This article was published in the Woodstock Times on October 20, 2004. It is a successor to an earlier piece that first ran there, “Finding Frank Pidgeon,” that may be read here: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2011/10/03/finding-frank-pidgeon/. There is not much here about the baseball days of the Brooklyn Eckfords’ star pitcher, who sailed to California in the Gold Rush of 1849, but there is plenty for the spelunker in American history.
In my last column, in which I weighed the benefits of attending a grade-school reunion (I did; it was great), I mused that it might be a good thing to sense that all of one’s life is connected, and not just one damn thing after another. Three months earlier, in my first column for this paper, “Finding Frank Pidgeon,” I asked readers to supply further information about the once-famous pitcher-inventor-painter who, as it turned out, was buried on Main Street in Saugerties. The sound you are about to hear is the other shoe dropping.
In the first week after the Pidgeon story hit print I received a call from Matthew Leaycraft, a descendant of Frank Pidgeon who differed with my interpretation of how the great man had died (it seemed like suicide to me) but all the same was pleased that his life had come into public view once again. He mentioned that Annie Eliza Pidgeon Searing, one of Frank’s four daughters, had attended Vassar, was an activist for women’s rights, and had written a book for children. Long out of print, When Granny Was a Little Girl detailed life in the Pidgeon household in Saugerties (in the hamlet of Malden, along the Hudson) in the 1860s and ’70s. Among many other interesting bits about his legacy, Mr. Leaycraft said that the figurehead of the ship Albany, which had borne Frank Pidgeon and other New Yorkers to California in the golden year of 1849, had once stood on the lawn of the family’s home in Malden and was now on display at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY).
The story of the reaper-styled figurehead was intriguing; as a frequent visitor to the MCNY, I was certain that I had seen it there among the many marine treasures. But what seized my imagination was the very existence of the book–a family log not only of life in Saugerties, where I had lived with my own family for 17 years, but perhaps a uniquely personal look at one of the giants of early baseball. I went online to used-book retailer abebooks.com and located a copy immediately.
Receiving the book in the mail a week later, I read it through in one sitting. Published in 1926, when A.E.P. Searing was nearly 70, these personal reminiscences written over many years recreated an idyllic family life along the Hudson that had long since disappeared. When Granny Was a Little Girl was so charming a memoir that I scarcely regretted the absence of anything to do with baseball. It included a splendid chapter on a steamer visit to New York City and a meeting with P.T. Barnum and Tom Thumb; a glimpse of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train, northbound in April 1865; and an entire chapter on the voyage of the Albany and the stunning arrival of its figurehead at the Pidgeon homestead.
Stricken dumb with awe, the little ones watched as a giant man carved out of wood, weather-beaten with age, and bound about with ropes, was lowered to the ground. The huge image was carrying a sheaf of wheat over one arm, and in his other hand he held a sickle. He was dressed in knee-breeches, and a shirt open at the neck, and on his head was a very queer, old-fashioned flat-topped hat.” The children were impatient to learn the story behind this odd statue that their mother called a figurehead.
“Well,” their father began, “your mother was right in her guess – it is the figurehead of the ship Albany in which I went to California in ’49. The old square-rigger must have gone to pieces years ago, and, as is the custom when they break up old ships, the parts were sold for junk. This figurehead–a very fine one–I found by chance in a junk shop on South Street in New York.”
“I don’t see,” Mollie broke in, “why the ship was named Albany when the figure on the bow was a man reaping?”
“Good,” said Father; “very intelligent of you to notice that, Daughter. The name of the vessel had been the Reaper, and under that name she had sailed all over the world. She had been a whaler when Yankee ships were the great whale-hunters of the seas, and then a cargo-carrier to Oriental ports. True to her name, she had reaped harvests of profits to her owners all over the world, and when she was getting old, the gold fever came, and they fitted her up to go round the Horn with a shipful of young gold-hunters from New York State, and out of compliment to them, they changed her name to Albany….”
A.E.P. Searing mentioned two other distinguished shipmates of her father’s on that vessel: Henry Meiggs of Catskill, who later perpetrated a famous fraud on the residents of San Francisco and skipped town, though he later won fame as a railroad builder in the Andes; and George Steers, with whom her father had worked in the New York and Brooklyn shipyards and who would go on to design the famous yacht America, for which the racing cup is still named.
Might other notables, baseball or otherwise, have been on board? I wrote to the Society of California Pioneers, whose librarian, Pat Keats, had been so helpful in my research of two baseball argonauts, Alexander Cartwright and William R. Wheaton. Had a passenger list of the Albany survived? Passenger lists of 1850-79 had been published in four volumes, Ms. Keats said, but according to the U.S. Harbor Master of San Francisco in June 1851, “original records of the arrivals from March 26 to July 1, 1849 were defaced in the fire by water and mud, and some portions were entirely destroyed and others rendered unintelligible and difficult to be copied.”
I cast about on the web, and at sfgenealogy.com I found that the Albany had sailed from New York in January 1849 [January 9, to be precise] and, presumably because of bad weather, had not arrived in San Francisco until mid-July [July 7, to be precise] … and what was more, the site had a complete passenger list. It included “F. Pidgeon” and “H. Meiggs,” but not “G. Steers.” Mrs. Searing was wrong; Steers was busy building ships rather than boarding them. Maybe this slip was just a bit of poetic license, or an isolated careless recollection, but it made me suspect her report of the figurehead.
Setting sail on the web once more, I navigated through old newspapers (New York Times, Brooklyn Eagle, San Francisco Alta), nautical and historical books (via the digital libraries of Proquest, Project Gutenberg, Questia, and the Making of America), and specialized sites such as maritimeheritgae.org and mysticseaport.org. The wind was up, and I rode the waves confidently. I discovered that the Albany had been built between 1843 and 1846, had served nobly in the Mexican War, and was lost at sea in 1854. A second Albany had been launched in 1864 but was placed out of commission only six years later, and sold for scrap in an auction advertised in the New York Times on December 3, 1872. Was this second Albany the source of Frank Pidgeon’s figurehead?
Not yet satisfied, I wrote to the MCNY, which I thought might have received some clue as to the provenance and origin of the figurehead upon its acquisition. The Curator of Paintings and Sculpture, Andrea Fahnestock, replied:
The donor of the object in 1937 was Augustus Van Horne Ellis of Pelham Manor. The object’s file indicates that the figurehead was carved c. 1831 for the packet ship Albany when it was built at the yard of Christian Bergh & Co. near Corlears Hook. It is said to have served as one of the principal packet ships of the Havre-Whitlock Line for 16 years. There is no notation of the source of this information. The base on which the figure rests, made later, bears a carved inscription that records the speed of a New York-San Francisco voyage made between January and July 1849. Minutes from the Marine Museum (previous owner of the object) from 1937 read as follows: “It is of interest to note that the father of the donor sailed in the Albany as a passenger, from New York to San Francisco, in 1849, the passage taking six months.”
