Nerd Is the Word

This is the keynote speech delivered at SABR’s 42nd annual convention on June 29, 2012. On September 22, 1884, the Boston Unions were playing the St. Louis club when shortstop Walter Hackett, who had played in nearly all the club’s games, showed up too sick to play. Outfielder Kid Butler shifted to short, as an amateur named Clarence Dow was called in from the stands. He played the whole game in the outfield and did well—you could look it up, and with this audience, I know you will—but never played another big league game, instead becoming a baseball statistician and reporter for the Boston Globe.

Right now I am feeling a bit like Clarence Dow. Why have I been plucked from the audience to play before my peers? I suspect that the reason I am standing up here, rather than seated in my accustomed spot among you, has something to do with my role as Official Historian of Major League Baseball.

Last year, within days of my appointment by Commissioner Selig, I spoke before the New York City regional chapter of SABR. I said then that, gratifying as this post might be to me, it was also a bouquet toss to SABR, without which I could not have come to understand and serve the game. Several of you in the audience have collaborated with me in Total Baseball and other sabermetric efforts, in historical research, and in SABR publications. Truly, if today I occupy a high standing in baseball it is in good measure because I stand on your shoulders. Thank you.

SABR has been great for me, for its members, and for the game … but now I think it is poised to be even better. The “New SABR”—in its new location, with new leadership, a new digital publishing program, and a new initiative of sponsored conferences—has been embraced halfheartedly by many longtime members. They liked the “Old SABR” just fine the way it was, and have opined, in effect, that if a thing ain’t broke, why fix it? Given the troubling demographic trends of our membership, the question confronting the Society appears to be whether we may continue to enjoy it as we always have—in my case for thirty-two years—or whether we ought to do some “estate planning,” to leave something of enduring value to those who follow.

I have long described SABR as baseball’s best-kept secret. That was once a compliment but became a problem. I believe that SABR’s leadership, in a moment of crisis, has seized an opportunity to promote the Society’s work before a broad fanbase, and to raise awareness of the broad benefits to baseball of historical study and statistical analysis. Set aside for the moment whether—as a byproduct of, for example, SABR’s newly announced relationship with Major League Baseball Advanced Media—membership increases, remains stable, or marginally declines. Set aside whether the new readers SABR gains at mlb.com will be researchers or, more likely, consumers, unconcerned with how the sausage was made. Writers ought to want readers, and more of them rather than fewer.

Will the New SABR have to change its focus? Will those who loved the Old SABR be cast out of the revamped organization, at the hands of some death panel? I would like to suggest that the new opportunities to extend our message and to enhance our value require the very traits that have permitted SABR to continue into a fifth decade. We are nerds, you and I. We endure the predictable slings and arrows on the whole cheerfully, not only because we know who we are but also because we live in the age of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and other nerds for whom data, when shared, become life’s most rewarding currency.

Ernie Harwell once said: “SABR is the Phi Beta Kappa of baseball.” That remains true, and the New SABR cannot succeed by pretending to be less smart than it is. This is especially true in the Age of the Nerd, in which knowledge is, at long last, cool. For many years SABR’s officials bristled when its members were painted with a broad brush and called sabermetricians. They protested that Society members were also interested in history, and culture, and ballparks, and the Negro Leagues, and the international game. True, true, but I think it is a good thing that now we do not protest quite so much. The success of the SABR Analytics Conference in March is testament that Bill James did us a great favor by coining the term sabermetrics.

Change can be painful in the short run, but change is good. My take on the changes in SABR that have vexed some veteran members is that the New SABR, as it rolls out, will be remarkably like the Old SABR. Like baseball itself, on any given day it will be the same but different. Even if we fit into the larger baseball community a bit better, we will continue to be nerds, proudly self-identified misfits.

You meet the most interesting people at a SABR gathering such as this one—those who believe that it’s what you know, not whom you know, that counts. For me, that is almost a definition of nerddom, a subject of deeply personal interest. I have sometimes thought of writing a book about SABR’s most unusual members, but each time I have turned away because objectivity is impossible. How could I write about nerds as them when it so aptly describes me? In my hastily conducted case study, a baseball nerd, a baseball fan, and a baseball fantasy player are all united by their intense interest in something which they know, in the end, when matched against faith or family or philosophy, may not matter much.

Here we are in mid-summer, the acme of the real and natural world of baseball. Yet for some of the game’s most ardent devotees, like those of us here, the seasons pass almost without notice. For them … us … the grass does not turn brown, ever; in the green fields of their minds there is a perpetual thrill of the grass. Always, there are baseball statistics to digest, projections to make, fantasy transactions to contemplate, and history’s attic to excavate.

Jocks may call such studious fans nerds, intending to deprecate their drive to gather, interpret, and invent new ways of understanding the grand old game that jocks have always thought they understood pretty damned well. Jocks and nerds are both stereotypes, but in the intensity of their dedication to “mere games,” they are more alike than different.

I have walked the nerds’ walk and talked their talk not only in my years as a writer on baseball history and statistics. I have always been one of them—literally an old boy, a strangely earnest lad—as long as I can remember, even before nerd was a word.

It has always been easy to be nerdy, even when my detached, obsessively focused demeanor seemed to be a problem for others. (“Why can’t you be normal?” my exasperated mother used to wail.) Being odd has been the source of substantial solitary pleasure and a lifetime of wonderful friendships with other like minds, who signaled their membership in the nerd tribe not by their devotion to baseball, necessarily, but simply by the intensity of their curiosity, regardless of its object. These were people worth knowing.

In recent years nerds have begun to distinguish themselves from drips, dweebs, geeks, and duds, pejoratives applied by the cool kids for a century and more. While the dictionaries continue to treat square and nerd as synonyms, ask around and you’ll find that nearly everyone detects a difference: while both terms connote a measure of social ineptitude or at least discomfort, nerd has come to be associated with intellectual aptitude. It is worn as a badge of honor, even by those not reduced to quivering jelly in the presence of the opposite sex. Indeed, times are good for nerds right now, and not only at the helm of Microsoft or Apple: the internet has brought myriad ways for birds of a feather to flock together and to influence mainstream society and culture.

Dr. Seuss created the nerd in If I Ran the Zoo (“And then, just to show them, I’ll sail to Ka-Troo / And Bring Back an It-Kutch a Preep and a Proo / A Nerkle a Nerd and a Seersucker, too!”). The first citation in print after that came in the February 10, 1957, issue of the Glasgow, Scotland, Sunday Mail: “Nerd—a square, any explanation needed?” Like the square peg in the round hole, in the age of conformity the 1957-model nerd came to be simply another term for misfit. Fifteen years later, nerds began to drift into Silicon Valley and Wall Street, and such newly sprouted “nonconformist clubs” as SABR. Sport proved a particularly fertile ground for alternative viewpoints: the very term denotes peculiarity, as in “sport of the litter.”

The stereotype of the nerd is one who is more comfortable with computers (or, back in the early days of SABR, index cards and shoeboxes!) than with human beings. The nerd has a keen scent for phoniness and opposes the dominant culture. The nerd regards information as the most valuable of all currencies, as it permits him or her to show up the fatheads who run major software companies, news organizations, and the like. Globally, techno-nerds are united in their hunt for covert data. No bit of information is too trivial for consideration, as long as it was not previously known. This, by the way, describes SABR at its most mockable level.

It is the prestige of ownership that makes a data hound into a geek among geeks; I offer myself as, occasionally, a case in point. It’s pretty childish, really, because the most accomplished nerds, and the ones who gain the respect of their kind, are those who are most disposed to share and least inclined to preen. And yet … the lure of late-night web trawling is that you will find something, very nearly in plain sight, that had been overlooked for eons until you, oh perspicacious one, spied the gold amidst the dross.

A nerd trait we might term stubbornness (or independence, or principle, or tenacity) might as easily be called arrested development, a broad and amorphous label that is marked by three essential qualities: a treacly nostalgia for a false childhood, one more imagined than lived, with unrealized adult benchmarks; an affectionate attachment to the media kitsch of one’s childhood, such as the theme song to Gilligan’s Island; and, most importantly, an improbably preserved childish sense of curiosity and wonder. A veneer of cynicism may also present in a self-protective way, but it will be easily penetrated: scratch a cynic and find a sentimentalist.

In the further classification of nerds it may be noted that they don’t like to be fussed over, be confined in small places, or have their personal space violated by strangers. (They may themselves, however, be fussy, pushy, and insensitive to the social requirements of others.) Like Amazon headhunters, they collect things, either mementos of experiences they may have had or wish to have had, or items associated with persons of power, from Winston Churchill to Babe Ruth. With their active imaginations nerds generally have little need for the company of others, though on the odd occasions when they are feeling companionable, the absence of companions may seem a cruelly personal affront.

In my own life as a nerd, I learned to read by deciphering the backs of cereal boxes and baseball cards. Like all lonely boys I became a listmaker and daydreamer, able to slip into a warm fuzzy fugue state. I built models, I collected fetishes—from baseball cards to bottle caps, from comic books to back-date magazines—and thus fortified myself against the demands of the outside world, in my intense devotion to mastery as the amulet against … who knew what. Even today, when I might look back on a long career, I remain on the lookout for the next thing, the way a man will look over the shoulder of his date at a dinner table to check the woman who’s just walked in the door. There’s nothing that is as much fun, Yogi Berra ought to have said, as learning something you didn’t know before.

Far more than social disability, it is the delight of knowing things and gathering tales that defines nerddom. Despite nerds’ public show of odd interests, there is a secret joy that pervades their lives, blurring the distinction between work and play, between adult and child. This may serve either to perpetuate childhood or to make up for a childhood missed.

My parents, given to second-guessing my every move when we were in the same place, went off to work daily and thus were occupied elsewhere much of the time, permitting me to spend a significant part of my youth playing ball and pursuing vice (with only middling success in either). This is how and when I was made a nerd. Finding a place of retreat was, as I saw it, a path to happiness, a world of my own making.

For many Future Nerds of America that world would be off in the future, a science-fiction playground. For me that safe haven was in the past. Old books, old music, old film, old folks long dead but not to me. This was a private world, a world that was perfect … if, perhaps, not perfectly sane. It was fitting that, as I progressed in baseball and early on gravitated to statistics, I should be described as a “figure filbert,” that old-fashioned term for a stats nut.

Which brings us back to the one-game major leaguer whom I mentioned at the head of this speech, Clarence Dow, who became a sportswriter. Upon Dow’s untimely death at age 38, Boston Globe sports editor Jacob Morse wrote:

He was pre-eminently alone in his line. There was no one to vie with him, no one in his class. Dow was the greatest statistician the game ever knew. He gloated over his statistics, and many of his tables were entirely original with him. His matter in the Boston Globe every Monday during the base ball season was devoured with the greatest avidity by the base ball cranks. He can’t be replaced, because no one can he found who can or will take time to undertake the tremendous amount of work necessary to produce like results.

Clarence Dow, a pioneering nerd, is a neglected patron saint of SABR. “He can’t be replaced,” Jacob Morse said of him, but of course he was—by Ernie Lanigan, by F.C. Lane, by Allan Roth, by Pete Palmer, by Bill James, and legions more. Baseball has not lacked for nerds. But until Bob Davids came up with the idea of SABR, back in 1971, there was no place for them to convene and consult with their brethren. There was no way but through lone and lonely effort, sadly unpublicized, to advance our understanding of this great game.

If the New SABR is to reach greater heights, as I believe it is bound to do, it will do so upon the foundations built by the Old SABR. If we are to continue to record and preserve the story of baseball, and to provide a virtual think tank for its analysis, then the Old SABR must play the vital role—simply by continuing to be itself.

To conclude, I invoke the words of The Most Interesting Man in the World:

“Stay nerdy, my friends.”

Baseball’s First Professional Contracts

The earliest contract for professional ball play I have come across is from 1870. In that year the Chicago White Stockings formed as a professional club along the model of the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, an “eclectic nine”–by which was meant that the city would welcome strangers from all over the country, and pay them, if they could play first-rate ball. Civic pride and local origin, two old-fashioned virtues, were suddenly rendered flexible. This of course is the Steinbrennerian model of free agency, only a century earlier.

At the Baseball Hall of Fame exists a contract between the new Chicagos and Levi Meyerle, formerly of the Athletic Club of Philadelphia. The two parties agreed that for one year, from February 15, 1870 through February 14, 1871, the player would receive $125 per month, for a total of $1500. I stress this seemingly obvious calculation only because in most player contracts that were to come, the player would be paid by the month only for the duration of the playing season.

