropping in to let you know you have a brand new fan!
Reading one post on your site got me obsessed straight away.
Really, you are great!

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