I glanced again at the passenger list, and sure enough, one of the passengers was John Ellis. Now, Mr. Leaycraft had told me that the figurehead had found its way up to Maine sometime after Frank Pidgeon’s death in 1884. Mrs. Augustus Van Horne Ellis, whose husband was to donate the figurehead to the Maritime Museum (and thence MCNY) in 1937, told a member of the Pidgeon family that the figurehead had stood in the garden of John Ellis’s Mt. Desert Island home in 1888, when she married into the family. I thus had to presume, with two shipmates of the 1849 Albany proudly displaying the figurehead, it was unlikely to have come from another ship, even one of the same name.
Back to shore, and back to the web. Now I searched shipping records from 1831, when the packet ship Albany began to ply the Havre line, to beyond 1854, when the first Albany was lost at sea. I found a packet ship Albany making voyages between New York and Spain in the 1820s, and another sailing regularly to Le Havre from 1832 to 1848. And then, in the New York Times of November 12, 1855–a year after the Albany’s presumed disappearance–I found a merchant vessel named Albany cleared to depart New York for port unstated. Here the fact of my ignorance dawned upon me: I had confused a naval vessel Albany (1846-54) with a merchant vessel Albany (1831-??).
And yet the question remained: why would Frank Pidgeon call the Albany a refitted Reaper? Was his vessel the packet ship Albany, built by Christian Bergh, or was it something else? Now I set off on the web for mentions of a pre-1849 vessel named Reaper, and I found plenty.
I was most drawn to a Reaper built in Medford, Massachusetts in 1808, and another that was built in Middletown, Connecticut, in 1819. Both were brigs, and the latter was of a tonnage comparable to that of the 1849 Albany. The former plied the Orient and was involved in a celebrated neutrality dispute during the War of 1812, but it may have been “sold foreign” in 1813, according to Glenn Gordinier, Historian at Mystic Seaport. The 1819 Reaper, however, had a figurehead and its log book, which came on the market three years ago, was described by the auctioneer as: “Detailed and lengthy ship’s journal kept on a whaling cruise, notable for accounts of whale chases marked by pictures of whales drawn in the margins. With pencil scrawl on the front cover noting it as the ‘Log kept by William F(?) Brown Ship Reaper of Nantucket.’ … Information from the National Archives and Records Service describes ship as ‘having 2 decks, 3 masts, a square stern, a bust head, and no galleries, as being 101 feet 6 inches long, 338 30/95 tons. It was built at Middletown, Connecticut, in 1819.'”
This brig Reaper also sailed in 1832 from Acra, Africa to Edgartown, Massachusetts. In 1836-37 it took part in the slave trade, according to Captain Theophilus Conneau in A Slaver’s Log Book or 20 Years’ Residence in Africa.
In a very recent message, Ms. Fahnestock of the MCNY wrote: “I just found a reference in a caption for the figurehead in a 1978 book of ours titled The City of New York that repeats the other information I gave you from the file, but also says: ‘This figurehead was rescued when the ship was sold for the last time in 1863.'” I now believe that the story told in When Granny Was a Little Girl is largely correct. There was a brig Reaper that became the ship Albany. The packet ship built in 1831 was a different vessel.
All this I found on the web, never leaving my hometown. Twenty years ago, when a book I was researching required access to the Library of Congress and National Archives, I was compelled to take a train and book a hotel room for a week to accomplish what I now can do in an evening.
I can’t be sure just yet, though; even after many exhilarating evenings of web trawling, I still must return to the old ways if I want to do this right. Back to searching methodically but joyously for the needle in a field of haystacks–certain of finding other, greater things by not looking for them–but now I know which haystacks look especially promising.
What explains the impulse to engage in such a seemingly arduous and perhaps pointless pursuit? I don’t know. It feels like play to me.
The American Communist Party thought it was. Through the 1920s and until the mid-1930s, the party considered athletics a bourgeois distraction, and did not report on sports in the Daily Worker. The youth party paper, Young Worker, called baseball “a method used in distracting … the American workers from their miserable conditions.” In the ’30s, however, as the otherwise unidentifiable mischaDC wrote in 2006: “Part of the goal was to get the party out of its immigrant niche. One way of doing this was to expand the Daily Worker from a party newssheet to an American paper. A sports section was the key. Mike Gold, a Daily Worker writer, later said: ‘When you run the news of a strike alongside the news of a baseball game, you’re making American workers feel at home. It gives them the feeling that communism is nothing strange or foreign, but is as real as baseball.'” [http://goo.gl/XmfLb6]
In 1936 the American Communist Party hired Lester Rodney as a sportswriter, and he went on to have a profound influence on baseball’s eventual racial integration. But that is a story for another day. Today I’d like to focus on Michael or “Mike” Gold–either way, a pen name for Itzok (Isaac) Granich (1894-1967). He first wrote for the radical monthly The Masses under the name Irwin Granich, and adopted the nom de plume of Mike Gold in 1919, reportedly from a Jewish veteran of the Civil War whom he admired for having fought to “free the slaves.” In 1930 he published his first and only novel, Jews Without Money, which was widely read and translated into other languages; with this he became America’s most famous proletarian writer. Sinclair Lewis praised him–in the same sentence with Hemingway, Faulkner, Wolfe, and Dos Passos–upon receiving his Nobel Prize in Literature that year.
Three years later Gold became a columnist for the Daily Worker, a role he would retain until the end of his life. His unflagging dedication to the Soviet Union led him to some uncomfortable policy decisions (to uphold, for example, the invasion of Hungary in 1956) and to some grim, humorless prose.
He wrote one baseball column for the Daily Worker, evidently in October 1934, which holds archaeological interest for readers of Our Game: “Baseball Is a Racket,” offered below. For what it’s worth, I agree with him about Mother’s Day.
We are in the process of watching the birth and evolution of a new national hero. He appears to be a tall, gangling young man with a strong right arm who hails from the cotton belt, and pitches a terrifically fast ball for nine innings a few times a week. At present his name is known to probably more Americans than the name of, let’s say, Nicholas Murray Butler [president of Columbia University and Republican Party power broker–ED.] , who also amuses his countrymen. Down in Sportsman’s Park, in Saint Looie, a crowd of 50,000 citizens howl themselves hoarse when the name of Dizzy Dean roars from the umpire’s mouth. According to private reports, even the Mississippi “lifts itself from its long bed” when the Dizzy goes to the mound to put on his stuff for the honor of St. Louis and a couple of extra thousand dollars World Series money for Frankie Frisch’s boys.
Dizzy seems to be quite a boy. Not only did he single-handedly, it appears, win the pennant for St. Louis, but he has managed to accumulate around himself a whole mythology of legends that would do justice to any of the old Greek gods. Dizzy’s what the boys on the sport sheets call “color” stuff. Strong right arm for pitching, but kinda weak upstairs.
In the fourth game of the Series Dizzy got slammed with a fast ball trying to break up a double play. It smacked him square in the forehead. It would have been curtains for an ordinary mortal, but not for Dizzy; he just passed out cold for a couple of seconds and then came to fresh as a daisy.
