Kessler at the Bat

This previously unpublished riff on the immortal “Casey at the Bat” is by Mikhail Horowitz, bon vivant, raconteur, performance artist and, you should be so lucky, friend.

“Vot? It’s not for you good enough? Strike two!”

It looked, well, all farcockteh for the Putzville nine that day;
The score—don’t ask—was 4 to 2. You heppy now? Hokeh.
And so when Plotkin plotzed at first, and Schwartz popped up to third,
Already y’hay sh’may rab-boh was in the ballpark heard.

A couple shlumps got up to go, the others shrugged, and stayed
(For box seats on the field, hoo boy! their tuchuses they paid);
They thought, If only Kessler maybe gives the ball a zetz,
We’d shimmy through the shtetl and forget about the Mets!

But Stein preceded Kessler, as did his nephew, Moe,
And Stein a real shmegegee was, and Moe was just a shmo;
So maybe now for Kessler they should bother not to wait—
Moshiach had a better chance of schlepping to the plate.

But Stein, he blooped a bingle, and his mother cried, Mein Gott!
And Moshe clubbed a double, I should drop dead on the spot;
And when they finished running and bent wheezing at the waist,
There was Moe verklempt on second and Stein on third, vershtast?

So now from all those Putzville fans was such a big to-do,
They rose and davened in a wave, a hundred shofars blew;
A host of angels wept to hear a thousand chazzans sing,
For Kessler, Rebbe Kessler, he was coming up to swing.

There was schmaltz on Kessler’s tallis as he stepped into the box,
In his beard were crumbs of matzoh, small piece cheese, a bissel lox,
And when he shook his shtreimel, drenching half the fans with sweat,
No goyim in the crowd could doubt—’twas Kessler at the bet.

And now the mystic, Kabbalistic pitch comes floating in,
And Kessler’s brow is furrowed, and he slowly strokes his chin;
He comprehends that long before Creation had begun,
This pitch existed somewhere . . . but then he hears, “Strike vun!”

From the stands (donated by the Steins) the whole mishpocheh moaned,
A yenta started kvetching and a balabusta groaned;
“Hey, ump!” an angry moyel cried, “I’ll cut you like a fish!”
So, nu? They would have cut him, but Kessler muttered, “Pish!”

With a smile of pure rachmanis, great Kessler’s punim shone,
He stilled the boiling moyel, he bade the game go on;
He yubba-dubba-dubba’ed as the pious pitcher threw,
But he yubba-dubba’ed once too much—the umpire shrugged,
“Vot? It’s not for you good enough? Strike two!”

“Feh!” cried the maddened Hasids, and Elijah echoed, “Feh!”
But a puzzled look from Kessler made the audience go, “Heh?”
They saw his payus rise and fall, they saw his tzitzits twitch,
They knew that Rebbe Kessler vouldn’t miss another pitch.

The smile on Kessler’s punim now is more profound, and keener;
He glows with all the preternatural light of the Shekinah;
And now the pishka-pishka pitch so big and fat it gets;
And now the air is shattered by the force of Kessler’s zetz!

Oy. Somewhere in Jerusalem a grandson plants a tree;
A klezmer band is playing—so, the clarinet’s off-key;
And somewhere else a shmoyger with the rebbetzin has flirted;
But there is no joy in Putzville—mighty Kessler has converted.

(“The name is Kelly, if you don’t mind!”)

If Who’s on First, Who’s in Write?

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, who had been a comic duo since 1931, visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956. They presented the institution with a gold record and plaque, as well as a transcription of their routine. When I published this classic in The Armchair Book of Baseball in 1985, I prefaced it by writing:

This classic assault on sense and syntax is generally associated with Abbott and Costello, who, having performed it in the 1945 film Naughty Nineties, are presumed to have written it. They didn’t. Who did? Naturally.

I went on to say that the skit was of anonymous authorship, as were some 2,000 other stock burlesque bits in Abbott and Costello’s repertoire. Afterwards, however, I learned that they aired “Who’s on First?” as far back as 1938, when they performed it on Kate Smith’s radio show, and that the skit had an author: Irving Gordon (1915-96), a versatile fellow who also wrote Nat King Cole’s 1951 hit song, “Unforgettable,” as well as “Prelude to a Kiss” for Duke Ellington, “What Can I Tell My Heart?” for Bing Crosby, “Throw Mama from the Train” for Patti Page and—in a song title for Billie Holiday that puts one in mind of  “Who’s on First?”—the strangely populated “Me, Myself and I.”

Here’s Gordon’s unforgettable lineup:

First Base: Who

Second Base: What

Third Base: I Don’t Know

Shortstop: I Don’t Care

Left Field: Why

Center Field: Because

Pitcher: Tomorrow

Catcher: Today

Note that this team had always taken the field without anyone in right, or as writer. Now you can put Irving Gordon in. Naturally.

Mack’s White Elephants, McGraw’s Black Cats

“I ain’t superstitious, but a black cat’s crossing my trail.” It’s easy to imagine bluesman Willie Dixon singing this, but it’s also a line John McGraw might have penned on the eve of the 1905 World Series. He was about to square off against Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, who had proudly adopted the epithet White Elephants, hurled at them by McGraw during the war with the National League in 1902. In Mack’s own words, from his 1950 autobiography:

In 1902 the Baltimore Club forfeited its franchise in the newly formed American League. Its spot was filled by the New York Highlanders, “the acorn from which sprung the mighty Yankee oak.” The astute John McGraw took advantage of the opportunity and jumped from the crumbling Orioles to the New York Giants, a leap to fame and fortune. When the sportswriters gathered around McGraw to fire a barrage of questions, one of the questions was, “What do you think of the Philadelphia A’s?”

“White elephants!” quickly retorted Mr. McGraw. “Mr. B. F. Shibe has a white elephant on his hands.”

When peace was declared in 1903 and the first modern World Series was played, it was Boston, the American League representative, which emerged victorious. After McGraw and Giants’ owner John T. Brush killed the World Series in 1904 by refusing to play the defending champion Boston Americans (today’s Red Sox), the National and American Leagues formalized the World Series as an annual postseason event; the agreement that had produced the 1903 Series was a one-time thing. When the Giants won the NL flag again in 1905, McGraw had no choice but to play his counterpart in the AL. When that turned out to be Mack’s White Elephants, the superstitious McGraw decided he would take the upper hand by going black against white.

