This is an essay I wrote for ESPN’s new project, “1927:The Diary of Myles Thomas,” which launches today. While it appears on the project’s site (espn.com/1927DMT), by posting it here as well I am hoping to reach those who read me regularly.
I’d like to tell you about a new project coming from ESPN to which I have been invited to pull up a chair. Debuting today, it has utterly gripped me.
After a long career, it’s no fun to step again in old footprints, so I’m always on the lookout for something new. I am certain there has never been anything quite like this — the story of a team and a season expressed through what is essentially a historical novel formed by a diary, letters, and tweets; an exploration of not only a ball team but a peak year of the Jazz Age — all of it released cross-platform in real time over the course of this summer, with an outcome that is unknown not only to its protagonists but also its creators.
It is a tale told by a bit player on the ’27 Yankees — pitcher Myles Thomas. In true life, Thomas was an insignificant member of the team, and for the purposes of this work the creators are using only his baseball statistics. They are creating his diary and letters, through which Thomas will introduce us not only to his teammates but also to luminaries of the day who cavorted with the ballplayers, from Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke to Barbara Stanwyck and Al Jolson. Lesser lights may play major roles: Myles’s Penn State teammate Hinkey Haines, still the only man to play for a championship team in the NFL and in MLB; Fred Merkle of “bonehead” fame, a coach with the ’27 Yanks; Gertrude Ederle, who swam the English Channel that year; Paul Robeson, who was once Lou Gehrig’s baseball coach; Ty Cobb, John McGraw and Rube Foster. Truly, the cast would do justice to a Sol Hurok gladiator epic.
But first and last, in 1927 and perhaps in all of American legend, is Babe Ruth, the Sultan of Swat, the Beatified Bambino, the Paul Bunyan of Baseball. Had he not lived, we would have had to make him up. The embodiment of the Jazz Age, “he was a parade all by himself,” wrote Jimmy Cannon, “a burst of dazzle and jingle. Santa Claus drinking his whiskey straight and groaning with a bellyache caused by gluttony…. Babe Ruth made the music that his joyous years danced to in a continuous party….” In the summer of ’27 Charles Lindbergh would briefly eclipse Babe Ruth as the one-man parade and darling of the newsreels, but by season’s end Ruth had retaken his pedestal.
“1927: The Diary of Myles Thomas” never strays far from the Babe. It is a tale of jazz and speakeasies, bucket-shop brokers and movie stars, Lucky Lindy and the Great White Way. It’s about elevator boys offering stock tips, gamblers and mobsters mingling with athletes and entertainers, and socialites at Harlem nightclubs in search of thrills.
The Jazz Age was a normless bundle of contradiction — the sale of alcohol was prohibited by the Volstead Act, yet in the cities, it was readily available and saw greater demand than before it was banned. As the federal income tax had begun to make America a nation of accountants, the Prohibition era made it a nation of lawbreakers. With America’s immigration spigot shut tight by the 1920s, the melting pot had begun to boil, as the nation’s popular culture — film, music, and radio programming — bubbled up from former denizens of the bottom.
The Great War had made young people newly conscious of their mortality and impelled them to seize the moment, to live life improvisationally, to kick over their parents’ plans for them. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tales of the Jazz Age and Colleen Moore’s film Flaming Youth provided the map to fly-boys and flappers, giving them new paths to personal freedom, led by the music of a legion of jazz pied-pipers.
“This was different, shifted the lay of the land… guys, playing and singing, writing their own material… opened up a whole world of possibilities.”
Bruce Springsteen said that about The Beatles’ impact on his life and career, but it could have been said about Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven. Where in the 1960s, it had been hip to be cool, back in the ’20s everyone was looking for hot. It was no accident that the first big talking motion picture was named “The Jazz Singer.”
Myles Thomas’s diary will not be telling merely the story you think you know — about Babe Ruth and his 60 home runs, Lou Gehrig and his 173 RBIs, Murderers’ Row and their famous five o’clock lightning — instead, it will provide a peephole into the past, a view of what it was really like to be young and a Yankee in the greatest city in the world, at maybe the greatest time to be alive. In “1927: The Diary of Myles Thomas,” there will be booze, sex, drugs, and, while no rock ’n’ roll, plenty of jazz.
In the sports year 1927, the New York Giants would win the NFL title. The New York Rangers would begin their rush to capture their first Stanley Cup in their second season of existence. The New York Celtics would be champions of the American Basketball League. In New York, this was certainly the Golden Year of Sports. And it might have been fairly called that even if the Yankees had been the city’s only champion; that’s how extraordinary a team they were.
The greatest baseball team of all time? There was only one answer: the 1927 Yankees, the team that scored nearly two and a half runs per game more than their opposition — a figure surpassed only by the Yankees of 1939, and never again — and the team that coasted to the pennant, 19 games ahead of runner-up Philadelphia; who swept the Pirates in the World Series. Maybe the 1998 Yankees could have given them a run for their honors, or maybe sabermetric analysis may send you back for another look at the 1902 Pirates, but among 99 percent of baseball fans today, the legendary status of the 1927 Yankees is secure: They won 110 games and lost only 44. Their batters finished first in home runs, batting average, and RBIs — a team triple crown — yet had the fewest strikeouts in the league. Their pitchers were first in ERA and shutouts while allowing the fewest hits and walks.
What is my role in this exciting project? My goal is to play spiritedly in the principal writers’ sandbox, to scribble alongside them every now and then and, as Major League Baseball’s official historian, to assure readers that our crew’s flights of fancy will not veer far from known fact, and will never contradict it.
The goal of the project, says its creator, Douglas Alden, is “to create a work of real-time historical fiction that explores the nexus of baseball, jazz and prohibition, a deeply personal exploration by one fictional ballplayer from the 1920s of race, sex, and the meaning of heroes and greatness.” My role as historian, in short, is providing a bevy of story nuggets to the principal writers, as well as a personal “Seal of Plausibility” for all of the incidents and adventures.
And part of what makes this project so much fun is that we’re constantly discovering new facts about the 1927 real-life cast of characters that astonish us, and we’re sure will astonish you — to the point where the project will include online citations and links to our discoveries, as some of them are so hard to believe.
When imagination is thrown into the mix, well, that’s where the fun lies.
Last week I received an unusual email from a baseball fan who will go unnamed here. It provides me with an excuse to share with you one of my (regrettably) all-too-many non-sports interests: nineteenth-century graphic art, from antebellum engravings and lithographs to Art Nouveau posters. From the email: ” My wife and I are avid fans of vintage posters, and Ethel Reed is one of our favorite artists. Some years ago, when Reed’s personal history was still more unknown than it is now, I was looking online for whatever I could find — and was stunned when I found material by a ‘John Thorn.’ I didn’t imagine it could possibly be ‘the same you’ who writes the baseball books, but I readily saw that indeed they’re both you.”
Yep. My long-dead loves include not only Ethel Reed but also Annette Kellermann, Evelyn Nesbit, and Mary Astor. But back to Miss Reed, about whom I wrote the following for the Woodstock Times ten years ago this month:
Some years ago when I wrote regularly for this paper on art, I devoted two successive columns to Edmonia Lewis, a sculptress, as they called her back in the day, of mixed Negro and American Indian breed … again as they used to say. She was a fantastic character with a propensity for self-invention, so not all the strange stories about her could be corroborated as fact, but what did it matter, if her art were fine? Born near Albany, New York on the Fourth of July 1844, according to her passport application, she lived on a reservation as a child, was educated at Oberlin, and came to fame in Boston during the Civil War. Her sculpture was at first of indifferent quality, the critics wrote, but there was to be said for it the splendid novelty of brown hands on white marble. (For those interested to learn more about her, see the two-parter “Inventing Edmonia Lewis” at: http://goo.gl/2wCsRc and http://goo.gl/U5ngWQ.)
Her supporters sent her to Rome in 1865 to advance her art, which she did: her crowning achievement, Cleopatra,was exhibited to acclaim at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876. By the turn of the century the vogue for neoclassical sculpture had waned, and Lewis ended her days in Europe. No one knows precisely where or when. I came across a census listing for her from 1901, locating her at 154 Store Street in London, near Bloomsbury, where she worked at home as an “artist/modeller.” Scholar Marilyn Richardson placed her back in Rome by decade’s end, but there the trail appeared to vanish [until recently, when Ms. Richardson’s research confirmed Edmonia Lewis’s burial at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery, in London, in 1907]. All along for Edmonia Lewis, the life and the art had competed for public attention; at the end both receded from view.
The same could be said, almost eerily, of another Boston girl who made good, poster artist Ethel Reed, in whom I have taken a frankly obsessive interest lately since winning one of her posters in an internet auction. Like Lewis, she was a natural, a phenomenon — essentially self-taught, with only a smattering of formal instruction. Her meteoric burst of fame in the mid-1890s was followed by a failed romance, flight to Europe in mid-1896, disappearance from the published record after 1898, when she was only 24, and an end to her visible career.
Prowling on Project Wombat, an online discussion list for difficult reference questions, I came across scholar Donna Halper’s discovery of a 1901 census listing in London for an Ethel Reed residing at 106 Grosvenor Road in Pimlico with four-month-old son Anthony and servant Mary Gay, but no husband. Her occupation was recorded as “Artist (Painter)” with “Sculpt.” overwritten.
Could these two Boston émigrée artists have known about each other’s presence? Could they have chatted over tea, or absinthe? We will never know, but Google Maps made clear that, at least in mid-1901, Lewis and Reed lived only 3.1 miles apart. This is the stuff of which novels are made, I am thinking.
Ethel Reed was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on March 13, 1874 to photographer Edgar Eugene Reed and wife Elizabeth Mary. They moved to Amherst sometime before 1880. Ethel’s precocious artistic talents were recognized at age 12 when she entered a crayon work at the Essex County Agricultural Society Fair and was awarded a 50-cent “gratuity.” In this year she had begun some schooling with Laura Coombs Hills (1859-1952), whose attraction to Ethel dated back to a sketch of her executed six years before. Coombs went on to paint a miniature on ivory of Ethel as one of “Seven Pretty Girls of Newburyport,” shown at the Boston Water Color Club in December 1893.
