Hazards and Tips for Researchers

This article was written by James Tackach

This article was published in the 1986 Baseball Research Journal


An often-quotes passage in the book What Is History? by E. H. Can, a British historian, states: “The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. They are like fish swimming in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use.”

Can’s statement certainly applies to historians or researchers who are trying~ to recreate the events of nineteenth-century baseball. The “facts” that have been passed down to us about nineteenth-century baseball are a mixture of folklore, myth, legend, misinformation and, of course, truth. Any accurate recreation of a pre-1900 baseball event or a player’s life will involve some careful selection from among the available “facts,” if any are available.

Any baseball researcher investigating the early decades of the game will immediately realize that baseball before the turn of the century is poorly documented; the National League’s first 25 years, important years, are often relegated to an introductory chapter in baseball histories. Indeed some baseball histories begin in 1903, the year that the American League was officially sanctioned. Moreover, those who ran the game in the 1800s, or who covered it in the newspapers or magazines, did not have quite the same fascination with statistics as today’s baseball chroniclers have; as a result, records were often not kept or were kept haphazardly.

Furthermore, the researcher examining baseball records of the 1870s or 1880s must realize that scoring was different from the scoring of today. For example, at one time a pitcher was credited with an assist for a strikeout and charged with an error for a base on balls. Baserunners were once credited with a stolen base when going from first to third on a single.

What’s the researcher to do? Indeed researchers must exercise a great deal of care and judgment when they investigate the salad days of the American Pastime. If they are careful and judicious in their approach and if they use the right research materials, researchers can enrich our sport by accurately recreating these early decades of the game’s history. Indeed the renewed interest in nineteenth-century baseball by members of the Society for American Baseball Research, by academics and by historians with national reputations suggests that this recreation is well underway.

Let me use a personal experience to illustrate the problems faced by nineteenth-century baseball researchers and to suggest some tips and strategies for those undertaking similar research projects.

Early in 1983 I began collecting information on Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn and the 1884 Providence Grays. (My research led to the publication of an article titled “The Greatest Season a Pitcher Has Ever Had” in the “Views of Sport” column in a Sunday edition of the New York Times in June 1984.) By now the story of the Providence Grays’ 1884 season is well known: Radbourn won a record 60 games, the team won the National League pennant and the season ended with the Grays whipping the New York Metropolitans of the American Association in baseball’s first “World Series.”

Also well known is the controversy in July of 1884 which almost led to the Grays’ disbanding. Radbourn, whose recalcitrant reputation was already well established, was suspended in mid-July for purposely blowing a game against the Boston club, the result of an argument with an umpire over a balk call. Charles Sweeney, the hard-throwing young pitcher who alternated with Radbourn, also was suspended several days later and left the club for the St. Louis team of the Union Association.

It is the Sweeney suspension that will serve as an example of the hazards facing the historian who tries to recreate baseball events of the nineteenth century. The story of the suspension of the Grays’ two best pitchers in the middle of a pennant race was a story that could not be left out of any article recreating the events of that season, and I was determined to find out as much as possible about that event. Unfortunately, the answer was unclear: Baseball lore had given me three different versions of the Sweeney suspension.

Many baseball histories merely state that Sweeney deserted the Grays to pitch for St. Louis, which had made him a financial offer that he could not refuse. To me, that explanation made sense; roster wars were common in those years. Even Radbourn was rumored to have entertained offers from teams in rival leagues. But in Baseball’s Best: The Hall of Fame Gallery, Martin Appel gives a different version of the story. In a short biography of Radbourn, Appel wrote: “During Radbourn’s suspension, Sweeney got drunk, was also suspended and jumped the club, joining the St. Louis team of the Union Association.” In his highly respected American Baseball, David Q. Voigt makes a similar statement: “. . . Sweeney, too, was temperamental, as well as a drunkard. When Bancroft [the Grays’ manager] berated him for an all-day drinking spree, Sweeney packed up and jumped to the Unions. . . .”

The Providence Evening Bulletin reporter who covered Sweeney’s last game with the Grays, however, tells a different version of the story. He attributes Sweeney’s troubles to an act of flagrant insubordination in the seventh inning of the Grays’ game against Philadelphia on July 22. According to that reporter, Sweeney started the game in the pitching box for Providence, and manager Bancroft put Cyclone Miller, a pitcher signed to replace the suspended Radbourn, in right field with the intention of having him relieve Sweeney if the Grays got a big lead. Without Radbourn, Bancroft did not want to overwork Sweeney in a lopsided win, and Bancroft also wanted to see Miller’s pitching abilities.

The Grays indeed led, 6-2, at the end of seven innings, and Bancroft saw no need to work Sweeney any longer. He summoned Miller to the pitching box and ordered Sweeney to right field. When Bancroft ordered the switch, Sweeney, according to the Bulletin‘s report, “`kicked’ and with abusive language positively refused to go onto the field, retiring from the game altogether, obliging the home club to continue the game with but eight men.” The Bulletin article concluded: “Action of the management of the home club in the matter of Sweeney’s insubordination resulted in the expulsion of Charles Sweeney from the National League.”

I decided to use the Bulletin‘s version of the story in my recreation of the season of 1884. The Bulletin‘s report, after all, was written by an observer who saw the game first hand, not by a historian writing several decades later. Furthermore, the same explanation for Sweeney’s departure was given in a New York Times article covering the game of July 22. The Times reporter stated that Sweeney “became very angry and left the field” when Bancroft ordered him to right field and that when Bancroft followed him to the dressing room and again requested him to play right field Sweeney “most villainously refused.”

