This article was written by John Thorn
This article was published in 2007 Baseball Research Journal
This essay, which was selected for inclusion in SABR 50 at 50: The Society for American Baseball Research’s Fifty Most Essential Contributions to the Game, is modified only slightly from the keynote speech delivered at the 12th Annual Seymour Medal Conference, in Cleveland, April 27–29, 2007. The presentation theme of the conference was “How Did We Come to Understand the History of the Game?” The author took brief note of that theme and then shifted his gaze from the rear-view mirror to the road ahead.
Before entering upon my remarks, I would like to thank the Society for American Baseball Research for hosting this conference, the Cleveland Indians for sponsoring it, this year’s five Seymour Medal nominees for making it necessary (Yogi, can ya hear me?), and Dorothy Seymour Mills and her late husband, Dr. Harold Seymour, for inspiring it; their example encouraged so many of us to hunt for gold in baseball’s attic. Even those who may only have found brass came away with a better understanding of our game and, just maybe, the nation whose pastime it is. Geoffrey C. Ward, with whom I worked happily on Ken Burns’s 1994 documentary Baseball, said recently,
Working on the film and book taught me [that]… while most Americans care too little about their history, the baseball community is different. The real meaning of all those apparently impenetrable stats is that the past matters. Without them no player would know where he stood, no fan could measure his or her heroes against those who have gone before. That fact alone should endear the game to any historian.
That it had not, until Dr. Seymour’s 1956 dissertation at Cornell,1 is a fact that may seem puzzling to attendees of this conference. Because the academy still looks askance at baseball history as a merely descriptive exercise, despite a proliferation of theses and credit courses related to the game, we have an opportunity at this conference to ask the worthwhile question that forms our presentation theme: “How did we come to understand baseball history?”
This formulation is parallel but not identical with other questions that will concern us this afternoon: “What is baseball history good for?” “How has baseball history been practiced? And “How might it be better going forward?”
As to the first—“What is baseball history good for?”—some in the audience might reply with umbrage that history, like art, is for its own sake and must serve neither master nor cause; that while it offers tools for discovery, it is itself imperiled when held up to a standard of utility. This is a position with which I will agree…and disagree…if I may be permitted to make a perhaps old-fashioned distinction between History and The Past, the former being rooted in what happened, the latter in what some annalist thought might be useful to the game or even to the nation. So much of what today passes muster as history was created as propaganda or simple cheerleading, from the fibs of Henry Chadwick and Albert Spalding,2 to the pinning of Jim Creighton’s death on cricket rather than baseball, to the heart-rending tale of the Babe and little Johnny Sylvester. This is the sort of history that Henry Ford described in 1916 as bunk. What he actually said was even more incendiary: “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.”3 George Santayana, take that!
Another description of The Past might be “what binds and sustains,” or mythology. History is what we at this gathering practice, but what we meet, out in the world, sometimes with astonishing rapidity, is this notion of The Past, in the form of that word heavy with nothing but trouble: heritage. At its best, acknowledging a common heritage allows us to form communities and maintain vital traditions, Henry Ford notwithstanding. At its worst, it abuses real history for chauvinistic gain. In a personal example, within hours of the May 2004 press conference in which I revealed that baseball was played by that name in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1791, well-meaning but benighted locals were celebrating their city’s usurpation of Cooperstown as the game’s Garden of Eden.4 As David Lowenthal notes in Possessed by the Past, history
differs from heritage not, as people generally supposed, in telling the truth, but in trying to do so despite being aware that truth is a chameleon and its chroniclers fallible beings. The most crucial distinction is that truth in heritage commits us to some present creed [or need]; truth in history is a flawed effort to understand the past on its own terms.”5
In the hands of nearly all its practitioners today, baseball history is a moated activity, in which “what happened” is all that matters. Only occasionally will the drawbridge drop down to connect with not only “what it might be good for” but also with what it might mean in some larger analytical or social context. Finding Walter Johnson’s missing strikeout from 1913; revoking Roger Maris’s bogus RBI in 1961; getting Ty Cobb’s hit totals and batting average right once and for all—these are not means to an end but ends in themselves. I attest to having spent many years in such pursuits: getting things right simply because with effort one could, and because “cleaning up” seemed morally superior to “going along,” accepting what was wrong. Besides, it was fun to debunk the notion, held for generations, that the pitching distance had retreated ten and a half feet in 1893 when it had only moved back five. Or to deny that the width of home plate had been expanded from 12 inches to 17 inches when it became a pentagonal shape, or to affirm neither Abner Doubleday nor Alexander Cartwright had much if anything to do with inventing baseball. It was pleasant to accumulate and sort baseball facts, like some dotty lepidopterist, and it was sometimes useful to others if we published our research, no matter how trivial and disconnected it might be from larger themes in American life, from analysis, from interpretation.