At this time Reed, age 19, was engaged in an unsuccessful pursuit of employ in New York City. But she soon returned to Boston, to which her family had repaired in 1890, and took on a studio of her own at 367 Boylston. She had been taking classes at the Cowles School of Art and exhibiting landscapes at the Boston Arts Students’ Association. Like many artistic souls of her generation, she was consumed with the romanticism of Keats, the exoticism of Omar Khayyam, and the formalism of Japanese art, as introduced to Boston by Harvard Professor Ernest Fenollosa.
It was during this period that her flamboyant personality was evidenced in costume balls, dance parties, pageants, and nonconformist life styles. Three months earlier, the Boston Journal (March 25, 1893) reported: “As the time for the artists’ festival approaches, society gets more and more excited over it. Young people who are born with the love of dressing up do not by any means have it all to themselves. Mr. Goodhue, the architect, is to head the King René group, as the regal ruler himself, with Miss Alexander of Cambridge as King René’s daughter; Ethel Reed, who danced so well at the pageant, as the Queen, and Mr. Herbert Copeland, Mr. Fred Day, and Mr. Abbott will be in the long train of courtiers…. Ralph Adams Cram is to be Pope Nicholas V., and will be surrounded by eighteen Cardinals.”
Several of the above-named revelers would be at the core of Bohemian Boston in the years to come. Reed would be involved in a ménage à trois with the architects Goodhue and Cram; would pose nude for the photographer Fred (Holland) Day; and would execute book designs and posters for Messrs. Copeland and Day, as well as publishers Lamson, Wolffe & Co., the Boston Herald, and others. She would become engaged to one of the Hub’s most eligible bachelors, artist Philip Hale—son of Edward Everett Hale, author of The Man without a Country—and then disengaged, fleeing to Europe in heartbreak and shame.
She had ridden the new wave: a fad of Orientalism, experiments in free love and hashish, and, crucially for the history of art in America, a craze for posters. The boom had begun in France two decades earlier, when Jules Chéret and others pioneered a new form of advertising, favoring images over text, and color over monochrome. The lines between art and commerce were blatantly blurred, and the streets of Paris became an art gallery for the common man: in the words of A. Hyatt Mayor, they were “pictures meant to be seen by people who did not mean to see them.” By the 1890s the posters became more prized than the products they advertised, and connoisseurs lined up to buy the lithographs not earmarked for the walls and kiosks of the city.
In America the first posters went primarily to advertise magazines and books. Edward Penfield heralded the new simplified, straightforward style in his posters for Harper’s in 1893. In May 1894 Will H. Bradley contributed a more sinuous style — influenced, no doubt, by England’s master of decadence, Aubrey Beardsley — to the cover of the Chap-Book.
Reed, meanwhile, was sending sentimental hackwork to magazines without much success. A syrupy vignette titled “Butterfly Thoughts” became her first published work when St. Nicholas magazine ran it in the June 1894 issue. In the winter of 1894-95 an unnamed friend came to Reed’s studio, saw a portrait she had painted, and suggested that she copy it to become a poster promoting the Boston Sunday Herald, with which he was associated. “You can see,” she told an interviewer in 1895 as she pointed to her painting, “that the reproduction flattened and quite spoiled the effect of the original.”
She missed the point, seemingly. It was precisely the flatness, the simplicity, the atonality, the graphic quality that made “Ladies Want It,” issued on February 24, 1895, a milestone. In that portrait and nearly all those of women that followed, a critic noted “a certain uniformity of type began to assert itself as I glanced from one to another, and it dawned upon me at last that the original of these studies was the artist herself. Later, when she confirmed my observation, I had the pleasure of congratulating her on her choice of a model.”
Ethel Reed was a striking woman, not exactly beautiful by the standards of today, and with a wide-eyed gaze that hints at madness. But in her day she was universally regarded as a dish. A writer in the Chap-Book offered: “Lamson and Wolffe’s first book was published on Washington’s birthday, ‘so timed to call attention to what we intended to make the keynote of the firm, healthy Americanism, as opposed to the general tendencies of the younger publishers toward imported realism.’ It naturally followed that the new firm should ‘discover’ Miss Ethel Reed: no healthy American would lose any time in discovering Miss Reed, if she were anywhere in sight.”
The Boston Daily Advertiser described her well in 1896:
Large, dark eyes, looking out under a wide, white brow; a rather broad, firm face, the skin clear, with what the French call a “fine pallor,” set in a mass of dull black hair above a strong neck; expressive features, the mouth begins sad; a supple figure, though sturdy withal, and of just medium height, neither tall nor short—that is Ethel Reed, the Boston girl of 21 [actually 22], whom critics have hailed as the greatest woman designer of that latest creation of modern art, the poster.
“I am governed by moods in my work,” she says, “and I cannot work when the mood is not on. It does not come at my bidding, and sometimes for a fortnight I can accomplish nothing. Then in a few hours I can dash off all that I wished to do in that fortnight.”
Fleeing Boston in the wake of being jilted by Philip Hale, she landed a position in London as the replacement for Aubrey Beardsley, who had been dismissed as editor of The Yellow Book. She commenced an affair in late 1897 with the writer Richard Le Gallienne while he was engaged to Julie Noiregard, the woman who would become his second wife.
And then she was done. A drawing of a girl with a cat appeared in the Studio Magazine of March 1898, a sad pierrot in The Sketch. Le Gallienne wrote a poem for her in 1910.
TO ONE WHO IS BLIND
I said I had forgotten her,
That I had put away
Our memories of Paradise
Until the Judgment Day;
That never more the laughing earth
Should see us hand in hand,
That I long since had shut the door
Of the old fairyland.
Then on a sudden came strange news
Upon the gossip wind
My love of those sweet years ago
Great God — my love was blind!
I said — the news must be a lie,
Cruel as are the years,
They could not be so merciless
To such great eyes as hers.
Little child of long ago,
God grant the news untrue!
Except for one strong selfish thought —
That I may come to you
And sit beside you in the dark,
And, as in Paradise
I gave you all my breaking heart,
Now bring to you — my eyes.
The special poignancy of Reed’s story deserved a better poem and less egotistical a poet. A. E. Housman will do:
And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.
Just a year after her work with The Yellow Book and a few other final projects, Reed disappeared entirely. Until recently, with United Kingdom’s unlocking in 2011 of its divorce records from the period 1902-1912, the story of the remaining years of her life, and even the date of her death were shrouded in mystery. William S. Peterson, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, published a fine biography of Reed in 2013, The Beautiful Poster Lady: A Life of Ethel Reed, which revealed that the artist died in 1912 at the age of 38. In an interview, Peterson added that in her last decade Ethel Reed “had a succession of lovers, bore two children by them, and in 1903 married an English army officer, but the marriage fell apart immediately — on the honeymoon, no less. In her final years she sank into poverty and obscurity and died of an overdose of sleeping tablets in 1912. There is no simple answer as to why she was unable to relaunch her artistic career in London, but it is worth noting that she became an alcoholic, was addicted to several drugs (including opium), had an extraordinarily turbulent love life, and frequently complained of depression and poor health.”
From Porter’s Spirit of the Times, March 7, 1857, page 5.
BASE BALL CONVENTION.
The final meeting of the delegates from Base Ball Clubs to the above Convention, met at Smith’s Hotel, 462 Broome street, on February 25, and adopted the report of the committee of one from each club, which was appointed some time since, to draw up a code of rules for the government of the game of Base Ball. The following clubs were represented: The Knickerbocker, Gotham, Empire, Putnam, Baltic, Excelsior, Harlem, Atlantic, Eagle, Union, Eckford, Continental, Nassau, Harmony, and Olympic. Mr. Adams, of the Knickerbocker, was president; Mr. Andrews, of the Excelsior, was secretary; and Mr. Brown, of the Harlem, treasurer.
The Knickerbocker Club, having played the game for many years at the Elysian Fields, Hoboken, were desirous of changing the rules of the game, from the easy mode in which they have hitherto played it; and, with that view, called a convention of all the clubs, to discuss the revision of the rules. The Knickerbocker was the only club in the convention which existed previous to 1853; and the majority of the clubs were only organized during the last two years—some only last year. Although many old Base Ball players wore connected with the new clubs, it was generally conceded, and expected, that the Knickerbockers would, from their well-known experience, as to the requirements of the game, take the lead in proposing the necessary reforms. They, accordingly, submitted a new code of laws, in which they clearly defined every point in the game; and, with a view of making the game more manly and scientific, they proposed, that no player should be out on a fair struck ball, if it was only taken by the fielder according to the old rule, after it had touched the ground once, and was then caught on the bound; but that the ball must be caught in the air before it had touched the ground, or the player was not out. This rule, Sec. 16, was discussed in the committee, some objecting to it as being too much like Cricket, some that it would hurt the hands more than by taking the ball on the bound, the committee being pretty equally divided. The advocates of the reform finally acceded to a proposition of their opponents; namely, that if a man was caught out before the ball touched the ground, that then the players who were running to the different bases, or home, could neither make an Ace nor Base, but had to return to their original position. This was, certainly, a greater inducement to a display of nerve on the part of the fielders, as, by the former rules, the players could make as many Aces and Bases as they pleased, if the ball was taken on the bound. This section was adopted by the committee unanimously. Many other rules were adopted, and a code of 34 rules was laid before the convention for its action.
The Knickerbockers also proposed that strikers might have the privilege of squaring down the round bat, or club, if they desired to play with a flat face, instead of the uncertain round club; this was not adopted; and Sec. 30 had a rider attached to it, which protected the players back to their places of starting, instead of allowing a premium for sharp fielding, if the ball was passed quickly to the pitcher, and again back to a base, before a player got back to his original post. Many ambiguous rules have been clearly defined, whilst others are susceptible of doubt: much will depend upon the prompt decision of the Umpires. Sec. 1 determines the weight and make of the ball, which has hitherto been very uncertain. Sec. 5 settles a doubtful point, as to the position of the Pitcher. Sec. 6.–This was always a mooted question. The Knickerbockers desired to settle it by making it imperative for the Pitcher to deliver the ball whenever one of his feet was over a settled line; then, if he did not deliver the ball, but threw it to one of the bases, it was to be declared a baulk. Now, as adopted by the convention, it entirely depends upon the opinion of the Umpires, who may declare it a baulk, although the Pitcher, in drawing back his hand, may really intend to throw the ball to a base, and not to the striker: it is a knotty point for the umpires and referee. Sec. 10 is the old rule, which we have already suggested ought to be altered to “every three fair pitched balls,” if not struck at, should be considered as a miss; this would prevent playing against time; but, as Sec. 26 was adopted by the committee, on the recommendation of the Knickerbockers, making the game “seven innings,” and amended in convention, on motion of Mr. Wadsworth, to “nine innings,” instead of the old game of twenty-one Aces, the inducement to make a drawn game is done away with, if the section is taken in connection with Sec 31.