I located one of the three surviving contracts from the National Association of 1871 at Cooperstown as well. Sam Jackson signed up for the 1871 season with the Boston Red Stockings for six months, March 15 through November 15, 1871. His salary was $93.75 per month ($750 total). The other two I located at the Illinois Historical Society. Both of these agreements were made by the Rockford club–one with catcher Scott Hastings, the other with 19-year-old third baseman Cap Anson. Hastings was paid $100 per month for five and a half months (total $550) running from May 1, through October 15, 1871. Anson’s tenure was a full six months, from April 15 through October 15, 1871, but he was paid only $66 and two-third dollars per month (total $400). Actually, this contract has so many interesting nonfinancial terms that I will offer it verbatim below.

CAP ANSON’S 1871 CONTRACT [spelling, styling, and punctuation rendered precisely]

Memorandum of Agreement: made and entered into this 31st day of March A.D. 1871, by and between John P. Manny, John C. Barbour, Henry W. Price, Hosmer P. Holland and Jerome C. Roberts of the City of Rockford, Illinois, prty of the first part; and Adrian C. Anson of Marshalltown Iowa, party of the second part:

Whereas divers residents of said city of Rockford have associated themselves and contributed a common fund for the organization and maintenance of a first class base ball club, to be known and called “The Forest City Base Ball Club of Rockford Illinois”;

And whereas the said party of the second part, being desirous of playing in said club; has represented to the party of the first part that he is a first class base ball player and possessed of the skill, and physically competent, to play said game as a member of a first class club;

Now therefore, this Agreement Witnesseth: That the said party of the second part, in consideration of the premises and of the promises and agreements of the party of the first part, hereinafter expressed, has, and does, covenant and agree, to and with said party of the first part, to play the game of base ball with said Forest City Base Ball Club, and in any position, he may be therein assigned by the Directors of said Club, for and during the season of A.D. 1871, to wit: from April 15th A.D. 1871 , to and including October 15th A.D. 1871.

And in further consideration of the premises said party of the second part promises and agrees to keep and observe the following rules of conduct and discipline, viz:

To use his best efforts to advance the interests of said Club, by cheerfull, prompt and respectfull obedience of the Directions and requirements of the Directors thereof, or of any person by said Directors placed in authority over him, as well as the by laws of said Club;

To abstain from the use of Alcoholic Liquors: unless medically prescribed, and to conduct himself, both off and on the Ball Ground, in all things like a gentleman;

To report promptly for duty at the grounds of the Club for all games, and for practice at the hours designated there for by the officers of the Club, and upon the grounds, to abstain from profane language, scuffling and light conduct, and to discourage the same in others.

To practise at least two and a half hours per day. On each and every practice day of the Club, and at all times both in games and at practice, to use his best endeavours to perfect himself in play. Always bearing in mind that the Object in view in every game is to win.

And in further consideration of the premises said party of the second part promises and agrees that he will not make, or procure to be made for him, or in any [way] be concerned or interested in, any bet or wager upon the result of any game, or upon the playing of any member of the club, or upon anything connected with any game, in which said Forest City Club, may engage during the time of his engagement hereunder.

And in consideration of the premises, said party of the first part promise and agree to pay said party of the second part the sum of Sixty six and two third ($66 2/3) Dollars per month for each and every month of the time he may play with said Forest City Club, payable as follows; to wit: Sixty Six and two third ($66 2/3) Dollars on the 1st day of June A.D. 1871, and sixty six and two third ($66 2/3) Dollars on the first day of each and every month thereafter of the term of his employment, as aforesaid, the balance due to be fully paid on the 1st day of November A.D. 1871.

A.C. Anson [signed]

J.C. Barbour [signed]

Hosmer P. Holland [signed]

Great Plays, as Viewed in 1913

I’ll soon be running off to Minneapolis for the 42nd annual convention of the Society for American Baseball Research, where I’ll be delivering the keynote speech. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to post an entry of customary length this week, so may file a couple of odd squibs like the one below. These were great plays, as viewed in 1913, yet unknown to me; some have lost their claim on immortality, so let’s dust them off now, nearly a hundred years after William Shepard Walsh offered them up in his Handy Book of Curious Information.

One of the most spectacular of recorded feats in fielding is credited to ”Wee Willie” Keeler, in a match played at Baltimore, in the early nineties, between the Baltimores and the Bostons. Keeler was right fielder for the home club. Right field there and then was a terror to visiting players, and a discomfort even to the visited. It ran down a rough and weedy hill and was backed by a fence which sloped upward at an angle of 65 degrees. The two clubs were engaged in a frantic duel for the pennant. [This detail, plus the fact that Stahl did not play with Boston until 1897, establishes that year as the likely date, rather than “the early nineties,” as the author recalled.] Late in the game, with runners on bases, [Chick] Stahl, of the Bostons, drove to right field a long fly that looked like a certain winner for his club. Keeler, realizing that the ball would be out of reach from the field itself, leaped nimbly upon the slope of the fence, and, mounting higher and higher, reached for and caught the ball just as it was sailing over the fence. His momentum carried him further up the incline and ended by precipitating him over the other side of the fence, but he firmly held the ball aloft as he disappeared. His reappearance a moment later was greeted with what the reporters, with a nice mixture of metaphors, called “a rousing ovation.”

Up to date this had been the greatest individual feat ever performed on the field. In 1895, however, Bill Lange, center fielder for the Chicagos, established a new record in Washington. Incidentally he saved himself from fines, aggregating $200, imposed upon him by Captain Anson. Having missed a train from New York he had arrived on the ball-field only just in time to join in the game. In the first half of the eleventh inning Chicago broke a tie by scoring one run. Washington in its half had one man on first base with two out, when “Kip” Selbach, its hardest hitter, sent the ball flying over Lange’s head. “Home run!” howled the Washington fans. Lange, a man weighing 225 pounds, turned his back to the ball and sprinted desperately toward the center-field fence. Then, as the ball was going over his head, he reached and caught it, turned a somersault, crashed against the fence, broke through it, and crawled back out of the wreckage, never having let go of the ball.

The crowd stood up on the benches, stamped, howled, whistled, went mad.

Lange limped in home.

“Fines go, Cap?” he asked, briefly.

“Nope,” said Anson, more briefly.

Hugh S. Fullerton, an expert authority, writing in the American Magazine for June, 1910, signalizes as the greatest episode in base-ball history the famous tenth inning in a game played at Columbus, Ohio, between the home team and the St. Louis. It was the last day of the season [1889]. St. Louis and Brooklyn were almost a tie for the championship, the situation being as follows:

If both teams lost or both won, St. Louis would capture the pennant for the fifth consecutive time, an unparalleled record. A fortiore the same result would follow if St. Louis won and Brooklyn lost. On the other hand, Brooklyn could only become champion if on that last day Brooklyn won and St. Louis lost.

In the early stages of the St. Louis-Columbus game, the victory of the Brooklyns (playing in the East) was announced. The championship, therefore, depended on the success or failure of the St. Louis club. One can imagine the excitement and suspense of the spectators at Columbus and the fans all over the country when the ninth inning left the two antagonists close-locked in a tie. St. Louis scored one run in her half of the tenth inning. More excitement, more suspense. Then came a moment of almost frantic unrest with two men out and a runner on second base. “Big Dave” Orr came to the plate for Columbus. Three balls! Two strikes! The next ball pitched must decide the greatest event of the base-ball year. It whirled from the pitcher’s hand, it was met fair and square by Orr’s bat, it sailed back over center field,–the longest hit, some say, ever made,–and home came the man from second base and home came Big Dave.

That hit decided the American Association race, kept St. Louis from breaking all records as a pennant winner, and made Dave Orr’s name immortal if base-ball retains its hold to eternity.

This last story illustrates well the perils confronting one who would grasp baseball history on the fly. Received wisdom is often not so smart. (I’ll spare you the Doubleday-Cartwright patter.) It turns out that Dave Orr DID hit a walkoff homer at Columbus to defeat the Browns but the event took place on September 1, with 45 days left in the season schedule. Orr’s victim on the Browns, by the way, was ambidextrous pitcher Elton “Ice Box” Chamberlain, who won his nickname for the cool demeanor with which,  while in the box, he caught flies (the insect variety) and ate them.

Oh, the stories could keep running, but summer is a-coming in, and we really ought to save such ramblings for the hot stove league.

Bard at the Bat

OK, last week I gave you Whitman and Melville. While I’m still on a literary jag, let me offer this bouquet of Shakespeare quotations on baseball, gathered by Henry Chadwick in 1868. The play’s the thing, after all.  Shakespeare’s other recognized contributions to baseball’s dramatic literature include The Comedy of Errors, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (referencing the All-Star Game), and, of course, The Speed Merchant of Venice. As Father Chadwick wrote,Old Billy, ye play writer, must have been ball player once. Read what he says:”

“You base (foot) ballplayers.”—Lear.

“Why, these balls bound.”—Merry Wives.

“Now, let’s have a catch.”—Twelfth Night.

“I will run no base.”—Merry Wives.

“And so I shall catch the fly.”—Henry V.

“Hector shall have a great catch.”—Troilus and Cressida.

“More like to run the base.”—Cymbeline.

“As swift in motion as a ball.”—Romeo and Juliet.

“Ne’er leave striking in the field.”—Henry IV.

“After he scores.”—All’s Well.

“Ajax goes up and down the field.”—Troilus and Cressida.

“Have you scored me?”—Othello.

“He proved best man i’ the field.”—Coriolanus.

“The word is pitch and pay.”—Henry V.

“However men do catch.”—King John.

“What foul play had we?”—Tempest.

“Unprovided of a pair of bases.”—Titus Andronicus.

“No other books but the score.”—Henry VI.

“These nine men in buckram.”—Henry VI.

“His confounded base.”—Henry VI.

“I will fear to catch.”—Timon.

“What works, my countrymen, in hand? Where go you with bats and clubs?” —Coriolanus.

“Let us see you in the field.”—Troilus and Cressida.

“The very way to catch them.”—Coriolanus.

Nerd fun, for sure.

Whitman, Melville, and Baseball

I have been thinking about these two literary giants of late and thought I’d share with you their slim but interesting connections with baseball. Walt Whitman’s words on the hurrah game are better known, so let’s begin with him. “In our sun-down perambulations of late, through the outer parts of Brooklyn,” he declared in the Brooklyn Eagle of July 23, 1846, “we have observed several parties of youngsters playing ‘base,’ a certain game of ball…. Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms…. The game of ball is glorious.” This obscure editorial became famous as the opening words, recited by Garrison Keillor, to Ken Burns’s Baseball, the PBS film in which I played a part.

He followed baseball offhandedly in the following years, mentioning the game in Leaves of Grass in 1855 (“upon the race-course, or enjoying picnics or jigs, or a good game of base-ball”). He even reported on at least one contest for the Brooklyn Daily Times, when he was its editor, on June 18, 1858. “The game played yesterday afternoon between the Atlantic and Putnam Clubs,” the Good Gray Poet began rather prosaically, “on the grounds of the latter club, was one of the finest and most exciting games we ever witnessed.” He lost interest as the professional leagues formed in the 1870s. By the next decade, however, his “certain game of ball” had become for Whitman the lone institution that could assure the great American democratic experiment. In 1888 he became caught up in the baseball fervor of the impending overseas tour (whose 125th anniversary next year will also be marked by the World Baseball Classic).

In his last years, living in Camden, New Jersey, Whitman had a devoted admirer at his side, Horace Traubel, who invaluably recorded their conversations. Upon reading in the newspaper of April 7, 1889, that Spalding’s world tourists had returned home, Whitman said to Traubel:

“Did you see the baseball boys are home from their tour around the world? How I’d like to meet them—talk with them: maybe ask them some questions.”  Traubel replied,“Baseball is the hurrah game of the republic!” [Whitman] was hilarious: “That’s beautiful: the hurrah game! well—it’s our game: that’s the chief fact in connection with it: America’s game: has the snap, go, fling, of the American atmosphere—belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our constitutions, laws: is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.”

For Whitman, the grand tour affirmed America’s prophetic role among the world’s nations, bringing immigrants together in a “transcendental Union” of manifest destiny’s children. “Long ere the second centennial arrives,” Whitman declared, “there will be some forty to fifty great States, among them Canada and Cuba.” This prediction was indeed borne out, not in the USA’s constituent parts, but in its professional baseball leagues.

Now to Herman Melville, heretofore unknown to have cared much for sport. I am indebted for a new (to me) literary reference to ball play to Melville scholar Jeanne C. Howes, author of a monograph entitled Poet of a Morning: Herman Melville and the “Redburn Poem” : Redburn: Or the Schoolmaster of a Morning. This poem, published pseudonymously as the work of “William M. Christy” in 1845, is in her view Melville’s first published book. (It is different from the novel Redburn: His First Voyage, Being the Sailor-boy Confessions and Reminiscences of the Son-of-a-Gentleman, in the Merchant Service, published by Harper in 1849.)

