With apologies to Mozart, I don’t know why I didn’t share this good if elderly column earlier. It’s not about baseball as such, but it is about sport, and language, and things that matter. As we stand ready to form New Year’s resolutions for self-improvement, I suggest: don’t do a thing; you are fine just as you are.
In the November 18, 2004 issue of Nature, Dennis M. Bramble and Daniel E. Lieberman wrote that distance running, not bipedal walking, was what made Homo erectus look like you and me … well, like you, anyway. I recognize myself more clearly in the authors’ description of the diffident Australopithecus: short legs, long forearms, and high, bookwormishly shrugged shoulders. Our nearer ancestor, Homo erectus, had shorter arms, longer legs, a skinnier ribcage and pelvis and–key to the further evolution of the species–buns.
Like chimpanzees today, proto-humans had narrow pelvises that could not support the robust gluteus maximus for which Homo sapiens is known (and you thought he was differentiated by his brain!). Identifying 25 other traits besides strong buttocks that made Homo sapiens born to run, the authors also noted the development of a nuchal ligament at the back of the neck. As with other mammals capable of high-speed or long-distance running, this connective tissue permits a runner to keep his noggin still, unlike the pigs that Bramble and Lieberman set to racing on treadmills as bobble-head surrogates for Olivia Newton-John.
In summing up the duo’s findings for the New York Times, John Noble Wilford wrote: “Endurance running, unique to humans among primates and uncommon in all mammals other than dogs, horses and hyenas, apparently evolved at least two million years ago and probably let human ancestors hunt and scavenge over great distances. That was probably decisive in the pursuit of high-protein food for development of large brains.”
While I was pleased thus to have confirmed my own notion that the ass figured large in human development, I was disquieted by its connection with running after food or anything else, except perhaps other asses. My friend Larry McCray, who had sent me Wilford’s report, commented, “I note in passing that both sexes have developed the runner’s backside, so I guess it wasn’t deeply true that the men always hunted and the women always gathered.” I found other holes in the story.
As I have long used my own gluteus maximus to connect the otherwise lonely armrests of my favorite chair, and to act as a counterbalance when I might otherwise be falling down drunk, the authors of this Nature study did not convince me that the ability to run long distances is crucial to the survival of the species, or ever was. If anything, their article made me wonder why our early ancestors were (a) so hungry that they would consider running long distances after food yet (b) so unimpaired by starvation that they could muster the energy to race across the veldt and into adjoining counties. Running just a little bit–I could see that as a useful evolutionary accretion. The laws of natural selection would tend to favor the effective hunters (and maybe even mobile female gatherers), who could sprint after game or away from those who would make game of them. This Darwinian trend would lead and breed to ever more muscular if not more ample glutes; the latter awaited the invention of television and fast food.
Scientists will tend to assign human progress to evidence of increasing strength, power, speed, and problem-solving skills, such as the making of tools. Artists will see the ascent of man in his rise up the great chain of being, from the bogs of the lowliest invertebrates to the spiritual realm of the angels. I believe the posterior is anterior to progress of both kinds–whether it is the bounteously insured booty of J. Lo or the bag of pudding hanging from yours truly. Not only does the gluteal region propel fight or flight or pursuit, as the Nature study suggests, it is also the seat of wisdom, weighing against the impulse to rush off and do something, anything, to scratch an itch.
Whether you call it an ass or an arse, a butt or a bottom, the troika of gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus forms the muscles upon which we sit as we await inspiration or contemplate action, and many things are better engaged in the contemplation, from homicide to exercise. By the grace of the three glutes we may have been born to run, but it is by enabling us to sit comfortably that these magical muscles have aided Newton, Einstein, and Alistair Cooke in the formulation of their greatest ideas. If these brainy men and others like them had sat less and run more, they might have captured a scampering bunny or two but the rest of us would have descended into a race of intellectual girlymen.
Which is where we’re headed, anyway. The liberal arts are suspected of undermining Americans’ drive to a service economy. Book lovers are regarded as sentimental castrati. Deconstructionists and semioticians create a mock aestheticism around hip-hop music and slasher films, and the fans roll in and snuffle the nonsense as if they were cats and it catnip. Once upon a time the unexamined life was deemed not worth living; now it is worth forensic examination.
The focus of American men’s lust has lately been reported to have shifted from breasts to bottoms, bringing our sexual politics, if not our foreign policy, into alignment with the rest of the world. Plastic surgeons are said to be doing more butt reshaping than either breast enhancements or facial reconstructions, excepting possibly eyelifts. Unwilling to accept the river of life that makes all of us more similar than not, we regard life as an extended masquerade ball in which we may appear younger than we are, thinner than our heredity would demand, more appealing in the bedroom. In our pharmatopia no shortcoming, real or imagined, must be endured. Endorphins, pheromones, ecstatic transport–all are but a mouse-click away.
That oxymoronic term “Reality TV” has moved from sleepover to makeover, with reconstruction of homes, physiques, family relationships. The do-over craze has extended to our surroundings, our bodies, our body politic. A swirl of action, like Sally Rand’s fan-dance way back when, convinces observers that they have seen something they haven’t.
I grant that some things are less easily accomplished on one’s butt than with it: war, procreation, windsurfing (did I miss anything?), yet the sedentary pursuit of such active sports is frequently less hazardous to all who might otherwise be involved or affected. The Tao has a useful construct for armchair adventurism: wei wu wei–literally “do/don’t do,” but better understood as purposeful inaction, which contrasts nicely with the world’s tendency to purposeless action. When we call someone an ass, it is seldom because they failed to get off theirs.
In our heedless rush to renovation–Enlarge your debt! Reduce your penis! (or was it the other way?)–who suggests getting on a spiritual StairMaster? Who says, chisel your knowledge as you would your abs? Who points out that interior decoration endures while exterior changes imply a mannequin within?