Section 21.—Such dishonorable conduct as is supposed, should have been visited by a penalty on the party offending, and not merely allow that, which might have been reached without the interference of the offending party.
Sec. 22.—A ball may be struck with such force as to bring all the men home; yet, in such a case (were it possible to suppose such a thing could be) Short, might stop it, return it to the Pitcher—the only penalty—Instead of the side coming home, a man is out sure. Ought there not to be a penalty?
Sec. 27 is an excellent rule, and will prevent much dissatisfaction. Sec. 28 Is another good rule, which will prevent good players from monopolizing the play in matches. Sec. 30 is another good rule, and will tend much to prevent over-anxiety and ill-humor during a match. Sec. 33.—Experience has shown the necessity of this rule; it will prevent much annoyance to the persons engaged in the game. And section 35 will save much valuable time and many a drawn game, which has been too often frittered away, much to the disgust of parties who have gone into the field for an afternoon’s recreation.
The new rules do not tend to elevate the scientific character of the game much more than the former ones, as intended by the originators of the convention, yet there is considerable improvement. The objection of some of the young members of the convention to catching the ball “on the fly,” ought not to have had much weight simply for the reason, that it is the way the ball is caught in the English game of cricket or, if Englishmen choose to hurt their hands by catching the ball before It touches the ground, why should Americans do so?
Let it be known that cricket was played in America before base ball; that within a year of this present time, more Americans played cricket than base ball; and that many of our best base ball players are Englishmen, who have joined it for a quick, lively game. And above all, let not Americans reject a manly point in the game merely because it is English, and hurts the hands (which it does not, if played in a scientific manner); for, surely, what an Englishman can do, an American is as capable of improving upon. Even the American cricketers, who played with the Englishmen last fall, and were defeated, are organizing their forces for the spring campaign, and intend to defeat the Englishmen in their national game (In a friendly way). But the rules of base ball are fixed for the present, and will meet a fair trial in the first match game between two clubs, and experience will settle all doubts as to their working. Practice will increase the ability to take the ball on the fly, as the inducement will cause the attempt oftener than heretofore. In any case, the game will be more popular than ever, and renewed health, both physically and morally, must accrue to those who practise this healthful out door exercise. The cricket-ground of thirty acres, will, by favor of our Republican Solons at Albany, soon be covered with a green carpet, inviting our base ball clubs to “spread themselves” that is, if the happiness of the white slaves of labor, and of Mammon, of this city, can have a consent to be allowed to spend their own money, in improving their waste lands for the benefit of the health of their families.
We have, in a former number, recommended a new rule for playing base ball, which we should like to see tried in a practice game, to see how it would work. It is to make six out all out, instead of making three out all out. A player who is caught out on the fly, being marked 00, or two out to his side; whilst a player who Is only caught out on the bound, is marked 0, or only one out on his side. This rule is an incentive to Increased activity by the fielders; as by catching the ball in a manly way, before it touches the ground, the six out all out, are practically reduced to three out all out. This rule will accomplish all that the “Knickerbockers” wished, and will give a chance to the young gentlemen with soft hands, and a double chance to those who fail to take the ball on the fly, where they cannot possibly reach it till it touches the ground, or on occasions where their fingers have been buttered.
RULES AND REGULATIONS, AS ADOPTED BY THE CONVENTION OF BASE BALL CLUBS, HELD FEBRUARY 25th, 1857.
Sec. 1. The ball must weigh not less than 6 nor more than 6-1/4 ounces avoirdupois; it must measure not less than 10, nor more than 10-1/4 inches in circumference ; it must be composed of india-rubber and yarn, and covered with leather. It shall be furnished by the challenging Club, and become the property of the winning Club, as a trophy of victory.
Sec. 2. The bat must be round, and must not exceed 2-1/2 inches In diameter, in The thickest part; it must be made of wood, and may be of any length, to suit the striker.
Sec. 3. The bases must be four in number, placed at equal distances from each other, and securely fastened upon the four corners of a square, whose sides are respectively thirty yards. They must be so constructed as to be distinctly seen by the umpires and referee, and mast cover a space equal to one square foot of surface; the first, second and third bases shall be canvas bags, painted white, and filled with sand or saw-dust; the home base and pitcher’s point to be each marked by a flat circular iron plate, painted or enamelled white.
Sec. 4. The base from which the ball is struck shall be designated the homer base, and must be directly opposite to the second base; the first base must always be that upon the right hand, and the third base that upon the left hand side of the striker, when occupying his position at the home base.
Sec. 5. The pitcher’s position shall be designated by a line four yards In length, drawn at right angles to a line from home to the second base, having its centre upon that line, at a fixed iron plate placed at a point fifteen yards distant from the home base,.
Sec. 6. The ball must be pitched, not jerked or thrown to the bat, and whenever the pitcher draws back his hand, with the apparent purpose or pretension to deliver the ball, he shall so deliver it. The pitcher must deliver the ball as near as possible, over the centre of the home base, and must have neither foot in advance of the line at the time of delivering the ball, and if he fails in either of these particulars, then it shall be declared a baulk.
Sec. 7. When a baulk is made by the pitcher, every player running the bases is entitled to one base, without being put out.
Sec. 8. If the ball from a stroke of the bat is caught behind the range or home and the first base, or home and the third base, without having touched the ground, or first touches the ground behind those bases, it shall be termed foul, and must be so declared by the umpires, unasked. If the ball first touches the ground, or is caught without having touched the ground, either upon or in front of the range of those bases, it shall be considered fair.
Sec. 9. A player making the home base, shall be entitled to score one run.
Sec. 10: If three balls are struck at and missed, and the last one is not caught, either flying or upon the first bound, it shall be considered fair, arid the striker must attempt to make his run.
Sec. 11. The striker is out If a foul ball is caught, either before touching the ground or upon the first bound.
Sec. 12. Or, if three balls are struck at and missed, and the last is caught either before touching the ground or upon the first bound.
Sec. 13. Or, if a fair ball is struck, and the ball is caught either without having touched the ground or upon the first bound.
Sec. 14. Or, if a fair ball is struck, and the ball is held by an adversary on the first base, before the striker touches that base.
Sec. 15. Or, if at any time he is touched by the ball while in play in the hands of an adversary, without some part of his person being on a base.
Sec. 16. No ace nor base can be made upon a foul ball, nor when a fair ball has been caught without having touched the ground; and the ball shall, in both instances, be considered dead and not in play, until it shall first have been settled in the hands of the pitcher. When a fair ball has been caught without having touched the ground, the players running the bases shall have the privilege of returning to them.
Sec. 17. Players must stand on a line drawn through the centre of the home base not exceeding in length three feet from either side thereof, and such line shall be parallel with the line occupied by the pitcher. They shall strike In regular rotation; and after the first innings is played, the turn commences with the player who stands on the list next to the one who lost the third hand.
Sec. 18. Players must make their bases in the order of striking; and when a fair ball is struck, and not caught flying, nor on the first bound, the first base must be vacated, as also the second and third bases, if they are occupied at the same time. Players may be put out upon any base, under these circumstances, in the same manner as the striker when running to the first base.
Sec. 19. Players running the bases must, so far as possible, keep upon the direct line between the bases; and, should any player run three feet out of this line, for the purpose of avoiding the ball in the hands of an adversary, he shall be declared out.
Sec. 20. Any player, who shall, intentionally, prevent an adversary from catching or fielding the ball, shall be declared out.
Sec. 21. If a player is prevented from making a base, by the intentional obstruction of an adversary, he shall be entitled to that base, and not be put out.
Sec. 22. If any adversary stops the ball with his hat or cap, or takes it from the hands of a party not engaged in the game, no player can he put out, unless the ball shall first have been settled in the hands of the pitcher.
Sec. 23. If a ball, from the stroke of the bat, is held under any other circumstances than as enumerated in section 22, and without having touched the ground more than once, the striker is out.
Sec. 24. If two hands are already out, no player, running home at the time a ball is struck, can make an ace, if the striker is put out.
Sec 25. An innings must be concluded at the time the third hand is put out
Sec. 26. The game shall consist of nine innings to each side, when, should the number of runs be equal, the innings shall be continued until a majority of runs, upon an equal number of innings, shall be declared, which shall conclude the game.
Sec. 27. In playing all matches, nine players from each club shall constitute a full field, and they must have been regular members of the club which they represent, for thirty days prior to the match. No change or substitution shall be made after the game has been commenced, unless for reason of illness or injury. Positions of players shall be determined by captains, previously appointed for that purpose by the respective clubs.
Sec 28. Any player holding membership in more than one club, at the same time, shall not be permitted to play in the matches of either club.
Sec. 29. The umpires in all matches shall take care that the regulations respecting the ball, bats, bases, and the pitcher’s position, are strictly observed; they shall be the judges of fair and unfair play, and shall determine all differences which may occur during the game; they shall take especial care to declare all foul balls and baulks immediately on their occurrence. They shall together select a referee, from whose decision in case of a disagreement between them there shall be no appeal.
Sec. 30. No person engaged in a match, either as umpire, referee, or player, shall be either directly or indirectly interested in any bet upon the game. Neither umpire, referee nor player shall be changed during a match, unless with the consent of both parties, except for a violation of this law, and except as provided in section 27, and then the referee may dismiss any transgressor.
Sec. 31. The umpires and referee in any match, shall determine when play shall be suspended; and if the game cannot be concluded, it shall be decided by the last even innings, provided five innings have been played; and the party having the greatest number of runs shall be declared the winner.
Sec. 32. Clubs may adopt such rules respecting balls knocked beyond or outside of the bounds of the field, as the circumstances of the ground may demand, and these rules shall govern all matches played upon the ground, provided that they are distinctly made known to every player and umpire, and the referee, previous to the commencement of the game.