For many years the Hall displayed a black Giants jersey that was thought to have been worn in the 1905 World Series by George “Hooks” Wiltse, a pitcher who had a fine year in 1905 (15–6) yet didn’t get into the World Series because Christy Mathewson tossed three shutouts and Joe McGinnity one in the Giants’ five-game victory. Hooks may have been given his nickname for his fine curve, or for his misshapen nose, or maybe just because he was left-handed and thus, in that age of superstition, twisty, serpentine, even sinister (the Latin for left is sinistra). His brother Lewis, also a lefty—who had pitched well for the A’s in 1901–02—was nicknamed “Snake.”

Hooks was a man destined for bad luck, McGraw’s wiles notwithstanding. On July 4, 1908, in the first game of a twin bill with the Phillies, Hooks took a perfect game into the ninth inning and retired the first two batters. The last man up figured to be a pinch hitter for the weak-hitting pitcher, George McQuillan (lifetime batting average in ten seasons, .117). But McQuillan too had not allowed a run, so his manager permitted him to bat. Strike one. Strike two. Then poor Wiltse tried to get cute and threw an 0–2 hook to McQuillan … and hit him, erasing his perfect game. Although the Giants won the game in the tenth and Hooks retained his no-hitter, it was cold comfort. In the history of Major League Baseball there has never been another game like it.

When the Giants next returned to the World Series, in 1911, McGraw revived the black uniforms, but the charm was off, as his team lost to the A’s in six games. Hooks Wiltse made two relief appearances and was clobbered, allowing eight hits and runs less than four  innings’ work.

In the rematch of the clubs in the 1913 World Series, the Giants wore white yet lost in five. But Black Cat Wiltse, fading out as a pitcher, played a vital part in their only victory. Forced into action as a first baseman in the late innings of Game 2 because of an injury to Fred Merkle (talk about a bad-luck charm!), Hooks made back-to-back excellent throws home in the last of the ninth, each time nailing the potential winning run. The Giants won in ten innings.

Trivia Time Capsule

In mid-1985, when I was a struggling baseball writer, someone at the NBC television network called to ask whether I might wish to develop a baseball-trivia segment for a new hour-long prime-time program, American Almanac, that would be hosted by Roger Mudd. I would be the interlocutor for the segment, the staffer said, asking questions of a range of “personalities,” ranging from Pete Rose and Pearl Bailey to David Eisenhower, Abigail Van Buren (“Dear Abby”), and Governor Mario Cuomo. Do I misremember a detail or three? Very likely. But I recall that I was filmed in warm weather, posing the questions from a grandstand seat at Doubleday Field. My stumpers were then put before the respondents in other locations, with the entirety coming together for airing as maybe a six-minute piece on October 21, 1985.

This last point, so specific, I obtained just now from, which offers no clip for viewing (I am thus spared) but does offer this uncorrected text, aiding my recall. I think they spelled my name correctly in the episode, but maybe not. If they went on to misspell Bobby Thomson’s name too, and Masanori Murakami’s, I was at least in good company.


Incredibly to me, I found on my hard drive–created in a CPM version of that old favorite word processing program WordStar–the 55 original trivia questions I had prepared for the segment (not all were used, clearly). I wondered  how many answers would still be correct. I have had to alter a few, but the vast majority held up. Some of the answers,  such as the very first one, changed because of recent research. Others changed simply because the march of time had rendered the question absurd or the answer ambiguous.

Anyhow, I thought you might have some fun with this, a trivia quiz designed for average baseball fans. Most of the questions are Tim Wakefield fastballs; only a few are tossed up with guile. Answers appear at the bottom. I expect YOU to answer them all correctly, and your kids may do pretty well too.

1. Who was the first black to play major-league baseball?

2. With what team did Hall of Fame outfielders Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Zack Wheat all conclude their major-league careers?

3. In 1930, a National League team batted .315 and scored more than six runs per game, yet finished in last place. What team was it?

4. Name the one-armed outfielder of the 1944 St. Louis Browns.

5. When was the last major-league tripleheader (there have been three)?

6. What two teams met in the 1903 World Series, the first of the twentieth century?

7. What two pitchers won 40 or more games in a season in the last century? What pitcher won 59 before 1900?

8. Who is the only pitcher to throw three shutouts in one World Series? 

9. Tinker to Evers to Chance formed the “trio of bear cubs fleeter than birds” that entered the Hall of Fame as a unit in 1945. Who was the third baseman of that great Chicago infield of 1906?

10. Who is the only major leaguer with a lifetime batting average of 1.000 with more than two at bats?

11. Who won the first Cy Young Award, in 1956?

12. Three pitchers threw no-hitters in their first major-league start. Name one.

13. The Chicago White Sox of 1919 threw the World Series in what became known as the Black Sox Scandal. Which team won that Series?

14. The final game of the 1924 World Series was decided by a routine grounder that hit a pebble and bounded over the third baseman’s head. What were the teams, who hit the grounder, and who was the third baseman?

15. Who played Babe Ruth in the 1948 film biography?

16. Six men have received an intentional base on balls despite the bases being full. Name them.

17. What was the first-base platoon of the champion 1969 Mets?

18. When Bobby Thomson hit the “shot heard round the world” off Ralph Branca to win the 1951 National League pennant, what uniform number was Branca wearing?

19. Thirteen men have hit two grand slam homers in one game; the first National Leaguer among them was a pitcher. Who was he?

20. Who was the last man to bat .400 in a season, and who has come closest since? 

21. Yankee Bill Bevens had a no-hitter going with two outs in the ninth of Game 4 in the 1947 World Series. Then he allowed a hit that cost him his no-hitter and the game. Who was the batter? Like Bevens, he would never appear in a regular-season major-league game afterwards.

22. Who was the pinch-hitting star of the New York Giants as they swept the Cleveland Indians in the 1954 World Series?

23. Who holds the record for lowest Earned Run Average in a season with at least 154 innings pitched?

24. What baseball player became world famous as an evangelist?

25. Name the three most recent lefthanded catchers in the major leagues.

26. In 1958 Pittsburgh’s Harvey Haddix threw perfect ball against the Milwaukee Braves for 12 innings, then lost the no-hitter and the game in the 13th. Who was the winning pitcher?

