Babe-Ruthing

A. Craig Copetas

  • Early Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1825-1908 edited by Dean A. Sullivan
    Nebraska, 312 pp, £44.50, May 1995, ISBN 0 8032 4237 9

In the years leading up to the American Revolution and well beyond the War of 1812 Americans living in the New York area made no secret of their allegiance to England. New York’s aristocratic sympathy – cultural, commercial and religious – was not shared in Massachusetts, the home of a growing Irish population and of the Boston Tea Party. These pro and anti-Tory emotions often spilled onto the playing field, which is one of the reasons the game of baseball in 1858 boasted two sets of codified regulations. New York Rules stipulated that ‘a player shall be out, if at any time when off a base he shall be touched by the ball in the hands of an adversary.’ But in Massachusetts, where those Tory-lovers who played baseball were viewed with disdain, umpires allowed fielders to throw the ball hard at a runner in order to get him out of the game, usually on a blooded stretcher. ‘The first professional English cricket team that came to this country used to practise near us, and they used to come over and watch our game occasionally,’ reads one 19th-century account of the transatlantic battle between England’s haughty Essex men and America’s rough and tumble Boys of Summer. ‘They rather turned up their noses at it, and thought it tame sport, until we invited them to try it.’

Cricket and its extremely distant American cousin baseball have always been meltdown points for the so-called special relationship and each nation has, over the years, fostered disinformation campaigns designed to keep the other’s game at bay. In Early Innings, Dean Sullivan shows how the war started and why it’s been allowed to run rampant for nearly two hundred and fifty years. He has sifted the archives to compile and edit nearly a century of lost or forgotten baseball essays and news reports. His findings suggest that America’s national pastime (sometimes called ‘town ball’ or One Old Cat) has been a popular game since at least 1803, the year that Jane Austen completed North-anger Abbey, whose heroine Catherine Morland ‘preferred cricket, base ball, riding on horseback, and running around the country at the age of 14, to books’.

It was shortly after the turn of the 19th century, perhaps hours after England lost its war to reclaim America in 1812, that the British spy Dick Lawson was ordered to put it about that baseball was actually an English schoolgirls’ game called rounders, and that manly cricket was really the game America loved most. Although Early Innings fails to document the tall tales surrounding ‘Scoundrel’ Lawson’s activities, the book is a riveting examination of the controversial threesome: cricket, rounders and baseball.

Nineteenth-century American men usually belonged to sporting fraternities known as cricket and baseball clubs. The cricket players used the willow, baseballers the ash; both sides were fond of whacking each other over the head with the nearest piece of timber. And there were quite a few cracked skulls by 1857, when an editorial in the pro-British newspaper, the New York Clipper, attempted to end the carnage by imploring America ‘not to object to making cricket an American pastime solely because the game was developed in England’. Obviously affronted by the suggestion, an unknown antebellum songwriter, who apparently played baseball either for the Excelsiors or for the New York Knickerbockers, penned a 17-verse song popular in bars and at the elaborate post-game dinners hosted by the home club. The first and last verses of ‘Uncle Samuel’s Sport, Ball Days in the Year AD 1858’, give some idea of what baseball fans thought about making cricket the national pastime:

Come, base ball players and listen to the song
About our manly Yankee game, and pardon what
                                   is wrong;
If the verses do not suit you, I hope the chorus will,

So join with us, one and all, and sing it with a will.
Your pardon now I crave – this yarn is spun too long

The Knickerbockers’ ‘fiend’ you know, he
                    always goes it strong;
On America’s game of base ball he will shout his
                         loud acclaim,
And his ‘tiger’ shall be telegraphed to Britain’s
                              broad domain.

Since Early Innings fails to disclose what the songwriter meant by ‘tiger’, I checked a 19th-century American slang dictionary to discover that it refers to ‘a strong virile man easily aroused to anger or passion’. But despite Yankee testosterone levels, many Americans remained enamoured of the British Empire and its traditions. Tea was served, roast beef didn’t arrive without Yorkshire pudding, and carpenters turned out stumps, not baseball bats.

American editorials lauded cricket over baseball without interruption until 20 October 1862 – cricket’s darkest day in America. On that morning readers of the Brooklyn Eagle awoke to discover that 21-year-old Jim Creighton, America’s first baseball superstar, had been killed by a fatal injury suffered during a cricket match, ‘The circumstances of his death are very touching,’ the paper snidely reported. ‘In the late match with the Union the deceased sustained an internal injury occasioned by a strain while batting. In the melancholy death of James Creighton there is a warning to others.’ The American public exploded at the news, and one of the consequences was that baseball became firmly established as America’s national pastime in the years leading up to the Civil War. Then, during lulls on the battlefields, Union and Rebel commanders pitted teams against each other. Although England was affiliated with the Confederacy, there are no reports of Southern troops playing cricket. After the war, baseball took on mythical status as a uniquely American game played nowhere else in the world.

It was no less significant that baseball was developing its own language – a sporting argot that had filtered into mainstream writing and conversation by the mid-19th century. This was American English, and the only ones who didn’t get it were the muffins – that’s to say, (British) muffin-eaters. (Nowadays ‘muffin’ is a baseball term used to describe the lowest class of ball player below rookie, an idiot with no practical or theoretical acquaintance with the game.) The uniquely American events which took place in the ball park liberated the country from the King’s English, allowing fans to Babe-Ruth distinctive American verbs and nouns, in order to confuse and confound outsiders.

