Mark Ruckhaus interviewed me some time back, and the story runs in the current issue of “The Inside Game: The Official Newsletter of SABR’s Deadball Era Committee.” I think it may be of passing interest to readers of Our Game, as it touches on baseball’s history as well as my own. I reprint this with the kind permission of the newsletters’s editor and SABR. Mark Ruckhaus kicks things off.
As it’s probably been with nearly everyone, there are numerous forks in the road where, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, we can look back and ask, “How did I get here?” I asked Thorn about what might have been.
John: “Oh, like everyone on the periphery of the game, I would have preferred to have been a player — a shortstop, a center fielder, maybe. Or a writer of serial installments like Dickens, who held a nation in his grip while he decided what to do with Little Nell. Or a teacher. Or an archaeologist. But maybe I have been a little of each.”
Mark: As far as Baseball in the Garden of Eden is concerned, seeing that the Garden of Eden is, essentially, chapter one in the story of Creationism and your story is most definitely one of evolution, at least as it applies to baseball, was the choice of title deliberate?
John: “Of course. While the story of baseball’s ‘birth’ and rise may be one of evolution, the Garden of Eden exists in the minds of fans and is memorialized in Cooperstown. Baseball is a game in which no matter how admirable the players of today and how compelling their accomplishments, we believe in our hearts, ‘Well, it wasn’t as good as the Babe woulda done.’”
Mark: Speculative question, if you don’t mind … And that is, have we pretty much unearthed all the major baseball history there is? Or, might there be another Lucy (the ape-like hominid found in Ethiopia about 40 years ago) hiding under the floorboards of someone’s attic somewhere, something that could turn what we know about baseball on its head? It could include anything from a 19th century or Deadball Era Allan Roth up to people we haven’t heard about before. What would surprise you?
John: “I think the historical spelunking of the past 15 years has been sensational, and the sabermetric revolution, begun perhaps 35 years ago, is still gathering steam. I have been privileged to be in both camps, off and on, and it is perhaps unsurprising if I feel that little truly great work remains. I may feel that way because I am old, and because I have been at this awhile. But my feelings are irrelevant; my brain tells me that we will come to understand the present moment in the game better with each passing year, and that while fewer historical ‘finds’ may lie at out our feet, greater perspective on history is always available. David Laurila [Ruckhaus note: Laurila writes for Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America among others) once asked me, in the lobby of a SABR convention hotel, ‘What was the greatest unanswered baseball question that remained?’ I replied, ‘Why does it feel so good to play catch?’ Get at the to and fro of play — and of life itself — and there will be a discovery that dwarfs the others.”
Mark: Regarding baseball’s birth and development, it seemed that the Civil War spread the New York version of the game around the country at the expense of other local versions, likely equally as popular in their own areas. More speculation … How might baseball have developed without the Civil War? For that matter, how might it have developed had the Players League succeeded, which it almost did?
John: “I think the variant regional games of baseball, along with cricket, were all poised to fail of expansion by 1860. The hoary explanation that the Civil War, with its prisoners and veterans returning home having learned the ‘new game’ in the camps, has been pretty well exploded. If the Players League had succeeded I think nothing substantial would have been gained on the field of play or in the game’s organization, as capitalists were the vital force behind that league as much as they were in the [National League] and [American Association]. I cannot point to a single development in the game that, had it not occurred, would have rendered the game indisputably different. Baseball’s history and rules do not comprise a house of cards in which the addition or removal of a card might prove fatal to the whole.”
Mark: There was a confluence of two events that may well have upset that house of cards and sent baseball in a different direction. And that was the Federal League case that Judge Landis delayed his opinion on long enough for the league to go out of business combined with the Black Sox scandal. In the end, Landis becomes Commissioner, probably as repayment for what looked like the favor he did for MLB and the Terrapins take their case to the Supreme Court where, in not one of their finest hours, they upheld MLB’s anti-trust exemption. What’s your take on that period in baseball history?