Sec 33. No person shall be permitted to approach or to speak with the referee, umpires, or players, or in any manner to interrupt or interfere during the progress of the game, unless by the special request of the umpires or referee.
Sec. 34. No person shall be permitted to act as umpire or referee in a match, unless he shall be a member of a Base Ball Club, governed by these rules.
Sec. 35. Whenever a match shall have been determined upon between two clubs, play shall be called at the exact hour appointed; and should either party fail to produce their players within fifteen minutes thereafter, the party so failing shall admit a defeat.
DELEGATES TO THE CONVENTION.
Knickerbocker—D. L. Adams; W.H. Grenelle; L. F. Wadsworth.
Gotham—W. H. Van Cott; R.H. Cudlip; G. H. Franklin.
Eagle—W. W. Armfield; A. J. Blxby; J. W. Mott.
Empire–R. H. Thorn; Walter Scott; Thomas Leavy.
Putnam—Theo. F. Jackson; J. W. Smith; E. A. Walton.
Baltic—Philip Weeks; R. G. Cornell; C. W. Cooper.
Excelsior—J. W. Andrews; J. Rogers; P. B. Chadwick.
Atlantic—C. Sniffen; W. Babcock; T. Thasie [Tassie].
Harmony—R. Justin, jr.; G. M. Phelps; F. D. Carr.
Harlem—E. H. Brown; J. L. Riker; C. M. Van Voorhis.
Union—Thos. E. Sutton; Wm. Cauldwell; S. D. Gifford.
Eckford—C. M. Welling; Francis Pidgeon; J. M Gray.
Bedford–John Constant; Charles Osborn; Thomas Bogart.
Nassau—W. P. Howell; J. R. Rosenquest; E. Miller.
Continental—John Silsby; N. B. Law; J. B. Brown.
Olympic—Charles Smith; W. B. Dodson
D. L. ADAMS, President.
JAMES W. ANDREWS, Secretary.
With the newly discovered “Laws of Base Ball” coming to auction this weekend (http://scpauctions.com/), I thought it might be a fine time to post the text of contemporary news coverage. While the source is Porter’s Spirit of the Times, January 31, 1857, the report of the New York Herald, published the morning after the convention of January 22, is incorporated. Note the use of the phrase “national pastime” in connection with the rising sport of baseball, and the difficulty that the sport’s proponents had in securing equal standing with cricket in the laying out of the new Central Park. For a great deal more about the proposal by the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York to modify and standardize the rules, see “The Making of Baseball’s Magna Carta” (http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2016/02/28/the-making-of-baseballs-magna-carta/).
OUR NATIONAL SPORTS.
A convention of the Base Ball Clubs of this city and the vicinity was held on Thursday evening, 22nd inst., at Smith’s Hotel, Broome street, for the purpose of discussing and deciding upon a code of laws which shall hereafter be recognized as authoritative in the game. Base ball has been known in the Northern States as far back as the memory of the oldest inhabitant reacheth, and must be regarded as a national pastime, the same as cricket is by the English. It is a manly and healthful exercise, and if generally known would become popular, being full of excitement and rendering the body lithe and hardy. It is played in most of the New England schools, and those who have once engaged in it never lose their interest in the game. We should hail it as a favorable omen for the next generation if that bright specimen of humanity, yclept Young New York, would join the base ball or cricket clubs and quit his bar rooms, and other night amusements, and seek the open air. The following account is copied from the “Herald” of the 23rd:–
The Knickerbocker is the oldest base ball club now existing in this city, and seems to be the most influential. The present convention was called by that club, and is composed of three delegates appointed by the various associations. Fourteen separate and independent organizations were represented last evening by the following gentlemen, and it was stated that others would have been present but for distance, or the impossibility of getting home the same night.
Knickerbocker–Messrs. D.L. Adams, Wm. H. Grinnell [Grenelle–jt], L.F. Wadsworth.
Gotham–Messrs. Wm. H. Van Cott, R.H. Cudlip, Geo. H. Franklin.
Eagle–Messrs. W.W. Armfield, A.J. Bixby, John W. Mott. Empire–Messrs. R.H. Thorn, Walter Scott, Thomas Leary.
Putnam–Messrs. Theo. F. Jackson, Jas. W. Smith, Edw. A. Walton.
Baltic–Messrs. Phillip Weeks, Robt. Cornell, Dr. Chas. W. Cooper. Excelsior–Messrs. Jas. W. Andrews, Jas. Rogers, P.R. Chadwick.
Atlantic–Messrs. C. Sniffen, W. Babcock, T. Tassie.
Harmony–Messrs. R. Justin, Jr., G.M. Phelps, Frank D. Carr. Harlem–Messrs. E.H. Brown, John L. Riker, C.M. Van Voorhis.
Eckford–Messrs. Chas. M. Welling, Francis Pidgeon, James M. Gray.
Bedford–Messrs. John Constant, Chas. Osborn, Thos. Bagot.
Nassau–Messrs. Wm. P. Howell, J.R. Rosenquest, Eph. Miller.
Continental–Messrs. John Silsby, Nath. B. Law, Jas. B. Brown.
The Convention met together shortly after the hour appointed, and being satisfied with each other’s personal appearance, (justily [sic] so, for most of them were splendid looking fellows,) the delegates proceeded to elect a President and officers, when the following were appointed:-
President–Dr. D.L. Adams, of the Knickerbocker.
Vice President–Reuben H. Cudlip, Gotham; John W. Mott, Eagle.
Secretary–Jas. W. Andrews, Excelsior.
Assistant Secretary–Walter Scott, Empire.
Treasurer–E.H. Brown, Harlem.
After some remarks from the President, a brisk discussion ensued on the motion that a committee of five be appointed to prepare a code of laws which shall be authoritative on the game. An amendment was offered, that twenty should form such committee; and, again, that the Convention should go into Committee of the Whole upon the laws. The various propositions were sweated down to two, and, being put to the vote, it was finally determined that the delegates from each club should appoint one member to sit on said committee. The gentlemen so appointed are as follows:–
Committee to Draft a Code of Laws on the Game of Base Ball, to be Submitted to the Convention–Messrs. L.F. Wadsworth, W.H. Van Cott, W.W. Armfield, Thos. Leavy, Thos. F. Jackson, Dr. Chas. W. Cooper, P.R. Chadwick, T. Tassie, F.D. Carr, E.H. Brown, Francis Pidgeon, John Constant, Wm. P. Howell and Nathaniel B. Law. This committee will meet next Wednesday.
Mr. Armfield moved that an assessment of $2 be made from each club, in order to defray incidental expenses, and referred to the proposed Central Park as a most suitable spot for playing matches. Provision had been made there by the Commissioners for the English national pastime of cricket, but none for base ball,* and he trusted that this convention would put itself in communication with the authorities on this subject.
Mr. R.G. Cornell submitted three specimen balls of various sizes, 6 1/3 oz., 6 1/2 oz., and 6 3/4 oz.; the convention will eventually be called upon to decide which is orthodox of the trio.
Mr. Francis Pidgeon proposed that a committee of five be appointed by the Chair to confer with the Central Park Commissioners in relation to a grant of public lands for base ball purposes. This being carried, the Chair named the following:–
Committee to treat with the Commissioners for a plot of ground in the Central Park–Francis Pidgeon, E.H. Brown, George F. Franklin, John W. Mott, L.F. Wadsworth.
A motion was then made and carried that each club forthwith pay the Treasurer $2, when that officer remarked, “I shall be under the necessity of notifying that I don’t take Spanish quarters.” The Secretary read over the names of the clubs, the money was forthcoming, and the Convention adjourned at 9 1/2 o’clock until the third Wednesday in February.
Base ball is about becoming a great national institution. The gentlemen assembled last evening at Smith’s Hotel were engaged in a work not of that trifling importance which a casual observer might suppose. Mens sana in corpore sano is a maxim worthy of notice in this age, when young men are forsaking the fields and out door exercise for the fumes of cellars and the dissipation of the gaming table. Let us have base ball clubs organized by the spring all over the country, rivalling in their beneficent effects the games of Roman and Grecian republics. Schoolmasters and clergymen, lend a helping hand.
*Mr. Armfield and the Convention seems to us to labor under a mistake; the Commissioners recommend that a space be set apart for “a Cricket Ground, for the encouragement of, and indulgence in, athletic and manly sports.” This, we should suppose, would include Base Ball, Quoits, &c., &c.–Editor “Spirit.”
From my column “Play’s the Thing,” Woodstock Times, December 28, 2006: Walking through the European Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art last week with my son Mark, returned from college for the holidays, we glided from gallery to gallery at a leisurely pace. He had seen many of these glorious paintings before, but only as color plates in an art history textbook. I had visited them at the Met before, but never with him; our earlier visits, when he and his older brothers were still living at home, had tended not to stray far from the mummies, the hieroglyphs, and the Temple of Dendur, unless it was to check out the medieval armor and, as a sop to me, the American Wing.
Now we were two adults, with his interest in Northern Renaissance and Flemish painting far exceeding mine. His newfound passion would determine our path, as it had the very idea of a full-day ascent of this cultural Matterhorn. We were still father and son, I was still the guide and he the willing initiate, but the gap had narrowed. We were near, if not at, the point at which my relationship had twisted and turned with his brothers, from parent to grownup friend and, enduringly, to peer.
Our mission was to gawk until we dropped. By our second hour of strolling through Constable and Gainsborough and Rembrandt and Goya I was beginning to get hungry. Maybe we should go to one of the cafes now, I suggested, as there might be a line and I didn’t wish to be starving when I faced a pre-made sandwich in cellophane. But he had come especially to revel in Van Eyck, Vermeer, and Bruegel, and we happened to be standing in a gallery that marked a neat end to our morning circuit.
We had paused right in front of Bruegel the Elder’s “Corn Harvest” (1565), one of the world’s great paintings of everyday life. Bruegel is a marvel not only for his craft but also for his bottom-up approach to story that tells us more about the human condition than paintings of battle and royalty; his dedication to landscape tells us more about heaven than dreamy depictions of anthropomorphic deities and silly putti. Mark and I resolved to place hunger on hold and take our time in this last room of the section. (Why, you may ask, is “Corn Harvest” called by that name when the crop is obviously wheat? Because a generic name for grain in German is Korn, and it labeled this painting in English early on.)