We were born not merely to run, but also to fly. Benjamin Franklin’s epitaph, the one he wrote in his youth, highlights the one true makeover, against which all others wither:
The Body of
Like the Cover of an old Book,
Its Contents torn out,
And stript of its Lettering & Gilding,
Lies here, Food for Worms.-
Yet the Work itself shall not be lost,
For it will, as he believed, appear once more,
In a new
And more beautiful Edition,
Corrected and amended
BY: The Author.
No workout or makeover is required; ladies and gentlemen, be seated.
From: “Play’s the Thing,” Woodstock Times, December 2, 2004
Not knowing whether to wish readers of Our Game a Happy Hanukkah, a Merry Christmas, or a Joyous Kwanzaa, I halve the difference with the title of this post. Herewith, an array of baseball greetings of the season, for all baseball fans. Because a picture is worth a thousand words, I will be both copious and brief. For some of the Babe Ruth Christmas cards below, my thanks to Bruce Menard, whom I encourage you to visit on Twitter: @BSmile.
Just the other day, a writer for Men’s Health requested an interview with me about the origin and evolution of the jock strap, supporter, and cup–which prompted my recall of the venerable Jacques Strop, a character in Robert Macaire, a once-famous play of the 1830s. I had little else to offer the interviewer, but this essay, penned for The Woodstock Times a decade ago, leapt to mind. I think it’s still pretty good (probably I should say swell); maybe you will too.
Miss Doherty’s assignment to her English section of sophomores at Richmond Hill High School was to write a single-page essay on “My Favorite Books.” My response was to award the palm to Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet, the book I had most recently read; mild approbation to Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles and mysteries in general; and short shrift to the entire genre of military books, which I said I just “couldn’t stand.” Miss Doherty indulged my opinions and kindly graded the essay at 90, but noted in the margin that my chatty remark that had meant to tar-brush everyone from Martial to Churchill was “colloq” [colloquial] and thus deficient. By way of explanation after returning the paper to me, she added that good writing was “elevated speech.”
For decades I had displayed that naïve and frankly not so hot (“colloq”) essay in a frame on the wall of my study, to chasten me and to hearten others who might pause to read it. Today it resides in a box in storage, and I have come to like Miss Doherty less well than I did when I was her pupil in 1960. Only in recent years have I realized the lasting impact of her offhand observation that good writing is somehow more formal, more structured, more dignified than good talk. I became an English major in college and wrote stiff and stuffy if well received papers. I became a professional writer of sports-history books, differing from my peers in that my prose seemed generally professorial and chilly where theirs was often imprecise yet energetic.
Well, folks, Miss Doherty was wrong – it turns out that the best writing is that closest to the best talk, if not the same damn thing. I could have learned this from Mark Twain, from Joseph Mitchell, from H.L. Mencken – from Walt Whitman, above all! – and countless others who often turned fancy phrases but never abandoned their unique voices. But for the longest time I somehow thought that it was a delicious subtlety for an author to throw his voice across the room like a ventriloquist. When I would toss a colloquial or slang term into an archly constructed sentence my purpose was to jar, to amuse, and then to return, invigorated, to an expository manner. I knew I was injecting pop into otherwise staid sentences but I didn’t wonder why it was that I could rely upon that outcome, or what particular powers these “low-brow” words had.
Lately I have begun to come around, and it is my prolific email habit that I have to thank. Writing speedily and often thoughtlessly, I have neatly bypassed Miss Doherty’s censors (and more importantly my own) and defaulted to my own voice, my own ear, and my own love of words once all the rage but now quaint—swell (first appearance in print 1897), crummy (1859), nifty (1868), jerk (1935), groovy (1941). I had always been archaeologically inclined, ever since boyhood, wondering how things began, how they migrated from there to here, why they flourished or why they disappeared. Whether my curiosity attached to rock ‘n’ roll and advanced backwards to the blues and jazz and West African music, or to baseball and its bat-and-ball variants going back to the Egypt of the pharaohs, or to the special argot of all sport with its capacity to originate terms that come into common parlance or to purloin terms from other fields and redefine them, my path was always the same: learn the story behind the thing at hand and use that as a lens with which to see and understand both the past and the present.
The power of patois is that it comes from the bottom up, without social sanction, often from special-interest subcultures (surfers, techies, druggies) or ethnic or sexual minorities, and always with a slanting, often humorous, stance toward majority culture. Most of it vanishes rapidly – notably in our day once the mass-media gurus get their hands on it (“Here come da Judge!”) – indeed, so rapidly that even a generation later we are left to wonder what the catch-phrase meant in the first place. The derivation of off-color terminology was particularly amusing to trace when I was a schoolboy, and my enduring interest in such sleuthing is one of the many ways in which I have proudly arrested my development. (When I wrote a column called “The Magic Glute” a few weeks back I had a long and, to me at least, fascinating explanation for how one’s bottom came to be termed an ass; however, I couldn’t wedge it into that story any more than I can into this.)
Other men may lust after Boxters, iPods, and trophy wives; I have my microfilm reader, my Harry Potter magnifying glass, and my compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. For me adventure is at all times but a step away. Although I am a nerd (first appearance in print 1957; probable origin a character in a Dr. Seuss book of seven years earlier, If I Ran the Zoo), I am not singular in such pursuits. I have a good many friends who would proudly describe themselves as geeks (1875!). One, Skip McAfee of Virginia, engaged in a spirited debate over the meaning of the baseball phrase “Out of Left Field,” answering a query by Professor Bill Rubinstein of Australia by refuting certain explanations offered by amateur philologist and professional word maven (“colloq”) William Safire of the New York Times. Another, George A. Thompson, contributed to a thread I had started on a bulletin board for aficionados of nineteenth century baseball about the nautical origins of such baseball terms as “skipper” (captain, later manager, of a nine), “on deck” (next batter), “in the hold” (next batter after that), “around the horn” (a double play initiated by the third baseman, then on to the second baseman, and finally the first baseman, but earlier derived from ships sailing around Cape Horn to Western ports, and earlier still, from the Dutch city of Hoorn), and “skyscraper” (an early baseball term for a pop fly, but even earlier, in 1794, a triangular topsail also called a moon-raker).
