Mark Twain on Baseball

Mark Twain in his Hartford years

Mark Twain in his Hartford years

I am thinking about Hartford now, and Mr. Clemens, because on Wednesday, September 17, I will be part of a panel at the Mark Twain House, “Base Ball in Mark Twain’s Time.” [http://goo.gl/YQGWQz] Yes, he made the famous speech at Delmonico’s in 1889 honoring the returning World Tourists (in which he called baseball “the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of all the drive and push and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century”). And baseball certainly figures in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: an armor-plated runner sliding into a base, the novelist wrote, “was like an iron-clad coming into port.” But Mark Twain’s only extended passage on the national pastime from the 1870s, when he attended games of the Hartford Base Ball Club in the National League, is this one. It originated as part of a larger work that was to be called A Later Extract from Methuselah’s Diary, set aside and unpublished until 1962. 

By way of explanation, the men in blue hose below were the author’s beloved Hartford Blue Stockings, while the men in carmine leggings were the Red Stockings of Boston. Note that the players of today are not like those of 300 years past, and that pitching dominates to excess. [Addition of paragraph breaks below is mine—jt]

Baseball in Armor Plate

Baseball in armor plate

Tenth Day–It taketh but short space to craze men of indifferent understanding with a new thing. Behold us now but two years gone that a certain ancient game, played with a ball, hath come up again, yet already are all mouths filled with the phrases that describe its parts and movement; insomuch, indeed, that the ears of the sober and such as would busy themselves with weightier matters are racked with the clack of the same till they do ache with anguish. If a man deceive his neighbor with a shrewd trick that doth advantage himself of his neighbor’s hurt, the vulgar say of the sufferer that he was Caught out on a Foul. If one accomplisheth a great and sudden triumph of any sort soever, ’tis said of him that he hath Made a Three-base Hit. If one fail utterly in an enterprise of pith and moment, you shall hear this said concerning him: [*]Hashbat-kakolath. Thus hath this vile deformity of speech entered with familiar insolence into the very warp and woof of the language, and made ugly that which before was shapely and beautiful.

[*] This not translatable into English; but it is about the equivalent to “Lo, he is whitewashed.”

To-day, by command of my father, was this game contested in the great court of his palace after the manner of the playing of it three centuries gone by. Nine men that had their calves clothed in red did strive against other nine that had blue hose upon their calves. Certain of those in blue stood at distances, one from another, stooping, each with his palms upon his knees, watching; these they called Basemen and Fielders—wherefore, God knoweth. It concerneth me not to know, neither to care. One with red legs stood wagging a club about his head, which from time to time he struck upon the ground, then wagged he it again.

Behind him bent one with blue legs that did spit much upon his hands, and was called a Catcher. Beside him bent one called Umpire, clothed in the common fashion of the time, who marked upon the ground with a stick, yet accomplished nothing by it that I could make out. Saith this one, Low Ball. Whereat one with blue legs did deliver a ball with vicious force straight at him that bore the club, but failed to bring him down, through some blemish of his aim.

hartford_bb_1877

Hartford Base Ball Grounds, 1876

At once did all that are called Basemen and Fielders spit upon their hands and stoop and watch again. He that bore the club did suffer the ball to be flung at him divers times, but did always bend in his body or bend it out and so save himself, whilst the others spat upon their hands, he at the same instant endeavoring to destroy the Umpire with his bludgeon, yet not succeeding, through grievous awkwardness. But in the fulness of time was he more fortunate, and did lay the Umpire dead, which mightily pleased me, yet fell himself, he failing to avoid the ball, which this time cracked his skull, to my deep gratitude and satisfaction.

Conceiving this to be the end, I did crave my father’s leave to go, and got it, though all beside me did remain, to see the rest disabled. Yet I had seen a sufficiency, and shall visit this sport no more, forasmuch as the successful hits come too laggingly, wherefore the game doth lack excitement. Moreover was Jebel there, windy with scorn of these modern players, and boastful of certain mighty Nines he knew three hundred years gone by—dead, now, and rotten, praise God, who doeth all things well.

[SOURCE: Bernard DeVoto, Mark Twain: Letters from the Earth.  New York, Evanston and London: Harper & Row, 1962. pp. 70-71.]

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