27. Who was the first relief pitcher elected to the Hall of Fame? 

28. Who is the only man to have decided a World Series with a final-game, final-inning home run?

29. In a game in 1963, three brothers manned the outfield spots for the same club and batted in succession. Who were they?

30. Who was the final batter to face Don Larsen in his perfect game of October 8, 1956?

31. In 1917, two pitchers hurled no-hitters against each other, in the same game. Who were they?

32. What team entered the World Series with the worst won-lost record of any pennant winner?

33. Who holds the record for most homers by a second baseman?

34. What positions has Pete Rose played as a regular?

35. How many batting titles did Ty Cobb win?

36. Who was the first player to come from the Japanese major leagues to the American?

37. Who is the last man to win the batting triple crown?

38. Who is the last man to throw a perfect game in the regular season?

39. The Dodgers of the mid-1960s had an all switch-hitting infield. Name the players.

40. What Hall of Fame shortstop was known as “Old Aches and Pains”? 

41. What pitcher was removed for a pinch hitter despite having only one inning to go for a no-hitter?

42. What baseball announcer said, “He slud into third”?

43. What is Yogi Berra’s first name?

44. Who are the only brothers in the Hall of Fame?

45. What year did the Brooklyn Dodgers win their only World Series?

46. What are the tools of ignorance?

47. When Pete Rose hit in 44 straight games in 1978, whose National League record did he tie?

48. What pitcher with 20 or more wins has the highest single-season winning percentage?

49. How many times did Henry Aaron hit 50 or more homers?

50. Who was the last man to hit 60 homers in a season?

51. Off whom did Roger Maris hit his 61st homer? Ruth his 60th? Bonds his 73rd?

52. What are the most recent expansion teams in each league?

53. What terrible-fielding Pirate first baseman was known as Dr. Strangeglove?

54. Who replaced Lou Gehrig at first base when he finally sat down after playing 2,130 consecutive games? Whom did Gehrig replace when he himself broke in?

55. What uniform number did the St. Louis Browns’ Eddie Gaedel wear when he came to bat in his only game, against Detroit in 1951?


1. William Edward White, in 1879 (not Jackie Robinson or Moses Fleetwood Walker).

2. The Philadelphia Athletics of 1927-28.

3. The Philadelphia Phillies, whose pitchers allowed nearly eight runs per game.

4. Pete Gray.

5. October 2, 1920, between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds, at Forbes Field.

6. Pittsburgh (NL) and Boston (AL).

7. Ed Walsh (40) and Jack Chesbro (41); Hoss Radbourn, 59 in 1884.

8. Christy Mathewson in 1905 against the A’s.

9. Harry Steinfeldt.

10. John Paciorek, who went 3-for-3 with two walks and 3 RBIs in his only game, for Houston in 1963.

11. Don Newcombe of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

12. Bobo Holloman (Browns, 1953), Ted Britenstein (1898), and Bumpus Jones (1892).

13. Cincinnati Reds.

14. The Washington Senators defeated the New York Giants; Earl McNeely hit the ball; the third baseman was Freddie Lindstrom.

15. William Bendix.

16. Abner Dalrymple (1881); Nap Lajoie (1901); Del Bissonette (1928); Bill Nicholson (1944); Barry Bonds (1998); Josh Hamilton (2008).

17. Donn Clendenon and Ed Kranepool.

18. Thirteen.

19. Tony Cloninger of the Atlanta Braves, in 1966.

20. Ted Williams, .406 in 1941; Tony Gwynn, .394 in 1994.

21. Cookie Lavagetto.

22. Dusty Rhodes.

23. Dutch Leonard, 0.96 in 1916.

24. Billy Sunday.

25. Dale Long (1958), Mike Squires (1980), and Benny Distefano (1989).

26. Lew Burdette.

27. Hoyt Wilhelm, 1985.

28. Bill Mazeroski, of the 1960 Pirates.

29. Matty, Felipe, and Jesus Alou of the San Francisco Giants.

30. Pinch hitter Dale Mitchell, who fanned.

31. Hippo Vaughn and Fred Toney.

32. The New York Mets of 1973, 82-79.

33. Davey Johnson with the Braves in 1973, and Rogers Hornsby with the Cards in 1922; each hit 42.

34. Second base, third base, left field, right field, and first base.

35. Twelve, coming in thirteen years; the only year he missed, he batted .371.

36. MasanoriMurakami, with San Francisco in 1964-65.

37. Carl Yastrzemski, Boston Red Sox, 1967.

38. Dallas Braden, A’s, 2010.

39. First base, Wes Parker. Second base, Jim LeFebvre. Shortstop, Maury Wills. Third base, Jim Gilliam.

40. Luke Appling.

41. Clay Kirby of the Padres or Don Wilson of the Astros, both removed by the same manager—Preston Gomez.

42. Dizzy Dean.

43. Lawrence.

44. Paul and Lloyd Waner and George and Harry Wright.

45. 1955.

46. The catcher’s gear.

47. Willie Keeler’s.

48.  Ron Guidry, .893 when he went 25-3 in 1978.

49. None.

50. In 2001 Barry Bonds hit and Sammy Sosa hit 64.

51. Maris, Tracy Stallard; Ruth, Tom Zachary; Bonds, Dennis Springer.

52. AL: Tampa Bay Rays; NL: Arizona Diamondbacks, 1998.

53. Dick Stuart.

54. Babe Dahlgren replaced Gehrig on May 2, 1939. While it widely believed that Gehrig’s streak commenced on June 2, 1925 when he replaced slumping first baseman Wally Pipp, in fact it began one day earlier, when he pinch hit for shortstop Pee Wee Wanninger.

55. Number 1/8.

Too Late to Reach Home Plate

In 2005 on eBay an unusual item came up for sale: a trophy presentation of a silver baseball and miniature bats that had been given to James Whyte Davis in 1875 to commemorate 25 years’ play with the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. The award presentation took place at a banquet following baseball’s first old-timers’ game, between the Knicks of 1850 (“Veterans,” including founding father Daniel Lucius Adams, who played catcher) and those of 1860 (“Youngs,” for whom Davis pitched).

