Jonathan Yardley
When the national pastime was child's play.

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, April 6, 2008


An Informal History of Baseball's Pioneer Era, 1843-1870

By Peter Morris

Ivan R. Dee. 286 pp. $27.50

Peter Morris is at pains to point out, as the title of his entertaining and informative book makes plain, that baseball in its "pioneer era" was played primarily for the sheer fun of it. This may seem sublimely obvious, but some historians of the game's early days have depicted the immensely influential New York Knickerbockers "as such stodgy figures that it becomes impossible to think of them as young men who had fun playing the game." It is true, as Morris says, that the Knickerbockers changed baseball by devising a set of rules in 1845 and thus "burdening a child's game with an adult's seriousness of purpose," but:

"At heart the Knickerbockers were just young men who gained the same pleasure from ball-playing as any other generation. This was equally true of the generation of young men who succeeded them and turned baseball into America's national pastime. It was genuinely an innocent age for baseball and only by understanding this forgotten element can we appreciate how baseball has come to mean so much to Americans."

All of which doubtless is true, but for today's reader the most important theme of Morris's account is not the fun the players had but the transformation of baseball from a child's game into one that adults could play with impunity and without embarrassment. By the 1840s what we now call baseball -- it went by many names, but to avoid confusion we'll stick with that one -- was played all over the country, but in different ways and with different rules from place to place. The one consistent element, in the words of a contemporary, was that "so great was the prejudice of the public against the game at that time, that the players were frequently reproved and censured by their friends for degrading themselves by indulging in such a childish amusement, and this prejudice prevailed to a great extent for many years."

It took a long time for this perception to fade away. Baseball was regarded as a country game for country children, an unsuitable recreation for adults -- even young adults -- in towns and cities. "Base ball," one writer reported in 1860, "has been a school-boy's game all over the land from immemorial time, but it was, until recently, considered undignified for men to play it, except on rare holidays, and then they were wont to play on some out-lying common, where they would be unseen of their more staid associates." In most versions of the game there was a practice called "soaking" -- throwing the ball at base runners to put them out -- and there was nothing remotely comparable to the system of balls and strikes that for generations has been at the core of the game.

Of the 20 rules that the Knickerbockers adopted in 1845, only two -- "the one that abolished soaking and the one that designated a foul as a do-over" were revolutionary, while the others mainly "gave the game a new degree of uniformity." The game as they reinvented it still had a long way to go before it would be recognizable to an early-21st-century couch potato, but the Knickerbockers "made baseball ready for a nation transformed during the 1850s and 1860s by a series of breakthroughs in communication, transportation, and technology that changed how and where Americans lived." Once their rules were printed, in 1856, it became easier to distribute them throughout the country, and when the Knickerbockers ventured away from New York to play teams elsewhere, they brought the rules with them.

"What," Morris asks, "would cause so many Americans to willingly abandon a familiar way of playing ball in favor of a method preferred by faraway New Yorkers?" One explanation, he argues, is that land available for sports was becoming both smaller and scarcer in cities; drawing a distinction between fair and foul territory made it possible to play baseball in a more restricted space. Another is that "having one standard version of playing baseball . . . made it far easier to arrange competitions between clubs." The elimination of soaking made it possible to play with a harder, livelier ball, by contrast with the "soft, often pillowlike ball" that "could not be hit very far, making the game revolve around running and chasing," generally seen as "childish activities."

Baseball fans who assume that the "lively ball" was invented to accommodate Babe Ruth and then reinvented for sluggers of later periods are in for a surprise. Players of the 1860s quickly came to love the new ball, "especially when a rubbery ball was used," as one Pennsylvanian pointed out: "We used the 'lively' ball and when it left the bat after being hit square, [it] came at one as though shot from a cannon . . . a good batsman could drive the ball almost to kingdom come." Soon "almost every town had its legendary stories of long-ball hitters," including a young Bostonian who, according to a later reminiscence, used huge bats and once "struck a ball considerable over the vane of Park Street Church, 225 feet up." Another time he "sent the ball to the face of the clock on the Congregational Church. The following Sunday the choir remained later than usual at rehearsal, and at 1 o'clock the clock struck thirty-seven times. . . . The boy had to quit using those bats for fear of pitchers becoming cross-eyed dodging between the ball and the broken end of the bat."

One of the many virtues of But Didn't We Have Fun? is that Morris has dug deep into contemporary accounts and isn't in the least reluctant to quote from them. During ball games at Beloit College in Wisconsin, for example, "The grave, sedate, dignified President [of the college] was an habitué of the ball ground, and it is reported that he would become so enthused at times that he would rise in his carriage and wave his silk hat, in a very dignified manner, of course, to cheer the boys." The earliest umpires, one player recalled, "were accorded the utmost courtesy by the players. They were given easy chairs, placed near the home plate, provided with fans on hot days and their absolute comfort was uppermost in the minds of the players. After each of our games in the early '60s, sandwiches, beer, cakes and other refreshments were served by the home team. The umpire always received the choicest bits of food and the largest glass of beer -- in case he cared for such beverage. If he didn't, he needed but to express his desires in the thirst-quenching line before the game started -- and he got it."

Gradually such quaint customs vanished as the game inched toward baseball as we now know it. Baseballs remained "precious and irreplaceable" for years, bases sometimes took unlikely forms, fields often were rough and far from flat, grandstands were virtually nonexistent, but as the game became ever more citified it also became more standardized. Fans were welcomed, women as well as men, strong rivalries emerged, and by the Civil War the game was well on its way toward its present eminence. That conflict temporarily slowed the game's growth -- Morris rejects as "at best a half truth" the argument frequently advanced by other historians that "soldiers learned the Knickerbockers' version and brought it back home with them, spurring the great boom of 1866 and 1867" -- but it resumed at war's end.

An important contribution to that growth was the decision by "the National Club of Washington in 1867 to do the previously unthinkable by becoming the first Eastern team to venture west of the Alleghenies," undertaking a 3,000-mile barnstorming trip with "stops in Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Chicago." This "historic tour was a great boon to the spread of enthusiasm for the game" as the club was met with wild approval in city after city. Apparently it bothered no one that the Nationals' players were employed by the U.S. Treasury, a powerful official of which was their club president: "Because the Nationals earned a reputation for gentlemanly conduct and being ambassadors for the sport, few of their contemporaries questioned their methods of player acquisition. But such practices created huge inequities between cities, and these disparities had a corrosive effect on the game."

So too, in the minds of many of the game's pioneers, did the steady move toward professionalism. The most famous team of baseball's early years, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, brought professionalism into the open and helped it gain respectability, largely through the character and actions of its captain, the gentlemanly Harry Wright. But many older players believed the change entailed unwelcome losses, and some of them drifted away from the game for good. Morris laments this as well, but professionalism was inevitable. It is worth noting, too, that the play of the modern Washington Nationals during the 2007 season was heartening evidence that even now, in the age of total professionalism, it remains possible to play baseball and have fun. ·

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