Yet there were many baseball enthusiasts who viewed the game in a less jingoistic way. Cricket used a bat and ball, and so did rounders. Suggesting the link in public was tantamount to high treason, however. Which is why baseball fans insist the American sportswriter Henry Chadwick was a jigger-man under Crown orders to promulgate the notion that baseball was an English game. Why else, as many of the documents in Early Innings suggest, would Chadwick have written an article in the 1867 Base Ball Players’ Chronicle entitled ‘The Ancient History of Baseball’? Peppering his essay with baseballish passages quoted from The Faerie Queene and Cymbeline, Chadwick claimed:

In the old days of the gallant Edward the Third, in the first half of the 14th century, there came into fashion among the children of England a game called barres or bars, which consisted of running from one barrier to another. It grew to be so popular that it at last became a nuisance, so that the government was at last obliged to pass an act of Parliament which declared nul enfaunt ne autres ne jue a barres in the avenues which led to Westminster Palace.

Many historians consider Chadwick’s to be the most detailed account of baseball’s ancient origins. After a fruitless check of my own extensive baseball library to discover evidence that might support the barres theory, I came across another quotation from Chadwick which suggests that he had been standing out in the sun too long: ‘In relation to the word “base”, we might say that there is another somewhat plausible derivation. It has been suggested that as the object of each side in the game of “bars” was to keep the other party at bay, the places where they were so kept, that is the “bases”, were styled “bays”, of which “base” is a corruption.’ As if linking the game to French and a Roman-era British king wasn’t spurious enough to rankle baseball fans, Chadwick let a final apple spill from his cart:

The game came to be called rounders because the players were obliged to run round a sort of circle of bases ... but the old English title of rounders was never used in America. The reason of this is that so many of our New England settlers came from the eastern counties of England, where the term rounders appears never to have been used. In Moor’s Suffolk Words he mentions among the ball games ‘base-ball’ while in the dialect glossaries of the northern and western counties no such word is to be found.

The American response to Chadwick’s affront was as swift as 19th-century technology allowed. In the summer of 1874, America’s first baseball team sailed into England to settle the matter once and for all, to show the British that baseball had nothing whatever to do with any British sport or Crown laws written in 14th-century Norman French. On 26 July, the Boston Red Stockings and the Athletics of Philadelphia debarked at Liverpool to do battle. The teams were met by a writer for the Field. ‘Baseball is a sport infinitely less tedious than cricket,’ the Field reported, ‘and more exciting from the short duration of the games, and the consequent concentration of interest ... bad cricket is not a lively sport for on-lookers.’ The unknown author, however, failed to point out that there’s no such thing as good cricket, and baseball historians point to that omission as the reason the Red Stockings-Athletics tour lost money and failed to convince England of baseball’s lineage and its superiority over cricket. The teams went home dejected, but back in America, their game was well on its way to demolishing cricket as a professional sport.

‘The popularity of baseball is so great that the professional exponents of the art can command salaries at which those of our professional cricketers sink into positive insignificance,’ huffed another 19th-century British press account. ‘The reason of its popularity is no doubt that it is essentially suited to the American disposition – fretful of restraint and less tenacious of purpose than the English stock from which they sprung.’ Early Innings uses such passages to chronicle England’s continued attempts to give baseball a British pedigree. By the cusp of the Gay Nineties, America’s growing class of wealthy baseball-club owners had had enough. In the spring of 1889, the sporting-goods magnate Albert G. Spalding took the All America and Chicago teams to England to exact revenge. According to Early Innings, Spalding thought the best way to go about thwacking the English was to sell their children baseball caps and other team-related merchandise. In fact, the sales of caps were disappointing, but Spalding’s teams ‘made their appearance at the Oval in the presence of about six thousand spectators’, according to a Times report on 13 March 1889. ‘The Prince of Wales witnessed part of the match and during an interval the players were presented to his Royal Highness, the president of the Marylebone Cricket Club, the president of the Surrey Cricket Club and Dr W.G. Grace.’

While Spalding failed to convince Grace that he should wear a baseball cap, the Times reported that the spectators greeted the game with ‘lukewarm interest’, adding that the Americans ‘had given several hearty cheers for the Prince of Wales’. Of course, American bar-room historians point out that the Times correspondent confused a hearty cheer with 18 baseball players spitting chewing tobacco at Dr Grace. Spalding sailed back to New York City an angry man, outraged by poor sales and the English insistence that America had stolen its national pastime from rounders. But it was the Times’s report, and the hurrahs for the Prince of Wales, that made Spalding really furious. In the opening pages of his 1905 Official Baseball Guide, the man who would come to be known as the father of professional baseball printed a formal request that a blue riband commission of politicians, judges and industrialists be convened to settle the question of baseball’s national origin. ‘Any proof, data or information anyone possesses or can secure bearing on this matter should be sent to this commission so that the issue can be settled for all time,’ he declared.

Baseball was now at least sixty years old, one of the central strands in the fabric of American culture and certainly the most popular sport in a country desperate to prove its manifest destiny. Beyond the transatlantic rivalry explored in Early Innings, Sullivan uses baseball as a lens through which to examine America’s national pysche, its nebulous body politic, the multibillion-dollar business of professional sport franchises and the export of American culture. The book’s archival material, primary sources and eerie lithographs of baseball’s formative years give readers a box seat at the game that became a national obsession.