Friday, December 3, 2010

Morris's history details baseball's pioneer era

Though Bud Selig may still believe that the tooth fairy leaves money under your pillow, Santa Claus flies around the world delivering presents, and Abner Doubleday invented baseball, most of the rest of us have accepted these as fables. There's plenty of fuzziness surrounding the birth of the national pastime, precisely because there isn't one single guy we can credit for its conception.

Several writers have spent significant time and effort attempting to debunk the Doubleday myth, as it has become known. Peter Morris, one of the game's more prolific historians over the past decade, doesn't waste much space on this in But Didn't We Have Fun?: An Informal History of Baseball's Pioneer Era, 1843-1870, allotting only a two-page appendix to it. His point, and the purpose of the book, was to credit and remember the numerous individuals who played a role in baseball's development from the anything-goes rounders and town ball to the codified structure of the sport we recognize today.

The focus in But Didn't We Have Fun?, which was released in paperback earlier this year, is on the game's pioneers, the amateurs who represented their clubs or towns on the field, placing a greater emphasis on sportsmanship than winning. Players then policed themselves, limiting the umpire's role to the ceremonial. Early arbiters often sat comfortably in easy chairs behind home plate, ensuring the game's participants behaved in a gentlemanly fashion. It was later, when the affairs became more hotly contested, that umpires were requested to make calls on matters such as safe vs. out.

Before winning mattered so much, players were drawn to the sport for exercise and fellowship. Organizing a game was no simple task. First there was the matter of the ball, which in the early days would have been handmade with yarn wound tight around a rubber center then covered in leather, often salvaged from an old boot. Finding a suitable field, which needed to be flat, open, and conveniently accessed was likewise challenging, moreso once the balls became harder and began to threaten nearby houses.

These pioneers faced many obstacles familiar to neighborhood kids across the country in the present day: How to organize the match, where to play, how to recruit enough players for even sides. You can almost picture them scattering when one of them muscles up and tags a ball through the neighbor's window. Except back then the ball was so valuable it was worth nearly any ordeal to get it back.

The truer parallel for Morris's pioneering amateurs, however, might be the adult leagues currently in vogue. I played in a 30-and-over league for four seasons and I can see my team in many of the squads described in But Didn't We Have Fun? Especially when Morris reaches the timeframe where winning became important enough that many teams imported ringers and began paying them under the table.

I wasn't one of the strongest players on my team. Not the weakest either. Most of us had our flaws. A good many could have fallen into the "muffin" category (a term used in the 1800s to describe an inexpert player). Not being a part of the team's core clique, I was replaced one year when the captain wanted to upgrade the talent. So I could relate when Morris covered the dawning of the professional era, when the Cincinnati Base Ball Club transformed from a nine composed of locals to a paid bunch recruited from New York, Philadelphia, and elsewhere.

Most readers will know already that Cincinnati's Red Stockings became the first all-professional team in 1869. What you might not know is that two years later the Cincinnati Base Ball Club severed ties with the Red Stockings, largely because the men who had been replaced by the pros wanted to take their spots back and be part of the game again.

I was reminded of George Jansen's novel The Fade-away, in which the local club of Port Newton, Calif., gains a thirst for winning after a former big league pitcher washes up in town. Soon his more-talented friends begin replacing the locals, which doesn't sit well with those who have been relegated to the bench. The team's manager cashes in, building a new enclosed field that will allow him to charge admission that the townfolk, now mesmerized by its new powerhouse team, is willing to pay. The love affair ends suddenly, however, when the juggernaut loses. Though Jansen's story was fiction, Morris's research shows that similar battles were raging in towns all across the United States.

But Didn't We Have Fun? is just one of Morris's expanding library of baseball history. With others, such as A Game of Inches (2006) and Catcher (2009), he has done more to trace the roots of the game than just about anyone. In places they can get slightly academic, but overall they are very readable, fascinating works in which he manages to flesh out average Americans lured by a game that has in turn obsessed several generations of their descendants.


  1. Anyone who has an interest in the early days of baseball should read this book.
    I just started reading Catcher, and I'm not disappointed. Morris has a really nice writing style, as well as being a thorough researcher.