Furthermore, it appears that Dizzy has a heart as big as a wagon. After Saturday’s ball game, a couple of smartly dressed gentlemen tried to pick Dean up in their fast roadster as he was leaving the ball park. They offered to drive him back to the hotel. Dizzy, whose heart seems to be unspoiled and whose mind is a bit weak, grandly accepted the offer. He almost gave poor Sam Breadon, the Cardinal’s president, heart-failure. “My god,” yelled Sam, “haven’t you ever heard of gamblers and kidnappers?” But Dizzy just beamed, the idol light shining from his face. Dizzy’s going around town now with a police guard.
With each successive game the fables about the Dizzy Dean grow. It helps business along, piles up the gate receipts, gives the newsboys from the big city papers something to write about, and continues building the tradition of glamor and prowess that surround the heroes of the diamond. Dizzy seems to be a simple-minded, Ring Lardner “You Know Me Al” ball player, raised down in the Southwest on grits and cornbread, gifted with a powerful pitching arm and a keen pair of eyes. But the stockholders of the St. Louis Cardinals and the racketeers and speculators who infest organized baseball as they do every other national sport in the country today, have a keener eye than Dizzy’s pitching ones and a stronger arm when it comes
to counting the season’s profits.
Like everything else in the country, baseball is not run primarily for the fans, but for the pocketbooks of the stockholders. Communists are often ridiculed for their insistence that everything in the present capitalist system is a “racket.” Hollywood recently caricatured the Communist who shouts on Mother’s Day, “It’s a racket!” Well, it is. It’s a racket for the flower merchants, for the candy manufacturers, for the pulpit. The sickening sentimentality that is deliberately fostered by the manufacturers, the false mother-love decorations that surround the price on the box of flowers, attest to the way the emotions of people are deliberately and viciously exploited by the manufacturer for his own profit. Baseball, too, the love of sport, is deliberately and viciously exploited by the promoters.
Dizzy probably loves baseball. So do millions of other Americans. I remember that we all wanted to learn how to throw a two-finger drop earlier than we wanted to learn why the earth turns around the sun, or the origin of surplus value. But there is a sharp division made in the life of people today: sport, active participation in sport, stops early in life. Life under capitalism is not an integrated life, it is not full in the sense that sport is looked upon as one of the activities of a fully developed man. And, strange as it may seem, to those who see the Communist as a professional kill joy, he has a firmer, richer belief in the development of the full man, than the health culturist like Bernarr Macfadden, whose advertising caters to the sick and the shamed, or the neo-Humanist, whose “full” life is an abstraction born of the library.
One has only to look at the Soviet Union to see how sport is deliberately organized as part of the whole life of the proletariat. But in America, baseball is a different thing. There were 50,000 fans out there in St. Louis and 50,000 more in Detroit shouting their heads off every time Pepper Martin took a head-first slide into second or Hank Greenberg leaned his bat against a fast ball.
They were playing in the World Series too. It was vicarious baseball for the masses, phantoms of their own longing were smacking out homers, striking out the third man with the bases full, or making a miraculous stop of a line hit.
Workers love baseball. But baseball, in its own way, is used as an “opium of the people.” The “bosses” are cashing in on the “heroes” and cashing in on the frustrated love of the people for sports.
My friend David Shoebotham sent me the following, in email today. David is a sabermetric pioneer, as the inventor of Relative Batting Average (Baseball Research Journal, 1976; reprinted here: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2012/03/17/relative-batting-average-landmarks-of-sabermetrics-part-iii/).
I very much enjoyed the Bob Carroll article you reprinted in your blog. I remember it very well from when it first came out. And, yes, like you, I enjoyed Bob’s writing style.
Re-reading the article made me think a little – something I need to do more these days. Since a certain percentage of any team’s runs are not “batted in,” maybe it makes more sense to compare any given player’s RBIs to his team’s RBIs rather than just its runs scored.
Also, as I computed a long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away?), the percentage runs that are batted in has gradually increased over time as fielder’s gloves and the interpretation of certain rules have evolved. The graph below shows that evolution for the National League from 1876 to the present. (The American League’s graph is very similar from 1901 to the present.) Amazing that in the beginning not even 2/3 of all runs were batted in. Ouch. Fielding without a glove was painful. And note the big jump around 1920. I think that’s about the time when gloves with webs between the thumb and forefinger became popular.
Anyway, I thought it would be fun to look at players’ RBIs as a percentage of their team’s RBIs rather than their team’s runs. The results are shown below. Nate Colbert still tops the list, and as you can see he had almost a quarter of San Diego’s RBIs in 1972. I’ve identified 23 players whose RBI totals exceeded 20% of their team’s totals, including several from the pre-1920 Dead-Ball Era. (Since I did this on-the-run, so to speak, I don’t claim these results are at all complete.)
It’s obvious that players who have teammates who are good RBI men (think Ruth and Gehrig) and players who walk a lot are at a disadvantage in this kind of calculation. Also American League players since 1972 are at a disadvantage because of the Designated Hitter Rule.
Anyway, thanks for the article. It was fun.
They set out from Chicago on October 20, 1888, and didn’t return to the United States until April 6, 1889. It was Albert Goodwill Spalding’s world tour, an attempt to spread the baseball gospel (and his sporting-goods empire) to the four corners of the known universe. Previously Spalding, Al Reach, and the Wright brothers had organized a midseason English tour in 1874 that pulled the Boston Red Stockings and Philadelphia Athletics out of league play for nearly two months. Cricket teams from Britain had toured the U.S. as early as 1859, and Harry Wright and Al Spalding wanted to return the favor. But when they got there, the Brits didn’t want to see baseball, they wanted cricket. The baseball players complied, and their unorthodox style of slugging won bemused praise.
The 1888 tour was comprised of the Chicago White Stockings, led by Cap Anson, who had also been part of the English tour fourteen years earlier, and an all-star group selected from other teams in both leagues (the All-Americas). After departing by rail from Chicago, the barnstormers played games in St. Paul and Minneapolis, then meandered through the West with stops to play games in Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Omaha, Hastings, Denver, Colorado Springs, and Salt Lake City. They reached California in early November, buttressed by by such stragglers as John Ward and Cannonball Crane, who had been detained in St. Louis to complete the Giants’ victory over the Browns in the World Series.
The All-American Tourists, shown in this oversize, singularly splendid lithograph, played games in San Francisco and Los Angeles before setting sail (and steam) for the Sandwich Islands, known today as Hawaii. The main isle of Oahu had been the home for nearly forty years of none other than Alexander Cartwright, an original member of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York and known to Spalding and Ward as a pioneer of baseball. Hawaii was the first stop for Spalding’s Tourists, but they arrived in port late, on a Saturday, and playing ball on Sunday was out of the question. More important, they had to make up for days lost at sea, so, after the previous evening’s day’s festivities, the players didn’t even stay the night on Sunday. Spalding never did get to meet Cartwright.