The recipient’s name is engraved on each of the bats and the ball reads: “Presented to James Whyte Davis on the Twenty Fifth Anniversary of his election as a member of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club by his fellow members. 1850 Sept. 26 1875. Never ‘Too Late.’” Davis had been such an ardent and energetic player that his vehement protests at being excluded from play when he showed up a few minutes after the appointed time won him the twin nicknames of “The Fiend” and “Too Late.”

After nine days in which no one met the opening ask of $49,999.99, three bidders stepped up to the plate in the last three hours and the trophy was were was knocked down at $76,118.99. The seller’s representative was Global Garage Sale of Winooski, Vermont, whose other eBay offerings at that moment include a gold Parker pen/pencil set, a Casio electronic cash register, and a John Deere lawn tractor. In the words of theVermontreps, “The seller discovered the trophy in the attic of her husband’s uncle in New Jerseyafter the uncle passed away in 1977. He was in his 80s at the time, and had been a huge baseball fan. She doesn’t have any other information other than that he was a big fan and grew up in the area in the early 1900s. She has had it in storage ever since, but wants someone to own it who truly appreciates the history of baseball and the significance of this piece.” The winning bidder was not identified, but I hope he or she reads this story.

Who was James Whyte Davis? Famous in his day but forgotten in ours, he comes into view for those who rummage around in early baseball history, exchanging scraps of data and delighting over a new find — a birth or death date, next of kin, a trail of addresses. One perhaps unlikely comrade of mine in such spelunking is Peter J. Nash, author of Baseball Legends of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery (Arcadia), a book that details how some of the 200 or so baseball pioneers, among them James Whyte Davis, came to this final resting place. To those of you who are hiphop fans, you may know Peter as the onetime Prime Minister Pete Nice of Third Bass. Those in the baseball memorabilia field may know him too.

Davis was born in New York on March 2, 1826 to John and Harriet Davis, both from Connecticut. Drifting away from his father’s trade as shipmaster and sometime liquor merchant, James became a broker successively of fruit, produce, general merchandise, and, finally, stock certificates. Like so many of the early ballplayers, he belonged to a volunteer fire company, in his case the Oceana No. 36. He married Maria Harwood of Maryland, with whom he had two sons and a daughter, though Maria left him a widower at a young age. These are the prosaic details. His life was wrapped up in baseball, as in death he would come to be.

On the 27th of August, 1855, a month shy of its ten-year anniversary, the Knickerbockers unfurled their first banner from the flagstaff over the clubhouse at the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, New Jersey. Designed by Davis, the triangular pennant, with a blue “K” in a white circle surmounting one red and one blue horizontal panel, flew over the Knickerbocker clubhouse for the last time at this 1875 celebration, “worn to ribbons by long service,” reported the New York Sun. Afterward, it was draped over Davis’s dresser until his death. His long devotion to baseball and involvement in its defining moments made him a key participant in some monumental disputes.

In an 1856 Knickerbocker meeting Louis F. Wadsworth, along with Adams and others, backed a motion to permit outsiders to join in with Knicks in their intrasquad games at the Elysian Fields if fewer than 18 Knicks were present. Original Knickerbocker president Duncan F. Curry counter-moved that if 14 Knickerbockers were available, the game should admit no outsiders and be played shorthanded. The Curry forces (which included Davis) prevailed, 13–11. This vote came at a time when baseball was played to 21 runs, and the rules as yet specified no number of innings. The Davis/Curry faction next recommended that a seven-inning game become the new standard. In a twisty tale of intrigue at the first convention of the New York area clubs, Wadsworth, defeated within his own Knickerbocker ranks, convinced the other clubs to go with nine men and nine innings. A pariah among his clubmen, Wadsworth resigned and resumed his former affiliation with the Gothams. The Knickerbockers began their long fade from the top ranks of competition.

In another enduring controversy, Davis was, with Walter T. Avery, a delegate to the 1867 convention of the National Association of Amateur Base Ball Players. With two other individuals of the nominating committee, he responded to the petition for membership of the Pythians of Philadelphia, an all-black organization, by rejecting any club “composed of persons of color, or any portion of them …  and [the committee] unanimously report against the admission of any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons.” In seeking to keep out of the Convention the discussion of any subject having a political bearing, the game’s color line had been drawn. The committee further proclaimed, “If colored clubs were admitted there would be in all probability some division of feeling, whereas, by excluding them no injury could result to anyone.”

So Davis came down on the wrong side of history in two major battles. The  Knickerbockers, an anachronism by the time of the Civil War, somehow endured until 1882, two years after Davis finally ceased to play. He entered the following decade as a widower, living in want in a Manhattan apartment building. OnJuly 27, 1893, the New York Sun printed his letter to Edward B. Talcott, a principal owner of the New York Giants:

My good friend,

Referring to our lately conversation on Baseball I now comply with your request to write you a letter on the subject then proposed by me and which you so readily and kindly offered to take charge of, after my death, namely, to procure subscriptions to place a Headstone on my grave.

My wish is that Baseball players be invited to subscribe Ten Cents each and no matter how small a sum is collected, it will be sufficient to place an oak board with an inscription on my resting place, but whatever it may be, I would like it as durable as possible without any ornamentation—simply something that “he who runs may read.”…

 All relations and immediate friends are well informed that I desire to be buried in my baseball suit, and wrapped in the original flag of the old Knickerbockers 1845, now festooned over my bureau and for the past eighteen years and interred with the least possible cost.

I suggest the following inscription in wood or in stone:

 Wrapped in the Original Flag

Of the

Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of N.Y.,

Here lies the body of

James Whyte Davis,

A member for thirty years.

He was not “Too Late,”

Reaching the “Home Plate.”

Born March 2, 1826.

Died ______ [he would die February 15, 1899]

I should be pleased to show you my Glass case containing the trophies of my Silver Wedding with the Old Knickerbockers in 1875 and which I intend to bequeath to you, should you so desire as a mark of appreciation of the kindly act which you have undertaken to perform. Kindly acknowledge receipt of this.

And I am Yours sincerely and thankfully,

James Whyte Davis.