The ball game, with its soaking and one-out-all-out features, is described in Canto III:

And now hurrah! for the speeding ball
Is flung in viewless air,
And where it will strike in its rapid fall
The boys are hastening there–
And the parted lip and the eager eye
Are following its descent,
Whilst the baffl’d stumbler’s falling cry
With th’exulting shout is blent.
The leader now of either band
Picks cautiously his men,
And the quickest foot and the roughest hand
Are what he chooses then.
And see!the ball with swift rebound,
Flies from the swinging bat,
While the player spurns the beaten ground,
Nor heeds his wind-caught hat.
But the ball is stopp’d in its quick career,
And is sent with a well-aim’d fling,
And he dodges to feel it whistling near,
Or leaps at its sudden sting,
Whilst the shot is hail’d with a hearty shout,
As the wounded one stops short,
For his ‘side’ by the luckless blow is out–
And the others wait their sport.

The year of composition is 1844. The young Melville attended Albany Academy, but Ms. Howes speculates that the game referenced above may have been played in Pittsfield, by the schoolboys attending Sykes District School, where the 18-year-old Melville taught. Pittsfield later became Melville’s home, from 1850 to 1863. At the 1780 home preserved as Arrowhead he wrote Moby-Dick and other major works. Pittsfield, until recently unconnected with the early history of baseball, now may contemplate a linkage between its most famous resident and the game famously banned there in 1791.

Everyone Went to Nick’s: High and Low Life in Manhattan’s First Sports Bar, Part Two

[This essay by Don Jensen continues from Part 1, which appeared in this space yesterday.] Finally, Nick’s success came from courting customers who represented not so much the opposite of the High Victorian gentility, but rather its underside: namely, the world of sport, or the sporting life. The world of the uncultivated macho dandy whose love of sport had nothing to do with High Victorian “athletics” and everything to do with, simply, the eternal gamble against Fate. His patrons would bet on anything, and were therefore willing to turn loose all the minor vices that were kept leashed in the social sphere above them.32 There were plenty of chances as soon as one stepped out of the Home Plate’s front door.

Baseball and show business were intermingled elements of the sporting life. The New York newspapers listed the Giants’ games, which began at 3:30 in the afternoon, together with the evening’s theater offerings and ads for the town’s menu of variety, burlesque, and freak shows. A benefit ballgame between actors and journalists at the Polo Grounds in September 1888 for the dying minstrel Carl Rankin was “one of the funniest games of ball in American history,” according to The New York Times. The journalists came out on the field in a spare set of Giants uniforms; the actors wore stage costumes, while Nick, decked out in a Tyrolean yodeler suit, “stood guard over the inevitable keg of beer at third base.” The game was called at the end of the eighth inning “out of mercy to the spectators who were so exhausted with laughter as to scarcely be able to rise from their seats. Nick and other members of the fund committee turned over $1,200 to the ailing musician.”33

Critics occasionally said that Engel kept such a high profile because it was good for business, but many more defended him. “I know him pretty well,” said journalist W. L. Harris in 1891, “have traveled with him to Philadelphia a great many times to see games, and know him to be a Simon-pure crank. He would rather see a ball game than eat the finest dinner, and that is saying a good deal, for Nick is a good liver.”34

The “High and Mighty Order of Baseball Cranks of Gotham” 

Nick Engel sometimes called himself “Umpire,” but on one subject he was far from neutral: the New York Giants. There was scarcely an event in the team’s tumultuous decade after he opened the Home Plate in which Nick was not standing nearby in the sepia-toned shadows, or warming up Giants morale with one of his juicy steak dinners. Nick, along with other sporting men, formed the core of the “High and Mighty Order of Baseball Cranks of Gotham.” They attended as many games at the Polo Grounds as possible, and often accompanied the team on the road (with Nick often bringing along his stove). Engel, Bell, Hopper, and Judge Cullum, another enthusiast, had regular seats at the Polo Grounds; these were reserved for them with a padlock and chain to which they held the key.35 A Giants home game, recalled an old-timer many years later, was not supposed to begin until De Wolf Hopper arrived on his tally-ho, driving right into the park.36 Engel and Hopper organized the benefit for the team after they defeated Brooklyn in 1889 to win their second pennant in a row.

Engel was an ardent admirer of the Giants shortstop, a frequent saloon patron. Ward “is one of the brightest men I ever knew,” Engel marveled. “He can hold his own in any company, and his speech at the time the world tourists were received in New York [at Delmonico’s in 1889] was as good as any of the others.”37 The “others” included those of Chauncey Depew, and Mark Twain. Loyal above all to the players, Engel backed Ward’s Brotherhood League in the Great Rebellion of 1890 even though the revolt broke his friend John Day’s heart.38 Day “was warned they would quit him but he wouldn’t believe it,” said one crank years later. “‘What!’ says John, ‘My boys? Never.’ But they left him flat, all except Smiling Mickey Welch and Mike Tiernan.”39

The Home Plate served as the new league’s informal headquarters. “Hurrah for Judge O’Brien! Hurrah for John M. Ward! Hurrah for the Players’ National League!” were the cheers as hundreds of guests drank bumpers of wine to the health of the new league at a “wildly enthusiastic” gathering at Nick’s on January 28, 1890—the day the courts threw out the National League moguls’ attempt to enforce the reserve clause against Ward.40 Engel was a member of the New York delegation at the Players’ League convention held inClevelandin March. Despite his sympathy for the upstarts, the doors of the Home Plate remained open to players who had remained loyal to the National League.41 Engel also kept his sense of humor. Before the 1890 season began, he accepted the wager of eccentric Chicago fan Edward Everett Bell of his long locks against Nick’s “imperial” whiskers that the Chicago Players’ League club would win the pennant. The Players’ League Giants finished two games ahead of Chicago so, in payment, Engel marched Bell to the Brunswick Hotel, where a barber cropped all of Bell’s hair save a pigtail, and Giants pitcher Tim Keefe gave him an ice-water shampoo. The party then moved on to Nick’s saloon, with Bell still extolling the merits of his Chicago club. Nick saved Bell’s hair and promised to send a lock to each member of the team.42

Ward blamed the demise of the Players’ League on “stupidity, avarice, and treachery.” Its official death came shortly before noon on January 16, 1891, when it was ratified out of existence at a joint meeting of the National League and American Association. After the decision, Ward and other Players’ League leaders met at Nick’s, where they toasted each other, reminisced, and laughed in between singing off-key melodies such as “You Have Lost Your Popularity” and “My Good Old Friends Who Never Alter.” Their National League adversaries Al Spalding and Cap Anson were there, as well, celebrating their victory. Hearing the singing from a back room, the victors joined the vanquished in the main room, where there was “conventional cordiality” and a “warm and dignified” debate about all that had happened. After a round of “He’s a Good Old Has-Been,” Ward stood and gave a toast. “Pass the wine around,” said Ward, standing to give a toast. “The league is dead. Long live the league.”43

“The Prince of New York Cranks” 

The Players’ League was indeed dead, but Nick Engel’s fame continued to grow. He dabbled in Republican politics, became a leader of the Elks, and prepared steak dinners for legislators in Albany. He was one of the participants in the March 1893 annual meeting of the National League held at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, when the pitcher’s distance was moved five feet back from home plate to its modern distance of 60 feet, 6 inches. Charles H. Hoyt’s forgettable Broadway flop of 1895, A Runaway Colt—featuring Cap Anson in his theatrical debut—included a character playing Nick in the third act, in which the Colts ballclub, overweight and out of shape, worked out in the team’s gymnasium. Engel was caricatured “superbly,” according to the Brooklyn Eagle.44

Business at the saloon, still a favorite hangout of athletes, pool players, and actors, continued to be good and Nick spread it around generously. When his old friend Ned Williamson, the Chicago infielder, died in 1894, Engel sponsored a benefit for his widow. He led a fund for Charley Bennett, the Boston catcher whose legs were severed in a freak train accident in that same year. When Digby Bell’s penniless opera company was stranded in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1895, Nick helped bail it out. But Nick had his friendly rivals. Among others, Honest John Kelly (who acquired his nickname in 1888 when, while serving as an umpire, he refused a $10,000 bribe) opened a competing Tenderloin saloon, “The Two Kels,” with baseball star Mike Kelly in 1890.

Temple Cup Victory

The player rebellion inflicted a heavy financial blow onJohn Day. In the years after the peace agreement he was forced to sell shares of Giants stock. Edward Talcott, a New York lawyer who had owned the Players’League Giants, purchased an interest in the club. As part of the transaction he insisted that Jim Mutrie be replaced as manager, even though under him the team had finished in third place in 1891. The Giants dropped to 10th under Pat Powers the next year but improved to fifth after the club brought in John Ward in 1893, by which time Talcott had acquired a controlling interest in the team. By then, however, the old sense of community between owner and players that had marked the years before the Great Player Rebellion were largely gone. Talcott looked upon the Giants primarily as a business interest.45 Instead of being junior colleagues of the owner, the players had become employees, regarded by the magnates as childish and potentially troublesome.

Players no longer referred to an owner as “our good friend,” which was [old Giants infielder] Gil Hatfield’s term for John B. Day.… Changes in attitude led to the creation of sharp social lines. Owners, even managers, no longer fraternized with their players. The easy camaraderie of Nick Engel’s Home Plate Saloon, where Day and Mutrie drank with “the boys,” was over. Their successors were only hired hands to the New York magnates of the nineties.46

Nick Engel led a group of 160 cranks and sportswriters on a special train to Baltimore to open the 1894 season. After a pregame parade through downtown Baltimore with a band and the teams riding in carriages, the Giants lost to the Orioles by a score of 8–3 before the largest crowd in Baltimore history, more than 15,000 fans. Nick also brought along his cooking paraphernalia, and enough members of the Tenderloin Beefsteak Club attended to organize after the game a Baltimore branch of the fraternity.

The Orioles swept the series; by the end of May the Giants were in sixth place (Engel told the press that he was “disgusted” by the Giants’ play after a 16–7 loss to Brooklyn in May).47 They rallied as the season wore on, however, and finished with an 88–44 record, just three games behind Baltimore. In the postseason Temple Cup Series (a best-of-seven between the National League’s first- and second-place teams), the Giants stunned the Orioles by winning four straight. After the triumph, Engel organized a public reception for the champions at the Broadway Theatre.48

Digby Bell recited “A Tough Boy on the Right Field Fence,” his familiar poem about a knot-holer. Hopper and his company performed “Dr. Syntax.” After a brief time backstage, Hopper returned, but the audience clamored for Ward. “There was such an uproarious demand for him that Hopper had to come to the captain’s rescue,” promising that Ward would speak soon, when the Temple Cup was formally awarded. Hopper then recited “Casey at the Bat,” and the crowd cheered. After the event had concluded, both teams retired to Nick’s place and shared reminiscences of the season just past over bumpers of beer.49

It was almost like the old days.50

Decline   

When word leaked during the 1894 season that Edward Talcott wanted to sell the Giants, many of Ward’s friends began urging the now-retired team captain, already a stockholder, to buy the team himself. Ward declined and kept to his decision to practice law. Nick Engel and other cranks then began discussing the idea of John B. Day returning to become the team’s managing director. In January 1895 Talbott found a buyer: Andrew Freedman, a real estate baron and Tammany Hall politician, who purchased 1,200 shares, nine more than an absolute majority, for $45 a share. He took over the team amid general goodwill from both press and cranks.51 Sportswriter Sam Crane wrote an article welcoming Freedman to the National League.52 On the evening of February 25, Engel tendered the team a steak dinner at the Home Plate.53 The next day Nick, Crane, and others saw the club off at Pier 35 for their voyage to spring training in Savannah. The new captain, third baseman George Davis, announced that he regarded the Giants as second to no one in the league, and that he expected to win the pennant.54

Thus began the Freedman era. It was probably the darkest period in the team’s long history. Freedman “had an arbitrary disposition,” wrote the Sporting News, “a violent temper, and an ungovernable tongue in anger which was easily provoked and he was disposed to be arbitrary to the point of tyranny with subordinates.”55 Within weeks he was making enemies. Freedman eliminated complimentary passes to the Polo Grounds for Engel, Hopper, and others; alienated the other owners in league meetings; punched Edward Hurst, a writer for the New York World, whose copy displeased him. On August 18, Sam Crane was refused admittance to the Polo Grounds after criticizing Giants management.56 Davis lasted 33 games as manager, compiling a record of 16–17 before Freedman fired him. He was followed by first baseman Jack Doyle (32–31) and Harvey Watkins (18–17), an actor who was working for Barnum and Bailey’s circus when Freedman offered him the job. The Giants finished in ninth place.