Priscilla Astifan of Rochester wrote to me about these matters nautical, saying, “it’s fascinating the way old references prevail even when the associations that initiated them are long gone,” a fine observation to which I replied: “I love these archaisms or vestiges, too. It’s downright hilarious that sportswriters today will write ‘Martinez was knocked out of the box’ or ‘Boston notched three runs in its half of the inning.’ Not a mother’s son of them seems aware that we haven’t had a pitcher’s box since 1892 and we haven’t counted runs by scoring notches into a stick since the 1840s.”
Peter Morris convinced me that his explanation for the derivation of the baseball word “fan” was correct: that the term was originally used in derision, as an insiders’ (players, managers, owners) dismissal of outsider wannabes (first appearance in print rather recent, 1988). As I wrote to him, “The idea of ceaseless tongue-flapping being a metaphorical fan seems right, and the ‘controversy’ of ‘fanatic’ vs. ‘fancy’ [as the source of ‘fan’] seems contrived and incongruent with the class character of the baseball set…. Imagine looking upon a crowd of several thousand people all fanning themselves – might you not refer to the congregants themselves as fans, just as the original operators of typewriters were themselves named for their instruments? (Only later were they called typists.) Or maybe the name comes from the incessant chatter and debate by which true baseball devotees are known.”
In a similar example of synecdoche, in which the name of the part is transferred to the whole, today a visibly athletic male (or oddly and increasingly, and no longer disparagingly, a female) is termed a “jock.” This term derives not from a horse jockey but from the jock strap worn to support the male genitalia in active sport. Okay – but where does “jock strap” come from? Not from the racetrack, I suggest, but from Jacques Strop, a supporting character in Robert Macaire, an obscure 1830s play by Benjamin Antier. Ya heard it here first.
Ditto for the true origin of Murderers’ Row, a term used to describe the middle of the batting order of the 1927 New York Yankees. While the usual etymology for this term is plausible – that it derives from a row of cells in New York’s Tombs prison reserved for the most dastardly of criminals – Murderers’ Row was an actual alley in Manhattan long before the Civil War, starting where Watts Street ended at Sullivan Street, midway along the block between Grand and Broome Streets. Checking an 1827 listing of street names, I found that such location matched a street name: Otter’s Alley, which ran from Thompson to Sullivan Streets between Broome and Grand Streets.
Other sports terms besides those in baseball hold wonderful trace memories of their early days. The football field is called a gridiron because a hundred years ago it was marked not only by horizontal lines representing each five-yard distance, but also vertical lines five yards apart. And to this day basketball players are sometimes called, notably by headline writers short of character space, “cagers.” Why? Because the game was originally played within a metal cage designed to keep the ball out of the stands and the fans in them. Given the [then; 2004] recent fracas in Detroit, a cage seems an idea whose time has come back.
There are peculiar antique terms in all of our sports that many will struggle to explain. Mention “mashie niblick” and you’ll always get a perplexed laugh. But in the days when few golfers carried what we could call a full complement of clubs, the number of irons was reduced. A mashie equated to a five iron and a niblick to a nine iron (the club whose face slanted more than any club except a wedge). Those not carrying both clubs might opt for a mashie niblick, which would equate to a seven iron.
I could go on, but space constraints begin to pinch. John Ayto, editor of The Oxford Dictionary of Slang, writes in the preface to that volume: “From the earliest exposes of underworld cant from writers such as John Awdelay and Thomas Harman in the sixteenth century, through Francis Grose’s pioneering Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), J. S. Farmer and W. E. Henley’s seven-volume Slang and Its Analogues (1890-1904), and Eric Partridge’s influential Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1936), to Jonathan Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994 – ), the development of colloquial English vocabulary has been voluminously and enthusiastically documented.”
SIDEBAR: A Selection from The Oxford Dictionary of Slang
Here, not voluminously but certainly enthusiastically, are some words and phrases I particularly like, along with the often surprising date of their first appearance in print using their current meanings. Almost always the first appearance of a slang word in print does not mark the beginning of its usage, and with almost equal certainty, the first appearance is substantially earlier than one might have imagined.
Bees Knees (1923)
Cats Pajamas, Meow, Whiskers (1921-23)
23 Skidoo (1926, origin unknown)
86 (1936; the folks at Chumley’s Restaurant at 86 Bedford Street in NYC will tell you different)
Makin’ Whoopee (1928)
Rave or Rave-Up (1960)
Chill Out (1980)
The Blues (1741—derives from blue devils)
Hep (1957; surely the editors have this pegged too late)
Hot (sexual desire, 1500; erotic, 1892; skillful, 1914; fashionable, 1908)
Swinging (1958 as “trendy”)
Fox (1961, back formation from foxy of 1895)
Dude (1883, but in sense of “fancy dan”)
Lousy (1596; yes)
Crummy (1859; from crumb as body louse)
N.B.G. (no bloody good, 1903; today often seen as N.F.G.)
Turkey (as stinker, 1927)
Grody (1965; from grotesque)
Stoked (1963, surfing term)
Kook (1951, surfing derivation
Bad (as good) 1897
Wicked (as good) 1920
Far Out (1954)
Abner Cartwright, Alexander Doubleday . . . these composite names stand for an exceedingly odd couple whose identities have been stolen, accomplishments merged, and stories intertwined for more than a century now. In truth, Abner Doubleday and Alexander Cartwright were entirely separate, historically significant individuals who were born and died one year apart but never met each other in life. What both men share is that their hard-won fame was hijacked after their deaths by unprincipled advocates with ulterior motives, and as a result each was credited with something he did not do—that is, invent baseball.