Perhaps it is through the Talcott family that the Davis trophy came to reside with the eBay seller. The dismaying thing is that in the end no dimes were collected forDavis’s headstone, and he lies in the sod at Green-Wood in an unmarked grave. Even his cemetery records have his middle name wrong (“White”) because whoever scribbled the burial transit slip didn’t care. Maybe the owner of the Silver Wedding trophies  could throw a dime toward a fund to place a marker at Section 135, Lot 30010. Maybe a baseball organization or benefactor might be persuaded to chip in, too.

Peter Nash wrote to me about the Green-Wood Historic Fund and its “Saved in Time” program. “All contributions regarding player memorials go to the Historic Fund with ‘Elysian Fields Monument Trust’ [the organization that Nash founded] noted on the check memo. We have already fully restored the [Henry] Chadwick monument and the [Jim] Creighton monument’s restoration is underway. (The missing ball at its apex is to be replaced)…. Perhaps JWD’s initial wish of ‘a ten cent subscription’ could be fullfilled in true ‘Too Late’ fashion by our present day MLB players.”

I have sent in my check.

Baseball as a National Religion

In 2008while working on Baseball in the Garden of Eden, I found this wonderful essay tucked away in my files. I am pleased to share it with you now, on the chance that it is unfamiliar. Philosopher Morris R. Cohen published it in The Dial,Vol. 67, p. 57 (July 26, 1919). In baseball’s boom decade of the 1910s, highbrow pundits and philosophers marvel at baseball’s democratic blessings. Baseball was second only to death as a leveler,” wrote essayist Allen Sangree for Everybody’s Magazine in 1907, ten years before World War I would level American youth more literally. Even after the carnage, in July 1919, Cohen, whom Bertrand Russell called “the most significant philosopher in the United States,” could still write a glowing paean to the game.

IN THE WORLD’S HISTORY baseball is a new game: hence new to song and story and uncelebrated in the fine arts of painting, sculpture, and music. Now, as Ruskin has pointed out, people generally do not see beauty or majesty except when it has been first revealed to them in pictures or other works of art. This is peculiarly true of the people who call themselves educated. No one who prides himself on being familiar with Greek and Roman architecture and the classic masters of painting would for a moment admit that there could be any beauty in a modern skyscraper. Yet when two thousand years hence some Antarctic scholar comes to describe our civilization, he will mention as our distinctive contribution to art our beautiful office buildings, and perhaps offer in support of his thesis colored plates of some of the ruins of those temples of commerce. And when he comes to speak of America’s contribution to religion, will he not mention baseball? Do not be shocked, gentle or learned reader! I know full well that baseball is a boy’s game, and a professional sport, and that a properly cultured, serious person always feels like apologizing for attending a baseball game instead of a Strauss concert or a lecture on the customs of the Fiji Islanders. But I still maintain that, by all the canons of our modern books on comparative religion, baseball is a religion, and the only one that is not sectarian but national.

The essence of religious experience, so we are told, is the “redemption from the limitations of our petty individual lives and the mystic unity with a larger life of which we are a part.” And is not this precisely what the baseball devotee or fanatic, if you please, experiences when he watches the team representing his city battling with another? Is there any other experience in modern life in which multitudes of men so completely and intensely lose their individual selves in the larger life which they call their city? Careful students of Greek civilization do not hesitate to speak of the religious value of the Greek drama. When the auditor identifies himself with the action on the stage–Aristotle tells us–his feelings of fear and pity undergo a kind of purification (catharsis). But in baseball the identification has even more of the religious quality, since we are absorbed not only in the action of the visible actors but more deeply in the fate of the mystic unities which we call the contending cities. To be sure, there may be people who go to a baseball game to see some particular star, just as there are people who go to church to hear a particular minister preach; but these are phenomena in the circumference of the religious life. There are also blasé persons who do not care who wins so long as they can see what they call a good game–just as there are people who go to mass because they admire the vestments or intoning of the priest–but this only illustrates the pathology of the religious life. The truly religious devotee has his soul directed to the final outcome; and every one of the extraordinarily rich multiplicity of movements of the baseball game acquires its significance because of its bearing on that outcome. Instead of purifying only fear and pity, baseball exercises and purifies all of our emotions, cultivating hope and courage when we are behind, resignation when we are beaten, fairness for the other team when we are ahead, charity for the umpire, and above all the zest for combat and conquest.

When my revered friend and teacher William James wrote an essay on “A Moral Equivalent for War,” I suggested to him that baseball already embodied all the moral value of war, so far as war had any moral value. He listened sympathetically and was amused, but he did not take me seriously enough. All great men have their limitations, and William James’s were due to the fact that he lived in Cambridge, a city which, in spite of the fact that it has a population of 100,000 souls (including the professors), is not represented in any baseball league that can be detected without a microscope.

Imagine what will happen to the martial spirit in Germany if baseball is introduced there–if any Social Democrat can ask any Herr von Somebody, “What’s the score?” Suppose that in an exciting ninth-inning rally, when the home team ties the score, Captain Schmidt punches Captain Miller or breaks his helmet. Will the latter challenge him to a duel? He will not. Rather will he hug him frenziedly or pummel him joyfully at the next moment when the winning run comes across the home plate. And after the game, what need of further strife? When Jones of Philadelphia meets Brown of New York there may be a slight touch of condescension on one side, or a hidden strain of envy on the other side, but they take each other’s arm in fraternal fashion, for they have settled their differences in an open, regulated combat on a fair field. And if one of us has some sore regrets over an unfortunate error which lost the game, there is always the consolation that we have had our inning, and though we have lost there is another game or season coming. And what more can a reasonable man expect in this imperfect world than an open chance to do his best in a free and fair fight?

Every religion has its martyrs; and the greatest of all martyrdoms is to make oneself ridiculous and to be laughed at by the heathen. But whatever the danger, I am ready to urge the claims of international baseball as capable of arousing far more national religious fervor than the more monotonous game of armaments and war. Those who fear “the deadly monotony of a universal reign of peace” can convince themselves of the thrilling and exciting character of baseball by watching the behavior of crowds not only at the games but also at the baseball score-boards miles away. National rivalries and aspirations could find their intensest expression in a close international pennant race, and yet such rivalry would not be incompatible with the establishment of the true Church Universal in which all men would feel their brotherhood in the Infinite Game.

