Druschel: Exploring the ‘Baseball Americana’ exhibit and returning baseball to its roots

From Henry Druschel at The Hardball Times on September 4, 2018, with mention of SABR members John Thorn and Rob Neyer:

When one walks into Baseball Americana, an exhibition on display at the Library of Congress through December, one of the first things visible is a tattered piece of paper covered in flowing script. It is a page taken from the diary of John Rhea Smith, who in 1786 was a student at the College of New Jersey (known today as Princeton). By his account, Wednesday, March 22 was “A fine day [to] play baste ball in the campus but am beaten for I miss both catching and striking the Ball.” Smith’s lament is the earliest known written reference to baseball in America, predating the ratification of the United States Constitution by two years and the birth of Abner Doubleday by more than three decades.

The historians at the Library of Congress speculate that Smith’s curious spelling — “baste ball” — was a corruption or mistake. It is one of many different archaic spellings of the name of the sport that, though in its infancy in the 18th century, would soon become the predominant American pastime. Just next to Smith’s diary, the exhibit documents the rise and fall of the many variants: “Base-Ball” appeared in 1787, “base-ball” in 1799, “base ball” in 1818, “Base Ball” in 1845. Finally, in 1899, “baseball” appeared for the first time, and would push all the other variant spellings out within just a few short decades. The spelling hasn’t changed in the 120 years since.

Baseball Americana is a production of the Library of Congress in partnership with Major League Baseball, the Baseball Hall of Fame and ESPN, and it’s well worth attending. Baseball is thoroughly intertwined with America’s mythology of itself, so it is unsurprising that the Library of Congress possesses a great many remarkable artifacts of the game’s history and development. Some examples, from the Library’s collection, or on loan to the exhibition from partners and private individuals: the 1857 “Laws of Base Ball,” known as baseball’s “Magna Carta” and recently rediscovered and sold at auction for $3.2 million; an 1863 lithograph of Union prisoners of war playing baseball in Salisbury, North Carolina; Ty Cobb’s $4,000 contract with the Detroit Tigers for the 1908 season; a 1943 Ansel Adams photograph of a baseball game played by Japanese-American internees during World War II in the Manzanar Relocation Center; a 1950 letter from Jackie Robinson to Branch Rickey; a ball from Kenny Rogers’ 1994 perfect game.

Read the full article here: https://www.fangraphs.com/tht/exploring-baseball-americana/

Originally published: September 7, 2018. Last Updated: September 7, 2018.