BASEBALL

The People's Game

By Harold Seymour

Oxford. 639 pp. $24.95

THOUGH his name is not widely known to the general public, or for that matter to most casual baseball fans, for three decades Harold Seymour has been not merely the most respected of the game's historians but also the standard-setter against whose work all others have been weighed. In Baseball: The Early Years (1960) and Baseball: The Golden Age (1971), Seymour accomplished what no one before him had: He legitimized baseball as a subject for serious historical inquiry, and in the process he accumulated more information about the game than had been available in any other published histories.

But since the publication of Seymour's second volume, baseball history, like baseball fiction and baseball statistics and baseball movies, has become a minor growth industry, attracting a few serious people but a number of others whose abilities are limited and whose motives seem more frivolous. This does not sit well with Seymour, who in his new book, Baseball: The People's Game, is rather self-aggrandizing about his own place in baseball history. In his preface he writes, "I scorn the nit-pickers and scrap nibblers, not to mention a few plagiarizers, who, without citing me as their source, like yipping jackals snatch chunks from the disdainful tiger's kill," and in the text itself he is given to boastful asides such as "a collection that I was the first to examine" and "as I was the first to record in a previous volume."

These gratuitous comments are not merely unnecessary -- serious students of baseball scarcely need be reminded of Seymour's great contributions -- but unbecoming as well. They add a faintly sour note to the third volume of his history; by descending to the level of those who have misunderstood or misused his work, Seymour does himself no credit. Beyond that, because Baseball: The People's Game is a less successful work than its predecessors, Seymour's meanness toward his critics and competitors makes him further susceptible to attack; this is a pity, for even though this book falls short of the mark, respectful admiration is still in order.

The People's Game begins with an interesting and, for Seymour, characteristically imaginative idea. Though he had fully expected that the third volume of his history would continue its chronological account of organized baseball in its major and minor leagues, he had the inspiration instead to study the story of the game from its beginnings until World War II "as it was played throughout America . . . on the sandlots, cow pastures, playgrounds and parks, or in connection with various institutions like schools, colleges, prisons and reformatories, industries, churches, town organizations and other sponsors" -- in sum, a "grass-roots" history of baseball comparable to those now being written about other aspects of the American past, emphasizing the accomplishments not of the generals but of the footsoldiers.

This truly is -- as Seymour unfortunately is all too eager to remind us -- uncharted territory; in order to explore it he had to do prodigious research in primary sources, everything from newspapers to college yearbooks to prison wardens' reports. The result, as it appears in The People's Game, is at once laudable and irritating: On the one hand there is an astonishing amount of raw information herein about everything from American Legion ball to softball to black baseball; but on the other hand the volume of information is simply too large and ill-digested, the ultimate effect of which is closer to overload than illumination.

From time to time, as he records the triumphs and defeats of college teams and church teams and industrial teams, Seymour rises above the clutter of data to paint a winning picture of baseball's bygone days or to draw large conclusions from this great mass of trivia. A passage about his own service as batboy for the Brooklyn Dodgers is charming, and a longer section about "town ball" is vivid: "A ball game between town teams ranked with parades, patriotic orations and firecrackers as a Fourth of July must. 'Nothing more picturesque, more delightful, more helpful' had ever arisen out of American rural life to relieve 'the sordid loneliness' of the farm, Hamlin Garland fondly remembered, than the picnics and the ball games that usually accompanied them on July Fourth in Iowa and Wisconsin during the 1870s and 80s."

Among the themes Seymour locates in grass-roots baseball are its patriotic associations, its encouragement of "health, morale and discipline" and its gradual transformation from a children's and young people's game to one overseen and dominated by adults. This last he properly sees as unfortunate:

"Adult obtrusion, however necessary and well-intentioned, on balance ran athwart boys' nature and in the long run very likely their best interests. Already held in tight ligature at home and at school, as at least they once were, boys increasingly found their domain of play invaded too. They were robbed of what sandlot ball in large measure provided: time to escape, to be let alone, to be themselves, to experience and learn on their own at their own pace . . . In short, adult intrusion cramped boys's style. It contravened their simple but supreme need to play ball, or anything else, just for the fun of it without adults constantly standing over them."

That adults would eventually take over baseball at all levels was, as Seymour acknowledges, inevitable in a country that was becoming urbanized and in the process losing the open spaces in which unsupervised baseball thrived; but he views the decline of informal boys' ball and the rise of the Little League with rue, and he has ample reason. Yet even the Little League, with its domineering parents and win-obsessed coaches, bears testimony to what ultimately is the dominant theme of Seymour's study: that we are at all levels of our society a baseball-playing people, and that we have been for almost as long as the game has existed. We inhabit what Seymour calls "the House of Baseball," a building in which discrimination and unfairness exist just as they do in the larger culture, yet in which there is a room of some sort for everyone. Seymour is right to call it "the people's game"; whatever the shortcomings of this third volume, his history both does it justice and pays it tribute.