Turning 90 degrees to the wall, my eye fell upon a tiny tableau at the left-center of the painting in which young men appeared to be playing a game of bat and ball in a meadow distant from the scything and stacking and dining and drinking that make up the foreground. Mark agreed: there appeared to be a man with a bat, a fielder at a base, a runner, and spectators as well as participants in waiting. The strange device opposite the batsman’s position might have been a catapult. As I was later to learn with hurried research, this detail is unnoted in the art-history studies.
Now, it could be argued that as a historian of early sport, particularly games of bat and ball, I may tend to see instances of my specialty popping up everywhere, like hobgoblins. Or I may just be lucky; you may judge.
It might be argued as well that the title of this column is misleading as it is less about Bruegel than it is about me. But I would rejoin that is about both of us, and all three of my children, and you and yours too.
Christmas vacation is a great time to reconnect with your kids, whether they live at home, are away at college, or are grown and live at great distance. It’s also a way to connect with how children everywhere view the world — not as a series of milestones to be marked, honors to be won, and rewards to be earned … but as an arena for new experience. And in the end, it’s a great way to connect with your own childhood and thus who you are and always have been. A recurring theme of [my Woodstock Times column] “Play’s the Thing,” of which this piece is the last of a third year in this space, has been that play is serious business, broadly revealing of who we are and yearn to be. Getting older is an opportunity to revisit one’s happy childhood or to set one’s unhappy childhood right, if only through one’s own children.
Seeing this mysterious game of ball depicted in Bruegel’s “Corn Harvest” recalled for me another of the master’s great works, his “Children’s Games” of 1560. Although not yet 500 years old, this painting is nearly as mysterious as the hieroglyphs of the pyramids and requires no less a Rosetta Stone. Although some 80 different sports and games are depicted, scholars have only been able to identify 32 with certainty. A few of these will be familiar to 21st-century readers: Blind Man’s Buff, Bowls, Crack the Whip, Follow the Leader, Hoops, King of the Hill, Leap Frog, Marbles, Mumblety-Peg, Tug of War. As to the rest, an interactive key to “Children’s Games” (a floating cursor prompts a detail of Bruegel’s painting and a description of the game) may be located at the wonderful interactive website of the Elliott Avedon Museum & Archive of Games at Waterloo University in Ontario, Canada: http://goo.gl/SuCX8T.
When I unearthed the now celebrated bylaw of 1791 which prohibited the play of baseball within 80 yards of a soon-to-be built meeting house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, I noted that baseball was but one of the banned games: “wicket, cricket, baseball, batball, football, cats, fives, or any other game played with ball.” For reporters covering the press conference in which the find was announced in May 2004, I felt obliged to explain what these games were, as no one any longer plays wicket or batball or cat (one-, two-, three-, or four-hole varieties), and on this side of the Atlantic few would know that fives was handball. A century earlier, the Mills Commission investigating the origins of baseball had declared that Abner Doubleday was its inventor and Cooperstown its Garden of Eden. That was history from the top down. The Pittsfield prohibition, seeking only to preserve the glass windows of a new structure, opened a new (if broken) window onto what children actually played and thus what really happened. That is history from the bottom up, a la Bruegel.
We play fewer games today than a century ago, and fewer still than in 16th-century Europe, just as the evolution of species has produced the dubious triumph of fewer and not necessarily superior survivors. Because increasingly our children exercise their minds and thumbs in play but not their limbs, young men and women must build suppleness and mass through the simulated play of fitness routines that translate, upon reflection, to just another form of work. We are overstimulated mentally, underutilized physically and, bombarded with media messages, discontented with our daily lives more than ever before.
Or at least that is what has often been reported, and not only in these days of virtual reality. The New York Times of December 30, 1883 published a story headed “Boyhood’s Merry Games; Some of the Sports in Which Our Fathers Indulged; The Healthful Games of a Generation Ago of Which the Boy of Today Knows Little or Nothing.” The anonymous author was stunned to learn that the only game his 10-year-old son played was marbles. “Now, marbles is all right,” he wrote, “but I don’t like the idea of a steady diet in that line. It isn’t broadening. It’s a sort of one-sided development. Boys are dying out in this country, or at least the boy I’m bringing up is of a different species from what I used to know.”
How we play is ever changing. Play is a constant. Today we still have a few things to teach our children, and a lot to learn from them.
Before there was a United States, beginning in 1776, there was baseball. And before there was a Cuban Republic, beginning in 1868, there was baseball. Today, even after decades of diplomatic hostility—never shared by the two peoples—the game older than either nation continues to be the tie that binds.
Until the Revolution of 1959, Cuba sent the most players to the Major Leagues and the Negro Leagues. Its tournaments attracted players from both the U.S. and the Caribbean Basin. Four Cuban-born players are in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown (Martín Dihigo, José Mendez, Tony Pérez, and Cristóbal Torriente); others are stars of the first magnitude today; and then there is Minnie Miñoso, about whom this entire essay might be written.
Many of the modern tales of Cuban-American baseball relations have been accompanied by misery—defection, human trafficking, fractured families, broken bonds with a national heritage. This is a story amply documented in today’s news outlets, so there is little point in my summarizing it here. Instead, let’s look back to how baseball began in this island nation, the role that the U.S. has played, and some alternative views of Cuba’s baseball paternity.
Friendliness between the nations began with the sugar business and the counting houses that lined Manhattan’s waterfront, mercantile establishments that typically had offices in Havana and Matanzas. The counting houses forged links between Cuba and New York that went beyond the realm of commerce, facilitating not only the exchange of goods and money, but also of people and culture.
By the mid-nineteenth century, boys and young men from wealthy Cuban families were sent to New York for an education or for work experience, and the counting houses had a direct role in bringing them from Cuba. As Lisandro Pérez notes, “The New York merchants would make arrangements for the sons of their Cuban clients to be enrolled in boarding schools in the New York area, meeting them at the dock, buying their winter clothing and other necessities, paying for tuition and board, and even disbursing periodic allowances.”
This rite of passage was common practice among middle-class Cuban families at the time not only because of vital trading relations but also because the Cuban independence movement had prompted a violent crackdown by Spanish authorities, making Cuba a dangerous place for the impressionable young. Esteban Bellán was one such Cuban boy sent from Havana to New York at age thirteen with his brother Domingo to be educated at the preparatory school of St. John’s College (today’s Fordham University). There he played ball for the Rose Hill club, and upon his graduation in 1868 went on to play for the powerful Union of Morrisania club; for nearly 150 years thereafter, he would be regarded as the first Cuban-born player to perform at the top level of the game, the National Association of Base Ball Players.
Bellán (1849-1932) went on to play in baseball’s first professional league, with the Troy Haymakers and the New York Mutuals in 1871-1873. In the winter of the latter year he returned to Cuba and started up the Club Habana baseball team. He played in the first organized baseball game ever played in Cuba, on December 27, 1874, at Palmar del Junco Field. Club Habana beat Club Matanzas by 51-9. For this reason he is regarded in the U.S. as the “Father of Cuban Baseball.”
Cubans, however, might put forward another candidate. Also playing for Club Habana in the aforementioned game are two other early giants of Cuban baseball: the patriot Emilio Sabourín and the little-known (in the U.S.) Ernesto Guilló. Sabourin was elected to the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame in 1941; Guillo’s brother Nemesio in 1948; and Bellán not until 1984, in a ceremony held in Miami.
Nemesio Guilló Romaguera (1847-1931) was sent to the U.S., like Bellán, by a father who was in the sugar trade. Along with his brother and Enrique Porto, he was sent to Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama—a private, Roman Catholic school founded in 1830—in 1858. Many other Cuban boys joined them there over the next two years. From the newspaper Diario de la Marina in 1924:
In 1864, seven years later, they returned to Cuba on a ship as grown men with strong necks, broad chests, athletic and ready to support in any way the rights of men, so unknown to the colony of those days. One of the three lads had in his trunk a bat and ball, completely unknown objects in Cuba, scarcely known in the United States itself, where “town ball,” which later would be called baseball, was in its beginnings. Nemesio, the younger of the two Guilló brothers, brought the precious gadgets. Having spent the day in La Machina, the three boys were already playing with the bat and the ball in El Vedado.
What was likely the first ballgame in Cuba with local participation occurred in June 1866, when sailors of a U.S. ship taking on sugar invited Cuban longshoremen to play. While Ernesto did not continue as a player, Nemesio did, playing with Havana in 1879-1880 and in 1882-1883 with the Ultimatum club, for whom he served as “right shortstop,” a position between first and second base. Following the suggestion of Henry Chadwick, rejected in the U.S., Cuban baseball in this period was played with ten men to the side.
In recent years I discovered, ith help from Peter Morris and César González, another candidate for a “father of baseball” that might be celebrated in both Cuba and the U.S: the previously unnoted Rafael Julian de la Rúa of Matanzas (see: http://goo.gl/wgsnkR). In 1860, at the age of twelve, he is listed in the U.S. census, living in Newton, Massachusetts, a student at R.B. Blaisdell’s school in Newton. A classmate of Bellán’s at Fordham from 1864-1867 (it is unclear whether he played ball with the Rose Hills), he transferred to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) for 1868, and in that year joined the Troy Haymakers, a first-class National Association club, pitching in twelve games. A lefthander with a peculiar screwball pitch, Rúa was so effective against the New York Mutuals on August 4 that the Troy Times observed, “Rúa’s pitching was the acme of perfection—not too swift to be unreliable, and with just enough of the ‘twist’ to prevent the Mutuals from making their heaviest batting.”
Because Rúa played in National Association games before Bellán left Fordham to join the Unions of Morrisania, it may be said that he and not Bellán was the first Cuban national to play high-level ball in the States.
Rúa did not graduate from RPI, nor did he continue to play ball after 1868. He was naturalized as an American citizen in 1874, while living in New York City. He traveled to Cuba on separate trips in 1874 and 1875, but there his trail goes cold.
Looking back at the stories of Bellán, Guilló, and Rúa, it becomes evident that American colleges were the most important agents in the proliferation of the game in Latin America, even more than the military and its multiple occupations, as we had long supposed.