Sam Rice

Burrowing around the archives of the Baseball Hall of Fame many years ago I came across an envelope marked: “Not to be opened till after the death of Sam Rice. [signed] Paul S. Kerr [longtime Hall of Fame official].” Oh, if that doesn’t set your heart a-racing, you don’t love baseball history

A baseball controversy settled from beyond the grave–this is surely one of the oddest letters in the Hall’s collection. In the eighth inning of Game 3 of the 1925 World Series, in Washington, the Senators held a 4-3 lead over the Pirates. But with two outs, Pirates catcher Earl Smith slugged a ball into deep right center. Right fielder Edgar Charles Sam” Rice ran for it, leapt, and tumbled into the temporary bleachers. He didn’t reappear for at least ten seconds, but he held the ball for all to see. Umpire Cy Rigler called Smith out; the Pirates went bonkers. How could anyone tell whether Rice had caught the ball? A fan could have handed it to him.

The play might have remained controversial had the Pirates not won the Series anyway. Forty years later Sam Rice decided to set the record straight. He composed this letter on July 27, 1965, during Induction Weekend in Cooperstown, and gave it to Kerr, at that time the Hall’s president, with instructions that it not be opened until after his death. Rice had been inducted into the Hall in 1963 for his twenty years of stellar play, nineteen of them with Washington. When Sam met his Maker on October 13, 1974, the controversy could be settled at last. What follows is a verbatim transcription:

It was a cold and windy day. The right field bleachers were crowded with people in overcoats and wrapped in blankets, the ball was a line drive headed for the bleachers towards right center. I turned slightly to my right and had the ball in view all the way, going at top speed, and about 15 feet from bleachers jumped as high as I could and back handed and the ball hit the center of pocket in glove (I had a death grip on it). I hit the ground about 5 feet from a barrier about 4 feet high in front of bleacher with all the brakes on but couldn’t stop so my feet hit the barrier about a foot from top and I toppled over on my stomach into first row of bleachers. I hit my adams apple on something which sort of knocked me out for a few seconds but Earl McNeely arrived about that time and grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me out. I remember trotting back towards the infield still carrying the ball for about half way and then tossed it towards the pitchers mound. (How I have wished many times that I had kept it.)

At no time did I lose possession of the ball.

“Sam” Rice

P.S. After this was announced at the dinner last night I approached Bill McKechnie (one of the finest men I have ever known in Baseball) and I said Bill, you were the Mgr of Pittsburgh at that time, what do you think will be in the letter. His answer was, Sam there was never any doubt in my mind but what you caught the ball. I thanked him as much as to say you were right.

Rice, curiously to observers in today’s milestone-obsessed age, retired at 44 with 2,987 hits. He didn’t see any great value in hanging on to get number 3,000. In later years he was often asked why he retired so close to the magic number. “You must remember,” he’d explain, “there wasn’t much emphasis on three thousand hits when I quit. And to tell the truth, I didn’t know how many hits I had.” Expanding upon that thought he said, “A couple of years after I quit, [Senators owner] Clark Griffith … asked me if I’d care to have a comeback with the Senators and pick up those 13 hits. But I was out of shape, and didn’t want to go through all that would have been necessary to make the effort. Nowadays, with radio and television announcers spouting records every time a player comes to bat, I would have known about my hits and probably would have stayed to make 3,000 of them.”

So when Derek Jeter attained his 3,000th hit last season, he awakened the ghosts of Cap Anson, Nap Lajoie, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Eddie Collins, and Tris Speaker. Rice could have been next in line, before Paul Waner. But his name was on no one’s lips, for want of 13 hits.

The Most Important Game in Baseball History?

Was this game truly more important than that of April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson first set foot on a major league field? No, not when you take into account the resonant social and cultural issues of that event. One might look to other games too–the introduction of night ball, for instance, or the first game played by Knickerbocker rules, or Carlton Fisk’s home run in Game Six of the 1975 World Series. and so on. But this is my choice. If you think it’s a poor one, I’ll count on you to let me know! 

After the famous tour of the Brooklyn Excelsiors in 1860, which took them as far north as Canada and as far south as Baltimore, the outbreak of war had quashed any thought of new junkets. Then in baseball’s boom year of 1867 the Washington Nationals, a club that had formed prior to the war, announced that it would take a trip unlike any thus far attempted. Their notice published in the Clipper read:

The famous Washington club will start upon their proposed Western trip on the 10th [of July], visiting and playing friendly games with the leading clubs of Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Chicago, reaching the latter place on the 24th. . . .

The Washington club was in fact not yet famous, but wished to become so. They had played only five match games in 1865, when they had welcomed clubs from Philadelphia and Brooklyn to play on the lot behind newly installed President Andrew Johnson’s White House.

Although the 1866 Nationals won ten games against five defeats, they were by no means a club to rank alongside the Atlantics, Athletics, Mutuals, or the champion Unions of Morrisania. Those Unions were led by handsome young George Wright, the coming hero of the age, whose older brother Harry had played with the Knickerbockers in the 1850s and had lately reverted to the role of a cricket professional, in Cincinnati.

In 1867 the Nationals strengthened themselves with additional recruits, giving each a patronage government job, and somehow persuaded Wright to join them too. Although the players were nominal amateurs, there can be no doubt of their uniformly professional status. The club president listed Wright’s place of employment as 238 Pennsylvania Avenue, at that time an open field and even today a parking lot.

During the three weeks of their Western tour the Nationals made a show of maintaining their amateur status by refusing payments of any kind, even declining reimbursement for travel expenses; these, of course, were covered by their employers, who had graciously permitted them to abandon the desks at which they had seldom been seen anyway. The aim of the National Club directors in going out on tour was not pecuniary gain but social éclat and pride of place: the Western farmers had been getting a bit chesty about their brand of baseball and, it was thought back East, needed a slap of reality at the hands of an experienced ball club.

The Nationals prepared for their trip with easy triumphs over local cupcakes until they journeyed to Cincinnati to play the Red Stockings on July 15, in a battle of two unbeaten nines. George Wright’s older brother Harry had left New York for the Queen City of the West in March 1865 to serve as the professional instructor and bowler of its Union Cricket Club. It may have seemed to him that as there was no real money to be made from baseball, and the distant cricket club was offering him $1200 annual salary, he might as well return to the trade of his father, Sam Wright, the formidable cricket professional of the celebrated St. George club.