There is no need to recite here the full story, amply reported elsewhere, of how Abner Doubleday was anointed as the Father of Baseball by the Mills Commission at the end of 1907, fourteen years after he left this life having had little to say about the game to anyone, not even his old friend Mills. What left Abraham G. Mills holding his nose while affirming Doubleday’s paternity was the lately produced recollection of Abner Graves, offered into evidence by Albert Goodwill Spalding, that in 1839 (when Graves was five years old) he had witnessed Doubleday sketch out a new game that he called baseball.
“Until my perusal of this testimony,” Mills wrote in the December 30, 1907 report of his Commission, whose mandate was set to run out at year’s end, “my own belief had been that our ‘National Game of Base Ball’ originated with the Knickerbocker club, organized in New York in 1845, and which club published certain elementary rules in that year; but, in the interesting and pertinent testimony for which we are indebted to Mr. A. G. Spalding, appears a circumstantial statement by a reputable gentleman, according to which the first known diagram of the diamond, indicating positions for the players, was drawn by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1839.”
Mills’s personal knowledge that the Knickerbocker club had been an innovative force in baseball made him wary of the Spalding/Graves claim. Toward the end of his report he wrote:
“I am also much interested in the statement made by Mr. Curry, [first president] of the pioneer Knickerbocker club, and confirmed by Mr. Tassie, of the famous old Atlantic club of Brooklyn, that a diagram, showing the ball field laid out substantially as it is to-day, was brought to the field one afternoon by a Mr. Wadsworth. Mr. Curry says “the plan caused a great deal of talk, but, finally, we agreed to try it.
“It is possible that a connection more or less direct can be traced between the diagram drawn by Doubleday in 1839 and that presented to the Knickerbocker club by Wadsworth in 1845, or thereabouts, and I wrote several days ago for certain data bearing on this point, but as it has not yet come to hand I have decided to delay no longer sending in the kind of paper your letter calls for, promising to furnish you the indicated data when I obtain it, whatever it may be.”
The requested data about the mysterious Mr. Wadsworth never emerged. Will Rankin, a baseball writer whose 1877 interview with Curry had been the source of Mills’s mention of Wadsworth reversed course in 1905 and said that Curry had meant to credit Cartwright rather than Wadsworth. A weary Mills ruled on baseball’s paternity suit in a somewhat contingent fashion by stating that “the first scheme for playing it, according to the best evidence obtainable to date, was devised by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1839” (emphasis added). 
One week after issuing the report, Mills wrote to the baseball writer whose memory had improved twenty-eight years after the fact:
“. . . you quote Mr. Curry as stating that some one had presented a plan showing a ball field,’ etc., and, in the second letter, Mr. Tassie told you that he remembered the incident, and that he ‘thought it was a Mr. Wadsworth who held an important position in the Custom House,’ etc. Taking this as a clue I wrote sometime ago to the Collector of Customs, asking him to have the records searched for the years ’40 to ’45, for the purpose of ascertaining from what part of the State the Mr. Wadsworth, in question, came.
Mills was wondering whether an upstate Wadsworth, perhaps one of the Geneseo clan, might somehow have brought the Doubleday diagram to New York.
Not even ten years later, on February 2, 1916, an unnamed writer in the New York Times hilariously mashed up Mills’s equivocal support for Doubleday with his suspicions about baseball’s creation myth:
“Baseball before the days of the National League dates seventy-seven years back to 1839, when Abner Doubleday, at an academy at Cooperstown, N.Y., invented a game of ball on which the present game is based. Doubleday afterwards went to West Point and later became a Major General in the United States Army.
“The game as played at the school in Cooperstown consisted of hitting the ball and running to one base. First it was called ‘One Old Cat,’ then with two bases ‘Two Old Cat,’ and finally with three bases ‘Three Old Cat.’
“Another boy at the Cooperstown school, Alexander J. Cartwright, one day evolved a rough sketch of a diamond and the boys tried it with great success. From that day to this the general plan of the diamond has changed only in a few details.
“It was at Mr. Cartwright’s suggestion in 1845 that the first baseball club was formed.”
Is it any wonder that delegates for Doubleday and Cartwright went on to contend so fiercely for primacy? The bickering and machinations led, on the strength of the claim for Doubleday, to the founding of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown while the Cartwright faction, led by his indefatigable grandson Bruce, as formidable a propagandist as Spalding had been, won for their champion a plaque in the Hall that was denied to Doubleday.
General Doubleday went to his grave with an undeniable record of military accomplishment, especially in the Civil War; he was also known for his spiritualist beliefs. His only documented intersection with baseball came in 1871. While in command of the 24th U.S. Infantry’s “Colored Regiment,” at Fort McKavett, Texas, he addressed a request on June 17 to General E. D. Townsend, Adjutant General, U.S. Army, Washington DC:
“I have the honor to apply for permission to purchase for the Regimental Library a few portraits of distinguished generals, Battle pictures, and some of Rogers groups of Statuary particularly those relative to the actions of the Colored population of the south. This being a colored regiment ornaments of this kind seem very appropriate. I would also like to purchase baseball implements for the amusement of the men and a Magic Lantern for the same purpose. The fund is ample and I think these expenditures would add to the happiness of the men.”
Cartwright, on the other hand, was a real baseball personage. He was present at the creation of the Knickerbocker Club and possesses genuine claims to organizational and playing prowess, though the lengths to which his supporters have gone to make him the Isaac Newton of baseball have rendered his myth more difficult to deconstruct than Doubleday’s. We may look to the mid-nineteenth century’s obsession with science, system, business, and organization to answer the question of who was thought, back then, to have created the game, and why. The Knickerbockers’ claim to being the “pioneer organization” was asserted not because they were the first to play the game of baseball (children had been doing that for a century), nor because they were the first club organized to encourage men to play what had been a boys’ game.