John: “When baseball had its first boom in the 1880s, as the effects of the Depression of 1873 finally began to dissipate, the newfound optimism inspired the launch of two new leagues (American Association in 1882, Union Association in 1884). The reasons for the launch of the Players’ League (1890) were different, of course. Baseball’s next boom came after the Peace Agreement between the NL and AL in 1903, inspiring magnates to build new stadiums and a bunch of minor-league owners (Federal League, 1913) to have big-league aspirations, just as Ban Johnson had dreamed in 1900-01. The uncontrolled wild-west aspect of baseball in the 1910s gave rise to the Commissioner system and is highly interesting to the historian for all the swings in financial circumstances, the effect of our entry into WW I, and with Babe Ruth, the dawn of a new style of play. These are all truisms, but I mention them to indicate that my great interest in both the 1880s and 1910s is for largely the same reasons.”
Mark: More toward the era we write about here, in an interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, you mentioned, “When I first began writing baseball, I was enamored of the Deadball Era.” What was it about the era that you were enamored with?
John: “How rough, unpolished … experimental … it was. I loved that many things we today take for granted were novelties then. Gloria Swanson’s character Norma Desmond, in Sunset Boulevard, defended her silent-film days by saying that they did not feel the lack of words: ‘We had faces then.’ Well, Deadball players did not lack the home run.”
Mark: Though a lot has been written about Deadball, little seems to have been written about the style of play among the black teams of the era. After all, it was the blacks who brought the running game to MLB in the ’50s. Were they playing the white style of game in the aughts and teens or were they doing things differently and, if so, what were they?
John: “The minstrel tradition of showmanship was present in professional black baseball from the start — parades beforehand, sleight of hand and staged ‘bits’ during the game. The theatrical tradition — remember, baseball practitioners are called ‘players’ for a reason — continued into the Deadball Era, with less vigor and overt showmanship. But a daring style of play, shared with white baseball in the early years of the 20th century, persisted in the black game even after it, too, produced home run sluggers who might make a plodding base-to-base approach seem like superior strategy. When integration came in the late 1940s, African Americans brought their game of speed mixed with power to the formerly all-white major leagues and produced the beautiful game of our youth.”
Mark: You mentioned your enjoyment of the Deadball Era. Whether in that era or anywhere, is/are there any character or characters that seem to grab your attention and that you find fascinating above the others? If you don’t mind and, for the sake of discussion, mine would likely be Rube Waddell. The greats of the game back then could have survived in the current era as they had the talent and brains to “figure it out.” There are others, like George McBride and Bill Bergen, who would likely never have seen the light of day on an A-ball roster let alone MLB as there’s no market for good field/no-hit players at any position anymore. But Rube is an odd duck who might have been totally lost and ridiculed in the current day. Something just popped into my head. And you mentioned that those who participated in baseball were called “players” for a reason. Was Waddell more of a player/actor than a ballplayer — that he knew exactly what he was doing? Another one, and for a far different reason, is Honus Wagner. Immensely talented and his 1908 season is one of the most dominant ever, even in his 20s and 30s always looked like someone’s grandfather. Maybe it’s the black and white photos or maybe it’s the big schnozz. But he always looked much older than his years.
John: “I like Wagner, and I like Cobb, and I like Matty, too, especially because his life has been outstripped by the legend. Baseball writers felt they needed a Christian Gentleman, so they went to the Frank Merriwell stories for their model. Rube Waddell was the anti-Matty, the last of a line of heroes of the old sort. But he was no play-actor. He was a bit demented but, like all those shortchanged by God in one area, gifted in another. He is a great favorite of mine. I have a longish essay on this subject (that was recently posted) at narrative.ly (to be precise: http://narrative.ly/stories/very-respectable-adventures-gentleman-matty-and-dime-novel-frank/), and I will quote a passage from it:
If Mathewson was not truly a prince among men — and he had his moments, from punching out a lemonade vendor to “high-hatting” his teammates — the press was only too glad to fit him into that role, which had been vacant in the game to that time. Baseball had certainly been well represented in the lower archetypes — knave, fool, sot, rogue, libertine — but a prince was something new.
Dime-novel heroes were red-blooded, not blue; a nobleman on the frontier was a dude, a figure of fun. Sportswriters did not need to look to Elizabethan drama or Classical legend for inspiration. Why bother, when the dime novelists of the day were mining those age-old conventions already? Whether creating fictional heroes, after the manner of James Fenimore Cooper and Sir Walter Scott, or stretching the truth of real-life figures like John Paul Jones, Davy Crockett, or Buffalo Bill, the writers of the early dime novel were giving the people a national history unfettered from mere fact. With Deadwood Dick, Jesse James, Nick Carter, Jack Lightfoot, and of course Frank Merriwell, they were providing America with a usable past, just as Parson Weems had aimed to do with his tale of George Washington and the cherry tree.”