By 1879 American players from the National League were playing winter ball in Cuba. By 1886, El Sport, a Havana weekly, declared: “Baseball is today, without distinction of classes, age and sex, the preferred diversion of all [Cubans].”
And so has it ever been.
When rumors swirled a few weeks back about the imminent addition of the Designated Hitter to the National League rules, a reader suggested that I supply a little historical background to this innovation, which of course was proposed long before the American League implemented it on experimental basis in 1973. After trials in spring training and in some minor circuits, the Yankees’ Ron Blomberg became MLB’s first DH, nipping Boston’s Orlando Cepeda for the distinction.
“I know that this is more recent history and not from 150 years ago, ” reader Butch England wrote, “but there’s a reason why the AL added it in 1973 and a good story behind it. Although my team is in the AL, I’m against it.”
One often reads that Connie Mack thought up the idea, or John Heydler, or John McGraw. All three advocated or opined about it, with McGraw warning that its implementation would lead inevitably to two-platoon baseball: one team for offense, one for defense. But the brainstorm belonged to one of the more important if largely forgotten figures of nineteenth-century baseball: William Chase Temple, owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates and provider of the Temple Cup to the winner of a postseason championship series in 1894 through 1897, when the National League’s first-place club squared off against the second-place finisher.
In the wake of the player revolt of 1890, Temple would become an NL owner and a lifelong ally of Albert Goodwill Spalding, with whose mistress and later wife, Elizabeth Churchill Mayer, he was already friendly through their devotions to the Theosophical Society branch in New York City. A sportsman and statistics enthusiast, Temple was the first to come up with the idea of the designated hitter, back in 1891. His idea was for the DH to replace the pitcher in the batting order throughout the game, i.e., the current method.
James W. Spalding, Albert’s brother, alternatively suggested that the pitcher’s spot in the order be skipped, so that only eight men would bat in rotation. The debate between W.C. Temple and J.W. Spalding had commenced after the 1891 season. There had been a widespread concern among baseball men with the game’s declining offense: in 1890 the Players’ League, in its lone season of operation, had moved the pitching distance back by 18 inches, presaging the move to 60’6″ and the exchange of a pitcher’s box for a slab.
The distance to home plate had been measured from the front of the box; beginning in 1893, it would be reckoned from the front of the slab, with which a pitcher’s back foot had to remain in contact at the point of delivery. But this is to launch into a series of exceedingly fine points about perceived pitching speed, for which I might better direct you here: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2015/02/27/a-brief-history-of-the-pitching-distance/.
On December 19, 1891, Sporting Life offered the following:
A POINT OF PLAY.
Messrs. Temple and Spalding; Agree that the Pitcher Should Be Exempt from Batting.
In a recent conversation with J. Walter Spalding, of the New York Club, President Temple, of the Pittsburgs, brought up the question as to what disposition should be made of the pitcher in the batting order. President Temple favored the substitution of another man to take the pitcher’s place at the bat when it came his turn to go there. Mr. Spalding advocated a change in the present system and suggested that the pitcher be eliminated entirely from the batting order and that only the other eight men of the opposing clubs be allowed to go to bat. Both gentlemen saw the necessity of some change, and Mr. Spalding intimated that his idea should prevail. The matter will in all likelihood be brought to the attention of the committee on rules, and either a substitute player take the pitcher’s place at bat or the pitcher be relieved from the necessity of going to bat at all.
Every patron of the game is conversant with the utter worthlessness of the average pitcher when he goes up to try and hit the ball. It is most invariably a trial, and an unsuccessful one at that. If fortune does favor him with a base hit it is ten to one that he is so winded in getting to first or second base on it that when he goes into the box it is a matter of very little difficulty to pound him all over creation.
There the matter lay until the preseason meetings of the National League, enlarged for the 1892 campaign from eight teams to twelve by absorbing four clubs from its dissolved rival, the American Association. Speaking to his local papers in Pittsburgh upon his return from these meetings, Temple revealed:
“We came very near making it a rule to exempt the pitcher from batting in a game, under a resolution which permitted such exemption, when the captain of the team notified the umpire of such desire prior to the beginning of a game. The vote stood 7 to 5 for. I looked for it to be the reverse, but Von der Ahe, whom I depended on, voted otherwise.”
Q.E.D. William Chase Temple is the originator of the designated hitter concept, still in the news not from 150 years ago, as reader Butch England suggested, but a perhaps surprisingly distant 124 years later.
Something odd, unusual, unexpected, even—to one not inclined to superlatives—utterly amazing has just now turned up, some 160 years since it vanished. It is a document … or, rather, a trio of them … that together form the Magna Carta of Baseball, the Great Charter of Our Game. The manuscript rules of the game drafted by the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club for presentation to the first convention of New York vicinity clubs, which commenced on January 22, 1857, have emerged from the dark. No earlier baseball manuscript of this significance has ever come onto the open market. SCP Auctions will offer it in the coming weeks. I reproduce images of these improbable survivors with their gracious permission; I was afforded an advance look at them in the course of my consulting role on this single lot.
A favorite story sprang to mind as I began to contemplate the implications of this find, a Dead Sea Scrolls of Baseball that will keep scholars busy for years to come. Laurence Stallings was a prolific novelist, playwright, and screenwriter, whose battlefront experience in the Great War cost him a leg but led him to write “What Price Glory?”—a once famous book which became an even more celebrated film. In 1925 he was assigned by the New York World to cover a football game between the University of Illinois and Penn. Upon seeing Red Grange run for three touchdowns and 363 total yards in an upset of Penn, the great war correspondent tore at his hair while pacing the pressbox, muttering, “The story’s too big. I can’t write it.” That is the way I feel about this tale, even after working for nearly three decades on my book about the early game, Baseball in the Garden of Eden.
Once upon a time it was said that baseball began in 1839 with an Abner Doubleday brainstorm in Cooperstown; others later declared that story a fable while insisting it began in 1845 with Alexander Cartwright and the creation of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club (KBBC). Cartwright is credited, on his plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame, as having “set bases 90 feet apart” and “established 9 innings as a game and 9 players as [a] team.” Yet none of these aspects of the game were settled in 1856, when Daniel Lucius “Doc” Adams set to work, some seven years after Cartwright had left New York for Hawaii, never to return.
Recent scholarship has driven the origin date for baseball into the eighteenth century, in England and in America, but that was a primitive game whose details went unrecorded and, if recreated today, might not be recognizable as our national pastime. Baseball’s pioneer writer Henry Chadwick, who played the game on the Elysian Fields of Hoboken in the 1840s and wrote about it for half a century, frequently dated the real beginnings of the game not to 1840, when young men began to play ball at Madison Square in New York, or 1845, when the Knicks were formed … but to 1857.
“As usual,” he wrote in 1868, “with every thing imported, we do not possess it long before we endeavor to improve it, and as our old American edition of base ball, in vogue in New York some twenty-five years ago, was an improvement on Rounders, so is our present National game a great step in advance of the game of base ball as played in 1840 and up to 1857.”
Yes, 1857 was the year that baseball made its great leap forward, and these are the documents that reveal what it was like to be present at the creation. In that year the New York area clubs, in a convention called by the Knickerbockers, agreed to play by a new, improved set of rules that, for the first time, established:
- the base paths at 90 feet;
- the pitcher’s distance at 45 feet, later expanded twice but unchanged since 1893;
- the number of men to the side at nine;
- the duration of the game at nine innings, rather than first club to score 21 runs;
- constraints on betting and “revolving” (the practice by which a man could play for another club whenever he liked);
- and, copiously, more, not all of it addressed herein; there will be a great deal more to say, and not only by me, I expect.
The rudimentary Knickerbocker Rules of September 23, 1845 do not survive in manuscript form. They were 20 in number, and only 14 of those related to how the game was to be played. The rules were published, with only slight modification, in pamphlet form in 1848 and again, with minor modification, in 1854, by which time three clubs—the Knicks, the Gothams, and the Eagles—were playing by mutually agreed provisions. Yet there was still enough ambiguity in the rule set that baseball variants arose, even in KBBC games: On August 30, 1856 the Knickerbocker and Empire clubs played to a 21-21 tie in eight innings in a match at the Elysian Fields. While the Knicks positioned themselves as a conventional nine—three “fielders,” one catcher, three “basemen,” a pitcher, and a shortstop (Adams himself, the man who had invented the position at a time when games were generally played eight to the side)—their opponents, with an erratic pitcher presumably, elected to use no shortstop and placed two men behind the home plate.
The draft rules of 1856 were created by Adams, longtime KBBC president, as the “Laws of Base Ball.” William Henry Grenelle, who would be, like Adams, a Knickerbocker delegate to the convention, recorded a substantially different iteration as “Rules for Match Games of Base Ball.” This document addresses many issues about the playing grounds that were left to one side in the final KBBC document and in the regulations ultimately adopted in the convention.
These efforts, when combined and edited, were at last presented to New York area ball clubs on January 22, 1857 under Adams’ original title of “Laws of Base Ball”—with corrections penned in to the very last moment. One document (“Laws 1”) seems to have been drafted entirely by Adams, with the possibility that a fourth and final page went missing; while the handwriting in the other two (“Rules” and “Laws 2”) is demonstrably Grenelle’s, with pencil changes in another hand, likely that of Adams (I am not a forensic handwriting expert; this is my surmise).
When the Knickerbockers met among themselves on December 6, 1856, they resolved “to call a convention of the various base ball clubs of this city and vicinity.” The New York Herald, in reporting on this meeting, observed: “We understand the object of this convention is to promote additional interest in base ball playing, by the getting up of grand matches on a scale not heretofore attempted.” The anticipated outcome would be to inaugurate new clubs and to strengthen existing ones, by conforming the rules and making the game more “scientific” and difficult to play—“manly,” in the preferred term of the day, as was said of cricket—and thus of wider appeal. Children might play baseball along short basepaths and catch the ball on one bound to record an out, but grown men, well…
Adams did not prevail in his attempt to mandate the “fly game” for balls hit in fair territory, as delegates of new clubs were protective of their novitiates’ tender hands. The Knicks, however, played by this rule among themselves. Adams and the KBBC continued their fight for this “scientific” mode of play, succeeding at last in the 1864 convention’s adoption of the rule on a one-year trial basis which has endlessly extended to the present day. The one-bound rule stayed in place for foul balls, however, until finally eradicated in 1883.