No longer welcome at the Polo Grounds, Engel continued to root for the Giants from a distance. He attended the Giants–Bridegrooms game in April 1896 at Washington Park in Brooklyn with other former members of the Gotham Rooters’ Club. (“This … will hardly please President Freedman,” remarked the Brooklyn Eagle, “as Washington is only an hour’s ride from here.”)57 Nick detested Freedman as well. “A bond of sympathy links Nick Engel and John T. Brush [owner of the Cincinnati club and later of the Giants],” the Washington Post stated. “Nick and John T. turn on an electric fan and nestle to the windward of it when Andrew Freedman is incinerated in the fire of their cayenne confabs. And Andrew speaks equally kindly of John T. and Nick.”58 The estrangement between the club and Engel proved permanent.

On Friday afternoon, October 22, 1897, Nick was working at the Home Plate, but left early for his home on 148 West 92nd Street complaining of illness. He had not been feeling well the previous few weeks. When he reached home, the good life finally caught up to him: Nick passed away suddenly, the doctors later said, from fatty degeneration of the heart. Engel was one week short of his 53rd birthday.

The news shocked the baseball world and the theatrical “profesh.” Engel’s funeral—on October 25 at Church of the Blessed Sacrament on 72nd Street—was packed with friends from all over the city. The Elks had a supplementary service at the Scottish Rite Hall on Madison Avenue. Nick Engel was survived by his wife Teresa, six children, and his brother Adam. “Oh, the memory of the jovial hours, the inviting odors of gently broiling steaks and chops, foaming ale, and the only profitable, real bohemianism ever cultivated in America, which arises with the name of Nick Engel!” wrote Leslie, the Beefsteak Club veteran.59

Transition

The neighborhood had been changing for years, though Nick had seemed too preoccupied with Freedman and the Giants to pay much attention. The sporting life had been gradually becoming more open and fluid—more modern. The stretch between Madison Square and 42nd Street had become known as the “Upper Rialto,” and the night life was spilling even beyond. A portrait of New York published in 1899 noted, “The best and worst of it is to be met here—stars, supers, soubrettes, specialists and managers alike…. The life of the street is as active at midnight as at noon, for the theatres create a constant patronage for the restaurants, which are crowded up to the early hours of the morning.”60 The best and worst were gradually strolling northward, away from the Home Plate and toward what in 1904 was christened Times Square, after the New York Times Building that was in construction. The term the “Gay White Way came into currency … defining an area from the Hoffman House at Twenty-Sixth Street to Rectors [the first and greatest of the lobster palaces], between Forty-Third and Forty-Fourth Streets….” 61 And Broadway was becoming sexy— not crude, like the Tenderloin, but suggestive and racy.

Nick Engel’s friend, Honest John Kelly, established a house on 45th Street that included a saloon on the ground floor, gambling on the second, and Kelly’s domicile on the third.62 At a luncheon in April 1899, small cards were placed on tables at Delmonico’s on Madison Square announcing that the establishment would close on the 18th of the month. A new version opened at 44th Street.

Nick’s sons Adam and Nick Jr. tried to carry on their father’s legacy. There was a “jolly” Tenderloin Club dinner with Buck Ewing and Joe Vila and others in December 1898, just like Nick used to cater. But the Giants were bad and many of the old regulars were no longer around. The sons sold the Home Plate itself in 1902, the year the Flatiron Building opened to announce the arrival of commerce on Madison Square. By then, the saloon had long since disappeared from the newspapers, though later there was one embarrassing incident for those who remembered the saloon in its heyday. The Washington Post disclosed in 1907 that John Montgomery Ward had notified James Conry, a later owner of the Home Plate, that he was going to court to regain possession of an old photograph of the 1894 Temple Cup–champion Giants that had hung on the saloon’s walls. Ward insisted that he had lent the picture to Nick Engel with the understanding that it would be returned, while Conry maintained that he purchased everything in the café when he closed the deal. More poignantly still, Nick’s prized photo of King Kelly, the paper noted, had mysteriously disappeared.”63

Always an ardent Giants fan, in his advanced years Freddie Engel lived on West 116th Street, not far from the first Polo Grounds. He kept with him the remaining photographs of the Giants that had hung in his father’s establishment. In 1957, Freddie refused to attend the last Giants game before their move to San Francisco. If he went to the game, he told The New York Times, he would have to admit that the Giants were irretrievably lost to him.64

Andrew Freedman sold the Giants to John T. Brush in 1902 after the worst season in their history. The team revived quickly under Brush, giving Digby Bell and the other cranks much to root for. With John McGraw as manager, the Giants won league championships in 1904 and 1905, beginning a golden new era for the club. Freedman was instrumental in putting together the political and financial package that led to the opening in 1904 of the IRT subway system, which stopped in Times Square, thereby ensuring Madison Square’s demise.

Ashes

The lights dimmed quickly. Delmonico’s was already gone, and, one by one, the other Madison Square landmarks and hangouts closed or moved northward in the next few years. In 1912 and 1913, an 18-story, neo-Gothic limestone building was erected on West 27th Street to replace three brownstone row houses, including Number 16, where Nick Engel had once reigned. The building was occupied in the 1920s by the American Museum of Safety.65 But even though the Home Plate had disappeared, decades later Frank Craven, the playwright, director, and actor, fondly recalled Nick and the sporting life:

Novotny’s place, where Digby Bell and Harry Woodruff and Willie Hopper and most of the profession used to get their tobacco are gone. The hole in the wall farther down the street where one could get a plate of stew for a nickel, and “a baby”—which was a double schooner of beer—has passed out of the picture. The dairy next to the stage door of the Empire, with its bottle of milk and graham muffins and the shaker of salt, I don’t see any more—or Nick Engel’s either.66

NOTES

32. Wolf 1972, 10.
33. The New York Times: Sept. 8, 1888; New York Clipper: Sept. 22, 1888.
34. Auburn Bulletin (N.Y.): May 29, 1891.
35. Washington Post: Dec. 19, 1906.
36. The New York Times: Apr. 25, 1933.
37. Chicago Daily Tribune: Feb. 21, 1890.
38. New York Clipper: Dec. 21, 1889: “John M. Ward was, on Dec. 14, presented by a number of his intimate friends with a handsome Elks’ badge in the shape of a locket, with a gold and platinum chain. The locket contains picture of himself and one of his talented wife [Helen Dauvray]. Upon one side are twenty-one diamonds, two rubies and five small pearls. Upon the reverse side is the inscription: ‘Presented to John M. Ward by his friends and admirers, Dec. 14, 1889.’”
39. The New York Times: Apr. 25, 1933.
40. Buffalo Express: Jan. 30, 1890; Washington Post: July 26, 1908.
41. The New York Times: Nov. 2, 1944.
42. Boston Daily Globe: Oct. 11, 1890.
43. Lamster, M. 2006. Spalding’s World Tour: The Epic Adventure That Took Baseball Around the Globe (p. 262). Di Salvatore, B. 1999. A Clever Base-Ballist: The Life and Times of John Montgomery Ward (pp. 320–321).
44. Brooklyn Eagle: Nov. 26, 1895. See also: Shaefer, R. 2005. “Anson on Broadway: The Failure of ‘A Runaway Colt,’” The National Pastime 25 (pp. 74–81).
45. Hardy, J. 1996. The New York Giants Base Ball Club: The Growth of a Team and a Sport, 1870 to 1900 (p. 154).
46. Ibid., 136.
47. The New York Times: May 19, 1894.
48. New York Sun: Oct. 9, 1894.
49. Di Salvatore, B. 1999, 354–355, 444. The Sun said Hopper recited Casey before rescuing Ward. The New York Clipper of October 13 claimed the rescue preceded the poem.
50. Hardy 1996, 153.
51. Ibid., 156.
52. Ibid., 159.
53. The New York Times: Feb. 26, 1895.
54. The New York Times: Feb. 25–27, 1895.
56. Crane was not allowed to buy a ticket after his press pass was confiscated. He was forced to write his story with help from colleagues who did attend the game, and this included a report on Freedman’s ban. Crane then hired J. M. Ward to represent him in a suit against the owner. Freedman had 22 libel suits pending against the New York Sun by 1900.
57. Brooklyn Eagle: Apr. 17, 1896.
58. Washington Post: July 12, 1896.
59. Leslie 1899, 583.
60. Traube 2004, 14.
61. Ibid.
62. Sante 1991, 174.
63. Washington Post: Jan. 2, 1907.
64. The New York Times: Sept. 29, 1957.
65. New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. 2001. Madison Square North Historic District Preservation Report (pp. 118–119).
66. The New York Times:May 1, 1938.

 

Everyone Went to Nick’s: High and Low Life in Manhattan’s First Sports Bar

This week I am pleased to give Our Game over to my friend and esteemed colleague, Don Jensen. In two parts, he will share with the readers of Our Game an outstanding article he contributed to the fifth edition of Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game, back in Spring 2009. With the kind permission of the journal’s publisher, McFarland, I will occasionally bring to your attention other outstanding works that heretofore have been unavailable to the broad readership interested in baseball history. 

Jensen, a longtime SABR member, is author of  The Timeline History of Baseball (Thunder Bay Press, 2009) and contributing author to SABR’s Deadball Stars of the National League (2004) and Deadball Stars of the American League (2006), both published by Potomac. A former diplomat, he is Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University; he is also a consultant to the US government. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia, and is a devoted fan of the Giants (in New York and San Francisco) and the San Francisco Seals. 

Everyone Went to Nick’s: High and Low Life in Manhattan’s First Sports Bar

Don Jensen

“This was New York in the elegant eighties and these were the Giants, fashioned in elegance, playing on the Polo Grounds, then at 110thStreet and Fifth Avenue. It was the New Yorkof the brownstone house and the gaslit streets, of the top hat and the hansom cab, of oysters and champagne and perfecto cigars, of Ada Rehan and Oscar Wilde and the young John L. Sullivan. It also was the New York of the Tenderloin and the Bowery, of the slums and the sweat shops, of goats grazing among the shanties perched on the rocky terrain of Harlem.”1

Toots Shor ran New York City’s best-known watering hole of the 1940s and ’50s, where Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason were regulars and Joe DiMaggio ate two or three meals per week. When they were not at Shor’s, Mickey Mantle and his Yankee buddies hung out at the Stork Club, the Plantation Room, Mama Leone’s, or Jack Dempsey’s joint, with the old champ often decorating the window by sitting at a nearby booth.2

In 1894 Michael T. “Nuf Ced”  McGreevey, a devoted baseball fan, named his new Boston saloon Third Base because it was the last place one stopped before going home. By the turn of the century his establishment was a favorite of diehard fans known as the Royal Rooters. Its walls were covered with baseball pictures from McGreevey’s own collection and memorabilia from friends like Cy Young.3

McGreevey’s claim today to being “America’s First Sport Bar,” however, ignores the real holder of that honor: “Uncle” Nick Engel’s Home Plate, in New York City, just off Broadway near Madison Square. For a decade beginning in the mid-1880s, boxers, billiard players, racing men, actors, writers, playboys, and aristocrats staggered and swaggered through Nick’s place, where one might bump into Mark Twain or Maurice Barrymore at the bar, or a member of the visiting Chicago White Stockings feasting on one of Nick’s steak dinners upstairs. During the baseball season, managers and magnates made a point of visiting Nick’s and many deals originated within its walls.

