The Spur to Memory
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.
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….
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.”
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.