Historian Kenneth Stampp, author of The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (1956), once said of a colleague in an interview:
Carl [Bridenbaugh] was very sensitive about his brand of social history. It was rather old-fashioned social history. Somebody once called it pots-and-pans social history. He probably felt that emerging American intellectual history was in some way a negative commentary on his kind of history.6
By “pots and pans” Stampp explained,
he meant the kind of social history where you talk about things like baseball and recreation—it was not analytical social history.…It was descriptive… and I suppose some people thought that Bridenbaugh’s history was rather old-fashioned, some mod social historians. Every generation has [its new approach].7
Myth and mythmaking are far more useful to the public understanding than mere findings of fact. And from the perspective of the historian of ideas and attitudes, what a man believes to be true, or purports to be true (including willful lies) may reveal more about himself and his era than the truth itself. So in trying get the facts straight about what really happened in baseball (Cartwright, Doubleday, or who?) or to slow the rush to judgment (Pittsfield), baseball’s historians may feel that they are bailing against the tide with a teacup. Who cares about their pursuit of truth? Give us a simple story, the people cry.
However the history of baseball begins, the history of baseball history begins for most of us with Henry Chadwick. He recalled his first experience of playing baseball as taking some hard hits in the ribs in 18488—if true, his remark reveals that the Knickerbocker rules did not sweep aside all that had gone before—and he dated to 1856 his realization that this game might become to America what cricket was to England. Today most of us think of Father Chadwick cavorting at the Elysian Fields with the Knickerbockers, pausing only to invent the scoring system and the box score or to cluck about the pernicious influence of gamblers and rotters. But, as Will Rankin would point out in the first years of the next century, Chadwick had for decades, while elevating the game to the status of national metaphor, elevated himself as well, campaigning on a platform of le jeu c’est moi. He was not baseball’s first reporter—that distinction goes to the little-known William H. Bray, like Chadwick an Englishman who covered baseball and cricket for the Clipper from early 1854 to May 1858 (Chadwick succeeded him on both beats and never threw him a nod afterward). Isolated game accounts had been penned in 1853 by William Cauldwell of the Mercury and Frank Queen of the Clipper, who with William Trotter Porter of Spirit of the Times may be said to have been baseball’s pioneer promoters. Credit for the shorthand scoring system belongs not to Chadwick but to Michael J. Kelly of the Herald. The box score—beyond the recording of outs and runs—may be his invention as well, but cricket had supplied the model.
