This little book was issued in 1995 as part of the Penguin 60s series–celebrating Penguin’s 60th anniversary with 60 titles by its authors over the years. The 60 for the UK were somewhat different (a book about baseball would have made little sense across the pond, even though the Brits were first to play the game). I was pleased to be included among the 60 for North America, however, as it placed me in the company of my betters, from Melville and Poe to Emerson and the Pope. I got some cocktail-party mileage out of saying that Stephen King and I received the same fee for our work ($200). Anyway, this little book began its life as part of a book I wrote for The Sporting News in 1988, The Game for All America. Revised and republished over the years, the essay is presented here, at the blog named for it, with a tip of the cap to Whitman (“… well—it’s our game: that’s the chief fact in connection with it: America’s game: has the snap, go, fling, of the American atmosphere—belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our constitutions, laws: is just as important in the sum total of our historic life”)
Baseball has been, most often for better but occasionally for worse, the American game. It has given our people rest and recreation, myths and memories, heroes and history and hope. It has mirrored our society, sometimes propelling it with models for democracy, community, commerce, and common humanity, sometimes lagging behind with equally instructive models of futility and resistance to change. And as our national game, baseball in no small measure defines us as Americans, connecting us with our countrymen across all barriers of generation, class, race, and creed.
Baseball in the Americas is more than a game, an observation to which the scope of this little book is testimony and tribute. But it is first and foremost about play, a fact obscured amid the recent ferment of free agency, salary caps, and sky boxes. Some 150 years ago, an overly solemn America was first indebted to baseball for the freedom it gave to play. As overture to this volume’s chronicle of baseball’s history, let’s look at how child’s play came to be our national pastime.
America Learns to Play
Even when the New York Game of Base Ball was in its infancy in the 1850s—having just evolved from a variety of regional and boyhood games, including an older, formalized competitor in New England—the sport was already shaping the life of the country. Americans of the previous generation had been blind to the virtue of play, much perplexing our European cousins. We permitted ourselves few amusements that could not be justified in terms of social or business utility, or “seriousness.” Nonconformists like the Olympic Ball Club of Philadelphia in the 1830s had to put up with a lot of guff, as this later account details:
The first day that the Philadelphia men took the field . . . only four men were found to play, so they started in by playing a game called cat ball. All the players were over twenty-five years of age, and to see them playing a game like this caused much merriment among the friends of the players. It required “sand” in those days to go out on the field and play, as the prejudice against the game was very great. It took nearly a whole season to get men enough together to make a team, owing to the ridicule heaped upon the players for taking part in such childish sports.
What brought scorn upon the heads of these staunch devotees of town ball, as the Philadelphians dubbed their form of ball play, was that although the game had regularly positioned fielders and demanded a modicum of strategic play, it still bore the essence of childhood games: the retirement of a base runner by throwing the ball at him, which necessitated a softer, less resilient ball than that used in the manly sport of cricket.
Who was the genius who came up with the idea of retiring a runner by touching him with the ball or securing it “in the hands of an adversary on the base”? For a long while many baseball scholars thought it was Alexander Cartwright of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York, who some still call “the man who invented baseball,” even though baseball was not invented; it evolved. Today we think it may have been William Rufus Wheaton, who drew up the Knick rules in 1845, modeling them upon a set he had penned eight years earlier for the Gotham Ball Club.
No matter—this was the first step toward making an American game that could challenge boys and men alike, and that could take its place in the life of our nation as cricket had done in England. Henry Chadwick, the English-born cricket reporter who coined the term “national pastime” and became known as the “Father of Baseball,” wrote that early on he
. . . was struck with the idea that base ball was just the game for a national sport for Americans and . . . that from this game of ball a powerful lever might be made by which our people could be lifted into a position of more devotion to physical exercise and healthful out-door recreation than they had, hitherto, been noted for. . . . In fact, as is well-known, we were the regular target for the shafts of raillery and even abuse from our outdoor-sport-loving cousins of England, in consequence of our national neglect of sports and pastimes, and our too great devotion to business and the “Almighty Dollar.” But thanks to Base Ball . . . we have been transformed into quite another people. . . .
The transformation was from a hard-working but grim citizenry to a nation devoted to fresh air and exercise, not unlike the modern rage for jogging, aerobics, and body building. Amateur baseball clubs sprang up like dandelions in the years immediately before the Civil War, but these were formed more for camaraderie and calisthenics than for the pursuit of victory or the honing of skills. The demands of the new game on athleticism were few, as the one-bound rule remained in effect (an out was recorded if a ball was caught on a bounce), and a couple of weeks’ practice were enough to make a novice of forty a creditable player.
Men viewed baseball as a mild pastime, or a relief from the mental strains of work; as a tonic, restorative of the physical energies needed for work; or as a release of the surplus nervous energy that impedes young men in their pursuit of purposeful work. America in the mid-1850s was learning how to play, but still viewed sport in terms of its salutary effects on commerce; not until the close of the War Between the States would the focus shift to learning how to play well—for its own sake.