Mark: More toward the present, you were coauthor with Pete Palmer in The Hidden Game of Baseball and the Total Baseball books, both of which gave people a different and more detailed look at statistics, as Bill James did. In your opinion, have the sabermetrics become too dominating in the game with people paying too much attention to the numbers and might it be akin to people going to a dance and counting 1-2-3-4 to make sure they get the steps right rather than listening to the music?
John: “I don’t think that hyper-analysis or rote recitation of stats constitute the problem, if there is one. My complaint in recent years has been how lousy the sabermetric writing is, with material that would make for a snappy table instead making for indigestible prose. There is also a mind-numbing tendency among younger writers especially to use stats as bludgeons in their battle to convince readers that, say, Dwight Evans is a superior player to Tommy McCarthy. Certainly by now I am more attracted to story than to stats, but I have abandoned neither my interest in statistical analysis nor my belief that it ought to serve the story rather than be the story.”
Mark: I read in an interview you did with Bleacher Report a few years ago that, in or around 2010, former Commissioner Bud Selig might have written a letter, noted on the web site Hauls of Shame, that he still believed the Creationism version of baseball — that Doubleday created baseball out of whole cloth. As MLB Historian, did you straighten him out just a bit and has he come over to the Evolutionary side? In a deeper aspect, is the Creationism vs. Evolution in baseball a microcosm of the real world Creationism vs. Evolution argument? I mean, even showing them the history and irrefutable proof we have, at least so far, are there people who are still entrenched in their baseball creationist ways?
John: “It has not been part of my job description to challenge folklore but instead to embrace it as being more powerful and enduring than fact. And it’s fun. If people wish to credit Abner Doubleday with the invention of baseball, they are free to do so; it is, on the whole, harmless and does not impede the progress of historical investigation. Commissioner Selig and I share the belief that Abner Doubleday is baseball’s ‘Father’ to those who feel the need for such a figure; some folks find a depersonalized evolutionary tale excessively dull. There are those who believe in Santa Claus, or Dracula, or Bigfoot. To them I say, mazel tov. The world spins anyhow.”
Mark: But the Commissioner believing in baseball Creationism might be akin to the Pope espousing evolution, wouldn’t it?
John: “Your proposition is silly. An understanding of history, on the one hand, and faith, on the other, have no rational intersection.”
Mark: It was Mark Twain who said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Is that how folklore marches on and is so powerful?
John: “Lying and folklore are kissing cousins, to the extent a ‘needful lie’ will, over time, become history — and then successfully resist attempts to revise it. I have great respect for the enduring strength of myth (which is a highly constructed sort of lying). I wrote in Eden: ‘It is said in folklore circles that when a custom is too old for its origins to be remembered, a story is often devised to rationalize what would otherwise be baffling. Such has been the case with baseball.’”
Mark: Is the Hall of Fame relevant? After all, its foundation in Cooperstown is built on a lie as Doubleday never invented baseball and may not even have been in Cooperstown in 1839. And, considering it’s become the Hall of the Very Good, most of it likely due to the Frankie Frisch-led Veterans’ Committee, does the HOF have the meaning it should? If not, what would you do to change it?
John: “The Hall may have been founded on sand, but its foundation has stiffened with age, and it has a venerable past all its own. It’s not going anywhere, let alone away, and I think the electors have done an amazingly good job when one views the entire span of inductions since 1936. One may disagree with this inclusion or that one, but there are very few figures of great magnitude on the outside looking in (Marvin Miller is a notable exception to this view, I recognize). Me, I wouldn’t change a thing. Let the Hall tinker with its own procedures, and trust to their good sense and instinct for self-preservation.”
Mark: In your position as MLB Historian and remembering the famous Santayana quote and realizing that many in this country have either forgotten the past or don’t particularly care about it, how do you go about “spreading the word,” so to speak, and getting people, especially youngsters (as they’re baseball’s next customers) interested in that aspect of the game?
John: “The best outreach mechanisms have been via the web. ‘Our Game’ is astonishingly well attended for so nerdy a blog. I have nearly 10,000 followers [now greater–jt] on Twitter and as many friends as I might wish on Facebook. I am active on both — no recipes, no cats, just history.”