The tour continued to New Zealand and Australia, and onward to Ceylon and Egypt. It proceeded to the mainland of Europe, with scenic stops to play ball at the Borghese Gardens in Rome (they tried for the Coliseum and were rebuffed) and next to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. They finished up in the British Isles, where the Queen’s subjects admired the way the Americans fielded but disapproved of the pitching (too difficult) and the batting (too weak, and, unlike cricket, too soon over).
The returning heroes were honored at a banquet at Delmonico’s restaurant in New York on April 8, 1889, where former National League president Abraham G. Mills declared that baseball was purely an American invention, and the audience responded by pounding the tables and shouting, “No rounders! No rounders!” Mark Twain, unwittingly assuming that the Tourists had played in Hawaii, reminisced about his own four months in the Sandwich Islands in 1866. He pointed up the incongruity of that sylvan setting and baseball, “the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century.”
In the years to come, Spalding ballyhooed the importance of his two tours, but in truth both were artistic, financial, and ideological flops. The game took off in places visited not by ambassadors of baseball but by our military and our missionaries–Japan, Cuba, the Caribbean basin, Mexico. A 1913-1914 tour (populated by Nixey Callahan’s Chicago White Sox and John McGraw’s New York Giants) made a stop in Japan, and later had a grand return celebration in March 1914. That tour also zigzagged across the American West before heading across the ocean. Sixty-seven people were in the traveling party, including players’ wives and a recording scribe, Ring Lardner.
But the most important baseball tour took place in 1934, the second by major leaguers to Japan in the decade (another group had traveled there in 1931, including Hall of Famers Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, Lefty Grove, Al Simmons, and Frankie Frisch, as well as baseball’s unofficial ambassador to Japan, Lefty O’Doul). But the 1934 visit is the one given credit for finally turning the Japanese into huge baseball fans. Part of the reason was the cast: Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Charlie Gehringer, Lefty Gomez, and Rabbit Maranville, as well as Gehrig, Frisch, Simmons, O’Doul, and the spy Moe Berg. The Japanese lost every one of the eighteen games played, by wide margins, except one: Eiji Sawamura was the losing pitcher in a 1-0 thriller in which he struck out Gehringer, Ruth, Gehrig, and Foxx in succession. Two years later, Japan formed its own professional league. Today Japan’s equivalent of MLB’s Cy Young Award is the Sawamura Award (see: http://goo.gl/b3470i).
Pedagogical demonstrations did not make baseball flourish in Colombo or Cairo, but competitive play turned the trick in Osaka and Tokyo.
“East is East, and West is West,” wrote Kipling, “and never the twain shall meet.” Yet isn’t it fascinating that baseball is the national game of the United States and of Japan, and is regarded by each country as the embodiment of its unique culture? We seem very different, Americans and Japanese, so how can baseball/besuboru perfectly mirror both? Is the game so different in each locale, or are the two peoples perhaps not so different after all?
The game had been played in Japan since 1873, when instructor Horace Wilson taught it to his Japanese students. Visiting University of Washington students played Japanese teams in 1908 and lost four of ten games; the Reach All-Americas also came to Japan that year. Professional tours followed, with major-league baseball aggregations playing in Japan in 1913, 1920, 1922 (including Casey Stengel), 1928 (led by Ty Cobb), 1931, and 1934. In 1927 and 1932 the Philadelphia Royal Giants of the Negro Leagues toured, and they greatly impressed the Japanese with their competitive spirit (many of the white All-Stars took the exhibitions less seriously than the Japanese felt they should). By 1936 Japan had its first professional baseball league.
After a cessation of tours because of growing hostility between the nations, culminating in the Second World War, a U.S. team (Lefty O’Doul’s San Francisco Seals) returned to Japan in 1949. After that, November was typically marked by the appearance of a U.S. major league team, including the Dodgers, Yankees, or Giants.
The 1934 tour was memorable for the massive display of affection for Babe Ruth. In retrospect, however, when we think of that tour, we think of catcher-soldier-spy Moe Berg.
Japan today sends many of its stars to play in the U.S. Kipling could not have imagined this.
My dear friend and frequent collaborator Bob Carroll died some years ago. I remember him for a myriad of personal things, but in his professional life he was a Ripley-esque cartoonist and possessed a colorful writing style, unlike that of anyone else I knew (“He could hit home runs … but he also fanned more often than Scarlett O’Hara during a Georgia July.”) With SABR’s reissue of the first number of The National Pastime (1982), Bob springs back into action with this article, the opening one in that debut publication. (If you’d like to read the entire TNP, go here: http://sabr.org/latest/sabr-digital-library-tnp-premiere-issue.)
Nate Colbert set a single-season RBI record in 1972; hardly anyone noticed. Even today—ten years after the fact [ED: The record still stands, 43 years after the fact]—few fans and fewer record books are aware of the big right-handed slugger’s accomplishment. In fact, if it hadn’t been for his performance on August 1 of that year—the best single day ever enjoyed by a major-league hitter—he might not be remembered at all.
Some of Colbert’s obscurity may be blamed on the season. Nineteen seventy-two was not the happiest of baseball years. It began with Gil Hodges’ fatal heart attack at spring training and ended with Roberto Clemente’s tragic death in an airplane crash. In between, a player walkout shortened the season by 13 days.
Another strike against Colbert was his team. The ’72 San Diego Padres weren’t quite the worst club in the National League—the Phillies were .001 lower—but it was hard to get excited about anything that happened on a 58-95 team sporting a .227 team batting average. Unless you had a cousin on the roster, you probably wouldn’t even read the Padres’ box scores.
A third strike on Colbert was his habit of missing third strikes. He could hit home runs and keep his batting average higher than his weight, but he also fanned more often than Scarlett O’Hara during a Georgia July. On average, he struck out every fourth time he went to bat. Among ten-year men, only Dave Kingman has been easier prey.
All in all, Nate was the wrong player on the wrong ream in the wrong year to be making his mark on history.
His record doesn’t reveal itself by a cursory glance at his batting stats for 1972: a .250 average, with 38 home runs and 111 RBIs. Forget the 127 strikeouts and it’s a good year. But great? Record-setting?
Take a look at San Diego’s team batting. During the whole season, the Padres managed a mere 488 runs. Why, it seemed like the 1927 Yankees had that many by Memorial Day!
Now, put the figures together. Colbert batted in 22.75 percent of his team’s runs! Think of it this way: each batter makes up 11.1% of his team’s lineup; Colbert did the work of two and then some. No major-league batter has ever done more for his team.
“How Nate ever knocked in 111 runs that otherwise dismal season has puzzled the experts ever since,” says Padre statistician Mil Chipp. “He usually batted behind Derrel Thomas, Dave Roberts, and Jerry Morales. And none of them were that adept at getting on base. Thomas’s on-base percentage in 1972 was 29%, Roberts’ was 28% and Morales’ 31%.” Colbert himself led the team with his modest 34% OBP.
It was no contest in RBIs. Chipp points out: “The only Padre players ‘close’ to Nate … were Leron Lee (47) and Clarence Gaston (44). They were light years away.”
