July 19th, 2013

Inventing Baseball

Inventing Baseball, SABR

Inventing Baseball, SABR

This is the foreword I provided to Inventing Baseball: The 100 Greatest Games of the Nineteenth Century, a book published this week by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). I post it to Our Game for its own interest, but also to suggest that 19th-century baseball will hold considerable fascination for any fan of today’s game. My additional sly motive is to persuade those of you who are not yet SABR members that you consider joining; see http://sabr.org.

Modern baseball—the very mention of that hideous phrase will curl the lip of any real historian of the game, and ought to bring a sickly silence upon any who would consider a truncated set of great players, great seasons, great moments. And yet “modern baseball” has attained a broad currency among journalists, announcers, even advanced fans, for whom the term may signify different things. Some will hold that modern baseball begins with the turn of the century in 1901, for no other reason than the march of time. Others will say that modern baseball begins with the first World Series in 1903, ignoring the reality of postseason championships played under that and other names since 1884. Some will hold out for 1920, when Babe Ruth came to New York, hit 54 home runs, and single-handedly, in an instant, swept out the deadball era. The socially conscious fan will aver that until Jackie Robinson stepped on a big-league field on April 15, 1947, major league baseball was bush league. Others will point to the first year of expansion, 1961, as the dawn of the modern game.

Among those in this Baseball Babel, however, one truth is held in common: the national pastime of the 19th century was a morass of quaint custom, ill-considered rules, unmatchable records, and unconscionable exclusion. Major League Baseball’s record keepers, when they proclaim new “firsts” or search the archives to find an appealing nugget for broadcast chatter, dismiss the passé century without a moment’s misgiving.

Polo Grounds, Opening Day, April 29, 1886. Photographer Richard Hoe Lawrence

Polo Grounds, Opening Day, April 29, 1886. Photographer Richard Hoe Lawrence

This book, then, stands as something of a corrective. Its title, Inventing Baseball, is in part ironic, as the game was not invented but instead evolved. Yet it is a fine title, because baseball continued to change in so many fascinating ways, from the 1840s on, that an air of invention could be said to have characterized the entire era. Not only was baseball’s rise and flower unsteady and halting, its status as the nation’s game was by no means guaranteed by the creation of what only much later came to be called Major League Baseball. Baseball’s fate hung in the balance as the 20th century dawned, following upon a brutal decade of interleague warfare and suicidal cartel practices, and contemporary observers thought that college football or competitive bicycling might surpass it by the dawn of the new century.

Early baseball, however you define or pinpoint it in the years before 1901, was indeed different from the game we see on the field today, yet there can be no doubt that it was baseball. Players in the big-league parks of the 1880s, packed with thousands of paying spectators, knew they were playing the same game that had been staged for free at the Elysian Fields of Hoboken in the 1840s.

Baseball at the Elysian Fields. Harper's Weekly, 1859.

Baseball at the Elysian Fields. Harper’s Weekly, 1859.

Take a football fan of today to a gridiron contest played by the rules of 1890 and he might fairly say that the game and its equipment were so different from the one he knew that it might not seem to be the same game at all. From the size of the players to the shape of the pigskin bladder, from the ban on passing to the restrictions on substitution to the point 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 football without the padding.

Yet baseball was always baseball, 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.

And that is precisely our point, we several authors of this project, to identify the hundred greatest games before the 20th century, some of them played decades before the idea of league play was even a glimmer in the eye of Harry Wright or William Hulbert. Undertaken by members of the 19th Century Committee of the Society for American Baseball Research, of whom I am proudly one, Inventing Baseball provides the intrepid reader with a peephole into a little known and unfairly neglected period of the game, populated not with old heroes, feats and tales but new ones … or, to paraphrase Satchel Paige—ones that ain’t never been heard of by this generation. Maybe the reader will know King Kelly or Albert Spalding or other men honored today with plaques in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but what of Doc Adams, or Jim Creighton, or Fleet Walker?

June 14, 1870, Reds vs Atlantics

June 14, 1870, Reds vs Atlantics

Until Bobby Thomson hit “the shot heard ’round the world” on October 3, 1951, most veteran baseball observers believed that another game involving Brooklyn—the victory by that city’s Atlantics over the Red Stockings of Cincinnati on June 14, 1870—was the greatest in the game’s history. Where it will rank for the reader as he considers the entire panoply of baseball’s epic contests cannot be guessed, but this writer, who thirty years ago wrote a book titled Baseball’s Ten Greatest Games and was constrained by its publisher from dipping into the 19th century, will find it hard not to include that game in his unconstrained top ten.

Roger Angell wrote an essay for the New Yorker some decades back in which Smokey Joe Wood, hero of the 1912 World Series, sat in the stands watching a dazzling pitching duel between Yale’s Ron Darling and St. John’s Frank Viola. “The Seamless Web” he called his piece, to signify that these three great pitchers, separated by seven decades, belonged to the same fraternity, were made from the same fabric, were part of it. The writers in Inventing Baseball know that Joe Wood was also part of a tradition into which he entered, one that went back to John Clarkson and Hoss Radbourn, to Asa Brainard, Frank Pidgeon and the legendary Creighton. They were heroes all, those who graced the game in its formative years. They lived and labored in a thrilling period of invention. They made the game we love.

And these men deserve to be recalled by all baseball fans of today in their greatest moments, in the glory of our times as well as theirs. To know that Albert Pujols and Derek Jeter are part of a seamless web with Roger Connor and John Ward makes the experience of today’s games richer than merely to compare our stars with those since 1901.

John Clarkson

John Clarkson

Some of the names and games in this book may seem obscure even to knowledgeable enthusiasts (as fans were called before that term was coined in the 1880s), but the story of baseball has been played out on fields other than those of the National League, and by others than those whose playing records may be found in the encyclopedias (because they played “major-league ball” in the years since 1871). The writers/selectors of these hundred games to follow will have their personal favorites, in some measure reflected by their decision to speak for the editor’s assignment of a particular game. But every game reported in this book had numerous advocates and may be commended to your attention.

Editor Bill Felber has charged his crew to select and depict games of historic significance as well as visceral thrills. It would have been easy to choose a hundred cliffhangers, but then we might have overlooked the game that was first to be played before a paid crowd, or the game that for a moment made Fort Wayne the capital of the baseball world, or another in which the forces of good and evil seemed to be pitted against each other (cast in the uniforms of, respectively, Boston and Baltimore) for the National League title of 1897.

I could go on, highlighting more personal favorites or piquant inclusions, but it is time to move on, to read about the first games, or some in the middle, or ones at the end. They are arranged chronologically rather than in any kind of ranking. However, one may dip into this book randomly, as if it were a box of Cracker Jack, and provide oneself with an individualized nonlinear experience.

This is the game we love, we who have compiled this book for you, and the years before 1900 form our favorite period. We may not convince archivists or reporters of Major League Baseball that the early game was as exciting as the one they are covering, but we hope to convince you.

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