November 2013

The Spur to Memory

The Scorer: Old Style New Style (H804-13)

The Scorer: Old Style New Style (H804-13)

The 1880s trade card to the left came up on eBay this week. I placed a bid but do not hold out much hope of snagging it. More important, it cast light on an old mystery that I referenced fifteen years ago in Treasures of the Baseball Hall of Fame. I wrote:

We have heard the stories all our lives, and we share them warmly with our children. But we come to the Baseball Hall of Fame to see, to see the instruments of glory, the stuff of legend, the tangible remains of departed heroes and forgotten fields. This is a museum like no other because it is about baseball, that singular American institution by which we mark our days. Not simply historical relics, these artifacts spur us to recall to life an image dormant in our brains for decades. They connect us not only to our own childhood and to our parents, but also to a national, collective past, one whose presence we sense but whose details have been lost.

Time stops in the Museum in the same way it does at a baseball game. At the museum it attaches itself to those things that make us halt in our tracks and reflect upon their essence and ours. Time doesn’t truly stop, of course; we do. We imagine that we bend time and somehow elude it through the pleasure of play and remembrance. (The Latin root of “elude” is ludere, to play.) Like Proust’s magical biscuit, the artifact recovers for us a lost bit of time. Look at Babe Ruth’s locker, forever open to display the Yankee uniform he last wore, and a shiver of unforeseen emotion comes over you.

This is the experience of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, an experience enriched by the stories embedded within the objects. But for many artifacts, it may have been so long since the tale was last told that hardly anyone remembers what it was. The descriptive lines that accompany each item on display at Cooperstown provide a key to its identity, but only rarely do they expand into a story. For that you had best be equipped with a lifelong experience of the game or, better yet, have an old-timer as your personal tour guide.

Which is where I come in, with a “memory” of King Kelly, whom I never saw play, as vivid as my recollection of Mickey Mantle, whom I did…. There was a time, in 1980 or so, when during one of my frequent research trips to the National Baseball Library I held in my hand an object that had a story to tell, but I was not yet wise enough to hear it. Looking back, I believe this incident provided the germ of the idea for this book.

Christy Mathewson, ca 1901

Christy Mathewson, ca 1901

At that time, long before its 1993 enlargement, the library was cramped for space and pressed for cataloging services. Some large boxes were filled with unrelated items of mixed provenance and scant documentation. In one such box, packed loosely among some truly notable curios (I recall Cy Young’s rookie contract from 1890 and Christy Mathewson’s from 1899) was a thin wooden stick, with irregular hand-hewn notches along part of its perhaps ten-inch length. With the unquestioning confidence that only comes with ignorance, I snorted at finding this insignificant piece of kindling, in a plastic bag without any indication that it had been cataloged as a gift to the Museum. “I know you’ll take anything here,” I laughingly announced to some library staffers, “but I thought at least it had to have something to do with baseball!”

All of us were puzzled by the stick, and none of us had an answer as to how it had entered into the collections or why it was being retained. I chalked this up to the early accessions policy of the Hall of Fame, which, like that of so many American museums and archives, was not overly discriminating. This endearing commitment, as baseball’s attic, to accept even the most humble offerings from fans everywhere is the magic that brings the multitudes to Cooperstown. I thought no more about the stick for the next five years, until I was reading through Henry Chadwick’s scrapbooks, on deposit at the New York Public Library … and then the stick became The Stick. There, in Volume 20, which was dominated by cricket stories, I came upon the following innocuous note:

Previous to 1746, the score was kept by notches on a short lath: hence the term notches for runs. The notching-knife gradually gave way to the pen, and the thin stick to a sheet of foolscap.

The fool’s cap should have been placed on my head. I had dismissed as inconsequential what was surely a scorer’s stick from a very early game of baseball, an artifact earlier than Doubleday or Cartwright, perhaps the most resonant of all items relating to the prehistory of the game as we know it.