The Charm of the Game
Today we think of baseball as an anachronism, a last vestige of America’s agrarian paradise—an idyllic game that takes us back to a more innocent time. But baseball as we might recognize it originated in New York City, not rural Cooperstown, and in truth it was an exercise in nostalgia from the beginning. Alexander Cartwright and his Knickerbockers began play in Madison Square in 1842, and the city’s northward progress soon compelled them to move uptown to Murray Hill.
When the grounds there were also threatened by the march of industry, the Knicks ferried across the Hudson River to the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, a landscaped retreat of picnic grounds and scenic vistas that was designed by its proprietors to relieve New Yorkers of city air and city care. In other words, the purpose of baseball’s primal park was the same as that of New York’s Central Park or, much later, Boston’s Fenway Park—to give an increasingly urban populace a park within the city, a place reminiscent of the idealized farms that had sent all these lads to the metropolis in pursuit of work.
Thus the attraction of the game in its earliest days was first the novelty and exhilaration of play; second the opportunity for deskbound city clerks to expend surplus energy in a sylvan setting, freed from the tyranny of the clock; and third, to harmonize with an American golden age that was almost entirely legendary.
Simple charms, simple pleasures. In the late 1860s, advancing skills led to heightened appetites for victory, which led to hot pursuit of the game’s gifted players, which inevitably led to sub rosa payments and, by 1870, rampant professionalism. (Doesn’t that chain reaction put one in mind of college football or basketball?) The gentlemanly players of baseball’s first generation retreated from the field, shaking their heads in dismay at how greed had perverted the “grand old game”—now barely 20 years old—and probably ruined it forever.
Sound familiar? It should—the same dire and premature announcements of the demise of the game have been issued ever since, spurred by free-agent signings, long-term contracts, no-trade provisions, strikes and lockouts, integration, night ball, rival leagues, ad infinitum. The only conclusions a calm head might draw from this recurring cycle of disdain for the present and glorification of the past are that (a) things aren’t what they used to be and never were; (b) accurate assessment of a present predicament is impossible, for it requires perspective; and (c) no matter what the owners or players or rules makers or fans do, they can’t kill baseball. All three conclusions are correct. In baseball, the distinction between amateur and professional is not clear-cut: an amateur may play for devotion to the game (amat being the Latin for “he loves”), but a professional does not play for pursuit of gain alone; he plays for love, too.
Oh, don’t you remember the game of base-ball we saw twenty years ago played,
When contests were true, and the sight free to all, and home-runs in plenty were made?
When we lay on the grass, and with thrills of delight, watched the ball squarely pitched at the bat,
And easily hit, and then mount out of sight along with our cheers and our hat?
And then, while the fielders raced after the ball, the men on the bases flew round,
And came in together—four batters in all. Ah! That was the old game renowned.
Now salaried pitchers, who throw the ball curved at padded and masked catchers lame
And gate-money music and seats all reserved is all that is left of the game.
Oh, give us the glorious matches of old, when love of true sport made them great,
And not this new-fashioned affair always sold for the boodle they take at the gate.
That doomsday ditty by H. C. Dodge was published in 1886.
The National Pastime
America before the Civil War was still populated by a handful of veterans of the Revolutionary War and many who remembered vividly the War of 1812. The era of Anglo-American amity had not yet dawned; our country’s spiritual separation from the Mother Country, though effected by treaty in 1783, was still in process. And having baseball to rival and replace cricket was an important step in that process. Moreover when England, seeking to maintain its supply of cotton from the American South, appeared over-cordial to the Confederate cause, anti-British feeling swept the North. An America long suffering from an inferiority complex toward England now turned against cricket and embraced baseball with increased fervor.
From 1856 on, Henry Chadwick had been eager for baseball to rise to the status in America that cricket held in his native England. He championed the game tirelessly, helping to refine its rules and practices to make it the equal of cricket as a “manly” and “scientific” game. And baseball soon became, in his words, like cricket “a game requiring the mental powers of judgment, calculation and quick perception to excel in it—while in its demands upon the vigor, endurance and courage of manhood, its requirements excel those requisite to become equally expert as a cricketer.”
Chadwick invented a method of scorekeeping and statistical compilation patterned on those inaugurated in cricket. Baseball was an elemental game—pitch, hit, catch, throw—like other games of ball; but keeping records of the contests and later printing box scores and individual averages elevated it from childhood games and placed it on an equal footing with its transatlantic counterpart. (As important, the records served to legitimize men’s concern with what had been merely a boys’ exercise by making it more systematic, like the numerically annotated world of business.) Today a baseball without records is inconceivable: They are what keep Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson alive in our minds in a way that President James K. Polk, Walter Reed, or Admiral Dewey—arguably greater men—are not.