The thought processes by which Adams and the Knickerbockers shaped the game to come may be hinted at in the discussion below, particularly, of the key imponderables in the Knickerbocker rules prior to that time: how to end a game (21 runs? mutual agreement? darkness?), and how to deter stalling, or “playing to a draw”; how many players to the side (common numbers ranged from eight to eleven for intrasquad games, though nine had become a de facto standard for “match play”—i.e., contests between clubs); and how to lay out the field (75-foot basepaths? 37.5-foot pitching distance?). Custom and practice evolved over the ensuing years, as more clubs were formed—and had to agree upon rules before a match could be played—but were not established in a uniform code until the momentous meetings of January 22 and February 25, 1857. (Another meeting, scheduled for February 3, was advertised in the press but no contemporary accounts of its activity survive.) The ball selected for a match game was often a subject of debate, for there was as yet no uniform standard; the same was true for the bats, which might be round at the barrel or flat.
The 1855 and 1856 campaigns had produced many new clubs and far more match games than before. These were the last year that games were played to 21 runs, and as the quality of play had improved, lower scores, closer contests, and more frequent draw games were prevalent. The need for a reimagining of the rules was, to some in the press and certainly to Adams and other progressive Knicks, like first baseman Louis F. Wadsworth, evident. A convention of eight clubs had been attempted in 1855 but the KBBC had declined to participate; without the prestige of the pioneer club, the venture died aborning.
In mid-1856, the Knickerbocker “old fogies,” who wished to narrow the number of contests with other clubs to those who also made their playing grounds in Hoboken, and to play games among themselves whenever possible, passed a resolution within the club to accept no outsiders for intramural matches if 14 men were present. Perhaps echoing this notion of seven men to the side forming an acceptable minimum, the Knicks instructed their delegate to the convention’s rules committee, Wadsworth, to support a new way to end a game: rather than first to 21 runs (in even innings)—the standard finish since 1845, whether in one inning or more—victory would now go to the club with more runs at the end of seven innings.
Following the disputes and ultimately resignations provoked by the rules dispute within the KBBC, word got out that the issues would soon widen to the entire baseball fraternity, at this point largely a New York and New Jersey affair. On October 11, 1856, Porter’s Spirit of the Times reported that, “It is said that a convention of all the Base Ball clubs of this city and suburbs will be held this fall, for the purpose of considering whether any and what amendments to the rules and laws governing this game should be made. The suggestion is worthy of improvement ….”
The KBBC sent three men to the convention: Adams, who was the other clubs’ choice to preside over the proceedings, Grenelle, and Wadsworth. In the document “Rules for Match Games of Base Ball,” the number of innings for completion of a game is originally specified at twelve (!), which is then edited to nine. In the Grenelle-scripted “Laws of Base Ball,” presented to the convention, the number of innings is noted as nine, but corrected in pencil to seven. In Adams’ handwritten draft, however, the number of innings had been nine.
Seven is the number of innings reported in Porter’s on February 28, 1857 as adopted by the convention … yet Wadsworth, after carrying out his mission as a KBBC member to advocate for seven innings, went rogue, enlisting the support of the other clubs to expand the game to nine innings. Had Adams’ preference for a longer game—twelve innings or nine—influenced Wadsworth? We cannot know.
Until the 1857 convention specified base paths of thirty yards, no one had thought to define the square (“diamond”) field by that distance. In an 1896 interview with The Sporting News, Adams recalled, “I presented the first draft of rules, prepared after much careful study of the matter, and it was in the main adopted. The distance between bases I fixed at 30 yards—the only previous determination of distance being ‘the bases shall be from home to second base 42 paces, from first to third base 42 paces equi-distant’—which was rather vague.” Scholars today, myself among them, believe that the pace, which at that time literally meant two and a half feet—producing baselines of 74.25 feet—was the distance intended by those who crafted the rules in 1845 for inexperienced players, for whom a cross-diamond throw at 126 feet (42 paces with three feet to the pace) would have been unimaginably hard. The notion of a pace could also have been flexibly defined: it may have been literally paced off by a man or a boy, producing variable distances. That Adams and Grenelle made a conceptual leap to define the field by its basepaths, rather than by the (fixed or variable) distance between home and second base, is indicated startlingly in the “Rules for Match Games of Base Ball” document.
On page 1, Section 1 it is written: “the bases shall be from “Home” to second base, forty-two yards; from first to third base, forty two yards [emphasis mine—jt], equi-distant….” This distance of 126 feet yields base paths of 89.1 feet. It is a small step, but one of simple genius, to make 90 feet (30 yards) the basic dimension, thus rendering the distance between home and second (and first and third) as 127.3 feet. So at some time between the 1856 creation of the “Rules for Match Games” and the January 22, 1857 presentation of the Adams/KBBC rules to the convention, baseball arrived at a key change.
In line with this change from paces to yards (or feet), Adams said, “The distance from home to pitcher’s base I made 45 feet.” In his “Laws of Base Ball,” Adams altered a key phrase that had left the pitching distance as either 15 or 16 yards: “The Pitcher must … have one foot in advance of and one foot behind the line at the time of delivering the Ball” became “The Pitcher must have neither foot in advance of the line at the time of delivering the Ball.” As the pitching distance could be measured from the front foot or the front of the box, it was thus set at 45 feet.
Great documents are the products of great men, whose contributions—or even their identities—are often erased from mainstream history. Until recently, that had been the fate of “Doc” Adams, who more than anyone shaped the primitive 1845 rules of the KBBC to become the game that would endure. While I have written about Adams and the early game for decades now, many of those reading about the dramatic find of these documents will ask, Who was Doc Adams? Who was William Henry Grenelle? Who was Louis F. Wadsworth?
I offer capsule bios below, and links to more extensive, richer treatments of Adams and Wadsworth particularly.
Doc Adams: Born in Mont Vernon, NH, he attended Amherst and Yale as an undergraduate and received his degree from Harvard Medical School in 1838. When he came to New York in the following year, he commenced to play ball “just for exercise” with some medical colleagues. Joining the Knicks in the month after their founding, he became the club’s president and headed the committee to review and modify its rules. Adams made the balls, oversaw production of the bats, and added the position of shortstop to what had originally been an eight-man game. Though he was an accomplished player, Adams’ pioneering contributions to the development of the game won for him, in 2015, his first year on the ballot, the most votes of any Veterans Committee candidate for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
With the rediscovery of his “Laws of Base Ball,” drafted for presentation to the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club and thence to the floor of the 1857 convention, we have tangible primary evidence of his genius. Adams left the KBBC in 1862 to practice medicine and become a bank president in Ridgefield, CT. He died in New Haven, CT in 1899.
Louis F. Wadsworth: Born in Connecticut in 1825, he graduated from Hartford’s Washington College (today called Trinity) in 1844, and commenced to play baseball with the Washingtons a.k.a Gothams in 1852. After a few years with the Knickerbockers (1854–57) he returned to the Gothams, following the ruckus over his support for nine innings during the convention. One of the veteran Knicks, in recalling some of his old teammates for the New York Sun in 1887, said: “I had almost forgotten the most important man on the team and that is Lew Wadsworth. He was the life of the club. Part of his club suit consisted of a white shirt on the back of which was stamped a black devil. It makes me laugh still when I recall how he used to go after a ball. His hands were very large and when he went for a ball they looked like the tongs of an oyster rake. He got there all the same and but few balls passed him.” Wadsworth’s time with the Knickerbockers, and his crucial role in affixing nine innings and nine men to the rules of baseball, are covered at length in Baseball in the Garden of Eden.
Widowed in 1883, he took to drink and lost a fortune estimated at $300,000 (perhaps $8 million in today’s terms). After some years of selling Sunday newspapers on the streets of Plainfield, NJ as his sole source of income, in 1898 he committed himself to the poorhouse. There he died in 1908, a solitary man with no family or visitors, and none cognizant of his role in developing the game. In his obituary it was written that “In the summer he was particularly interested in following the scores of the ball games of the big leagues, and of late years the game was the one great object of interest to him.”
William H. Grenelle: Elected to membership on June 14, 1850, he was a KBBC director in 1857. Grenelle joined Adams and Wadsworth on the Knick committee formed to arrange what became the 1857 convention. He also played at least one game for the Knickerbockers’ first nine in both 1857 and 1858 and represented the club at several later conventions of the organization that, beginning in 1858, was known as the National Association of Base Ball Players. Born in New York City in 1820, Grenelle worked as a Wall Street broker. For a time he was in partnership with fellow Knickerbockers William H. Talman, Edward A. Bibby, and Alexander H. Drummond, until the firm broke up in 1860. Grenelle died in Brooklyn in 1890, leaving a wife and several children, including Mary Hobart Grenelle Wilcox, whose lone daughter was Constance Grenelle Wilcox Pignatelli, of Madison, Connecticut.
It is through this last named Grenelle heir, the Knickerbocker’s granddaughter, that the documents survived. She was an author, a princess by marriage, an extremely interesting and accomplished woman whose story deserves a telling all its own … another day.
PDF of Adams’ draft (“Laws 1”): https://goo.gl/TAFfWn [cut and paste]
PDF of Grenelle’s scripted “Rules for Match Games of Base Ball” (“Rules”): https://goo.gl/UssqBo [cut and paste]
PDF of Grenelle’s scripted “Laws of Base Ball” (“Laws 2”), as presented to the convention: https://goo.gl/ovKmvM [cut and paste]
PDF of 1857 Rules and Regulations, Finally Adopted: https://goo.gl/7tBLTX [cut and paste]
Following upon his boffo debut at Our Game with “Kessler at the Bat” (http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2012/01/14/kessler-at-the-bat/), here’s the latest from my old pal Mikhail Horowitz, raconteur, bon vivant, and baseball bard. Students of sonnetry will note the metrics and rhyme; the rest of us will simply agree that, like a Hall of Famer, a thing of beauty is a joy forever.
