- Historic Sites
The Old Ball Game
A portfolio of rare photographs recalls baseball’s rough-and-tumble vintage era
June/july 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 4
PARADISE LOST . It is a sweet and on the whole harmless vision that prettifies the past of America and the game dearest to its heart. Just as the romanticists among us imagine a golden age of unspoiled landscapes and simple, decent folk, so baseball fans pine for the days when the game was played not for money but for love—a legendary epoch identified with the time of one’s youth or, by those with some dim sense of history, with an Edenic nineteenth century.
In truth, if baseball—or America—ever knew such a garden, it soon tasted sin and was cast out. The original amateur middle-class clubs of the 1850s, in their lust for victory, began admitting working-class men of superior baseball skills to carry their banners. It was a short jump to outright professionalism: as early as 1859, star pitcher Jim Creighton was paid to play for the Excelsiors of Brooklyn. Six years later three members of the New York Mutuals—the club backed by Boss Tweed—were expelled for throwing games. Until the mid-1870s professional gamblers and pool sellers had their own sections designated in the grandstands of several parks. And throughout this rough, exultantly crude era, the general level of dissipation among the players was such as to make a punk rocker blanch.
The caliber of play, the quality of the field, the degree of comfort afforded the spectator—in all respects, the old ball game was decidedly inferior to the modern one. And yet … there was something about it that calls up our nostalgia, that draws us to these old photographs. The game had an energy, a confidence, an outright bluster, that stirred Mark Twain to write, “Baseball is the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century.”