Today we know that baseball was invented by no one man in a feat of spontaneous inspiration. We know that the New York, Gotham, Washington, Eagle, Magnolia, and Olympic ball clubs all preceded the Knickerbocker Club. We know that baseball was played under that name by two teams of grown men in New York City in 1823, by which time the game had become so pervasive that playing it within eighty yards of the town meeting house of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, had been banned in 1791. We know that baseball was the name for the game as it was played in England before anyone had heard of rounders.
In short, recent scholarship has revealed the prior history of early baseball to be a lie agreed upon, with first Doubleday and then Cartwright and his playmates as a contrived starting point. The Knickerbockers were proclaimed first because they had a formal set of rules, regular days of play, a firm roster of members, and sundry other bourgeois, upstanding values. And Alex Cartwright—rather than Duncan F. Curry, or Louis F. Wadsworth, or D. L. Adams, or William R. Wheaton—became the standard bearer for the Knickerbockers because he had a more dedicated press corps in the person of his grandson.
To separate the man from the myth, one must accept at face value none of the claims made for him by those scholars who, in debunking Doubleday, have elevated Cartwright beyond the demonstrable record of his accomplishment. For example, Cartwright assuredly did not do any of the three central things credited to him on his plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame: “Set bases 90 feet apart. Established 9 innings as a game and 9 players as a team.” The plaque goes on to add: “Carried baseball to Pacific Coast and Hawaii in pioneer days.” I will not derail the argument of this essay by attempting to debunk that hoary claim, but you may sense a raised eyebrow.
Alexander Joy Cartwright was twenty-nine when he left New York for the Gold Rush and his eventual home in Hawaii, where he lived for his remaining forty-three years. His mercantile, cultural, and political involvements are significant, and the magnitude of the man cannot be understood if one looks only to his baseball years; the same may be said for Doubleday. It is true of each that by diminishing the legend, one may enlarge the man.
1. Abraham Mills, “Final Decision of the Special Baseball Commission,” December 30, 1907, in Spalding Official Base Ball Guide, 1908, ed. Henry Chadwick (New York: American Sports Publishing), page 47.
4. Letter from Abraham Mills to Will Rankin, January 6, 1908, in Mills Correspondence, National Baseball Hall of Fame, Giamatti Library.
5. Regimental Book of Letters Sent, addressed to Brigadier General E.D. Townsend, Adjutant General, U.S. Army, Washington, D.C.
[I delivered this brief talk in my hometown of Catskill, at Beattie-Powers Place, on Saturday.] There are probably a good many Mets fans among you, so forgive me for bringing up a painful memory: the 2015 World Series, which the Kansas City Royals captured in five games. If only baseball were a game of eight innings rather than nine, it is the Mets who would have won in five; three times they took a lead into the ninth and coughed it up. Bad luck, but as some wit once said, it is unlucky to be behind at the end of the game.
The MVP of the World Series was Royals’ catcher Salvador Perez, who had some key hits but drove in only two runs. Daniel Murphy of the Mets, who had ridden into the World Series in a Cinderella glass carriage after seven home runs in the first two rounds, rode back in a pumpkin after collecting only three singles in the World Series.
I am telling what you already know, either from press reports or by having witnessed it with your own eyes. My point is simply this: that over the many months of the regular season we keep track of the WHO and the WHAT of baseball accomplishment, but the postseason adds, sometimes poignantly, the dimension of WHEN, which creates ephemeral demigods—men who may have exhibited no similar skill beforehand, and typically revert to form thereafter.
The list of relative nonentities who became fleeting heroes is long, beginning with outfielder Curt Welch of the 1886 St. Louis Browns. In the World Series of that year—yes, there had been one in the early years, before the advent of the American League—the prize pot of $15,000 went entirely to the winning club, and Browns’ owner Chris von Der Ahe renounced his personal share if his club would win. With the Browns having won three of the first five contests, Game 6 was settled in the tenth inning by what instantly came to be known as “Welch’s $15,000 slide,” as the winning run scored by Browns’ outfielder Curt Welch assured his teammates that much in shared winnings.
Chances are that you never heard of Welch, or of George Rohe, the substitute infielder on the “Hitless Wonder” Chicago White Sox of 1906. Playing third base only because a regular was unable to take the position, Rohe hit two game-winning triples, and added three more hits in the clincher. The Sox defeated the powerhouse Cubs—whose regular season record was 116 wins against only 36 losses—in what remains the greatest World Series upset of all time.
I could go on to list other unlikely heroes, but that would be a bit dull. A partial roll call might include New York second-tier players Bucky Dent, Dusty Rhodes, Billy Martin, Don Larsen, and Joe Page, as well as other forgettable figures such as Gene Tenace, Larry Sherry, and David Freese. An exploit at the end of a final game—think Bill Mazeroski’s homer in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, or, to a lesser extent, Joe Carter’s in Game Six, 1993—will cement a reputation and even pave the way to Cooperstown.
In a postseason series the significance of every hit, run, and error is magnified so as to create the illusion of clutch performance. Because it happened when it happened, it must be clutch, right? Reggie Jackson’s three home runs off the first pitch from three different pitchers in the deciding Game Six of the 1977 World Series—well, it can’t get any clutchier than that, can it?
Several sabermetricians, myself among them, believe that if clutch ability were anything more than an optical illusion—if it attached to an individual as his attribute—then it would be replicable, season to season, as other abilities are. Over his career, a home run hitter will tend to hit home runs, a strikeout pitcher will tend to strike batters out, a premier shortstop will tend to get to more balls than his rivals at the position. But it turns out that a strong clutch performer in one season may be among the league’s worst in the following campaign.