Chadwick had the good fortune to team up with Irwin P. Beadle and his Dime publication series, penning the Base-Ball Guide for 1860 on up to 1881. He also had the good fortune to outlive his contemporary sporting scribes. Today we call him a historian— along with Charles Peverelly, Jacob Morse, Al Spink, Francis Richter, and Tim Murnane—but in his own day he and they were journalists, sometimes given to gauzy reminiscences or club-supplied copy when deadlines neared and space yawned. These writers possess the advantage of having been witnesses to events that interest us today, but that ought not to accord their writing blanket credence. As Dixon Wecter wrote some 50 years ago:
A readable historian of his own times will be accepted as the foremost witness par excellence, generation after generation. But by way of compensation, the historian who arrives on the scene long afterwards enjoys advantages too. Though a million details, important and unimportant, will be lost for lack of recording or proper preservation, the disclosure of diaries and secret archives, the fitting together of broken pieces from the mosaic, the settling of controversial dust and cooling of old feuds, and the broad perspective down the avenues of time, all make it possible for him to know an era in its grand design better than most men who lived through it.10
Baseball’s tradition of mixing—and confusing— contemporary journalism with ex post facto history continued into the mid-20th century, with working-press types from Fred Lieb and Frank Menke to Tom Meany and Lee Allen working both sides of the street. In recent years we have labeled some outstanding baseball journalists and statisticians as historians—I won’t mention names so as not to give offense—but then again the term “baseball historian” is an odd one, a diminutive on the order of Billy Joel’s “real-estate novelist.” Even those who have made great contributions to the appreciation of baseball’s history—I think of Larry Ritter and Donald Honig—are not themselves historians of the game in its entirety, as Jules Tygiel or Charles Alexander or David Voigt or Ben Rader are. And then there are the “boutique baseball historians”—Milwaukee Brewers historian, Ty Cobb historian, and so on—who are what used to be called experts, or worse. At the dawn of the last century, baseball’s origins were already too old to be remembered, so stories were devised to rationalize what was otherwise baffling.
Baseball history then was in the hands of folklorists, not historians. Members of the Mills Commission, lacking the mundane primary documents that typically aid historians of everyday life in the reconstruction of events and the tenor of the times, looked to octogenarian reminiscences of events witnessed long ago if at all; the most celebrated of these implanted memories was, of course, that of Abner Graves. Thus was the history of baseball supplied with a starting point, a crucial requirement for being viewed seriously. (A similar sense of necessity led to the creation of baseball’s statistical record and its rapid and vertiginous climb to its current ascendancy.)
A century later we find ourselves still in the realm of eyewitnesses, as history is a term now accorded to events very recently transpired, and today’s scribes may accord more importance to documents. Baseball’s historians have largely—and thankfully— been unmoved by post-structuralist, post-Marxist, and post-Freudian siren songs, content to stay in the kitchen with the pots and pans of descriptive history, oblivious to the catcalls of political and intellectual historians. The respectable cousin of pots ’n’ pans, the “bottom up” (i.e., not “top down”) approach to history, based its claim to legitimacy, and in some measure hipness, on quantification and purported social relevance. Baseball-player studies certainly could be described as coming up from the bottom, but the continued emphasis was on story—what happened—and biography—by whom.
There is some evidence of late, however, that baseball history may finally run aground in this generation’s perfect storm of race, class, and gender, so perilous to frail, tentative, hopeful insight. Styles blow through the corridors of history no less than on Seventh Avenue; if we can wait it out, this too shall pass.
Where the American Studies movement has long provided a big tent to those who sought to describe American life as it was lived by those outside the political, military, and intellectual elites, it has also come under fire from the academy for its perceived lack of social relevance and scholarly rigor, if not outright triviality (I exclude statistically based studies, which get a pass on the rigor test but not when it comes to relevance). As Daniel Boorstin and Russel Nye, household gods of mine, demonstrated forty and fifty years ago,11 a fella could learn a thing or two about America through its media, its advertising, and its patterns of consumption. The perspectives of Larry Ritter and Dr. Seymour were similarly revelations to many of us in this room. And in other approaches to the game, in the 1970s Roger Angell, Bob Creamer, Roger Kahn, and Jim Bouton proved that baseball is the Trojan horse by which we come to understand ourselves. Knock on the door and say, “I’ve got history for you,” and that door does not budge. Offer baseball and the door swings open wide; once inside, a little history and useful knowledge may be imparted.