By the summer of 1866 the Cincinnati Base Ball Club formed, and Harry Wright was enticed to be its pitcher. To devote his full attention to the new national game for 1867 the baseball club’s directors, many of them holding office in common with the cricket club, offered him the same salary he was already receiving to switch sports. The other players were local amateurs, including some doing double duty as cricketers, and they did not take the field until the end of September.

Leading up to their match with the Nationals, the 1867 edition of the Cincinnati Base Ball Club—already popularly named “Red Stockings” for the innovation of hiking their pants, better to display their manly calves in carmine hose, while all other players still wore long trousers—had drubbed four local clubs. But Harry’s expected pleasure in playing against his brother’s club soon was dashed: after initially holding their own against the Nationals, tied at 6–6 into the fourth inning, the Reds ultimately were humiliated by a count of 53–10. Although this would be their only loss of the year, it came against their only opponent from outside the tri-state area, and so a lesson was there to be drawn. At the end of the season the Red Stocking directors instructed Harry to follow the Nationals’ model and begin recruiting professionals from distant places. The upshot, of course, was the brazenly professional Red Stockings of 1869, undefeated against all comers from coast to coast.

After crushing the Red Stockings and four other patsies, the Nationals headed for Chicago for highly anticipated games against that city’s best, the Excelsiors and Atlantics, named in emulation of Brooklyn’s finest clubs. The Forest Citys of Rockford had already played the Excelsiors twice that year, losing narrowly each time—the scores were 45–41 and 28–25—and thus ceded the state championship. All the same, the Rockford boys were given the consolation prize of an invitation to Chicago to play what amounted to a warmup game against the Nationals on Thursday the 25th at Dexter Park. On the following Saturday the Nationals would defeat Rockford’s nemesis, the Excelsiors, by a score of 49–4 (not a typo); on Monday the Washington nine would trounce the Atlantics by 78–17.

Facing a frightful outcome, the “corn crackers” of Rockford were led by novice pitcher Albert Spalding, not yet seventeen years of age. Four decades later he recalled:

I experienced a severe case of stage fright when I found myself in the pitcher’s box, facing such renowned players as George Wright, [Frank] Norton, [Harry] Berthrong, [George] Fox, and others of the visiting team…. A great lump arose in my throat, and my heart beat so like a trip-hammer that I imagined it could be heard by everyone on the grounds. I knew, also, that every player on the Rockford nine had an idea that their kid pitcher would surely become rattled and go to pieces as soon as the strong batters of the Nationals had opportunity to fall upon his delivery….

There were several interesting plays in the game, as noted in the contemporary press. In the third inning Al Barker of Rockford “went to his base on a ball which dropped from the bat.” Sounds like a bunt, doesn’t it? Yet the “baby hit” is thought today to have been invented by Tom Barlow some years later (Tommy is equally famous as baseball’s first drug addict, hooked on morphine in 1874). In the sixth inning George Wright “took the bat and by a splendid stroke to center field made a home run.” As Spalding recalled,

…the Forest Citys had by this time gotten pretty well settled and their stage-fright had disappeared, yet none of us even then had the remotest idea that we were destined to win the game over such a famous antagonist. The thought or suggestion of such a thing at that stage would probably have thrown us into another mental spasm.

At this psychological moment, Col. Frank Jones, President of the National Club, rushed up to George Wright, who was about to take his position at the bat, and said, in a louder voice possibly than he intended:

“Do you know, George, that this is the seventh innings and we are six runs behind? You must discard your heavy bat and take a lighter one; for to lose this game would be to make our whole trip a failure.” Col. Jones’ excited manner plainly indicated his anxiety.

This incident inspired the Rockfords with confidence and determination, and for the first time we began to realize that victory was not only possible, but probable, and the playing of our whole team from that time forward was brilliant.

The eighth inning produced a double play, still rare in these days before the glove: “Wright struck and went to first base. Fox followed and knocked a ball to Spalding, who threw it to Addy on 2b, and Addy immediately sent it to 1st, thus putting out Wright and Fox. This was very finely done.” Rockford and Spalding held their six-run lead, emerging victorious by a score of 29–23.

There had been upsets before in baseball’s brief history, but never one on this scale. Immediately it was alleged that the Nationals had tanked the game so as to narrow the odds for their coming contest against the Atlantics. When the Nationals won that game handily to close out their tour, the cries of fraud regarding the Rockford contest only grew louder. No one could have known that several of the Forest City lads would one day become nationally prominent players—particularly Spalding and infielder Ross Barnes.

The Nationals broke up after the season, but even in defeat their Steinbrennerian squadron had supplied the model for how baseball might succeed as America’s game. The club had brought together the best talent from distant places, and playing skill rather than local celebrity would be the path to victory ever after. Cincinnati began importing stars in 1868, and one year later took the Washington Nationals model to its logical conclusion—an all-star team.

While it is often written that the Red Stockings of 1869 were the first professional club, we have seen this not to be so. Every member of the 1867 Nationals was paid to play. That they lost to Rockford, a club that had been defeated by the Excelsiors, whom the Nationals went on to drub mercilessly, points to one of the game’s glories, routinely on exhibit every day.

You just don’t know who’s going to win.

The Charm of the Game

Today we think of baseball as an anachronism, a last vestige of America’s agrarian paradise—an idyllic game that takes us back to a more innocent time. But baseball as we might recognize it originated in New York City, not rural Cooperstown, and in truth it was an exercise in nostalgia from the beginning. Alexander Cartwright and his Knickerbockers began play in Madison Square in 1842, and the city’s northward progress soon compelled them to move uptown to Murray Hill.

When the grounds there were also threatened by the march of industry, the Knicks ferried across the Hudson River to the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, a landscaped retreat of picnic grounds and scenic vistas that was designed by its proprietors to relieve New Yorkers of city air and city care. In other words, the purpose of baseball’s primal park was the same as that of New York’s Central Park or, much later, Boston’s Fenway Park—to give an increasingly urban populace a park within the city, a place reminiscent of the idealized farms that had sent all these lads to the metropolis in pursuit of work.

Thus the attraction of the game in its earliest days was first the novelty and exhilaration of play; second the opportunity for deskbound city clerks to expend surplus energy in a sylvan setting, freed from the tyranny of the clock; and third, to harmonize with an American golden age that was almost entirely legendary.