Above all, Nick’s Home Plate was the hangout of the New York Giants during the club’s glittering first era of greatness. Team owner John B. Day and manager James Mutrie were regulars. Pictures of Giants players adorned the café’s walls—Johnny Ward, Mickey Welch, Buck Ewing—as well as photos of out-of-town favorites such as Michael “King” Kelly (with a telegram from the great player to Nick tucked in the corner announcing victory in an important game) and Engel’s pals from the New York stage. Nick’s son Freddie, the team’s batboy, was not only supposed to retrieve errant balls and bring good luck to the team on the diamond. He also delivered love notes from Giants players to adoring female fans.4

Working His Way Up

Nick was a “perambulating trade mark for the damp brand of joy that that fluxes in his Gotham glassware emporium,” wrote the Washington Post.5 He was born on October 31, 1844, in New York City, the son of Adam Engel, a carpenter. The senior Engel apprenticed Nicholas and his elder brother Adam to a woodcarver, but at the beginning of the Civil War the brothers left the trade and began opening oysters at the Philadelphia Hotel at Battery Place and Greenwich Street in lower Manhattan. They worked there for seven years before moving on to North Moore and Greenwich Street as bartenders. Nick married the former Teresa Rieger in 1868.6

In 1872 the brothers went into business for themselves, opening an oyster and chop house on Sixth Avenue between 28th and 29th Streets in the heart of the infamous Tenderloin district. Nearby on 27th were houses of vice such as the Heart of Maryland, the Tuxedo, the Cairo Dance Hall, and Buckingham Palace, a single room two stories high that had crammed into its confines a shooting gallery, a full-scale restaurant, and, behind curtained booths, a brothel.7 Soon the reputation of the Engel brothers’ place grew as a place of good food and convivial atmosphere. The brothers parted ways in 1877, with Adam moving to the Clifton, at 35th Street and Fifth Avenue. Nick started a café at 12 West 27th Street, which he operated for 10 years. In 1887 he moved next door to number 16, where he opened the Home Plate.8

Setting the Scene: Madison Square in Nick’s Heyday

A primary reason for Nick’s success was the Home Plate’s central location. By 1890, bustling Madison Square, just two blocks from his establishment, was barely recognizable from the “open and useless field” where the Knickerbocker Club had played an early version of baseball little more than four decades before. The square boasted an ambiance that many people compared to Paris, a mixture of stately homes and elegant entertainment.9  Nearby were the newest theaters, the most luxurious hotels, and the most exclusive clubs. Broadway from Madison Square south to Union Square had “champagne sparkle,” wrote Harry Collins Brown. “All the world came to Broadway to flirt, find amusement and to meet acquaintances among the city’s finest jewelers, furriers, florists and haberdashers.”10 Broadway, from 23rd Street down to 8th, was known as the “Ladies Mile,” a reference to the great department stores that had grown up in the area, and to the many smaller “fascinating, alluring, irresistible” shops nearby. During the afternoon shopping hours Broadway was clogged with victorias, landaus, broughams, and coupes, and along its sidewalks promenaded an endless procession of elegantly attired women with their long “walking dresses” in the urban dust. “What are the Parisian boulevards, or even Regent Street,” marveled King’s Handbook in 1892, “to this magnificent panorama of mercantile display?”11

The hotels on Madison Square, a prime source of Nick’s clientele, were world famous. The elegant Fifth Avenue Hotel, made of brick and white marble, was the social, cultural, and political hub of elite New York; it could accommodate 800 guests. Every president since Buchanan had stayed there during his visit to the city, and it was the frequent meeting place of the team moguls of the new National League. Immediately north of the Fifth Avenue Hotel were the Albemarle Hotel, where Lily Langtry lived when in New York, and the Hoffman House, preferred by Sarah Bernhardt. Every “gentleman” worthy of the name visited the Hoffman House bar to see its notorious major adornment: a painting of Nymphs and Satyr by the Parisian artist William Bouguereau, which hung beneath a red velvet canopy, lit by a crystal chandelier, and reflected in a large mirror. So popular was the scantily clad subject that reproductions of it were to be found on labels inside cigar boxes, on silver matchbox covers, on plates, urns, and even bathroom tiles.12 The Brunswick Hotel, on Fifth Avenue and 26th Street, was the headquarters of the aristocratic, horsey set, which enjoyed the hotel’s bird and game dinners and rare vintages. Directly across the street from the Brunswick, occupying the block between Fifth Avenue and Broadway, was the most glamorous establishment of all, Delmonico’s, where Albert Spalding’s all-star baseball teams were feted in 1889 when they returned from their world tour. New Yorkers claimed that one could starve from indecision at the corner of Fifth and 26th from having to choose from rival cuisines.13 The more venturesome could walk over to the Home Plate for a prime cut of meat.

Madison Square was equally famous as Manhattan’s center for amusement. “It was the period of Lily Langtry and her scandals, of Lillian Russell and Diamond Jim Brady, of the first American tours by Sarah Bernhardt. Playwrights became producers and theater owners: Augustin Daly, David Belasco, Henry D. DeMille.”14 The second Madison Square Garden (built in 1889 on the very spot where the Knickerbockers had played) was at the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and 26th Street. Designed by architect Stanford White, it featured a concert hall, theater, and roof garden (where in 1906 the architect would be shot by the new husband of his former mistress, Evelyn Nesbit). Madison Square was also displacingUnion Square as the center ofNew York’s legitimate theater, increasingly a major industry with its piano shops, theatrical agencies, printers, costume shops, and photography studios. As the city grew, that industry was migrating up Broadway.

Most theaters around Madison Square catered to the elite. At the socially exclusive Lyceum, Thomas Edison had personally installed the electric lights. On opposite sides of the street at 30th were Daly’s and the new Wallack’s, where on August 14, 1888 Nick Engel’s friend and fellow baseball crank De Wolf Hopper first recited “Casey at the Bat.” But there were also pockets of lower-brow entertainment of the sort that appealed more to working men from the Bowery or visitors from out of town. The Eden Musee, at 55 23rd Street near the Fifth Avenue Hotel and across from McCreery’s Department Store, “featured the usual retinue of freaks, midgets, fire eaters, sword swallowers, waxworks, a Chamber of Horrors and ‘Ajeeb, the chess mystery,’ a pseudo-automaton … consisting of a hollow figurine inhabited by a child dwarf.”15 In a concession to the generally high-toned tenor of the neighborhood, the Eden Musee also displayed a wax likeness of actress Helen Dauvray, future bride of Giants’ shortstop John Ward, during her stay at the Lyceum.16

Engel’s Home Plate sat on an entertainment fault line, as well. A short walk from the intersection of Fifth and 26th west to Sixth Avenue began a world “that existed just below the veneer of Victorian respectability—beyond the pale, but not too far beyond, often illegal, but just a few hundred yards down the primrose path, in a smoky purple haze….”17 From 23rd Street northward, dingy by day and depraved by night, the neighborhood—known as Satan’s Circus or the Tenderloin—descended into a gas-lit carnival of vice. Along the avenue and the streets branching off it were houses of prostitution—“the abiding places of the Crimson Sisterhood”—garish saloons, and low dance halls.18 It was estimated in 1885 that half of the buildings in the neighborhood were given over to some type of immorality. In the blocks between 23rd and 40th Streets, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, the turf was carefully divided up among specialties: 28th Street was devoted to high-end gambling houses, 27th to poolrooms with bookmaking operations, while 24th, 25th, 31st, 32nd, and 35th were reserved for whorehouses. (The so-called Seven Sisters on 25th Street were adjacent brothels in residential brownstones. The Sisters sent engraved invitations to visitors whose arrival in New York had been announced in the press).19 Houses of assignation were everywhere.20 At Koster and Bial’s Music Hall, one block from the Fifth Avenue Hotel, patrons could drink and watch Lily McTwobucks do a version of the cancan. In 1885 Koster and Bial’s witnessed the debut of Carmencita, noted for wearing her corsets on the outside of her dress.21The Haymarket concert saloon, on Sixth just south of 30th, forbade its wealthy clientele from close-up dancing with prostitutes and expelled visiting working-class girls if they showed their ankles. At the same time, the establishment provided curtained galleries behind which discreet sex could be practiced. Visiting ballplayers or men-about-town could also retire to the Haymarket’s balcony, where cubicles featured sex exhibitions, or “circuses.”22

A Genial Host

Nick Engel was always an exceedingly cordial host. He often told friends he would rather cook than eat, and constantly kept his ears open for new ways of cooking steak and preparing clam chowder. He put these recipes into practice. Giants pitcher Mickey Welch even composed ditties about the excellence of Nick’s offerings.23 Engel’s fame lay primarily in his steak dinners, often served to friends at midnight, which he broiled himself. Guests sat on wooden boxes, broken-down chairs, or anything they could find, and were protected by towels, which served as bibs and napkins. Knives, forks, and spoons were taboo.24

Engel learned the art of broiling steaks—and of serving them without utensils—in the late 1870s from “Uncle Billy” Miller, for 40 years the proprietor of a century-old tavern, Shannon’s Corner, at the junction of Market, Hamilton, and Monroe Streets in Lower Manhattan. Shannon’s steak dinners used the juiciest cuts provided by butchers at the nearby Catherine Street Market in honor of their favorite customers, ship captains (often oystermen), who bought large quantities of meat for long voyages. Each guest devoured his allotted three pounds of hickory-broiled and buttered beef between planks of bread. The tradition lasted for many years, with sea yarns spun and songs sung far into the night in an atmosphere of unlimited ale and greasy-mouthed gusto.25 As the fame of Shannon’s spread, well-to-do merchants, swells, and men-about-town began to drop by, as did actors such as Edwin Booth and Nick Engel’s friends De Wolf Hopper and Digby Bell. Hanging on the wall of the Home Plate, next to photos of ballplayers and actors, was a picture of Billy Miller’s ancient grill room, with Miller broiling a steak and Engel serving the assembled guests.26 Nick learned his craft well. He “was by gourmands accounted the most famous beef cook in America, probably the world,” wrote drama critic Amy Leslie, “and the honor of initiation into the secret ways of preparing his steaks he granted to not over a half-dozen other guests who have devoured his delicious oven productions.”27

In the 1880s, a rash of nostalgic beefsteak clubs broke out in Manhattan, though without the original, salty simplicity of Shannon’s Corner. (By now a gridiron and hickory coals had given way to gas stoves, which also produced the desired smokeless heat.) Rich merchants and assorted tycoons, eager to escape the stultifying formality of their wives’ dinner parties, willingly joined them. No expense was spared, and sometimes stage designers were hired to turn large halls into “old-time” taverns. In the fall of 1889, Frederick Oppermann, a wealthy brewer, organized with Engel’s help the Turtle Bay Beefsteak Club, and 20 more clubs sprung up in the city alone. Turtle Bay members were eager to extend the enjoyment of their table to the “heathen, who, if not gastronomically befogged by the mysteries of French cookery, are still suffering the intestinal tortures of the frying pan.” Nick, his son Nick Jr., and his brother Adam were all key Turtle Bay missionaries. Two clubs were formed in Brooklyn and others arose in Pittsburgh, Washington, Milwaukee, and Syracuse. All clubs outside New York were initiated into the Order of Beefsteak Eaters by a committee from the parent Turtle Bay Club. For the installation in Pittsburgh, the New Yorkers took a special train and brought with them 220 pounds of meat and 40 pounds of chops, furnished by the same butcher who used to provide meat for Uncle Billy Miller.28 At the creation of the Washington branch of the order in 1894, Nick Sr. served as carver, Nick Jr. as assistant barkeeper, while Adam helped entertain.29 The National Theater furnished a stage setting representing the interior of a London Tavern, with a cavernous fireplace, an old spinning wheel, ancient muskets and cutlasses, curious old clocks, and some “deadjohns and bottles that were literally as dusty as if just out of a time-forgotten cellar.”30

As the years passed, the Turtle Bay Club (later styled the Tenderloin Beefsteak Club with Nick Engel as its chef) maintained a headquarters at 455 Seventh Avenue, on the fringes of Satan’s Circus. The dining room “was a long, bright kitchen, with a funny square little finish at one end suggesting the shape of the ‘T’ bone in a porterhouse steak.” As at Shannon’s Corner, utensils were forbidden, and overturned boxes, butter tubs, and reed baskets were the only seats allowed.31

NOTES

1. Graham, F. 1952. The New York Giants: An Informal History of a Great Baseball Club (2002 reprint) (p. 3).

2. Reisler, J. 1999. Babe Ruth Slept Here: The Baseball Landmarks of New York City (p. 113).

3. www.mcgreevysboston.com

4. The New York Times: Sept. 29, 1957.

5. Washington Post: July 12, 1896.

6. The New York Times: Oct. 23, 1897.

7. Sante, L. 1991. Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (pp. 114–115).

8. The New York Times: Oct. 23, 1897.

9. Berman, M. 2001. Madison Square: The Park and its Celebrated Landmarks (p. 6).

10. www.preserve2.org/ladiesmile/flatiron.htm. Traub, J. 2004. The Devil’s Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square (p. 11).

11. Morris, L. 1951. Incredible New York: High Life and Low Life of the Last Hundred Years (p. 111).

12. Berman 2001, 46.

13. Morris 1951, 110.

14. Sante 1991, 88.

15. Ibid., 99.

16. Ibid., 88–89. See also Traub 2004, 8.

17. Wolf, T. 1972. “Forward,” in The Police Gazette, ed. G. Smith and J. Smith (p. 9).

18. Morris 1951, 11–12.

19. Burrows, E., and M. Wallace. 1996. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (p. 959).

20. Sante 1991, 187–188.

21. Ibid., 95.

22. Burrows and Wallace 1996, 1148.

23. The New York Times: Sept. 29, 1957.

24. Boston Daily Globe: May 6, 1915.

25. Batterberry, M., and A. Batterberry. 1999. On the Town in New York: The Landmark History of Eating, Drinking, and Entertainments from the American Revolution to the Food Revolution (p. 306).

26. Chicago Daily Tribune: Mar. 26, 1893; The New York Times: Oct. 26, 1896.

27. Leslie, A. 1899. Some Players: Personal Sketches (p. 583).

28. Chicago Daily Tribune: Mar. 26, 1893.

29. Reed received a medal at the Washington event which he attributed to his “indomitable gluttony, as he had eaten twenty-nine pieces of the steak, a record which has never been broken” (Leslie 1899, 388).