By the end of the Civil War, cricket in this country remained a pastime for a shrinking band of Anglophiles, while the New York Game of Baseball (as it was then called to differentiate it from the nearly vanished Massachusetts Game) was spreading across the country, courtesy of returning veterans whose first exposure to baseball might have come in a prisoner-of-war camp. In the press, baseball was typically proclaimed The National Game—the same term Britons used for cricket.
Play for Pay
From its creation in 1871 to its crash five years later, the National Association had a rocky time as America’s first professional league. Franchises came and went with dizzying speed, often folding in midseason. Schedules were not played out if a club slated to go on the road saw little prospect of gate-share gain. Drinking and gambling and game-fixing were rife. And the Boston Red Stockings of Al Spalding and the Wright brothers dominated play, going 71–8 in the last of their four straight championship seasons; their predictable and one-sided victories crushed the competition and, at last, interest in the entire circuit.
But from the ashes of the National Association emerged the Red Stockings’ model of success and the entrepreneurial genius of Chicago’s William Hulbert. After raiding Boston to obtain four of the biggest stars in the game—Spalding, Ross Barnes, Deacon White, and Cal McVey—and lining up the services of the Philadelphia Athletics’ Adrian “Cap” Anson, the White Stockings were ready to roll in the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, founded on February 2, 1876 in New York’s Grand Central Hotel.
The first five years of the NL were nearly as unsettled as the final years of the NA, with franchises appearing and then disappearing in such cities as Syracuse, Indianapolis, and Hartford while major cities like New York and Philadelphia were, after the league’s inaugural year, unrepresented. In 1878 the fledgling circuit was forced to cut back to six teams: Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Chicago, Providence, Cincinnati, and Boston. National League? National Game? It seemed Americans had plenty of appetite for playing the game, but not much for watching it.
Yet as the National League suffered with growing pains, it was introducing some elements that were critical to the explosion of interest that came with the 1880s. It created a professional (paid) umpiring crew; insisted that the league schedule be honored; banned pool selling and hard-liquor consumption in the stands; and created a system of management-owned teams as opposed to the player-run cooperatives that had largely characterized the NA. As the public’s renewed faith in the integrity of the game coincided with an upswing in the national economy, not only did the National League flourish; along came an interloper, the rival American Association, to offer patrons 25-cent baseball (NL admissions were 50 cents), Sunday games, and beer. With the public’s new appetite for the game seeming insatiable, a group of investors led by St. Louis’ Henry Lucas launched a third major league, the Union Association, for 1884.
As brash stars like Cap Anson, Tim Keefe, Dan Brouthers, and the larger-than-life King Kelly captured the newspaper headlines and the nation’s imagination, the age of the baseball idol arrived. Before this decade, men like Jim Creighton, Joe Start, and George Wright had been admired in New York and New England, but now a baseball hero’s image could be mass-produced for nationwide sale, or licensed for advertising, or shaped to inspire odes and songs. Kelly inspired “Slide, Kelly, Slide,” its arcane references now largely forgotten but once the most popular song in the land:
Slide, Kelly, slide!
Your running’s a disgrace!
Slide, Kelly, slide!
Stay there, hold your base!
If someone doesn’t steal ya,
And your batting doesn’t fail ya,
They’ll take you to Australia!
Slide, Kelly, slide!
And although Ernest Lawrence Thayer always denied it, Kelly could well have been the model for “Casey at the Bat,” the immortal lyric ballad Thayer penned in 1888. (“Casey” was sometimes reprinted in the newspapers of the 1880s as “Kelly at the Bat,” changing the locale from Mudville to Beantown.)
Baseball was ascendant in the 1880s, and like the budding nation whose pastime it was, pretty cocksure. In the same year that “Casey” made his debut, Albert Spalding led a contingent of baseball players on a round the world tour, spreading the gospel of bat and ball to such places as Egypt, Italy, England, Hawaii, and the above-mentioned Australia. Baseball, America thought, was too grand a game to be merely a national pastime; it ought to be the international pastime.
At a New York banquet for Spalding’s returning “world tourists” in 1889, speaker Mark Twain declared, “Baseball is the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century.” Spalding himself later wrote:
I claim that Base Ball owes its prestige as our National Game to the fact that as no other form of sport it is the exponent of American Courage, Confidence, Combativeness; American Dash, Discipline, Determination; American Energy, Eagerness, Enthusiasm; American Pluck, Persistency, Performance; American Spirit, Sagacity, Success; American Vim, Vigor, Virility.
In fact baseball had become more than the mere reflection of our rising industrial and political power and its propensity for bluster and hokum: the national game was beginning to supply emblems for democracy, industry, and community that would change America and the world—not in the ways that Spalding’s Tourists may have envisioned, but indisputably for the better.
Part 2 tomorrow.