Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
January 13, 2009
BASEBALL: Book Review: But Didn't We Have Fun?
Morris focuses on two angles: a historical narrative of how the game progressed, and an effort to bring to life the spirit and atmosphere of mid-19th century amateur and semi-amateur baseball. My interest in the book was mainly in the former, though the latter consumed a great deal of the book and offered a lot of fascinating detail. Morris' view is that baseball developed through a process of basically Darwinian evolution, a series of sudden mutations that sometimes (but not always) superseded the old ways because they provided inherent advantages, thus forming breaks in the historical continuity from older games to baseball, and from early amateur baseball to the professional game.
There are several of these critical junctures Morris identifies, including the sudden explosion of interest in baseball in 1857-59 with the 1-2 punch of the growth of rail transport and the widespread distribution of written rules, the first professional player (probably primeval pitcher Jim Creighton for the Excelsiors of Brooklyn in 1859, although it would be a decade before players were paid openly), and the key tours by various clubs. But two are particularly crucial.
First, Morris argues that baseball was, in essence, invented by 25-year-old Alexander Cartwright and the other members of the New York Knickerbockers (Cartwright was not the leader of the club) around 1845, by adopting a set of written rules that made two key innovations that separated baseball from myriad earlier games like "town ball" (versions of which existed with extensive variations in many locales) to say nothing of more distant cousins like cricket and rounders (Morris discusses at some length the extent to which baseball did and did not owe a debt to various of those other games). One of these rules was the creation of foul territory, which had a couple of significant effects: it allowed the game to be played on smaller fields more suited to urban areas (as Morris makes clear, baseball was always, despite its pastoral mythology, an urban game that began in New York City and spread outward from the larger cities to rural areas), and it forced the ball into the field of play, thus putting a premium on fielding the ball rather than just chasing it. (Like many early baseball innovations, Morris explains that this one was to some extent driven by the exigencies of the available land, which at the time was a limited space in Hoboken). The second and really crucial innovation, providing the dramatic break from "town ball" and its ilk and effectively creating the new game of baseball, was the decision to eliminate the practice of throwing out baserunners by hitting them with a thrown ball. As Morris explains, this didn't just change a single rule to make the game more resemble its modern counterpart; it was revolutionary because it singlehandedly (1) placed a premium on fielding skill, (2) eliminated a significant source of injuries, and (3) enabled the use of a harder ball that would travel further when hit (you needed a really soft ball if you were throwing it at men wearing no protective gear), thus creating a faster-paced, higher-scoring game. Morris spends a lot of time discussing the early game's equipment in the days before manufacturers existed to turn out baseballs, bats and bases and before fields were dedicated to play; the ball was hard to make and replace (he has one amusing anecdote about a town where the baseball cores were made from fish eyes), and so was a precious thing - it's not hard to see why men like Albert Spalding saw a great business opportunity in sporting goods by the 1870s.
Of course, the third and most significant of all the decisions made by Cartwright was to write the rules down, enabling the "New York game" to be memorialized and spread around the country just at the moment when an explosion of newspaper circulation and inter-city transportation were creating the first true mass national market for entertainment. Morris is at great pains to explain that the Knickerbockers' goal was not to do anything but formalize rules for a club that had already been playing ball for two years but struggled to keep its members' interest, and indeed the first decade after 1845 showed little growth in the game before those changes in the nation's communications and transportation networks created the conditions for it to spread. One of the core themes of his book is to remind the reader, sometimes by repetition to a fault, that the point of the early game was to have fun and that its participants had quite a lot of fun despite the stuffy formality of the style in which their rules were written down.
The second milestone was the construction of the first enclosed ballpark, the Union Grounds in Brooklyn in 1862. Morris follows a long series of steps that led the way from the organized amateur game to professionalization, but the critical one was that professional teams needed steadier sources of revenue than member dues or wealthy patrons, and that meant charging growing crowds for admission - which in turn meant enclosing the field so such charges could be enforced. As with college football or the Olympics, you can use all the subterfuges you want to hide the compensation of the players, but there's nothing "under the table" about the game's sources of revenue, and once the stadiums were built at considerable expense even for a fairly primitive park (Morris noted that the very first park had a pagoda in center field for the owner and guests, effectively the first luxury box), a club had no choice but to put its best efforts into fielding an entertainingly competitive team, making professionalization inevitable.
Morris' book goes into a lot of additional, colorful detail on the games, the rituals that surrounded them, and the many logistical difficulties faced by early baseball, such as road trips in the days before trains had reliable schedules. He explains how the first team to travel west of the Alleghenies, the original Nationals of Washington in 1867, were aptly named because they were essentially financed by the federal government (in those days before civil service reform, the head of the club was able to hire several players to patronage jobs in the Treasury Department). I have a few criticisms. First, as I said, Morris works a little too hard to remind the reader how much fun the early players were having and how important their rituals were to them. Second, some stories felt undertold - Cartwright himself gets only the most passing treatment - appearing on just two pages of the book - compared to the more fleshed-out portraits of key figures like Henry Chadwick and Harry Wright, and while Jim Creighton is a pivotal figure, the tragic story of his death at age 21 in 1862 (the same year, probably not coincidentally, that Brooklyn was building the Union Grounds) is scattered in footnotes rather than being given a full treatment.
Morris credits the diminutive Creighton with being the first man to change the pitching position from an ordinary fielder to a baffler of batters, with his tricks for increasing velocity and movement and his penchant for throwing pitches that trailed away from the hitter (with terrible physical costs to himself - in the absence of ball/strike calls, hitters would just wait him out, in one instance cited by Morris leading Creighton to throw over 330 pitches in three innings). Here are two accounts of Creighton's death; Morris suggests that his death from a home run swing may be apocryphal, but he doesn't offer an alternative theory. First:
On October 18, 1862, playing against the Union Club of Morrisania, NY, Creighton hit a home run. John Chapman, who was on-deck, heard something snap during Creighton's swing. After Jim crossed home plate he assured Chapman that his belt had broken. Four days later the Excelsior star was dead having ruptured his spleen or bladder in the process. He had bled to death of internal injuries. Jim Creighton was 21.
He swung so mighty a blow in the manner of the day, with hands separated on the bat, little or no turn of the wrists, and incredible torque applied by the twisting motion of the upper body, that it was reported he ruptured his bladder (later review of the circumstances, aided by modern medical understanding, pointed to a ruptured inguinal hernia).
(You can read an 1887 recounting of Creighton's death here).
But these are minor quibbles. Anyone interested in how the game of baseball came to be, and how it became a professional game, will be interested in Morris' book.