Baseball history is not so different from other forms, in the end. Solid research and command of the evidence underlie all of it. Dixon Wecter, not yet a household god but new in my experience and highly congenial in his approach—wrote:
“Industry minus art, accumulation lacking charm, data without digestion—such shortcomings explain this popular allergy against American history as written… . The re-creation of a dominant personality, or daily life of an era, or the power generated by its ideas, calls for exact knowledge fired by historical imagination… . If the author’s saturation in his subject is so real that he develops affections and dislikes, his writing is sure to be more warm and vigorous than if he strikes the attitude of a biologist dissecting a frog.12
My friend and protoball pioneer Larry McCray, with his taxonomic bent, likes to say that he is a tree person and I am a forest person, and sometimes we just cannot see the other, cannot grasp one another’s perspective. Wecter clearly believes that a first-rate historian must be a forest person—it is the leap of imagination that makes him a big leaguer—but he has to have a lot of little tree in him too (echoing another catcher there, Roy Campanella).
It seems to me that what is lacking in baseball history is its last five letters. Even more than in general American historical writing, because it is the toy shop of history departments (the baseball beat at a newspaper used to be called the toy department), baseball must be pushed by event, driven by character, and have a freight-train narrative drive. As with a novel, there must be a truth of fact and a truth of feeling, illuminated by sensibility. In short, we may not, in the name of accuracy, neglect the speculative and aesthetic possibilities in baseball history. Issuedriven baseball history is simply baseball history unread.
Rather than depersonalize the writing of history, we should fess up to its intrinsically subjective element—the historian—and make way for passion, for intimations of sentiment if not sentimentality—itself a lesser crime, it seems me now, than before the current age of irony. Tell us what it felt like to be alive then, in that distant age. Insert yourself and your tale of the hunt into the story. There may be no “I” in “team”—nor in “research,” nor in “SABR”—but there is one in “history”…and there ought to be one in the writing of it.
- Seymour, Harold. The Rise of Major League Baseball to 1891. Ithica, NY: Cornell University, 1956, 659.
- For more on this, see “Four Fathers of Baseball,” a speech the author delivered at the Smithsonian Institution on July 14, 2005, at http://thornpricks.blogspot.com/2005/07/four-fathers-of-baseball.html.
- Interview in Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1916
- For more on this subject, see the author’s “1791 and All That: Baseball and the Berkshires” in BASE Ball: A Journal of the Early Game, I, No. 1, Spring 2007, pp. 119-126.
- Lowenthal, Possessed by the Past: The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History. New York: Free Press, 1996, 119.
- “Historian of Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, University of California, Berkeley, 1946-1983: Kenneth Stampp,” with an Introduction by John G. Sproat. Interviews conducted by Ann Lage in 1996, p. 162. http://content.cdlib.org/xtf/view?docId=kt258001zq&doc.view=frames& chunk.id=d0e7572&toc.id=d0e7119&brand=oac
- Ibid, p. 163.
- From Henry Chadwick, The Game of Base Ball (New York: Munro, 1868), 9-10: “About twenty odd years ago [i.e., 1848] I used to frequently visit Hoboken with base ball parties, and, on these occasions, formed one of the contesting sides; and I remember getting some hard hits in the ribs, occasionally, from an accurately thrown ball. Some years afterwards the rule of throwing the ball at the player was superseded by that requiring it to be thrown to the base player, and this was the first step towards our now National game.”
- Rankled by Rankin’s challenges to his recollection and veracity in several Sporting News articles in 1904-5, Chadwick wrote to his friend “Joe” (Vila?) in April 1907: “Reference will show you that I knew of base ball in the sixties when—according to ‘mine enemy’—I knew nothing about any game but Although in November 1848 I played as short stop in a field adjoining the old Knickerbocker grounds at Hoboken.” Per photocopy in the Giamatti Center “Origins” file.
- Wecter, Dixon. “History and How to Write It,” American Heritage, Vol. 8, Issue 5, Aug. 1957, p. 87.
- Among many notable works, I take pains to cite Daniel Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (originally published by Athenaeum Press in 1962 as The Image or What Happened to the American Dream) and Nye’s The Unembarrassed Muse: The Popular Arts in America (New York Dial Press, 1970).
- Wecter, op. cit., pp. 25-26.