In 1969 and 1970, the Mills brothers (the nonsinging variety, in this case Eldon and Harlan), who were partners in a self-started enterprise called Computer Research in Sports, tracked two entire major-league seasons on a play-by-play basis. Then they applied to that record the probabilities of winning which derived from each possible outcome of a plate appearance, as determined by a computer simulation incorporating nearly 8,000 possibilities.
What, for example, was the visiting team’s chance of winning the game before the first pitch was thrown? Fifty percent, if we are pitting two theoretical teams of equal or unknown ability on a neutral site. If that first man fails to get on base, the chances of the visiting team winning are reduced to 49.8 percent; should he hit a double, the visiting team’s chance of victory is raised to 55.9 percent, as determined by the probabilistic simulation. Every possible situation—combining half inning, score, men on base, and men out—was tested by the simulator to arrive at “Win Points.”
The Millses’ purpose was to determine the clutch value of, say, hitting a homer with two men on and one man out in the bottom of the ninth, with the team trailing by two runs, the situation that Bobby Thomson faced in the climactic National League game of 1951. (It gained for him 1,472 Win Points; had it come with no one on in the eighth inning of a game in which his team led 4-0, the homer would have been worth only 12 Win Points.)
What the Mills brothers were attempting to do was to evaluate not only the what of a performance, which traditional statistics indicate, but the when, or clutch factor, which no statistic to that time could provide. If this project, detailed in a small book issued in 1970 called Player Win Averages, sounds familiar, it is because at last it has been adopted by modern-day statisticians, in all sports. Win probability mid-game is a feature, for example, of NFL broadcast analysis.
Good hitters are good hitters and weak hitters are weak hitters regardless of the game situation. Who would you wish to appear at the plate in a clutch situation—your cleanup batter or your number 8 hitter?
My friend Dick Cramer wrote, in a landmark article in 1977: “But there is no reason why a weak hitter shouldn’t be fortunate enough to get a series of fat pitches or good swings in crucial situations. Given enough time, this might even happen over some player’s whole career. After all, what was really meant when someone was called a ‘clutch hitter’? Was he really a batter who didn’t fold under pressure—or was he a lazy batter who bothered to try his hardest only when the game was on the line?”
Each year, postseason heroes and goats abound—Daniel Murphy went from hero to goat in an instant, it seemed—but both are accidents of time and place rather than indications of character and ability.
Boy, now that I’m at the end of the series I realize that I like these last five as much as any of the others ranked higher. But Clickbait 101 has no lesson plan for unranked groupings. I have written full articles related to the five images below, excepting only Gary Cieradkowski’s Infinite Card Set, amazing for its scholarship as well as its art. But steeling myself to the task, let me talk a little about the steel engraving below of the Magnolia Ball Club’s playground at the Elysian Fields of Hoboken. This unassuming little ticket to an 1844 ball, of which only one example has survived–it is in a private collection–is the first visual depiction of grown men playing baseball. Because it was clearly produced in numbers, and for sale, I would call it the first baseball card, a further distinction if less impressive than that previously mentioned. And a further distinction is that the image, which came up at auction with a misleading description, opened the door onto a previously unknown baseball club of New York n’er-do-wells–one that preceded the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club.
The “Great Base Ball Match” depicted on the cover of the New York Clipper of July 24, 1858 had been played four days earlier, pitting the best of New York against the best of Brooklyn. The firsts that can be pinned to this event are: first all-star game; first game played in an enclosed park (the Fashion Race Course Grounds, spitting distance from today’s Citi Field); and first paid admission. To me this is not only a historic image but a beautiful one. For more on this signal game, see:
What are we seeing in this tiny image, engraved by William Fairthorne of New York? In the foreground, the North River, as the Hudson was called near New York City; the Colonnade Hotel at the Elysian Fields of Hoboken; a waiter bringing refreshments to the ball players; and a game of game of ball, with the bases artisticall terndered as posts, as in the old game of baseball that had been played in this country since the mid-18th century. As I wrote in the piece linked below, “The baseball scene on the card reveals three bases with stakes, eight men in the field, a pitcher with an underarm delivery, possibly base-stealing, and a top-hatted waiter bearing a tray of refreshments from the Colonnade. Some of the members of the ‘in’ side are arrayed behind a long table; others are seated upon it. The pitcher delivers the ball. A runner heads from first to second base. This is, from all appearances, the original Knickerbocker game, and that of the New York Base Ball Club, and that of the Gothams of the 1830s (shortstop was a position not manned until 1849–1850).” For more on this ball club and the circumstances surrounding its rediscovery, see:
Gary Cierdakowski recently published a stunningly executed book called The League of Outsider Baseball: An Illustrated History of Baseball’s Forgotten Heroes. I blurbed it thus: “Gary Cieradkowski is to me the most interesting artist working in baseball today. His bold graphic style recalls America’s poster kings of yore–Edward Penfield, J.C. Leyendecker, Fred G. Cooper–and his love of the game breathes new life into heroes long gone.” Here are links to that book and to his blog:
Apart from its drop-dead-gorgeous portrait of Boston shortstop George Wright, the hero of the age, this 1874 poster has the distinction of being the first instance of an American athlete endorsement of a product or service. Wright was about to embark on a tour of England with his fellow Red Stockings and the Philadelphia Athletics. And 1874 was also the year when the fledgling firm of Nichols & Macdonald, Boston cigar makers, secured the rights to his photographic image for a 14– by 10–inch advertising poster. Produced for them by the venerable lithographer and job printer J.H. Bufford’s Sons of 490 Washington Street, it is a graphic and historic landmark. Wright’s image within the poster dates to 1871 or ’72, when Warren’s Photographic Studios of Boston issued it as a cabinet card. The address listed for Bufford in the city directory for 1875 is 666 Washington, so we may deduce the date of the poster as no later than 1874. The young cigar makers are not listed before 1874, so there we have the date of issuance with certainty. For (a great deal) more, see:
SABR pal Bob Tholkes shared this with me some time ago: “An August 1, 1860 ad by a book seller in the Buffalo Daily Courier of August 1, 1860 mentioned that pictures of the recent match between the Atlantic and Excelsior (played on July 19) appeared in the current edition of Demorest’s New-York Illustrated News [August 4].” Examining an enlargement of the panoramic scene, it struck me that the emblem on the pitcher’s bib front looked to be single letter, not the ABBC of the Atlantic Club. He must be an Excelsior and, as the box score would corroborate, he must be Creighton. This was no generic, bucolic scene–as all baseball-game views had been to this time–but an illustration of a specific contest. As the caption put it: “Grand Base Ball Match forthe Championship, Between the Excelsior and Atlantic Clubs,of Brooklyn, at the Excelsior Grounds, South Brooklyn, on Thursday, July 19.–from a Sketch Made by Our Own Artist.” That artist’s name, barely legible, appears to be J.H. Gooter, but that is a name not identifiable today.