There is a certain element of controversy involved in any RBI record: is it the man or the opportunity? Ever since the ribbie was dreamed up, some fans have opposed it as a measure of individual achievement. At the end of the 1880 National League season, according to Preston D. Orem’s Baseball (1845-1881) from the Newspaper Accounts, “the Chicago Tribune proudly presented the ‘Runs Batted In’ record of the Chicago players for the season, showing Anson and Kelly in the lead. Readers were unimpressed. Objections were that the men who led off, Dalrymple and Gore, did not have the same opportunities to knock in runs. The paper actually wound up almost apologizing for the computation.”
Ernie Lanigan, patron saint of ribbies, in his 1922 Baseball Cyclopedia, observed, “As far back as 1879 a Buffalo paper used to include the runs batted in in the summary of the box score of the home game. Henry Chadwick urged the adoption of this feature in the middle ’80s and by 1891 carried his point so that the National League scorers were instructed to report this data. They reported it grudgingly and finally were told they wouldn’t have to report it.”
Lanigan took up the ribbie torch in 1907 for the New York Press, working up the figures annually. At last, on the request of the Baseball Writers’ Association, the major leagues added RBIs to their 1920 averages.
Yet, even more than a hundred years after RBIs were introduced, many fans view the stat skeptically. If a man singles, goes the argument, he has performed an individual act. But, to get a ribbie on that same single, he must have a teammate in scoring position. Colbert’s 111 is an excellent total, but how many more might he have driven home in 1972 had he played for heavy-hitting Pittsburgh? For the record, Pirate first baseman Willie Stargell drove in 112.
Looking at the percentage of a team’s runs driven in somewhat circumvents the anti-RBI argument. In theory, at least, a player on a light-hitting team with fewer opportunities to drive in runs can show his mettle by knocking in a high percentage. Conversely, a player with a group of bombers clustered around him in the batting order must drive in a much higher number to achieve the same percentage.
When Hack Wilson set the major-league record with 190 ribbies in 1930 [since revised upward, to 191–ED.], his team scored another 803. His percentage was 19.04. Lou Gehrig’s American League mark of 184 accounted for “only” 17.24 percent of the ’31 Yankees’ 1,067 runs. The accompanying chart shows all those players since 1900 who have knocked in 150 or more runs in a season, along with their teams’ runs and their percentages. It comes as no surprise that all the 150-plus boys played on teams that scored a ton. Colbert’s Padres scored an ounce, but his percentage was three points better than the highest of the big RBI guys.
[In the years since Bob wrote this, Manny Ramirez drove in 165 in 1999, 16.35 percent of Cleveland’s 1009 runs that year. Sammy Sosa’s 160 for the Cubs in 2001 registered 20.60 percent; his 158 in 1999 yielded 19.01 percent. Alex Rodriguez’s 156 for the Yankees in 2007 registered 16.12 percent. Albert Belle had 152 for the White Sox in 1998 (17.65 percent); Andres Galaragga 150 for the Rockies in 1996, 15.61 percent; Miguel Tejada 150 for the Orioles in 2004, 17.81 percent.–ED.]
As a matter of fact, only eight men in major league history [nine including Sosa in 2001–ED.]–from 1876 on–have topped the 20 percent mark. More men have hit .400.
The first hitter to achieve the improbable 20 was, not surprisingly, Babe Ruth. What is indeed surprising is that the Babe did it before he became a Yankee. In 1919, his last season in Boston, he drove in 114 runs–a 20.13 clip–for the fifth-place Red Sox [An upward revision to the team’s run total since Bob wrote this have raised the mark from 20.13 to 20.18.–ED.] Although he topped that RBI total eleven times in a Yankee uniform, he never again drove in so high a proportion. (Note: some sources credit Ruth with only 113 RBIs in 1919, a mark of precisely 20 percent.)
It took 16 years before another player reached 20 percent. Then, the Braves’ Wally Berger chased home teammates at a rate of 22.61 (130 out of 575). Despite Berger’s efforts, the Braves won only 38 games and came in dead last on a stretcher. But Wally’s mark stood as the record until Colbert’s big year.
Swish Nicholson drove the Cubs up to fifth place in 1943 with his 20.25 percent (128 out of 632). The Cubbies were back in fifth place in 1959 when Hall-of-Famer Ernie Banks made the “20 Club” with 21.25 (143 out of 673). That performance earned Banks his second consecutive MVP award. Interestingly, he’s the only 20-percenter to be so honored by the BBWAA.
Jim Gentile became the fifth member of the society in 1961. His 20.41 percent (141 out of 691) was a big factor in lifting the Orioles into third place, but it went virtually unnoticed in the excitement over Roger Maris’s asterisk-pursuit. Maris was also crowned the RBI “leader” on the basis of one more ribbie than Gentile, but his percentage was only 17.17 (142 out of 827). [Maris has since lost one RBI, erroneously credited to him for a runner scoring from third on a double-play grounder.–ED.]
Big Frank Howard belongs in the 20-percenter Hall of Fame–he topped the magic mark twice. In 1968 with Washington, he knocked in 106 runs (out of 524) for a 20.23 percent. Two years later, he reached 20.13 (on 126 out of 626). Unfortunately, Washington finished last both years, but without Frank’s bat they would have finished in Guam.
Another two years went by before Colbert set the record. Since then only one player has been able to break the 20 barrier, Bill Buckner with 20.27 percent for the Cubs in last year’s strike-shortened season [plus Sosa in 2001–ED.] Buckner’s accomplishment is interesting in that it came on only 75 RBIs.
Most of the 20-percenters played on second-division teams not only in their big years, but for the majority of their careers; most of them might also be characterized as underrated. The relationship is not coincidental.
The key to Nate Colbert’s record occurred on August 1, 1972 in Atlanta, where the Padres met the Braves in a twi-night doubleheader. Colbert was among the league leaders in home runs and RBIs, but a slump had plunged his batting average toward .200. He’d also been forced to miss a couple of games the previous week when he’d injured a knee in a collision at home plate.
On the plane from Houston, Padre manager Don Zimmer asked Nate if he’d prefer to sit out another day or two. The big slugger insisted it didn’t matter how he felt. He wanted to play in the Braves’ cozy park, and he was determined “someone was going to pay” for his recent slump.
Before all the Atlanta fans had even found their seats for the opener, Nate put San Diego in front in the first inning with a three-run homer off Ron Schueler. In the third frame he contributed to a four-run Padre outburst by singling home a teammate. Another single and a bases-empty homer off Mike McQueen in the seventh gave him four-for-five and five ribbies in the 9-0 Padre win.
The second game was even better. Tom Kelley opened for the Braves and he was as wild as a Penthouse party. He walked Colbert in the first inning and Nate came around to score. Pat Jarvis replaced Kelley in the second inning just in time to face Colbert with the bases loaded. Nate promptly cleared them with his third homer of the evening.