I offer this story to illustrate the difficulty of hearing the stories the artifacts have to tell, particularly the ancient ones. Large objects like statues and trophies and paintings may wag comparatively small tales, while small items like pins and ribbons and newsprint may speak volumes. Generally, the more removed the object is from the event that inspired or employed it, the less interesting it is to the historian and the less rich its associations with other events in baseball and the world. What is most fascinating and what moves us most deeply is seldom the stuff that was created in order to be treasured by future generations, although commemorative pieces (like the gifts for Lou Gehrig on his farewell day, July 4, 1939) can be beautiful and meaningful, too. But in my view, the best artifacts are the ones that were meant to be tossed aside yet improbably survived….

Gotham Base Ball Club Pin

Gotham Base Ball Club Pin

To give an idea of how large a story one trinket may tell, and how rich in association it may prove, allow me to present a baseball pin no larger than a dime, along with a common nursery tale: “Three wise men of Gotham went to sea in a bowl,” went the Mother Goose rhyme; “if the bowl had been stronger, then my rhyme had been longer.” Mother Goose, or Songs for the Nursery, was first published in London in 1760, based upon English and French sources, including Charles Perrault’s Contes de ma mère l’oye (1697). Not a propitious beginning for a baseball story, is it? But look at the accompanying photograph, of a pin worn by members of the Gotham Base Ball Club of New York in the 1850s. Let’s track the story back even further, to 1460, when the “Foles of Gotham” were first mentioned in print, and a century later, when the absurd doings of the people of that village (seven miles from Nottingham, in England) were collected in a book, Merrie Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham.

At that time the simplicity of the inhabitants was legendary. One absurdity attributed to them was the building of a thornbush round the cuckoo to secure eternal spring; another was an attempt to rid themselves of an eel by drowning it. But the archetypal tale of Gothamite behavior was when King John intended to establish a hunting lodge nearby. The villagers, fearful of the cost of supporting the court, feigned imbecility when the royal messengers arrived. Wherever the king’s men went, they saw the fools of Gotham engaged in some lunatic endeavor. When King John selected another spot for his lodge elsewhere, the “wise men” boasted, “We ween there are more fools pass through Gotham than remain in it.”

Merrie Tales, Gotham

Merrie Tales, Gotham

How did this tale come to resonate with the members of the Washington Base Ball Club, formed in 1850 as the second club after the Knickerbockers–or, as its members claimed, formed before the Knicks, in the 1830s–and two years later renamed after the proverbial wise fools? Gotham is understood today as Batman’s hometown, but it is also a common synonym for New York and has been so since our English cousins began to refer to those “fools” who sailed from the mother country (three men in a tub) to make their fortunes in New York as residents of the “New Gotham.” Washington Irving also applied the name of Gotham to New York in 1807, in some of his Salmagundi letters from Mustapha-Rub-a-Dub Keli Khan. (“Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub…”)

Proper businessmen scorned the young men who played baseball in the New York area around 1850 for acting like fools, trying to extend their youth beyond the time when men should give over childish things. So the Washington Base Ball Club, in a defiant stance against the British, cricket, and their elders’ puritanical attitudes toward play, renamed themselves the Gotham Base Ball Club and made up this little badge of honor for its members. This example, the only one known to survive, was issued to charter member Henry Mortimer Platt and was donated to the Hall in 1939 by his daughter.

Some Baseball Tricks: The Unfair Means by Which Some Games Were Won in the 1860s

Tom Barlow 1873

Tom Barlow 1873

Found this neat piece while looking for something else (ain’t that always the way?). I spotted it in the Omaha Bee of March 25, 1888 while digging for scraps about Tommy Barlow’s possible death date. (No, we still don’t know when he died, this man who invented the fair-territory bunt or “baby hit” with the aid of an eventually banned two-foot-long bat.) It seems the story originally appeared in the New York Mail and Express.

As far back as 1862, the records will show that the Mutuals of this city won a game through the cleverness of Ed Brown, the second baseman. In that year the Mutuals visited Newark to play the Eurekas. Ten innings were played before a victory was gained. The score was thirteen to thirteen when the Mutuals went to bat in the last half of the last inning. The first two men were quickly retired. Things began to look somewhat dubious, when Brown came to bat. He managed to reach first base ahead of the ball, but only by a nose, as it were. A passed ball advanced him to second. He reached third on another close shave. This time the crowd thought he was out, and so gave vent to [its] feelings. However, the umpire thought he was safe and said so. Brown, who was up to all kinds of tricks, then stopped on the base and offered to fight the man who said he was out. At this the Eureka players, who were all gentlemen, gathered around third base to quiet Brown. Of course this left home plate unguarded, and Brown started for it and tallied the winning run.

