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Learning To Like Baseball
WHAT HAPPENED when a historian largely indifferent to the subject set out to write the script for Ken Burns’s monumental new documentary
October 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 6
Then I contracted polio, which made even back-yard catch dispiriting, and at about the age of eleven I gave up trying to interest myself in my father’s game altogether, substituting for it instead an obsessive interest in boxing, which soon allowed me to hold forth to him on the life and career of, say, Sam Langford without fear of contradiction.
That was pretty much true, and I’m frank enough to say that even after months of poking around in the daunting literature—battalions of players and teams and leagues, whole libraries of cabalistic statistics—I was still not at all sure how to go about my task. Nor was I helped, as I took notes and scratched my head, when I ran across this brisk admonition, issued by Chicago’s sure-handed nineteenth-century catcher King Kelly: “Show me a boy that doesn’t participate in base ball. . . and I will show you a weak, sickly, hot-house plant, who will feel sorry, as he grows older, that he was ever born.”
Ken did his best to be reassuring. “It’s a great story ” he kept telling me over the phone, but as the weeks passed and no script seemed to be emerging, I thought I could detect an edge of panic creeping into his voice. “Just get into it. You’ll love it!”
I didn’t—couldn’t—love it, though, until my boyhood fears subsided enough for me to discern some pattern to baseball’s history, to begin to understand that whoever it was who first called baseball the National Pastime was actually on to something. It really is, as Walt” Whitman famously said, “our game,” filled with distinctively American strengths and contradictions: quarrels between labor and capital; newcomers and the native-born; city and countryside; commerce and sportsmanship; the individual and the collective; the democratic spirit and racism’s maddening persistence.
Baseball has always displayed a characteristically American pragmatism too, more or less cheerfully adapting its rules to accommodate innovations from the curve ball to the television commercial, but at heart it remains profoundly conservative. Despite domed stadiums and AstroTurf and exploding scoreboards, what Bruce Catton wrote in these pages thirty-five years ago still holds true: “A gaffer from the era of William McKinley, abruptly brought back to the second half of the twen-tieth century, would find very little in modern life that would not seem new, strange, and rather bewildering, but put in a good grandstand seat back of first base he would see nothing that was not completely familiar.”
That reassuring continuity would probably not keep Catton’s now truly venerable gaffer from complaining loudly, nonetheless, that the game he was watching just wasn’t up to those he remembered from his youth. The notion that “today’s” game is somehow not what it once was dates back at least to 1868. “Somehow or other,” a veteran of the Brooklyn Atlantics named “Old Pete” O’Brien wrote then, “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 than those that prevailed in 1858 or 1859.”
O’Brien was writing at the dawn of the age of professionalism, and the parties and purposes he deplored were gamblers and the greed he believed their influence would engender. But even then, wagering and playing for pay had been integral—if mostly clandestine—parts of the game for more than two decades.