30. Washington Post: Feb. 25, 1894.

31. Leslie 1899, 584–586.

 


Rhapsody in Cardboard

The first businesses to exploit baseball players to promote their products were tobacco companies. It seems strange now to see advertisements featuring such Hall of Famers as George Wright, King Kelly, and Hoss Radbourn endorsing Red Stocking Cigars, but those were the days when smoking was an unalloyed pleasure. The largest card set ever issued—numbering over 2,300 separate images—was a photographic series produced by the Goodwin Company for its Old Judge brand in the late 1880s.

The Goodwin Round Album, a spectacular chromolithographed 1888 premium, featured the most popular players of the day in eight circular pages with anywhere from one to four stars per: Cap Anson, King Kelly, and Charlie Comiskey each occupies a page of his own. The page shown here has some of the New York National League team, such as manager Jim Mutrie, third baseman Art Whitney, and pitcher Ledell Titcomb, who was graced with the splendid alias of “Cannonball.” The “mascot” was a young boy; in years to come the fashion in good-luck charms ran to street urchins like Detroit’s “L’il Rastus,” dwarfs like the Philadelphia A’s Louis Van Zelst, and gently demented souls like the New York Giants’ Charles “Victory” Faust.

Baseball cards continued to be identified with tobacco products into the 1910s, when confections like Colgan’s Chips and Cracker Jack got into the act. Gum cards were next, and they ruled the hobby from the 1930s to the 1980s (Goudey, Fleer, Topps). Finally, a court decision broke Topps’ virtual thirty-year monopoly on trading cards by permitting Donruss to distribute trading cards without gum. The go-go decade of card collecting was in gear, as other companies joined the industry (Score, Pacific, Upper Deck, a reinvigorated Fleer). Cards were not just for kids anymore, for the first time since the days of the tobacco cards; grown-up collectors spent big bucks to recapture their youth or, with often unhappy results, to invest for their own kids’ futures.

***

What is the first baseball card? Learned knights of the cardboard may dispute this point. I believe that if the definition of a baseball card is to be understood as an item mass produced for sale, then the first would be the illustrated ticket to the inaugural soiree of the Magnolia Ball Club, an event that took place in 1844 to celebrate the club’s founding the year before. Others may advocate for a view of the Atlantics of Brooklyn team of 1868, distributed free by Peck & Snyder Sporting Goods to their customers. Featuring such luminaries as Joe Start, Dickey Pearce, John Chapman, and Bob Ferguson, the Atlantics were champions of the baseball world in that year, as they had previously been in 1864, 1865, and 1866. In fact, the Library of Congress collections contain a small photograph of the 1865 team with a printed mount, and the Baseball Hall of Fame has another small photograph of the Unions of Morrisania of 1866. But both are better described as cartes de visite, or calling cards, commissioned by the teams themselves for distribution to their close followers. What makes this card of “The Atlantic Nine” a true baseball card is its wide distribution to the public as a “trade card,” with its clear intent to promote the sale of products in some real trade, namely sporting goods. And yet  … recent research indicates it may not have been issued in 1868 but instead 1871. This wrinkle would make the 1869 Peck & Snyder card of the Cincinnati Red Stockings the first baseball card mass produced for sale.

I say “real trade” because today the sale of the cards themselves is a real trade, but it was not always so. Even in the 1940s and 1950s card manufacturers like Topps, Bowman, and Fleer used the cards to help sell the bubblegum, not the other way around. 

Trade cards, generally of the comic illustrative sort, continued to be the form which the baseball card would take until the mid-1880s, when the age of the baseball hero was dawning and chromolithographed cards of individual players came into being as promotional inserts in packs of small cigars. Before long cigarette manufacturers, too, jumped on the bandwagon and issued colored cards promoting such evocative brands as Gypsy Queen, Buchner Gold Coin, Old Judge, Dog’s Head, Mayo Cut Plug, Allen & Ginter, Duke of Durham, Newsboy, and other cheap smokes of an era gone by. The incredibly extensive Old Judge set—512 players, each in multiple poses—was not a printed set but consisted entirely of sepia-toned photographs. Even a century later collectors continue to find previously undocumented cards in this set, cataloged as N172.

Old Judge cards could be collected and redeemed for handsome larger premiums, referred to as “cabinet cards” (cataloged as N173). John Ward of the New York Giants is shown here in a Newsboy cabinet card and Jim “Deacon” McGuire in an Old Judge regular issue of 1887. McGuire wound up playing in twenty-six major league seasons, suiting up for his final game a century ago on May 18, 1912, at age forty-eight (and getting a hit). In that memorable game he was the catcher for the Detroit Tigers because their regular team was on strike, in support of Ty Cobb, who had been suspended by the league for attacking a heckler in the stands. (The toothless Tigers filled their lineup with recruits from the Philadelphia sandlots such as pitcher Aloysius Travers and lost to the A’s 24–2.)

***

Baseball card images from the period before World War II are not realistic, they are romantic … and that is the essence of baseball fandom. We preserve for ourselves the illusion that we could be down there on the field alongside our heroes (or, totemically, in place of them). These cards are magical tokens, permitting us to shuttle back and forth between fantasy and reality with utter safety; it’s just a game, after all.

Once photographs of our favorites ceased to be a novelty, trading card companies looked for inspiration to the painted cards of the past. Dick Perez created the long-running series of Diamond Stars for the Donruss company beginning in 1981. Topps and other companies revived the look and feel of vintage sets.

In the first decade of the last century, a golden age of baseball cards, candy manufacturers competed with cigarette companies for the hearts and minds of American youth. Let the names of the candy card sponsors roll off the tongue, and savor them: Nadja Caramels … Mello Mints … Colgan’s Violet Chips … Zeenuts … Texas Tommies … Juju Drums … Cracker Jack. The greatest of all candy sets was issued by the American Caramel Company from 1909 to 1911, and its most valuable rarity is the card of Mike Mitchell of Cincinnati.

The American Tobacco Company, a huge trust of interlocking manufacturers, issued not only the above-mentioned Turkey Reds but also the classic T206 set of cards (1909–11), the giant of tobacco issues and the set that includes the hobby’s most valuable card, the Honus Wagner. Listen to the roll call of just a few of the T206 producers: Sweet Caporal … Piedmont … Old Mill … Polar Bear … Hindu … Tolstoi … Cycle … American Beauty … Ty Cobb (yes, he was a subject of the front of the card and, in a handful of cases, the sponsoring tobacconist on the back).

In 1911 the trust added the Mecca folder series to its burgeoning roster of baseball hits, here depicted in the Gabby Street card which, when folded up, reveals battery mate Walter Johnson, sharing a pair of legs with his catcher. In that same year the trust issued its classic T205 set (Gold Borders). In the following year there were the Hassan triple folders (cleverly reproduced in the 1990s by Upper Deck with modern players).

By the 1920s the popularity of the cards among youngsters prompted the tobacco companies to back out of the baseball-card business, and candy and ice-cream manufacturers had the field to themselves, issuing such shabby yet appealing issues as the garishly colored strip cards and Frojoy’s grainy photo reproductions. The 1930s marked the end of the candy-caramel period and the beginning of the bubblegum phase, which lasted into the 1980s. The Goudey set of 1933 is the classic gum-card issue, its most prized card that of the retired Nap Lajoie, issued in limited numbers. That set was followed by another in 1934 featuring the “Lou Gehrig Says” subset of baseball tips. The four-player card of Pirates Paul Waner, brother Lloyd, Guy Bush, and Waite Hoyt had a piece of a much larger puzzle on the back. In the hobby this set has come to be known as the “4-in-1.”

***

It is the cards of the 1950s that forever linked my generation with its baseball idols. Author Luke Salisbury called them “cardboard madeleines,” à la Proust. Even today, on the dark side of midlife, I cannot hold a 1952 Topps card like the Robin Roberts card shown here without feeling, in a sensual way, the heat of a Bronx sidewalk, the thrill of fanning the cards to see “who I got,” the taste of a Mission orange soda, the smell and peculiar feel of the pink slab of bubblegum, and the thrill of flipping my hard-earned prizes toward the wall of our apartment house, hoping to win my pal’s Jackie Robinson card. 

I learned how to read by studying the backs of those baseball cards, but I suspect my story isn’t that unusual. Baseball cards were tickets permitting entry into neighborhood society and the larger American culture for many other immigrant boys, too. The other, more important arena for which these cards proved a ticket of admission was the world of my own imagination; what a marvel of compactness these cards were—the visage of a hero, the chronicle of his heroics, perhaps a tidbit of odd information or an amusing cartoon, a team logo, an autograph–and all on a piece of cardboard you could hold in your hand! I have sometimes thought the curriculum vitae of millions of American men, the trail of their occupational records, might start not with that first job out of high school or college, but here, in a loving gaze at a baseball card on a sidewalk on a hot summer afternoon.

The second World War shut down the baseball-card industry, but it came back strong in 1948 when the Leaf Company issued a set of 168 cards. Son we had the classic painted Bowman set of 1951, and the remarkable Bowman set of 1955, which pictured players inside a TV screen, thus commemorating the stormy marriage between baseball and television broadcasting. (Dig that line “Color TV” on the brass plate!) Bowman was fading as a brand, unable to sign the up-and-coming stars to contracts, and this quirky set proved the company’s last. Aside from historical sets from Fleer and regional issues for wieners or ice cream or gasoline, Topps came to dominate the field. The Brooklyn-based company issued wonderful cards during its more than two decades of dominance, but the hobby of card collecting didn’t skyrocket until new brands brought innovation and competition.

Here we see a Donruss card from 1981 featuring Reggie Jackson, the first complete set since the early 1950s not to bear the name of Topps … and not to include gum. In the next decade card manufacturers such as Upper Deck began to apply new technologies: impressive gold stamping and 3-D designs and die-cutting abound; hologram cards which, held to the light just so, depict the player in action for three and a half seconds; a card with an actual speck of dirt from Cal Ripken’s infield; and, most amazingly, a set of cards that had the smell of that old, brittle bubblegum that blessed the wrappers of our youth.

Baseball’s Unchanging Past: A Necessary Illusion

I delivered this keynote speech yesterday morning at the 24th annual Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture. I am honored to address such a passionate and learned gathering. The title of this keynote speech—Baseball’s Unchanging Past: A Necessary Illusion—evokes not only our oddly hallowed location, this lovely place where baseball was not invented, but also America’s enduring fascination with its national game, always changing in ways so minute that it seems to remain, comfortingly, the same.

Kierkegaard has written that life may only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. For the duration of this conference at least, we will do our best to reverse that dictum. Hoping to grasp what happened in baseball and the larger culture—and why—we will plant our feet in the sands of the past and wiggle our toes a bit, just to see what it felt like to be alive then. The overlay of modern analytic constructs will not be worth much until we do that.

Baseball’s popularity is primarily about the present, but its charm, its essential appeal, is about the past. A proud and vibrant anachronism, baseball is determinedly out of fashion—slow to move with the times, yet always in fashion, always our game. A museum of America’s original democratic values and ideals about the player and the team, baseball serves as a monument to who we once were … and might be again. It is our Eden, our Garden, its gates long since closed yet to which we might enter once again.

Baseball’s Eden is located, of course, not here in Cooperstown, or New York City, or Hoboken, or Pittsfield—or England or Egypt. It is no place—the literal meaning of utopia—but between our ears, where it has always has been, from the game’s very beginning.Elysian Fields_Hoboken_Colonnade

In preparing this speech it occurred to me, truly for the first time, that thirty years ago, when I commenced the research for my most recent book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden, I was also completing the manuscript, with Pete Palmer, of The Hidden Game of Baseball. I wondered back then why so many people had expended so much energy in trying to shape and control the creation myth of baseball; to return to an Edenic past, real or imagined; to create the legend of a fall from grace, instigated by gamblers and drunkards, baseball’s stand-ins for the Serpent. I was also wondering at that time what role baseball metrics played in supporting that vision of Paradise, an age when giants walked the earth, or at least routinely hit .400 and won 30 games. So, to prepare for today’s address, I have had cause to revisit the germinal thoughts that precipitated those two books.

***

As individuals,we embrace the notion of a historical Baseball Eden because we sense that we catch a glimpse of it during any particular baseball game. Played or watched, our national pastime moves us past time itself, recalling youth and deferring death. It is a fine trick we play upon ourselves, and no other American institution makes for as artful a magician’s assistant.

As we grow older, we bear less and less outward resemblance to the child left behind at adulthood’s door, yet that child lives on within us, remaining an essential part of our identity, if not the essential part. Life’s cares make it more and more difficult to touch base with the child within, which needs a regular dose of attention if it is to sustain us. Thinking about baseball—steady, comfortable, unchanging baseball—brings us into a unifying relationship with the child, the part of us that loves the game, even if it is the adult that comes to understand it. Because the game is so evocative, on the deepest level, of our childhood, it is not surprising that the impressions of the game sharply formed during that period are the ones that stay with us for all time, forming a personal, if not overly factual, Eden. 