Levi Meyerle

Levi Meyerle

A singular incident happened in Baltimore in 1869. The Athletics, of Philadelphia, went to the Monumental City to play the Pastime club. The latter was one run ahead in the ninth inning when the Athletics came to the bat. Levi Meyerle, after two men were out and two on bases, hit a line ball directly at the pitcher. It struck him full in the chest and knocked him insensible. The ball bounded back over the fence behind the catcher, and Meyerle made the circle of the bases, sending in the two men ahead of him before the ball was recovered. It was the late little Tommy Barlow who introduced the trick of hiding the ball under his arm after it was returned from the outfield when a hit had been made, and then catch the base-runner napping on a neat throw to the base-man, who would be on the lookout. It was Dickey Pearce who conceived the idea of touching the top of the ball with his bat and making the famous fair-foul hits, which were practiced by others with such telling effect, Barlow, Barnes and Pearce being noteworthy at that style of butting the ball.

Hartford 1876

Hartford 1876

Probably one of the most remarkable events in the history of the national game was the double ball racket, which was worked to such perfection by the old St. Louis league club. It was in the season of 1876. Whenever the St. Louis players went to the bat they would have a lively ball to bat , but when their opponents were at the bat a dead ball would be worked in on them. The ball the club had made especially for its own use. The Hartfords were victimized by the Mound City club, and a most remarkable thing occurred which led to the discovery of the two balls. The Hartfords were scheduled for three games, on July 11, 13 and 15, and the St. Louis team won all three games, as follows: first, 2 to 0; second, 3 to 0; third, 2 to 0. Up to this time the Hartford club had not been shut out by any other club in the league, and it had a demoralizing effect on the team, and did more than anything else to keep the Hartfords from winning the championship of that year.

Home Field Advantage in the World Series

Boston Red Sox logo_aThis short piece appeared in the 2013 World Series program in edited form, as a sidebar to a longer essay by Stan McNeal titled “Feeling Right at Home.” With the Red Sox clinching at home for the first time since 1918, the trend toward home-field clinchers would appear to be confirmed for all time … maybe.

Clinching a World Championship at home is more exciting for victorious players and their fans. And since 1980, there has been much cause for celebration, as teams with home-field advantage have won 25 of the 32 World Series played [including 2013, now 26 of 33]. But that is a deceptive statistic because in most of these years the winner wrapped up the Series in fewer than seven games—indeed, the losing club in a five-game Series that commenced in the opponents’ city will have had three games at home.

The ultimate World Series thrill has to be winning at home in a seventh game. And in a seeming repeal of the rules of probability, the home team has won Game 7 in each of the last nine World Series that went the distance (the first in 1982, the most recent in 2011).

What’s going on here? Some have laid responsibility at the Commissioner’s feet, for rewarding the All-Star Game winner with home-field advantage, but that decision came in 2003 so clearly is not the answer. The long-established home-field advantage in any one game is 54-46—in other words, the host club may be expected to win any particular game 54 percent of the time. Yet when the home-field advantage is distributed across four games, it diminishes to 51 percent. So what are we to make of the fact that—again, since 1980—the home team in the World Series has won 109 of 175 contests, a winning percentage of .623?

As has long been my custom, when presented a puzzle beyond my understanding, I consulted with old friend and collaborator Pete Palmer. The sample size of World Seriessince 1980, he pointed out, led us to a calamitous conclusion—the sky is falling!—by conveniently lopping off the years 1950-1979, during which the home team lost the seventh game 12 of 15 times (!).

“The actual World Series home team winning perecentage,” Pete said, “is 55 percent,” counting all games since 1903. “But for some reason, the rate since 1969 is significantly higher at 61 percent, even though the divisional series is 52 percent and the championship series 54 percent. And over a seven-game series, that 61 percent translates to only 52 percent overall: 3 [games] x .39 + 4 [games] x .61) / 7.

“So,” Pete concluded, “it would appear the home team advantage in the World Series is minimal.”

Alarmists inclined to jump out the window are advised first to confirm that they are on the ground floor.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 880 other followers