- Historic Sites
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
When the New York Knickerbockers took on the New York Base Ball Club on the Elysian Fields at Hoboken, New Jersey, on June 19, 1846—the first contest known to have been played under the Knickerbockers’ new rules and therefore the moment from which most baseball historians date the modern game—gamblers in top hats may already have been prowling the foul lines, taking bets from onlookers. Purists deplored their presence at matches supposedly played by and for gentleman amateurs, but gambling soon led to paid admissions and under-the-table payments to players, then to percentage-of-the-gate arrangements with the owners of ball fields, finally to unabashed professionalism. It also led sometimes to fixing games, but as John Thorn and other baseball historians have shown, without gambling and the increased skills it indirectly rewarded, baseball might never have advanced beyond its beginnings as an afternoon’s entertainment for genteel young clerks with nothing better to do. The profit motive helped bring about the game’s democratization. What could be more American than that?
Within a year of Pete O’Brien’s lament, the first avowedly professional team took the field and swept all before it. The Cincinnati Red Stockings were assembled and managed by Harry Wright, a professional cricket bowler who saw nothing wrong with paying men to do what they did best, including doling out his team’s highest salary—fourteen hundred dollars a season—to the star shortstop, his brother, George. Wright and his investors were rewarded with a run of ninety-two games without a loss.
Absolute control of the system would remain firmly in the hands of Spalding and his successors for the better part of a century. Owner intransigence had a good deal to do with that. So did the justices of the United States Supreme Court, who could not be persuaded to apply the interstate-commerce clause to the game they’d played as boys. And the players themselves proved reluctant revolutionaries. Baseball breeds conservatives; to win their jobs, most players must first displace someone else and then live in constant fear that someone will come along to displace them. It is not a system that encourages class consciousness or worker solidarity, and it finally took Marvin Miller, a union veteran who’d earned his spurs representing steel and auto workers, to show the ballplayers the way.
Since then, of course, they have more than made up for lost time. During the go-go eighties few can be said to have gone further. Back in 1869 Harry Wright paid himself roughly seven times the average workingman’s wage. A little over a century later, the average ballplayer still made just eight times the average person’s salary. But by 1994 he was out-earning the ordinary fan by a multiple of nearly fifty. Getting all you can is very American too.
The nineteenth century’s greatest star was Adrian Constantine Anson, who played well at every position but pitcher, for the Philadelphia Athletics and then for the Chicago White Stockings, and was known at various stages of his long career as Baby, Cap, and finally Pop. He was big and intimidating, a self-styled “natural-born kicker,” who battled fans almost as hard as he fought the ballplayers who got in his way. He hit .300 or better twenty seasons running and was the first man ever to amass three thousand hits, but he is best remembered by historians of the social side of the game for letting it be known in 1887 that if the New York Giants dared hire a black pitcher named George Stovey, neither he nor any of his White Stockings would take the field against them. Big-league baseball was for whites only.
The Giants backed down. Stovey was never hired. And the owners went on to make a “gentleman’s agreement” to sign no more black players. Minorleague owners followed suit.
“Just why Adrian C. Anson . . . was so strongly opposed to colored players on white teams cannot be explained,” wrote the black sportswriter Sol White in 1907. “His repugnant feeling, shown at every opportunity, toward colored ball players, was a source of comment through every league in the country, and his opposition, with his great power and popularity in baseball circles, hastened the exclusion of the black man from the white leagues.” But Anson’s antagonism toward integration was merely an echo of similar sentiments then shared by whites in every other arena of American life. Reconstruction had come to an end a decade earlier; Jim Crow would rule much of the nation and the National Pastime for almost sixty years.