A two-run blast off Jim Hardin in the seventh made the score 9-1. But the shell-shocked Braves fought back to make it 9-7 going into the final inning. Colbert was due up fourth. Cecil Upshaw retired the first two Padres, but Larry Stahl got a ground single to right. And up came Colbert.
The sidearming Upshaw had always given him trouble, so Nate decided to just try to meet the ball for a hit. Upshaw threw a high fastball for the first pitch. Colbert met it. Home run.
“I was shocked when I hit it,” Colbert recalled. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw it go over the fence. It was unreal! When I rounded second base, Umpire Bruce Froemming said to me: ‘I don’t believe this.’ I told him: ‘I don’t either.’ ”
The next day, it took the New York Times three paragraphs just to explain the records Colbert had broken or tied:
The 13 runs batted in erased the major league record of 11 for a double-header, which had been shared by three American League batters, Earl Averill of the Cleveland Indians (1930), Jim Tabor of the Boston Red Sox (1939) and Boog Powell of the Baltimore Orioles (1966). The National League record of 10 was established in 1947 by Enos Slaughter of the St. Louis Cardinals. [In 1993 Mark Whiten of the Cardinals tied Colbert’s mark.–ED.]
The 6-foot-l 1/2 inch 200-pound Colbert also broke the National League record of 12 runs batted in in two consecutive games by Jim Bottomley of St. Louis in 1924. The major league mark is 15, established in 1925 by Tony Lazerri of the New York Yankees.
The five home runs in a double-header by Colbert equaled the major league mark set by Stan Musial of the Cardinals in 1954 and also broke Musial’s record of 22 total bases in a twin bill.
Yet when 1972 ended and Colbert had racked up a record even more impressive than any of these, not a newspaper in the land gave it so much as an agate line.
Call it Catch-22.75.
Satchel Paige must have been born old. Either that, or what he saw early in his life blessed him with the wisdom of age, and it shone in his eyes. He was forced by the color of his skin to watch organized baseball from the outside until he was at least forty-two years old (the oldest rookie ever). His homespun philosophy (“Avoid fried meats, which angry up the blood.” “Don’t look back, something may be gaining on you.”) has therefore become a larger aspect of his legend than his pitching feats, recorded sparsely in dozens of years of Negro League and barnstorming play.
Satchel claimed to have pitched between 130 and 160 games a year for all that time (his custom was to start a game, pitch a couple of innings, then give way to a collaborator like Hilton Smith). He had great stories of his prowess and his range of pitches. “I got bloopers, loopers and droopers. I got a jump ball, a be ball, a screw ball, a wobbly ball, a whipsy-dipsy-do, a hurry-up ball, a nothin’ ball and a bat dodger.” His best, though, was the “be ball,” named “ ’Cause it ‘be’ right where I want it.” One Paige story is that he walked the bases full in a World Series game just so he could end the contest by striking out Josh Gibson, a former teammate and the Negro Leagues’ greatest slugger. His pinpoint control was the secret to his long-lived success and huge income, which according to legend was greater than that of any white player except Ruth.
But happy as he was to be the king of black baseball, Paige was distressed when the Dodgers made Jackie Robinson the first of his race to reach the modern major leagues. “I’d been the guy who started all that big talk about letting us in the big time. I’d been the one the white boys wanted to barnstorm against.” His first complete game in the majors, in 1948, was in front of 51,000 fans at Comiskey Park. In August of that year he threw his second complete game, this time for 78,000 appreciative hometown fans in Cleveland. He even got to pitch two thirds of an inning in the World Series that year.
Integration pioneer Bill Veeck (the story is told that the owners kept him from buying the Phillies in the 1940s because he planned to sign a lot of Negro Leaguers) brought Paige with him from Cleveland to the St. Louis Browns in 1951, and he averaged more than forty appearances a season there for three years. (It’s delightful to contemplate that juvenile Palmer Cox brownie adorning the sleeve of this superannuated Brown.) He returned to a big-league mound in 1965, at age fifty-nine or so, to throw three scoreless innings for the Kansas City A’s against the Red Sox; only one man, Carl Yastrzemski, got a hit off him.
When the National League abandoned Troy and Worcester after the 1882 season, it reestablished franchises in New York and Philadelphia for the first time since its inaugural campaign of 1876. Grumbling can still be heard in Troy and Worcester today, but their loss was baseball’s gain, giving the shaky National League the two key eastern markets it had lacked.
As you can see from the studio shot of the original Giants of 1883, they wear the emblem of the city on their breasts, binding the team to the body politic and making baseball seem as much a part of old Gotham as Indians and beaver pelts, Knickerbockers and coopers. The uniform patch shown above is the original, worn by Buck Ewing at top left in the team photo.
Notice the other future Hall of Famers: pitcher Mickey Welch (bottom, left), who in 1885 posted an imposing record of 44-11, and John Montgomery Ward (upper right), the perfect-game pitcher turned shortstop whose hand rests on the shoulder of Roger Connor, whose career home run record was finally surpassed by a guy named Ruth.
This week, more than three decades after publication, the Society for American Baseball Research is reissuing the debut number of The National Pastime, a publication I created for it in 1982. Not only in retrospect but also at the time, this felt like a new path for SABR, and for me. Here is my 2014 preface to The National Pastime, republished in facsimile. To purchase a paperback or ebook, go to http://goo.gl/JYn88W; or better yet, join SABR and get it free. The ebook may also be purchased from the vendors listed at the end of this post.
That they also provided no funding—except for the cost of typeset, printing, paper, and mailing—meant that I would have to scramble a bit, but that was OK. I enlisted contributors—those mentioned above, my newfound friends, my onetime idols, and veteran authors, journalists, and researchers. Gordon Fleming, author of The Unforgettable Season, a pioneering new form of baseball book, sent me a brilliant treatment of the Merkle Boner. Dr. Seymour and David Voigt, who had long disapproved of each other, took the roles of lion and lamb for this new journal, coexisting peaceably and contributing bold, fresh articles. Baseball Research Journal regulars like Art Ahrens, Al Kermisch, and Ted DiTullio contributed fine pieces. And an unpublished researcher, a bank accounting officer named Frank J. Williams, submitted an exhaustive article, handwritten on yellow legal paper, which upon publication became a landmark in the history of baseball record keeping.
I designed the publication and on my kitchen table laid out the reproduction proof with paste pot and Exacto knife. I created the headlines with Letraset transfer type and a burnishing tool, as our printer Dean Coughenour of Manhattan, Kansas, could not obtain display-size versions of the type I had specified. If all this sounds like complaint, then I have failed to strike the proper tone. Trust me, it was heaven. I could not have believed more fervently than I did in the opening words of my “house column”:
The National Pastime has sprung into being to depict the panorama of baseball, from its murky beginnings on up to last night’s news, showing that the past of this great game is every bit as exciting as its present.