Welcome to Part Four of this five-part series. The best is not behind you but arguably ahead: it may easily be held that images 16-20 below are the equal of, if not superior to, those that preceded it in my admittedly quirky rankings. (I doubt, for example, that anyone but yours truly would have awarded James Daugherty’s newspaper cartoon from 1914, below, a place in the pantheon.) Illustration art will tend to have more graphic pop than fine art, and it will draw the eye to a central object while treating the background detail with scant attention. But I particularly like the “small stuff,” and this taste may go some way toward explaining why I have selected the twenty-five exemplars depicted in this series. In Image No. 16, for example, the intent of the artist and the publisher–Ebenezer Butterick, the inventor of graded sewing patterns–is to focus on the fashions; Butterick issued a fashion plate to accompany each “quarterly report” of patterns. But look at the background–a ball game in progress at what is clearly Brooklyn’s Union Grounds, with its distinctive pagoda, erected even before the park’s proprietor, William Cammeyer, thought of playing baseball here. The Union Grounds began life as a skating rink, and this was a changing room (for more on this park, see http://www.brooklynballparks.com/union.html).
The clubs depicted are, left to right, Cincinnati Red Stockings, undefeated in 1869; Empire of New York; Atlantic of Brooklym; Star of Brooklyn; unknown; and Mutual of New York. The name of the lithographic publisher (“Hatch & Co., 218 Broadway, Herald Building, N. Y.”) appears in smaller lettering in the lower right corner. The name of the artist, John (“Jno.”) Schuller, appears in small script on the fence to the far right. Fewer than ten examples of this print are known to survive.
Writing in 1949, James Daugherty (1887–1974) declared that modern art was nothing less than “liberating and expansive, rousing and freeing human consciousness from materialism to infinite possibilities of living, creating universal harmony, energy and renewal.” In 1913, his eyes were opened to a world of new possibilities by the landmark Armory Show and, as he later described it, Daugherty “went modern with a vengeance.” In his Futurist-inspired works, swirling and intersecting figures were abstracted and fragmented in the nonstop movement of baseball and dancing. The painting on which the newspaper cartoon above is based–“Three Base Hit,” in pen and ink and opaque watercolor on paper–resides in the collection of the Whitney Museum, which also purchased this newspaper print. See: http://collection.whitney.org/object/849
Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. All that is missing from Dick Perez’s recreation of Opening Day in New York, April 29, 1886 is the rhyme’s silver sixpence in her shoe. Reconstructing the vista from a series of detective-camera snapshots taken from the stands on that day, Perez created a panoramic view of not only a ball game but the era itself. Later issued a limited-edition print, “The National Pastime” began life as the wraparound cover of SABR’s publication by that name, in Spring 1984. A portion of this image graces the book jacket for my own Baseball in the Garden of Eden.
Charles Dana Gibson is today remembered as the originator of “The Gibson Girl,” the long-haired, athletic beauty featured in so many of his ironic social tableaux. But he was a baseball fan, too, who specialized in depicting the facial expressions that accompanied hope and despair in the stands. This lesser known work is my favorite, though. It appeared in Harper’s Weekly in monochrome, of course; the coloring is later.
Norman Rockwell created so many now famous baseball paintings for The Saturday Evening Post that I could not choose among them. Instead, I have selected this first of his baseball works printed in color, published when he had just turned twenty. Some baseball drawings had appeared previously, in the May 1913 issue of Boys’ Life.
Illustrations 21-25 tomorrow!
As the heading indicates, this is Part 3 of a five-part series. I encourage you to view the first two parts if you have not already done so, as that will clarify some of my criteria and admitted bias. Here is another caveat: while I wished to represent all the acknowledged great American illustrators who occasionally worked in baseball, I expended no great effort to select the very best work by each. Instead, I have chosen an important effort by Rockwell or Leyendecker or Penfield or Shepard–in code, the one that tickles me–rather than a perhaps more fully developed virtuoso work. Consider this five-part series as the beginning of a long discussion rather than its end. Last, I encourage you to join a Facebook group devoted to Baseball Arts in all its forms–painting, sculpture, illustration, cartoons, and graphics: https://t.co/JGmP4lyjZb
[Clicking on a photo below will enlarge it, in one or two screens.]
Every page of this children’s book is a stunner but I have selected its back cover as a particularly brilliant instance of the 1880s fascination with Japanese and “Aryan” design. If Whistler had painted a children’s book, it might have been this one. The entire book may be viewed or downloaded here: http://goo.gl/Yn3NhZ.
The McLoughlin Brothers (1828-1920) firm was preeminent in color-printed children’s books, toys, and board games. Baseball-game collectors will know the name McLoughlin especially for the gorgeous Game of Base-Ball and Home Base-Ball (both from 1886).
My dear departed friend Mike Schacht, a graphic artist by day and a painter by night, combined his two passions brilliantly to produce an unmatched portfolio of striking posters, graphics, and paintings. Apart from his baseball art, Schacht was also the publisher and editor of “Fan,” a quirky literary and art quarterly with an elite subscription list. At the time of his death in 2001, he and I were collaborating on a book with a working title of PLAY: The Art of Mike Schacht.