Simple charms, simple pleasures. In the late 1860s, advancing skills led to heightened appetites for victory, which led to hot pursuit of the game’s gifted players, which inevitably led to sub rosa payments and, by 1870, rampant professionalism. (Doesn’t that chain reaction put one in mind of college football or basketball?) The gentlemanly players of baseball’s first generation retreated from the field, shaking their heads in dismay at how greed had perverted the “grand old game”—now barely 20 years old—and probably ruined it forever.

Sound familiar? It should—the same dire and premature announcements of the demise of the game have been issued ever since, spurred by free-agent signings, long-term contracts, no-trade provisions, strikes and lockouts, integration, night ball, rival leagues, ad infinitum. The only conclusions a calm head might draw from this recurring cycle of disdain for the present and glorification of the past are that (a) things aren’t what they used to be and never were; (b) accurate assessment of a present predicament is impossible, for it requires perspective; and (c) no matter what the owners or players or rules makers or fans do, they can’t kill baseball. All three conclusions are correct. In baseball, the distinction between amateur and professional is not clear-cut: an amateur may play for devotion to the game (amat being the Latin for “he loves”), but a professional does not play for pursuit of gain alone; he plays for love, too.

Oh, don’t you remember the game of base-ball we saw twenty years ago played,

When contests were true, and the sight free to all, and home-runs in plenty were made?

When we lay on the grass, and with thrills of delight, watched the ball squarely pitched at the bat,

And easily hit, and then mount out of sight along with our cheers and our hat?

And then, while the fielders raced after the ball, the men on the bases flew round,

And came in together. four batters in all. Ah! That was the old game renowned.

Now salaried pitchers, who throw the ball curved at padded and masked catchers lame         

And gate-money music and seats all reserved is all that is left of the game.

Oh, give us the glorious matches of old, when love of true sport made them great,

And not this new-fashioned affair always sold for the boodle they take at the gate.

                                                                                             –H.C. Dodge

That doomsday ditty was published in 1886.

This is an excerpt from “Baseball: Our Game,” First Digital Edition ISBN: 978-0-9848629-1-7 Copyright © 2011 by John Thorn. All Rights Reserved. Publisher: Thinker Media, Inc. It is available for 99 cents on the Nook; Kindle; iTunes, iPad, and other Apple devices.

Not in the Cards

Now in St. Louis they will know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall. I’d love to turn you on … to the very first player move of this magnitude. There have been several, in which an all-time great relocates at the height of his career, leaving the hometown fans in despair. One thinks of Babe Ruth going from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees in 1920; or Jimmie Foxx going to the Red Sox in Connie Mack’s fire sale of 1935; or Rogers Hornsby or Barry Bonds, Nap Lajoie or King Kelly. Among pitchers a quick spin of the mental wheel offers up Cy Young, John Clarkson, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez.

Fans like to think that before free agency, the best players stayed with one club for life. In fact, players have always moved around at about the same frequency—although in recent times the relocation of a superstar has most often been at his election rather than the club’s. From 1883, when the reserve clause came into the game, until 1974, when free agency kicked in, a player’s obligation to provide his services to his club endured in perpetuity. The club, for many decades, could dismiss him with ten days’ notice.

But at the dawn of Major League Baseball, before the advent of the reserve clause, player contracts ran for the length of the playing schedule only, excepting the highly unusual multiyear deal. At season’s end, all players were free agents and could sign on with whichever club they pleased. Some owners, seeking to gain an edge, offered contracts in midseason that, after mutual signatures, they mothballed and then postdated. Players sometimes signed with one club in this fashion but, knowing that the deal was secret because it was out of bounds, proceeded to sign with another club after the season if it offered better terms.

In 1874 the Chicago White Stockings of the National Association (NA) were nervous that their star shortstop, Davy Force, would desert them at season’s end, as he had left three other clubs in the previous three autumns. In September, they signed him to a renewal contract for 1875, knowing that, because the season was still in progress, NA rules rendered the contract invalid. Chicago signed Force to another contract in November, but the organization blundered by backdating the contract to September, thus voiding it once again. In December, the Philadelphia Athletics offered Force a contract, and he signed it. The NA governing council, led by a an officer of the Athletics, upheld Force’s deal to play in Philly.

William Hulbert, the Chicago club president, seethed at the injustice, feeling that an anti-Western bias by the older clubs of the East was at the root of all his worries. Albert Sopalding star pitcher with Boston at the time and future sporting-goods kingpin, wrote in America’s National Game (1911):

It was borne to him one day that the reason why Chicago, whose phenomenal achievements on other lines were attracting the wonder of all the world, could make no better showing on the diamond was because the East was in league against her; that certain Base Ball magnates in the Atlantic States were in control of the game; were manipulating things to the detriment of Chicago and all Western cities; that if the Chicago Club signed an exceptionally strong player he was sure to be stolen from her; that contracts had no force, because the fellows down East would and did offer players increased salaries and date new contracts back to suit their own ends.

Within a few months, Hulbert proceeded to give the Easterners, who had rustled his prize shortstop, a taste of their own medicine. He not only raided Boston for Spalding but also snatched Ross Barnes, who would bat .364 in his final season with Boston; Deacon White, who would hit for an average of .367; and Cal McVey, who would bat .355. From the hated Philadelphia Athletics Hulbert took another Western boy and perhaps the top prize, Adrian Constantine Anson, then known as “Baby,” not yet “Cap” or “Pop.”

When word leaked in the summer of 1875 that Chicago had stripped Boston of its stars for the following season, a columnist for the Worcester Spy wrote of Boston’s loss: “Like Rachel weeping for her children, she refuses to be comforted because the famous baseball nine, the perennial champion, the city’s most cherished possession, has been captured by Chicago.”

This is about how St. Louis feels today.

But Hulbert had real cause for worry. His club’s contracts had been signed yet again in midseason, so the NA could invalidate them and even, perhaps, expel Chicago for gross misconduct. Then, he came up with a truly big idea. “Spalding,” he said to his eventual ally in revolution, “I have a new scheme. Let us anticipate the Eastern cusses and organize a new association before the March [1876] meeting, and then see who does the expelling.”

And thus was founded, on February 2, 1876, the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, the beginning of what today we call Major League Baseball.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 493 other followers