The game moves along slowly, seamlessly, from inning to inning, game to game, season to season, giving a special poignancy to the passage of time when change becomes all too visible. The heroes of our youth grow old—“the boys of summer in their ruin,” emphasizing the key part of Dylan Thomas’s verse—yet to ourselves we seem the same … forever young. That’s why such occasions as Old Timers’ Day or the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies are so sadly sweet; better, we may think for a moment, to preserve these heroes in our memories as they were, frozen in a baseball-card pose, undiminished.

If historic America survives anywhere as more than a roadside marker, it is in baseball, that strangely pastoral game in no matter what setting—domed stadium, open-air ballpark, or Little League diamond. Even those whose entire lives have been spent in big cities feel the call of the grass, the undertow of the past.

Hindsight improves upon reality—we might call that phenomenon, more simply, illusion—so that the endless monotony and grinding physical labor of agrarian life before the Revolution were soon thought quite romantic and morally superior. This strange longing only accelerated as young bachelors fled the countryside for employment in the burgeoning cities. For all its pull toward the good old days, for all its statistical illusions of an Olympian era when titans strode the base paths, for all its seeming permanence in a world aswirl with change, baseball has in fact moved with America, and improved with it.

Although the contestants of today are very different in their abilities, physiologies, attitudes, and training, in a quick glance the game on the field looks the same as that of 1896 or 1956: the rules are pretty much the same; game scores are about the same; and individual performances are about the same. The seamless web of baseball is an illusion, the seams smoothed over by statistics. In the Olympics of 1896, the winning time in the 1500–meter run was 4:33.2; in 2008 it was 3:33.9, a clear statement that in this event, the top runner of today is capable of performances 20 percent better than his counterpart of 1896.

Baseball in 1896, however, saw four men hit over .390, a level of performance seemingly unattainable today. If Jesse Burkett hit .410 to lead the National League in that year—he was one of four men to hit over .390—why does no one today bat 20 percent higher, approaching .500? Or if Burkett was a superman, look at the league average of .290: Why would today’s league averages be lower rather than higher? Was the average player better a century ago? In unmediated sporting competitions, times improve with each generation. In baseball, we move the finish line ever so slightly, with a predictable stabilizing effect on statistics.

Take a football fan of today to a gridiron contest played by the rules of 1896 and he might fairly say that the game and its equipment were so different from the one he knew that it might not be the same game at all. From the size of the players to the nearly spherical shape of the leather-covered pigskin bladder, from the ban on passing to the restrictions on substitution to the scoring values accorded to field goals and touchdowns, football reinvented itself, from a low-scoring game of mass momentum and dangerous formations to one of quick strikes and long gains. The same might be said of basketball at the turn of the century—that with the center jump, lumpy ball, and brutal play at the rim, the low-scoring fracas seemed like nothing so much as football without the padding.

Yet baseball was always baseball. The early game, however you define or demarcate it, was indeed different from the one we see on the field today. Yet players in big-league parks at the turn of the century, packed with thousands of paying spectators, knew that they were taking part in the very same game that had been staged for free at the Elysian Fields of Hoboken only fifty years before. As Bruce Catton noted in American Heritage in 1959:

“The neat green field looks greener and cleaner under the lights, the moving players are silhouetted more sharply, and the enduring visual fascination of the game—the immobile pattern of nine men, grouped according to ancient formula and then, suddenly, to the sound of a wooden bat whacking a round ball, breaking into swift ritualized movement, movement so standardized that even the tyro in the bleachers can tell when someone goes off in the wrong direction—this is as it was in the old days. A gaffer from the era of William McKinley, abruptly brought back to the second half of the twentieth century, would find very little in modern life that would not seem new, strange, and rather bewildering, but put in a good grandstand seat back of first base he would see nothing that was not completely familiar.”

Baseball permits its revelers to defy not only time but also reason. One of the first lessons a fan learns is that in baseball anything, absolutely anything, can happen. Every year something happens that never happened in baseball before. I could point you to David Freese and the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 6 of last year’s World Series. But I prefer to cite a lesser known, relatively recent singularity: In the deciding game of the 2004 Northern League championship series, the St. Paul Saints, trailing 6–3 with two outs and one on in the bottom of the ninth and twice down to their last strike, proceeded to score seven runs, climaxed by a walk-off grand slam, to defeat the Schaumberg Flyers 10–6. In 160 years of recorded baseball history, no team had ever won a championship this way.

Through baseball we sublimate our martial instincts; we emulate our heroes, whom we appoint as champions or surrogates for our hopes and fears; we experience thrills and agonies vicariously, and, in a magical act of transference, we become more truly ourselves—more primal, less inhibited … more like, say, Adam, or Eve. At the ballpark or even in front of the television, fans are, for the interlude of a few hours, different from whom they are in everyday life—masquerading no less than people do at Mardi Gras or Carnivale to revel in life and taunt death. In the drama that is a baseball game the fan imagines himself not a spectator but a participant, as if the fervor of his rooting will have a bearing on the outcome. Like Walter Mitty, he becomes in his mind a player.

When did this illusion of transference and time travel begin? Certainly before the Knickerbockers, Gothams, and Eagles of New York City relocated their home grounds to Hoboken, New Jersey in the 1840s. It was at this time that newly arrived urbanites first began to imbue rural life with a romanticized nostalgia—a Greek compound that literally means “the ache of not being able, ever, to go home again” [nostos, homecoming + algia, pain].

Idyllic America had not disappeared, for in fact it had never existed. The young men who now streamed into the cities ached for their backwoods Paradise Lost, and regained it, however briefly, through play at the Elysian Fields. In the park within the city, they could go home again.

For two decades before baseball games began to be played there, the Elysian Fields had been New York’s favorite “place of general resort for citizens, as well as strangers, for health and recreation,” wrote its proprietor, John Stevens, in 1824. “So easily accessible, and where in a few minutes the dust, noise, and bad smells of the city may be exchanged for the pure air, delightful shades, and completely rural scenery. . . .”

The urban malaise to which Stevens contrasted his sylvan settings was not mere rhetoric. Thousands of New Yorkers had died in the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1822.  Ten summers later, cholera would kill another 3,500, representing one death for every 65 inhabitants at a time when the city’s population was 230,000 (of whom fully a third fled the city that summer). An equivalent mortality in today’s New York of 8 million would be more than 123,000. Because the folk wisdom was that pestilential vapors returned every twelve years, one might well imagine the dread overhanging New York in the mid-1840s.

In these years there were many testaments to baseball’s hygienic properties (“Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms . . . the game of ball is glorious,” Walt Whitman wrote in the Brooklyn Eagle of July 3, 1846). Might the generalized fear of disease, and cholera in particular with its cycle of return—rather than the march of industry upon the former playgrounds of Manhattan—have been the impetus to ballplayers’ flight to the Elysian Fields in the mid–’40s? It is pleasing to think that baseball, as a safe-haven game, would have come to the fore at this perilous time. 

Late in life, Henry Chadwick—pioneer writer, consummate moralist, and architect of baseball as a national game—wrote in a letter to the editor of the New York Tribune, “I am thankful to say of the great National field games of England and America, the grand old game of cricket and the comparatively new game of baseball, there is not a brutal feature connected with either of them, and yet both develop the highest qualities of true manhood, courage, endurance, pluck, nerve, honorable competition, and”—here I emphasize his last itemized attribute—“the chivalry of sport.” Yet it had been in some measure the very brutality of early baseball, when brave men donned neither glove nor mask and wore their bruises, shiners, and shinplasters as badges of honor, which attracted devotees and left the lemonade drinkers aghast. And, as I have argued in Baseball in the Garden of Eden, gambling was a necessary prime mover in the progress of baseball toward becoming “America’s cricket.”

As baseball had drawn a newly urban America back to its pseudo-Edenic past, it now helped to carry forward, into a new and increasingly corrupt body politic, the hypothetical democratic values of a bygone age. The newly organized and systematized game, built upon baseball prototypes that had been played in America long before the Revolution, now took on the purity that came with posterity. As more and more baseball clubs organized in the 1850s, the idea of a distant Eden—set not in Revolutionary America but in Medieval England—was in full flower. Courtly rites ripped from the pages of Ivanhoe rendered Walter Scott, even more than Henry Chadwick, the architect of the gentlemanly game favored by the Knickerbockers of New York and the Putnams and Excelsiors of Brooklyn. Early on, the new game of baseball resembled not the raucous old one, of stinging throws and side bets, but the game of England’s stately mansions, cricket.

It was as if, having turned our backs on the Mother Country, we might have been feeling a bit lonely and having second thoughts. In our land of immigrants, united not by class or creed or culture, the ties that bind were those of family, ethnic heritage, faith, and community—all of them local rather than national. Baseball gave promise, early on, of serving as America’s de facto religion, connecting us across all divides of time and space, while rejuvenating the national heritage. “It’s our game,” wrote Whitman, “America’s game . . . it belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our Constitution’s laws; is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.”

***

In today’s technological, impersonal, and brittle age, baseball is, in Daniel Boorstin’s phrase, “an oasis of the uncontrived.” It is also our national theater, but with unscripted outcomes. New records are added every day, stretching limitlessly to the horizon line, yet it is the game’s past, appearing to extend equally far in reverse, that binds. Early on, records transformed a boyhood game into a sport, thus “modernizing” it. Yet records also link each present achievement to a prior, sometimes unapproachable, standard. (Think, for example, of Cy Young’s 511 wins, or Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.) Indeed, the early years of major league play provide records that, to one not familiar with the prevailing rules and conditions, are unfathomable: pitchers Jim Devlin of Louisville, Bobby Mathews of New York, and George Bradley of St. Louis each accounting for all his team’s victories in 1876; Will White completing all 75 of his starts in 1879 while pitching 680 innings; Hoss Radbourn winning 59 games in 1884; Tip O’Neill batting .485 in 1887. Were these men of iron, compared to the namby-pambies of today? Of course not.

We cannot come to this conclusion by using conventional statistics and simple comparisons, for the rules tinkerers have flattened out the differences that otherwise would have shown in the averages. We may employ relativist approaches, such as the now classic one first offered in The Hidden Game that equates Carl Yastrzemski’s league-leading .301 of 1968 with Bill Terry’s .401 of 1930—both were some 32 percent beyond league average. Even after this illumination, however, we are still left with the conundrum of assessing the meaning of the league averages themselves.

But these gremlins in the baseball engine have done nothing to inhibit fielding, which has enjoyed a steady ascent since 1876, as measured by the ratio of earned runs to total runs. Anyone who has been watching the game for 30 or 40 years and is of an unbiased cast of mind will tell you that the best fielders of all time, at almost any position you can think of, entered the game after World War II.  Old-timers will tell you stories about Hal Chase or George Sisler, but were they better than Wes Parker or Keith Hernandez? Did Rabbit Maranville range farther and wider than Ozzie Guillen? Did Tris Speaker cover more ground than Willie Mays?

In 1952 Ty Cobb wrote an article for Life magazine in which he declared that the only ballplayers of the modem era that could be compared with those of his day were Stan Musial and Phil Rizzuto. Where today is a man like Cobb, who won twelve batting titles in thirteen years? Where is a Rogers Hornsby, who averaged over .400 for a five-year period? A Babe Ruth, who in 1920 hit more homers than fourteen of the fifteen other big-league teams? A Jack Taylor, who over five years completed 187 consecutive starts? Why were so many all-time pitching records set between 1900 and 1919 and so many batting records over the next two decades? These heroes of yore were great players, certainly … yet men of the same ability, or greater, are among us today, their feats camouflaged by the heightened expertise of those around them.

In football, no one imagines that Red Grange would star in today’s NFL. In basketball, who thinks that George Mikan, the greatest player of the 1940s, would even start for an NBA team in 2012? Yet nearly everyone believes that Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Walter Johnson, if teleported to the present day, would dominate the game as they did in the days of yore. Why do so many of us continue to buy this notion?

In the hands of nearly all its practitioners today, baseball history, like history in general, is a moated activity, in which “what happened” is what matters. Permit me to make a perhaps old-fashioned distinction between History and The Past, the former being rooted in what happened, the latter best described as “what binds and sustains,” or what is useful.

In The Death of the Past, J. H. Plumb described this earlier model for history as the establishment of “a psychological reality, used for a social purpose: to stress the virtues of courage, endurance, strength, loyalty and indifference to death.” Baseball provides us with such a mythology, replete with unmatchable feats, admirable heroes, and awe-inspiring legends. By presenting us with an age of wonders, an Edenic past, baseball equips us to have dreams, to take risks, and to be good Americans.