What really happened to Charles Sweeney? My New York Times article stated that “Sweeney was also suspended (and then expelled from the National League) when he refused manager Frank Bancroft’s order to leave the pitcher’s box and move to right field in a game against Philadelphia.” The booklet on Providence baseball of 1875-1885 that was distributed by the Society for American Baseball Research at its 1984 convention (held in Providence to commemorate the Grays’ achievement) stated that Sweeney “packed up and left the team, joining St. Louis of the Union Association.” An article by Thomas L. Carson in the October 1984 issue of Yankee reads: “During Radboum’s suspension, Sweeney got drunk and was also suspended. He quit the team in a huff.” Was Sweeney drunk? Insubordinate? Or was he merely leaving the Grays for better pay in St. Louis?

An article by Andrew Kull in the April-May 1985 issue of American Heritage identifies greed and drunkenness as the causes for Sweeney’s departure. Kull reports that a representative of the St. Louis Maroons had been in Providence all week tempting Sweeney and other Grays with big money. Kull also reports that during his final days with the Grays Sweeney “had taken to sneaking a shot of whiskey in the dressing room between innings. On his last day with Providence, Sweeney had arrived late at the ballpark, declaring to Frank Bancroft, the Providence manager, `I was drunk and was sleeping it off.’ He was ‘drunk and acting stupid’ when he quit the field, and after the game he `staggered out of the park with two women holding him up.’ ” (Unfortunately, Kull gives no source for his quotations about Sweeney’s behavior, and I did not come across that episode in my research.)

Frederick Ivor-Campbell, perhaps seeing legitimacy in all three versions of the Sweeney story, chose to use “all of the above” in his report on the season of 1884 in the spring 1985 issue of The National Pastime. According to Ivor-Campbell, Sweeney was drinking between innings in an exhibition game in Woonsocket, R. I., on July 21, reported late and hungover for the game on July 22, pitched seven innings of that game, then left the field and the team when Bancroft ordered him to right field. And in the parenthetical statement after his report on the Sweeney suspension, Ivor-Campbell wrote: “There is some reason to suppose Sweeney acted deliberately to provoke his dismissal. Once freed from his league contract obligations, he promptly signed with St. Louis of the outlaw Union Association for higher pay; winning 24 games for them in the half season that remained, he completed 1884 with a combined record of 41-15.”

Which of us contemporary baseball researchers has accurately recreated the events of July 22, 1884? For that matter, did Babe Ruth really call his shot in the 1932 World Series? Did some youngster really come up to Joe Jackson after the Black Sox scandal and say, “Say it ain’t so, Joe”? I am unable to supply definite answers to these questions, and I am the first to admit that baseball flourishes partly because of lore and legend and that to recreate events accurately sometimes destroys the sacred myths that have contributed so much to baseball’s popularity. Nonetheless, researchers who are determined to uncover the “facts” of seasons past should be encouraged to do so, and for such fans I have included some research strategies and tips:

  1. Trust primary sources rather than secondary sources. A newspaper account of a game is less tainted by hearsay and folklore than a recreation of the event written 40 or 50 years later. So the researcher should be prepared to spend countless hours in front of microfilm machines reading newspaper accounts of the daily games. Nonetheless, keep in mind that the newspapers of 100 years ago did not delve into the personal lives of players as do today’s newspapers. Therefore, I would not discount the reports of Charles Sweeney’s drinking habits simply because it was not reported in the Providence Evening Bulletin or the New York Times. The scribes who reported baseball games in the summer of 1884 probably could not mention a player’s drinking habits.
  1. Though they can be considered primary sources, mistrust books written by ballplayers. Many are indeed accurate, but some are self-serving and distort the truth. The granddaddy of all such books is A. G. Spalding’s America’s National Game, and baseball historians have long known that Albert Goodwill told a few “stretchers” (as Mark Twain would call them) in that book. Descendants of Spalding’s book include works like Jim Bouton’s Ball Four and Graig Nettles’ Balls. Both are splendid books in many ways, but I am not sure that one should accept every statement in these books as gospel. Would you be more likely to accept Babe Ruth’s version of an event of the “1927 season or Robert Creamer’s version reported in his authoritative biography of the Bambino? Would you believe a report by Ty Cobb or one by Charles C. Alexander in his book on Cobb? I would trust a good baseball historian before I would trust a good baseball player. Especially distrust those quickly produced mass-market paperbacks that never appear in hardcover.
  1. When confronted with several versions of the same story in baseball histories, accept the version of the story by the writer who acknowledges sources and presents and resolves conflicting views of the same event. The historian who presents several versions of a story, with sources provided, is a historian who has done his research, one who probably has considered all possibilities and come to the most logical and reasonable conclusion about what really happened.
  1. For statistics, use the The Baseball Encyclopedia published by Macmillan. Yes, it contains errors, but it is the best available source for statistics. Furthermore, if you want to publish your work, you might have to document your statistics, and the Macmillan publication carries authority with editors. My statistics on Charles Radbourn’s 1884 season differed from those listed in the Macmillan book, but Arthur Pincus, the New York Times editor who accepted my article, informed me that the statistics presented in my article on Radbourn would have to agree with those in the Macmillan publication.

The problems faced by baseball historians are no different from those encountered by other historians. The “facts” are indeed as elusive as fish in the sea, as E. H. Carr suggests. But if baseball researchers fish, the right waters with the right tackle, they are likely to bring to the surface schools of “facts” about the early decades of the game of baseball that will enhance our appreciation of the sport.

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