The Calvert Lithographing Company was founded in Detroit and continued as an independent business into the 1960s. One of the largest color printing firms in the country, it specialized in cigar labels and theatrical posters. Its forays into baseball appear to have been few, but this 1895 image (marketed as “Base Ball Poster No. 281,” with text to be supplied by the customer) is certainly a keeper.
On November 4, 1865, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper featured this remarkable two-page woodcut illustration depicting both a game-in-progress scene and images of the top players from all of the New York, Brooklyn, and Newark clubs. All the players are named, including the crepe-draped Jim Creighton, three years in the ground. Henry Chadwick is by this point, evidently, so well known that he requires only the names of his outlets, the newspapers spread beneath his visage. My biographical essay on Creighton may be read here: http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/2d2e5d16.
For connoisseurs, the competition for the laurel as greatest of all baseball illustrators is between Edward Penfield and J.C. Leyendecker. I would not disagree.
Illustrations 16-20 tomorrow!
This series commenced yesterday in this space. In my survey of baseball’s illustration I landed upon many wonderful portraits of real-life players, many of them on cigarette cards I confess to a special fondness for those of the 1880s–Allen & Ginter, Gypsy Queen, and W.S. Kimball. I even like the rough-hewn, amateurish depictions of Buchner Gold Coin cards and, later, the cartoonish strip cards of the 1920s and the social-realist style of the 1930s Goudey cards. (for more about this subject, see “Rhapsody in Cardboard,” at http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2012/06/06/rhapsody-in-cardboard/). Such images are, like old photographs, the spur to memory–not your own, unless you are a centenarian, but to the collective memory that forms the national pastime’s very foundation.
The beautiful image speaks unaided, but the ungainly one that, for historic reasons, won its place in my little pantheon may call for a bit of backstory. Some of the woodcuts featured in this series cannot be described as beautiful, even by the most flexible standards, but they do qualify as great. If you disagree, you could send me a note by wire, or whatever it is the kids do these days.
[Clicking on a photo below will enlarge it.]
I could easily have filled this series with twenty-five cover designs by Otis Shepard. From the 1930s to 1960s, he and his wife Dorothy designed uniforms, programs, and logos for the Chicago Cubs., and the logo and base uniform for the All American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). This image for me evokes Magritte and is my ultimate Shepard. A recent book, Dorothy and Otis: Designing the American Dream is a splendid tribute (http://www.dorothyandotis.com/).
There is an aquatint version, too, but I prefer the uncolored. Henry Sandham‘s 1894 painting, on which this 1896 print was based, seems to have been lost. It depicts, we think, a Temple Cup contest between Baltimore and host New York. The Boston Evening Transcript announced, on March 13, 1896, the availability of a limited edition of 250: “Henry Sandham has painted a picture of a game in progress on the grounds of the New York League Club, and the painting has been finely reproduced in the form of a Goupilgravure.” For a full appreciation of the print, I recommend downloading the 143-meg tiff: http://cdn.loc.gov/master/pnp/ppmsca/18800/18838u.tif
David Block, author of Baseball Before We Knew It, writes of this image at Our Game (http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2011/07/16/little-pretty-pocket-book/):
Our earliest evidence for English “base-ball” dates from 1744, when the iconic children’s book A Little Pretty Pocket-Book was first issued. Publisher John Newbery devoted a full page of his pioneering juvenile work to the game, giving us our first clues of how it looked and how it was played. Newbery’s page includes a simple engraving of the pastime that depicts three young gents at play, one holding a ball in his hand and another waiting to strike it with his bare hand. The bases, three of them, are shown as posts in the ground. An accompanying snippet of verse reads as follows:
The Ball once struck off,
Away flies the Boy
To the next destin’d Post,
And then Home with Joy.
This is followed by a “MORAL”:
Thus Britons, for Lucre,
Fly over the Main,
But, with Pleasure transported,
Return back again.
In the American edition, as shown above, the word “Britons” in the second stanza is replaced by “seamen.”
Quoting a passage from my post on the art of Baseball Magazine: “In the golden age of magazines, the period 1880-1920, the newsstands were bedecked with general-interest and literary publications: the weeklies included such fare as The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Frank Leslie’s Popular Magazine, and Harper’s; the monthlies boasted, among others, Atlantic, Munsey’s, McClure’s Magazine, and Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine. Competition for rack space was fierce, as was the competition for the eye (and pocketbook) of the browser; the fees that top writers routinely received in 1920 exceed those available today, when the dollar buys so much less; and artists whose work graced magazine covers, like James Montgomery Flagg, Edward Penfield, Maxfield Parrish, and J. C. Leyendecker, became truly wealthy. But first-class cover art had never been viewed as a necessary competitive edge for an all-sports publication until the advent of Baseball Magazine.” For more, see: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2013/05/01/baseball-magazine/
John Francis Kernan provided cover art for many numbers of Baseball Magazine in its glory years, 1908 (the year of its founding) to 1920. A prolific illustrator, he specialized in images of home, family, and outdoor recreation. His paintings of football, fishing, and hunting frequently graced the covers of the Saturday Evening Post in the 1920s and ’30s.
This is the first baseball illustration printed in color. The “Live Oak Polka” was published in sheet-music form in 1860, only two years after the first in the genre, “The Baseball Polka.” by J.R. Blodgett of Buffalo. While the composer of this tribute to the Live Oak Base Ball Club of Rochester, New York was J. H. Kalbfleisch, and the publisher was Joseph P. Shaw, it is the artist we care about, and he or she is unknown. The lithographer was the durable firm of Endicott & Company, founded in New York City in 1831 and active until 1886.
Illustrations 11-15 tomorrow!