Posey, Puckett, Palmer, Perry
Kaline, Koufax, Killebrew
Thompson, Thomas, Tinker, Terry
Campanella, Cobb, Carew
Wilson, Wilson, Waner, Waner
Feller, Ferrell, Fingers, Flick
Torriente, Taylor, Traynor
Rixey, Mackey, Dickey, Frick
Kelly, Kelley, Keeler, Kell
Alston, Aaron, Appling, Vance
Brouthers, Baker, Bender, Bell
Delahanty, Anson, Chance
Weaver, Winfield, White and White
And George and Harry, the Brothers Wright
Now and then I am asked which books of baseball history are the best, or which a new fan should read first, that sort of thing. Sometimes I point the curious to an interview I did nearly five years ago, in which I was asked to the name the five books of baseball history that I found indispensable (apart from encyclopedias, anthologies, or my own scribblings). This interview first appeared at fivebooks.com, a splendid site based in the UK, on April 25, 2011.
This year the Commissioner of Major League Baseball named you as the official historian of the game, although you started out life far from the centre of America’s national pastime. You were born in a German displaced persons camp to Polish Holocaust survivors. What do the game and the title mean to you?
That baseball is an Americanising mechanism for immigrants is an old story, but for me it was true. When I came here I was only two and a half; I spoke German and Polish. In nursery school I was made fun of for not being able to speak the language. English was not spoken in my household. So I set about trying to learn it by reading the backs of not only cereal boxes but also baseball cards, those magic passports to America.
Now, what does this official historian title mean to me? It’s an honour for sure and it memorialises but I hope does not entomb me. I wrote my first baseball book 37 years ago. So to be an overnight sensation at the age of 63 is somewhat strange. Many people who may not know my work may now pay a little more attention to it. But what’s most meaningful to me about the title of official historian is that I can give back to baseball. I can serve the game in a way that honours the historical profession and be useful to the game that gave me so much, the game that helped me become an American.
It sometimes seems to me that fans make mastering stats and stories about the game a sport in itself. What is so satisfying about become steeped in sports history?
Sports trivia is a diversion. But sports history is different from trivia. There is a man on a bar stool in every taproom in this country that knows something about baseball that I don’t know. However there is no such person in any bar room that knows everything I know. Being able to parrot back how many home runs Duke Snider hit in 1955 does not make you a historian; it makes you a collector of stray statistics. History is an integrative process.
There is a competitive aspect to the practice of history. Every historian wants to carve out a little territory in which he is the expert – that’s certainly true of baseball. There are some historians who are great experts on the 1910s. There are others who are experts on the evolution of race and society, as seen through the prism of baseball. My great area of expertise is 19th-century baseball in the era before organised league play.
So how did you break into this world of baseball scholarship?
It was accidental. I came from the world of literature. I started in college as a combined mathematics and English major. But the appeal of statistics, the appeal of history, lore and romance, always held me close to baseball. I thought I was going to be a political editor. I was a magazine editor after graduate school and I wrote a baseball book kind of on the side. It sold well, but my health took a turn for the worse and I thought a wheelchair beckoned. It seemed to me if I had to write and I didn’t have the chops to play in Dickens’ arena, then maybe I could write more baseball books.
Baseball, the earliest book you name, was published in 1947 by Robert Smith – a novelist and lifelong Red Sox fan. What did Smith accomplish in his single volume that was of such enduring value?
Smith got the stories right. It does not mean that he was a methodical historian. It does not mean that he was a technically gifted historian. But he talked to old ball players. He made friends with baseball players who were – in 1947 – 80 years old. He captured some stories about the game that otherwise would’ve been lost to history; stories that may have strayed from the path of the truth over the years.
But in baseball, legend and apocrypha are important too. When I was working with Ken Burns on the TV documentary Baseball back in the 1990s, we would occasionally come across an anecdote that was entertaining but made me feel obliged, as a historian, to say, “Well, that’s something we ought to verify.” Invariably, the rest of the crew would yell in unison, “That fact is too good to be checked.” I’ve come to feel that although you have to get the stories straight, you also have to respect the enduring legends with a wink.
Robert Smith’s Baseball is a work of history, but you can’t tell history without story and that is Smith’s gift. It has become increasingly rare to tell a story well, rather than simply wield statistics to compare this player to that player, which is the current state of baseball literature to a large extent. Being able to tell a story well was a gift that Smith had in abundance. The 1947 and 1970 editions of the book – which are quite different – are both spellbinding.
It is both the first and the best. Harold Seymour wrote a thesis at Cornell – I think it was published in 1956. And the first volume of the Oxford University three-volume series on baseball, The Early Years, which was product of Harold’s collaboration with his wife Dorothy, was based on the thesis. The thesis focused on baseball through 1891 but in his book he went to 1903. The year that the American League and the National League faced each other in a world series for the first time, 1903 is regarded as the launch of baseball’s modern era.
The Seymours’ work was brilliant and original in its focus on off-the-field activity. The Seymours showed that baseball was filled with hypocrisy and greed and all of the things that we love about America.
Their work was central in making me a historian of baseball. It helped convince me that having left a doctoral programme in English Literature, in which I was writing a thesis on a 17th-century metaphysical poet named George Herbert, that it might not be such a steep fall into disgrace to go from that to being a baseball writer. That one could write seriously about baseball, not merely tell funny stories. That was the impact of the Seymours’ book on me. I think their great contribution was to convince other serious-minded individuals in the years to come that there was a lot left undone.
If someone were to ask me, what should be the first baseball book I should read to understand the history of the game, I would point them to Seymour – and to Lawrence Ritter, another of my choices.
The series was meant to include a fourth volume bringing the history of baseball up to date, but Harold Seymour died of Alzheimer’s before making much headway on it. In fact, his wife Dorothy is believed to be the primary author of the third volume. She worked on the series for 46 years – researching, writing and editing – and yet her husband refused to acknowledge her authorship during his lifetime. Still, Dorothy promotes her husband as “the Gibbon of baseball.” On balance, how will both Seymours be remembered?
They were not exactly Ozzie and Harriet. The outdated idea that the wife should be subservient to the husband in all matters, even in professional matters, appears to have had a toxic effect on their collaboration at least. Dorothy has had something of a steep climb to convince scholars such as myself – and I am convinced – that she was a material collaborator and a co-author who deserves full credit.
Block picked up where Robert Henderson left off with Ball, Bat and Bishop in 1947. David Block was not a professional writer, this was his first book and it came as a complete surprise – out of left field as we say. He’s a lovely writer, an erudite fellow and a very good friend. But at the time the book came out I didn’t know him at all. He sent me the manuscript and asked me to evaluate it and I was completely stunned. It was a brilliant piece of work. The number of specific finds sprinkled through the work, like diamonds in the dust, is dazzling. For example, it was standard fare for sophisticated baseball folk to say that the game arrived from rounders. David Block demonstrated that the name baseball was far older than rounders – that, if anything, rounders derived from baseball. This may seem a trivial distinction in the wider world and one billion Chinese people don’t care about it, but in our little world this is pretty earthshaking.
David is very systematic and careful in his elucidation of fact. He found a German text by a gymnastic professor named Guts Muths – a 1796 text that had never been translated into English. In it he found the rules and diagrams for baseball. It was a staggering find. Subsequent to publishing the book he discovered a diary in Suffolk from 1755 by a man named William Bray discussing an outing to go to play baseball. Another amazing find. We haven’t heard the last of David.
How does your recent work advance our understanding of baseball’s origins beyond what Block accomplished?
David’s approach was multinational and ancient, first causes. While in my recent book I spend some time in Ancient Egypt and Europe, it is a matter of paragraphs and pages – not whole chapters. I really focus on how the game came to be and rise to prominence in the United States.
It is a time machine. You start reading and you are hearing these ballplayers who played in the major leagues between 1890 and 1920. These are men who played alongside Ty Cobb in the outfield, men who were present when Babe Ruth came up to the Red Sox, men who played a key role in the World Series of 1912. They are speaking to you. You feel as if they were in your living room with you. Hearing from these foundational figures is like listening to an interview with George Washington at Valley Forge.
Larry scoured the country in the age before the internet and ancestry.com to find these players. This was a true labour of love for him. In fact, he gave away the lion’s share of his royalties to the 22 men in the original book and their estates. Larry was an inspiration to me before I knew him. I grew to be his friend, his editor and his collaborator on a number of projects.
His transcriptions of his interviews were more than transcriptions. If he was talking to, say Sam Crawford, and Crawford said something in the third hour of an interview that really belonged in the first hour, Larry stitched it together properly for our enduring reading pleasure. So, while using only the words of the players he interviewed, he transformed sometimes rambling, incoherent audio into brilliant literature.
The tapes that form that basis of the book are now in the Baseball Hall of Fame but the voices of the men that Ritter interviewed can be heard on an audio version of the book. Which do you prefer?
I prefer print, but the audio will blow your hair back. You’ll feel like you are at a seance. These people, long dead, whose moments on the field occurred a century ago, speak to you.
Jules was a PhD. He was a professor. He was every bit as gifted a historian as the Seymours and more formal than Ritter, Block, or Smith. What Jules did was not merely tell the story of Jackie Robinson and that integration: he told the story of prior leagues and prior integrations. He turned baseball so we saw its dark side. We saw the minor leagues, where racism was far more virulent than in the majors. He discussed the shockingly gruesome experiences of integrating each minor league in turn. Many of the heroes of this period never amounted to much as major league players. He gave them their due.
He worked on a broader canvas that portrayed more than just Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson. Just as it’s convenient for us to just think of baseball’s origins in terms of a single inventor such as Abner Doubleday and Alexander Cartwright, both equally wrong, it’s easy to say Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey combined to integrate baseball, but there were many other heroes. They were not the only two. Jules tells their story too. It’s his greatest contribution to our understanding of the game.
I understand that Tygiel underscores how the integration of baseball hastened the desegregation of American society. You once blogged that “unscripted sport, particularly baseball, is more culturally transformative than staged entertainment.” Can you explain what you mean and why you believe sports fields are such fertile ground for social progress?
We know that Ancient Greek audiences experienced catharsis through attending performances of plays by Aeschylus and Euripides. Sport provides our catharsis. Much of it is ritualised, much of it is repetitive and much of it might be predictable. But because the outcome is unscripted, we are on the edges of our seats. We attach an importance to sport that earlier cultures attributed to tragedies, passion plays and other communal experiences of drama. So when you have something dramatic happen in sport it spills over into real life in a radicalising way.