The debut issue was mailed in late October and immediately met with rave reviews. Its nominal cost was $5, but that was paid only by nonmembers—whose cost could be reduced to nothing if they added $10 to purchase a SABR membership. Our rolls rose from 1250 in July 1981 to 2800 at year end, 1982. In the June/July 1983 issue of American Heritage, which had been my model for TNP, the editor wrote:
Thorn, who assembled the portfolio of baseball pictures in this issue, is editor of The National Pastime, a handsomely produced publication sponsored by the Society for American Baseball Research (P.O. Box 323, Cooperstown, NY 13326). And like all of SABR’s three thousand members, he is interested in exploring and preserving the legacy of the sport.
Actually by the time that issue of AH hit the stands, SABR membership had climbed to nearly 4000. This debut issue, which even in reprint more than three decades later, still looks handsome to me, also won an honorable mention in the 1983 PRINT Magazine annual review of the nation’s top achievements in the graphic arts.
But enough button-popping about the look of the thing. It is the quality of the writing that will impress most today, as it did then.
More than thirty years before a pair of brothers named Wright made aviation history, another Wright duo was instrumental in changing baseball from a social-club pastime to a professional game. Baseball’s Wright brothers were George and Harry, cricket players who saw the future in the American game.
A cricket book opens our story. It is Felix on the Bat, a classic cricket instructional manual written and illustrated by the great Kent and All-England batsman of the 1840s, “N. Felix,” which was the pen name for Nicholas Wanostrocht. A copy was presented to Samuel Wright, father of Harry and George in 1858, on his Benefit Day at the St. George Cricket Club, Elysian Fields, Hoboken, where the English-born Sam was the cricket professional and Harry and George two of the key players (Harry by 1854, George beginning in 1861). George was eleven at the time his father received the book, and it is not clear when Sam passed it on to George, who wrote on the flyleaf: “This book I prize very highly as it was given to me by my Father in the year 1865. Often I have viewed its contents when a boy looking forward to some day to play the game of cricket well. G.W.”
Of course, by 1865 young George was not only adept at cricket, he was well on his way to becoming the best baseball player in the land. Harry had begun to divide his time between cricket and baseball in the late 1850s, when he joined the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, whose grounds adjoined those of the St. George Cricket Club. Mirroring the divided loyalties of pre-Civil War America, both continued to play cricket for at least two more years, Harry with the Cincinnati Cricket Club, which had lured him west with the position of cricket professional and an invitation to organize a first-class baseball club. George left the champion Union of Morrisania team after the 1866 campaign to join the covertly professional Washington Nationals as they toured the west. George was supposedly earning his living as a government clerk, but the address of his “employer” as listed in the City Directory was just a public park. They traveled as far as Illinois, where the Nationals were upset by the Forest City of Rockford and their boy pitcher, Albert Spalding. George received a handsome rosewood trophy bat for “best general play.”
By 1869 both were members of baseball’s first openly all-professional team, the celebrated Cincinnati Red Stockings. George was the greatest player of his time, with wonderful batting and fielding skills and an acrobat’s flair. In 1869 he hit .629 with 49 home runs in 57 games. Harry, twelve years older, was a fading player, but he was the organizer, promoter, and father figure of the Red Stockings and professional baseball itself.
In the photo of the Reds above, George stands in the top row, second from the right, and captain Harry stands alongside him at the center. And, following a tradition far older than baseball, both left for a new opportunity when the money beckoned. When the Reds collapsed and the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players formed, Harry moved to Boston as manager and took brother George and other Red Stockings along with him to join former Rockford stars Al Spalding and Ross Barnes and Cleveland’s Deacon White.
The Wrights and Boston rolled over the competition in the National Association, winning four straight pennants by increasingly grotesque margins, thus hastening the demise of the league. In the new National League, Boston continued its winning ways, but after championships in 1877 and 1878, George went to Providence as a playing manager in 1879 and defeated Harry’s Bostons in a close race. In the mid-1930s, National League president Ford Frick gave George Wright, nearing the age of ninety, a lifetime pass to all National League grounds (note that it is #1, the first ever given).
Major-league baseball’s centennial shindig took place not in 1976, nor even in 1971, a century since the first pro league, the National Association of Professional Baseball Players, commenced play. The celebration came in 1969, and in 1994 there was a splashy yearlong birthday party for the 125th year of professional baseball.
So what exactly happened in 1869? Wasn’t Jim Creighton paid in 1859 and Al Reach in 1863? Between 1865 and 1869, weren’t there such professional teams as the Atlantics of Brooklyn, the Mutuals of New York, the Athletics of Philadelphia, and more? Sure. But there was something special about 1869: the manly admission of Harry Wright to the press that his Cincinnati Red Stockings were salaried and proud of it. The Reds were thus the first avowedly professional team in baseball history, a distinction that scholars insist on using to separate this mighty team from the under-the-table schemers and gate-receipt communards who had preceded them. Besides, the Reds were the best team ever assembled to that point, and they came from all over.
Harry Wright had come to the banks of the Ohio in 1865 at the behest of the Union Cricket Club. By 1867 he had organized a Red Stockings baseball club, too, though it wasn’t yet strong enough to compete against the best. The arrival of pitcher Asa Brainard, former Brooklyn Excelsior, in 1868, followed by the advent of Harry’s brother George for the 1869 season, made the team literally unbeatable.
The Red Stockings took on all comers, from Maine to California, in 1869, and never tasted defeat. They won 84 consecutive games in 1869-1870 before getting their comeuppance from the venerable Atlantics of Brooklyn, the champions of several earlier 1860s campaigns. The Forest City of Rockford was accounted as one of the strongest nines following their 1867 upset of the touring Washington Nationals, then led by George Wright; those Nationals in turn had defeated Harry’s developing Red Stockings, 53-10. Rockford’s stars included Albert Spalding, Bob Addy, and Ross Barnes (in 1871 they would welcome a young third baseman from Marshalltown, Iowa, named Adrian Anson). In 1870 Spalding’s heady pitching led to a 12-5 victory over Cincinnati, avenging their 34-13 drubbing at the hands of the Reds in ’69.
But that was not the Reds’ first loss. On June 14, 1870, at the Capitoline Grounds in Brooklyn, the Reds jumped off to a 2-0 lead in the first, but the Atlantics held a lead of 4-3 after six frames. The Reds regained the lead with two tallies in the seventh, but the Atlantics knotted the contest at 5-5 in the eighth, and there things stood at the conclusion of nine innings. Captain Bob Ferguson of the Atlantics agreed to a draw, as was the custom, but Harry Wright of the Reds insisted that the game be played to a conclusion, “if it took all summer.” Backed up by Reds president Aaron B. Champion, he ordered his men back on the field. Ferguson then did the same for his Atlantics.
After a scoreless tenth, the Reds appeared to settle the issue with two runs in the top of the eleventh. But Brainard’s nerve was wearing thin, according to the New York Clipper report. He allowed a leadoff single to Charlie Smith, then followed with a wild pitch that sent Smith all the way to third. “Old Reliable,” first baseman Joe Start, drove a long fly to right field, where Cal McVey had difficulty extricating the ball from the standing-room-only crowd. Smith scored, and now Start was on third. At this point Ferguson came to the plate and, seeing how his men had been foiled by George Wright’s brilliant plays time and again, the right-handed hitter turned around to bat from the left side, simply to keep the ball away from the Reds’ shortstop.
