Thursday, October 14, 2010

A family tree devoid of baseball pioneers

At any given time I typically have two or three books in progress, at various places around the house. One of them sits out in the garage, on the shelf above my grilling supplies. We do a lot of cooking out throughout the summer and into the fall, weather permitting. I use charcoal, which I start in a chimney without lighter fluid, so it takes a good 20-30 minutes to get the fire going. That's enough time to slowly pick through a book, given enough cookouts.

My current garage book is Peter Morris' But Didn't We Have Fun?: An Informal History of Baseball's Pioneer Era, 1843-1870, which came out in paperback earlier this year. I ranked his Catcher as one of the best books of 2009, so I've been looking forward to the opportunity to read this one, which was originally released in hardcover in 2008. I'm only about a quarter of the way into it, but I'm already in awe of the old stories he dug up on average Americans who just loved playing the game, regardless of its stage of development.

Several years ago I went on a genealogical bender, immersing myself in the roots of my Bailey ancestors since they arrived from England in the 1600s. I filled in quite a lot of blanks-names , births, deaths, weddings-but there's not a lot of meat in it. All I have for most of them are dates.

From the census records I can tell many of my predecessors were farmers. There was a teamster, long before that evoked images of Jimmy Hoffa. We had a deacon in the church, though that was probably a pretty common title for church members in the early 1800s.

I found references to a few relatives in old newspaper stories. One described the horribly painful death of my great-great-grandfather's brother, whose skull was fractured by an exploding emery wheel. It's conflicted by another story saying he died when struck by a train. Perhaps he was operating an emery wheel on the train tracks, which may be even more dangerous than texting while driving. Either way, I have some leads on how he died, but not much to fill in how he lived.

As Morris and others have referenced, baseball owes a debt to the Civil War for its spreading popularity. Soldiers on both sides were exposed to a game many of them hadn't seen in any form. But I can't place any of my ancestors in the War Between the States. The generational timing wasn't quite right for most of them. They were either too young or too old to have likely gone south to fight. They stayed home, tilling the land, not getting killed, but not having fun either. At least, that's what I'm guessing.

I want to stumble onto an old diary describing the life of my relatives in the mid-1800s. And I want it to describe their days playing base ball or town ball or rounders, or whatever was in vogue in Vermont at the time. I'm sure I never will. I doubt any diaries of my forefathers are still floating around, waiting to be found. Even if there were, I just don't get the feeling my ancestors played ball. They seem too serious. None of them, from what I can tell, had money. They probably barely scratched out a living off the land. I don't see them pulling a Ray Kinsella and plowing under their field to build a baseball diamond. I don't even picture them taking an afternoon off to go down to the town square to take their turn at-bat.

So I can trace roots to pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower. I can claim a connection to a woman who was convicted and executed as a witch in Salem. But I can't seem to shake any ballplayers out of the tree. Now that would be fun.

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