Curtis: Why baseball has been dying … since 1868

From Bryan Curtis at on October 7, 2014, with SABR member John Thorn:

You know John Thorn. Official historian for Major League Baseball. Mustachioed guy in the Ken Burns documentary. I went to his big house upstate last week because Thorn wanted to show me something. It was evidence of a “lively corpse,” Thorn called it, “or fabulous invalid.”

Let me explain. As you read this, someone somewhere is writing an article that claims baseball is dying. Or in decline. Or just plain irrelevant — having “fallen out of the national conversation,” as the New York Times put it last year. Baseball-is-dying articles always appear around playoff time. The writer gathers Nielsen ratings, listens to the moans of the game’s sages, and files a fresh obituary.

Craig Calcaterra took an elephant gun to such stories last month. But I’d come to see Thorn because he had a collection of old newspaper clippings that revealed something more about sportswriting than its occasional resistance to logic. It turns out the press has been announcing baseball’s death decade-by-decade, and sometimes year-by-year, for nearly the entire history of the game.

Baseball’s rogues  its gamblers, faux-founding fathers, and steroid users  are the kind of people that get John Thorn excited. For him, they don’t besmirch baseball history but write a counter-history all their own. Baseball’s obituarists are no different. So it was with excitement that Thorn described to me the words of Pete O’Brien, captain of Brooklyn’s championship Atlantic club:

Somehow or other, they don’t play ball nowadays as they used to some eight or ten years ago. I don’t mean to say they don’t play it as well. … But I mean that they don’t play with the same kind of feelings or for the same objects they used to. … It appears to me that ball matches have come to be controlled by different parties and for different purposes …

O’Brien wrote this, the first known baseball death notice, in 1868.

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Originally published: October 7, 2014. Last Updated: October 7, 2014.