Ferguson drove the ball past the second baseman. Tie game! When George Zettlein drove a liner toward first base, Charlie Gould blocked it, but threw hurriedly and wildly to second base in an attempt to force Ferguson. The ball skittered into left field, and Ferguson scampered home with the winning run. Additional batters came to the plate, for the rules did not yet call for the game to end until three outs were registered in the final half inning, but no further scoring ensued. After the contest, Champion telegraphed the following message back to Cincinnati: “Atlantics 8, Cincinnatis 7. The finest game ever played. Our boys did nobly, but fortune was against us. Eleven innings played. Though beaten, not disgraced.”
By 1871 Cincincinnati Reds were no more. The club had disbanded, its possessions and trophies were sold at auction, and Harry and George found themselves playing under the old name of Red Stockings but in a new city–Boston, where they were joined by a couple of other Cincinnati teammates, the Rockford stars Spalding and Barnes, and Cleveland’s Deacon White.
Last month, Bryan Curtis of ESPN’s Grantland came up to Catskill to chat with me about baseball’s annual burial rites. His fine story, “The Dead Ball Century,” may be read here: http://goo.gl/a1RyNp. A couple of days ago I gathered with my neighbors at the Beattie-Powers Place to deliver my annual Hot Stove League talk and to gab afterwards with my baseball-loving friends. My talk reprised a good bit of my conversation with Bryan and to some degree expanded upon it. Warmed over, you might pronounce this blogpost but, I hope, sturdy like a casserole brought to a covered-dish supper.
There was much woe and lamentation in the seventies that the game was dying. Commentators bemoaned the sluggish play by roving mercenaries who had no loyalty to the teams or their fans; the players’ rampant abuse of controlled substances and the all-too common consort with criminals; the inept and fractious ownership. But baseball bounced back in the next decade to reclaim its place as the national pastime: new heroes, spirited competition, and booming prosperity gave birth to dreams of expansion, both within the major leagues and around the world.
And then came the nineties, when management, suddenly frightened that they had ceded control to the players, sought to restore baseball’s profitability by “running the game like a business”: they looked for ways to clamp down on salaries, reorganize the leagues to favor the big-market cities, and make real-estate fortunes from their ballparks.
And then came the boom years, capped by home-run heroics on a scale that once seemed unimaginable.
If I haven’t made myself clear, this worrisome chain of events describes the game of a hundred years ago and more. Yes, we’ve seen it all before. And yes, those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it. But no, the sky is not falling—baseball is such a great game that neither the owners nor the players can kill it.
A captain of a championship club once said: “Somehow or other, they don’t play ball nowadays as they used to some eight or ten years ago. I don’t mean to say they don’t play it as well. … But I mean that they don’t play with the same kind of feelings or for the same objects they used to.” The man was Pete O’Brien of the Brooklyn Atlantics; the year he said this, the first known baseball death notice, was 1868.
Simple charms, simple pleasures. In the late 1860s, advancing had skills led to heightened appetites for victory, which led to hot pursuit of the game’s gifted players, which inevitably led to sub rosa payments and, by 1870, rampant professionalism. (Doesn’t that chain reaction put one in mind of college football or basketball?) The gentlemanly players of baseball’s first generation retreated from the field, shaking their heads in dismay at how greed had perverted the “grand old game”—now barely 20 years old—and probably ruined it forever.
By the 1880s pundits were forecasting the imminent demise of the game because of its extreme violence, much as we see today with professional football. “The records of our hospitals,” wrote a New York Times editorialist, “confirm the theory that fewer games of baseball have been played during the past year than were played during any single year since 1868…. Probably the time is now ripe for the revival of cricket.”
So what have been the tell-tale indicators of baseball’s looming end? Let me count the signs, in no particular order.
1. Baseball is too expensive.
In a letter to the editor of a Philadelphia newspaper on July 6, 1874, an aggrieved patron wrote: “Sir: On the Fourth, I felt rich, and I concluded to take it on the shell, no matter what the price. Well, the game–Athletic-Philadelphia–cost me nearly $2, as follows:– Entrance 50 cents, seat $1, fares 25 cents, four beers 20 cents…. If they would reduce the price to a reasonable figure, I would go out occasionally–but, it is really too heavy.” A simple Purchasing Power Calculator would say the 2014 cost of this 140-year-old ballpark excursion for a single fan, which included no food, would be $41.10.
2. Ballplayers are not as skilled today.
Baseball’s statistics, unlike those of, say track and field—are flexible, products of a particular time and place. Does anyone truly believe that players were better in 1887, when ten men hit over .400?
3. High salaries are killing baseball.
Giancarlo Stanton recently signed a contract for $325 million over 13 years. A reporter asked him if he was embarrassed to be paid so much. But in 1922, when the Yankees were paying Babe Ruth $75,000, a Michigan paper argued that baseball had birthed a “salary-frankenstein.”
4. Free agency has created too much movement of players from city to city.
Players have always moved around. But in former times it was owners trading players — treating players like chattel. Only a quarter of a century removed from the Civil War, the Milwaukee Journal warned in 1890, in a story called “The Decline in Baseball Interest”: “You cannot put [a player] up like a slave on auction block.”
5. Other sports are more appealing.
Today baseball’s rivals for fan favor are football, basketball, and soccer. But in 1892, the Boston Journal noted — in an article yet again titled “The Decline of Base Ball” — that bicycling was the true sport of the age. In 1917, the Colorado Springs Gazette argued that baseball was losing ground to trap shooting. “The modern young man takes up a sport that he can actually do,” the Gazette reported. “No longer is he to be a bench warmer.”
6. Young people today have too many electronic distractions.
This also is an old argument, dating to a time before TV, internet, iPhone, and video gaming. Silent movies were regarded as a big challenge to baseball; a scout told the Colorado Springs Gazette in 1917 that people preferred nickelodeons to stadiums.
7. Baseball is too slow for the modern age.
In 1945, columnist Westbrook Pegler wrote, “I detect a sad and desperate admission that the game, itself, is outmoded.” In 1969 media theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote: “Baseball is … a dying sport … just too individual a sport for our new age.” Baseball will experiment with ways to quicken the pace, but the challenge will not be to alter the essence of the game–which is one of expectation, reflection, and surprise.
The past is prologue. Baseball’s revenues and fan interest are booming right now, despite the annual eulogies, but it may still endure some hard times. Franchises may fail, or relocate, or relocate and fail. Television contracts, real-estate valuations, and capital-gain speculation—the forces that blew the baseball bubble up, might make it burst, as it did in the 1890s. But the elements of further popularity and prosperity are already in place, and have been for a hundred years: the international movement, spearheaded by Albert Spalding with his world tour in 1888-89, and now carried forward by the World Baseball Classic, and the incredibly hardy minor leagues, where the business of baseball still has a human scale and a connection to the spirit of play.