Baseball Film to 1920, Part 3

[This is the third and final part of Rob Edelman’s article, commenced in this space two days ago.] By the mid-1910s, feature-length narrative films were dominating the marketplace. The stars of most of the earliest baseball-related features were not actors playing ballplayers but real-life major leaguers who in this era could be credibly cast as sanitized, fictionalized versions of themselves. Such baseball stars were ideal marquee names to lure in potential audiences. The first of the lot was Right Off the Bat (1915, Arrow), a five-reeler starring the recently retired Mike Donlin, who had appeared in vaudeville with, among others, his actress wife, Mabel Hite, and Marty McHale. Right Off the Bat purportedly charts Donlin’s ascent to major league stardom. Though devoted to baseball, he toils as a machinist because of his shaky financial situation. Even though he has saved his beloved Viola Bradley (Claire Mersereau) from drowning, Donlin is considered a poor marital prospect by her mother. He becomes a bush-league star; refuses to take a bribe to throw the championship game; is assaulted and locked in a room; arrives (with the aid of Viola) at the ballpark in time to score the winning run; and signs a New York Giants contract. Finally, he has earned the right to wed Viola.     

Given his theatrical background, Donlin was a natural for the movies. While he never became a star, he appeared in dozens of films—including a few that spotlighted baseball—until his death in 1933. But his celluloid “biography” is more melodramatic fiction than fact. Right Off the Bat is set, and filmed on location, in Winstead, Connecticut, with The New York Times reporting that the “championship Winstead baseball nine appears in the picture.” While Winstead is presented as Donlin’s hometown, the ballplayer actually hailed from Peoria, Illinois. Mabel Hite, Donlin’s first wife, was nothing like the Viola Bradley character. She died in 1912. His second wife, Rita Ross Donlin, appears in a supporting role, as Viola’s friend.     

Playing himself in Right Off the Bat is John McGraw, Donlin’s major league skipper. McGraw also appeared as himself in One Touch of Nature (1917, Edison), a five-reel comedy–drama based on a Peter B. Kyne baseball story with scenes filmed on location at the Polo Grounds. McGraw is depicted as being not only a fine manager but a fine man, with nary a hint of the legendary toughness that earned him the nickname Little Napoleon. The hero is William Vandervoort Cosgrove (John Drew Bennett, an actor who looks a bit long in the tooth to be playing a college boy “in the midst of his third year at Yale, where he is known by the vulgar appellation of ‘Battling Bill’…”). Cosgrove falls for Leonora O’Brien (Viola Cain), a plumber’s daughter who heads up a vaudeville dog act. This displeases his father, E. P. Cosgrove, an eminent pork packer, and his snooty mother. But Battling Bill’s dad is a baseball nut at heart, and he is delighted when his son is signed to play second base for the Giants. The story involves his reluctantly attending the World Series, where he is seated next to Leonora and her father. At the finale, “Battling Bill” crashes a home run—and everyone lives happily ever after.

In Somewhere in Georgia (1916, Sunbeam), based on a story by Grantland Rice and running six reels, Ty Cobb stars as a bank clerk who vies with a sniveling cashier for the love of their boss’s daughter. In typical fashion, he is scouted for the Detroit Tigers, makes the major leagues, is temporarily thwarted by some hooligans hired by his rival, and wins both the climactic game and the girl. According to Variety, the film features “the usual excitement [that] attends the baseball game in which Cobb cops the climax with his playing and wins the girl in the end. There’s a deep-dyed villain and the subsequent denouement at the finale, with Cobb stealing a kiss from his prospective wife behind a baseball glove.” The paper further noted that the film “has a good wholesome atmosphere and a real, live-blooded, cleanlimbed athlete for a hero.”

The Variety reviewer summed up the purpose of casting real-life ballplayers in movies by noting, “inasmuch as …Cobb is considered about the greatest ballplayer in the world, it goes without saying that [the film] is going to make a ten-strike with Young America. As expected, it is a production that aimed at one thing and that was to present the celebrated Ty Cobb in camera action and give the smalltown boys a chance to see ‘more of him’ … and save them the long Sunday excursion trips to some of the big league towns to see him play.”

Another period baseball legend, Babe Ruth, played a character simply known as “Babe” in Headin’ Home (1920, Yankee Photo Corp./States Rights), a five-reel comedy–drama. [ThisSeven years later his film name was lengthened to “Babe Dugan” for his part in the comedy Babe Comes Home (1927, First National). By the time the latter was released, Ruth’s off-the-field carousing had become such public knowledge that New York Times sportswriter/columnist John Kieran could casually refer to him as the “Playboy of Baseball” in a piece written the day after the Bambino hit his record-breaking 60th home run. Indeed, in Babe Comes Home, Ruth’s Babe Dugan is more reflective of the real Bambino: a baseball star with an affinity for dirtying his uniform with tobacco stains. But back in 1920, Ruth still could be cast as a clean-living, mother-loving all-American boy. In Headin’ Home he is a humble chap who resides with his mother and kid sister in the small town of Haverlock. This Babe passes his spare time by chopping down trees and fashioning them into baseball bats. He prefers quiet evenings enjoying his mother’s home cooking to attending town socials; his shyness prevents him from expressing his feelings to the girl he loves, Mildred Tobin (Ruth Taylor), a banker’s daughter. Along the way, he rescues Mildred from the clutches of a crook, becomes a home run–hitting baseball hero, sets Mildred’s playboy brother straight after he is suckered  by a vamp, and, at the finale, returns home a hero and belts a home run in front of the Haverlock population.

In other words, outside of his propensity for smashing four-baggers, the character played by the Babe in Headin’ Home is the polar opposite of the real Babe Ruth. And who was to question this depiction? The Los Angeles Times described the film as “a simple story of simple people and dealing with Ruth’s rise to fame as a baseball player…. The story is a happy blending of small-town lives and people and the big leagues [with Ruth playing] the overgrown country boy who has the habit of doing the wrong thing in the right way at the wrong time….” Noted Alva Taylor, reviewing the film in the Chicago Tribune, “For there must be countless boys, large as well as small, to whom Babe Ruth, master batsman, famous home run hitter, must be a wonderful man, encompassed by the aura of romance. It is for these hero worshippers that the biographical film, ‘Headin’ Home,’ was made, and they will love it.”

Just as Babe Ruth was becoming the ballplayer who defined the 1920s, Headin’ Home was the one baseball feature that, albeit modest in production, came to represent the mass-marketing of the sport. No mere movie theater could house it during its New York premiere. Fight promoter Tex Rickard reportedly paid $35,000 to book the film into Madison Square Garden, where it was shown for the week of September 19 to 26, 1920. Of an early screening, Variety reported, “Just as the crowds get up and leave the Polo Grounds [this was before the Babe “built” Yankee Stadium] satisfied, after watching the big slugger bury one in the top of the grandstand, just so they were satisfied at the Garden when Babe won the game for the home club after wandering through countless scenes dressed in street attire and toting a piece of hickory from which he was supposedly fashioning the bat that later on was to make him famous. There is a story running through the picture and so many minor characters that it would take a computing machine to record them all without the aid of a program. None of the latter were on sale, but everything else was, from Babe Ruth phonographic records to the Babe Ruth song, ‘Oh You Babe Ruth,’ which was sung and played by Lieut. J. Tim Bryan’s Black Devil Band, which accompanied the picture.”

The Variety scribe—unlike the Chicago Tribune’s Alva Taylor—may have turned thumbs down on Headin’ Home, but at least he understood the Babe’s appeal: “The picture has been thrown together to capitalize [on] Ruth’s tremendous popularity and as such it will do a success. The thousand people sat patiently through the dreary preliminary scenes waiting for their idol to reach his specialty which is the promulgation of home runs. This is an age of specialists and as a picture star Ruth qualifies as the greatest batsman that baseball has ever developed.”        

 *     *     *

Easily the best of the early baseball features spotlights nary a real ballplayer. Additionally, it serves as a textbook reflection of its era. The Busher (1919, Famous Players-Lasky), a five-reel comedy–drama, stars Charles Ray, then at his peak playing country bumpkins who, at the finale, transcend their oafishness, earn admiration from their peers, and win the heroine.  Prior to The Busher, Ray starred in The Pinch Hitter (1917, Triangle). Despite its title, however, this five-reel comedy is devoid of baseball until its second half. Ray plays Joel Parker, a gawky Vermont farm boy who enrolls in Williamson College. With his ill-fitting clothes and thrown-together suitcase, the droopy and forlorn Parker is mercilessly chided by his fellow students. He tries out for the school baseball team, but is athletically inept. The coach notes that “he is such a boob that he ought to bring us luck”—and so Parker is named to the team, but as its mascot. During an important game against Bensonhurst College, the Williamson pitcher injures his hand and is unable to come to bat in the ninth inning. Wouldn’t you know that the Williamson bench is depleted? Wouldn’t you know that the tying run leads off third base? Wouldn’t you know that Parker is ordered to grab a bat? Wouldn’t you know that, incredibly, he wallops the game-winning homer? Joel Parker, campus fool, is now Joel Parker, campus hero.             

In The Busher, Ray is appealing as Ben Harding, the “baseball pride of Brownsville,” a fireballing hurler who, when he pitches, has “got more curves than a stovepipe.” Harding soon is called to the major leagues. After being exposed to big-city life, he is transformed from rube to dandy. He becomes involved with a gold-digger and even snubs his neighbors and his girl, Mazie Palmer (Colleen Moore), when they come to see him play. Harding’s high living soon adversely affects his pitching, and he is released. The now penniless hurler returns to Brownsville and proclaims that he will never toss a baseball again. But when Brownsville is set to play Centerville in a game that “means everything to local pride,” Harding relents. He pitches his team to victory and hits the game-winning home run. His rehabilitation is complete. He no longer is the conceited, self-pitying jerk who has been tainted by the urban metropolis. More important, he has come to appreciate the love and dedication of Mazie and the simple, real, lasting values she represents; no amount of fame or money can replace love.

The New York Times described The Busher as “a baseball story that the small boy will rise up from his seat and shout about. So will his father and his sister, too. Also his mother, if she knows anything about bush leagues and big leagues and what it means for a wonderful pitcher to jump from one to the other, fall down in the big test, and then come back again for glory.” An ad for the film described it as “a baseball scream” in which “Charlie bats 1,000 and puts laugh after laugh right over the home plate.”

Whether these early baseball features centered on clearly fictional characters or purported to tell the stories of big-league luminaries, they were united by the same message: Baseball stars are honed from country boys. If a country boy was a clean-living youngster, he will be destined to win the Big Game with bottom-of-the-ninth heroics.

Within a decade after they were made, when America was well into the Roaring Twenties, films like The Busher, Headin’ Home, Right Off the Bat, and Somewhere in Georgia were considered laughably outdated—not so much for their clichéd ballfield heroics as for their small-town values. Nonetheless, a film like Slide, Kelly, Slide (1927, MGM), featuring William Haines as a boastful, Ruthian New York Yankees pitcher– slugger, is respectfully dedicated to “the great American game—Baseball—and to the memory of Frank Chance … Eddie Plank … Christy Mathewson, and their immortal legion.” [A snip is viewable at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzY9nwODfh0.]

[SIDEBAR]

A majority of the motion pictures produced during the silent-film era no longer exist. Today, films are recycled for screening on television and released on DVD; decades ago, once a film completed its theatrical run and no longer was making money for its distributor, it was discarded—much like yesterday’s newspaper.

Some of the early films cited in this essay do survive. For example, prints of The Ball Game (1898), One Touch of Nature (1917), and Casey at the Bat (1922) are preserved at the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division of The Library of Congress. Over the Fence (1917), The Pinch Hitter (1917), and The Busher (1919), along with Hearst newsreel footage of an investigation involving New York Giants pitcher Rube Benton (1917), Captain Christy Mathewson arriving on board the SS Rotterdam (1918), Nick Altrock doing comedy skits (1919), and scenes with Babe Ruth (1920) and Chicago White Sox players (1920), are preserved at the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Prints of Over the Fence may be found at the Museum of Modern Art and the National Film Archive of the British Film Institute.

Film archivists Ted Larson and Rusty Casselton completed a 16mm restoration of Headin’ Home (1920) in the mid-1990s. A 35mm restoration by the Museum ofModern Art was made available in 2006.

Film collectors own 16mm prints of some of these titles, a number of which are available on VHS or DVD; in April 2007, Kino-on-Video released a DVD package that included the Larson-Casselton Headin’ Home restoration, The Busher, and a variety of baseball shorts. Additional baseball images exist on-line on the Prelinger Archives website, which features ephemeral (educational, industrial, advertising, and amateur) films.

Most of the other early baseball films are lost—more than likely forever.

— Rob Edelman

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