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Learning To Like Baseball

June 2024
11min read

WHAT HAPPENED when a historian largely indifferent to the subject set out to write the script for Ken Burns’s monumental new documentary

I’VE NEVER LIKED BASEBALL MUCH, IN part because my father has always loved it so. He has been a fan all his life, rooting first for the Cleveland Indians, who were the closest major leaguers to the small Ohio town in which he was raised, and then for the Chicago White Sox, heroes to at least half the city in which he and my mother raised my brother and sister and me. I enjoyed playing catch with him in the cindery back yard of our South Side home, can still remember the thrilling shudder that climbed my arms whenever I managed to get the bat on his erratic curve, enjoyed the occasional trips with him to Comiskey Park to see his team play. But it was clear early on that I had years of serious study ahead of me before I could come close to matching his apparently effortless omniscience.


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.

OVER THE DECADES NO FATHER could have been more supportive than mine has been, but when I nervously agreed several years ago to be both the principal scriptwriter for Ken Burns’s new PBS series on the history of the game and the author of a book to be based upon it, he did not seem altogether pleased. “Boy,” he said, frowning, “ you don’t know a godamn thing about baseball .”

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.

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.

OTHERS FOLLOWED THEIR LEAD, and by the 1890s a schoolyard sport had become an industry. Predictably enough, the man who did most to ensure that it stayed that way also literally owned the ball: Albert Goodwill Spalding, the pitcher turned sporting-goods magnate who owned the Chicago White Stockings and virtually ran the National League, which used baseballs of his manufacture and no one else’s. When, in the late 1880s, the players tried to start a league of their own rather than remain in the perpetual state of bonded servitude imposed by the reserve clause, Spalding used all the zest the titans of other industries were then bringing to battle against their workers to ensure that his were crushed and the owners’ monopoly was preserved. “It [the defeated Players League] was, in fact, the irrepressible conflict between Labor and Capital asserting itself under a new guise,” Spalding wrote when the dust had cleared. “Like every other form of business enterprise, Base Ball depends for results on two interdependent divisions, the one to have absolute control of the system, and the other to engage in . . . the actual work of production.”

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.

A gaudy ribbon of chauvinism runs through baseball history too. A. G. Spalding was so determined to prove the game a uniquely American creation and not the descendant of the British schoolyard game of rounders it clearly was that he paid for a pliable commission in 1905 that declared baseball the brainchild of Abner Doubleday, a Civil War soldier from Cooperstown, New York, conveniently dead, who may never even have seen a game.

And after Pearl Harbor The Sporting News suggested that America “withdraw from Japan the gift of baseball which we made to that misguided and ill-begotten country. . . . No nation which has had as intimate contact with baseball as the Japanese could have committed the vicious, infamous deed of the early morning of December 7, 1941, if the spirit of the game had penetrated their yellow hides.”

STILL, THE GAME HAS SOMETIMES taught tolerance as well, and for all its resistance to change, at least once it has helped shape the nation’s attitudes rather than merely mirror them. Jackie Robinson’s lonely 1947 struggle to succeed as the first black major leaguer in more than six decades was greeted by bigotry so vicious and so relentless from players and fans and sportswriters alike that it is difficult even now to read or write about. Surely few Americans have ever suffered abuse with more grace and courage than Jackie Robinson did. Had he failed either to perform spectacularly on the ball field or to keep tightly reined the temper that went with his competitive spirit, the integration of baseball might easily have been delayed another decade. Everything depended, as Ted Williams says onscreen in our series, on Robinson’s having “tons and tons of guts.”

But it is also true that, however reluctantly, baseball began to integrate long before the rest of America had begun seriously to consider doing so. It would be seven years before Brown v. Board of Education settled the question of whether separate could ever really be equal and eighteen years before Congress enacted meaningful legislation to protect the right of black citizens to vote.

I SUPPOSE IT’S TRUE THAT IF YOU READ enough about any subject over time, historical patterns will begin to emerge, but one of the genuine pleasures for me in writing about baseball was discovering the number of precedents there seem to be for the concerns that currently consume our sports pages. Worried that too many hits are traveling too far? So were people in 1920, when Babe Ruth hit fifty-four home runs, more than all but one other entire team managed that same year. Concerned that big salaries will ruin the game? So were some fans —and almost all owners—as early as the 1870s. Yet despite their stunning size, salaries still constitute roughly the same fraction of a franchise’s overall expenses they always have—30 percent. Fearful that rowdy behavior will fatally tarnish the game? So was The New York Times in the 1880s, when it dismissed all baseball players as “worthless, dissipated gladiators; not much above the professional pugilist in morality and respectability [and who spend their off-season time] in those quiet retreats connected with bars, and rat pits, where sporting men of the metropolis meet for social improvement and unpremeditated pugilism.”

Memorable history usually boils down to biography, and my initial worry that the game’s past was simply too complicated for me ever to make much sense of was compounded by a concern that baseball players, for all their skills, would somehow not prove interesting enough as human beings to sustain my interest, let alone that of readers or television viewers.

I was wrong about that too. A little bromidic wisdom of the sort dispensed by, say, Honus Wagner—“There ain’t much to being a ballplayer—if you’re a ballplayer”—does go a very long way, and some stars remained stubbornly one-dimensional. When coupled with unrelenting virtue, even supreme talent makes for pallid copy, and however heroic they were on the diamond, paragons like Christy Mathewson and Stan Musial remain flat on page and screen alike.


But if it’s flawed, compelling heroes you’re after, look no further than the Hall of Fame. Some of baseball’s finest had the sorts of turbulent childhoods any psychobiographer would give his dissertation for. John McGraw, famous for his willingness to take on with his fists anyone of any size, turns out to have run away from home at twelve after his mother and four siblings had died of diphtheria, because he feared his grief-maddened father would beat him to death. Babe Ruth, largely ignored by his parents after they had signed him into a reformatory as “incorrigible” at the age of ten, spent most of his adult life reveling in the attention of an entire country. Ted Williams’s strange hostility to crowds that both fascinated and repelled Boston fans for two decades seems to have dated back to his boyhood, when he had to endure sidewalk lookers-on jeering at his erratic, neglectful mother as she blew her cornet, passed her tambourine, and shrieked about salvation on the streets of San Diego.

For me, the most darkly fascinating figure in baseball history may also have been its greatest player, Ty Cobb. His career statistics—3,034 games, 4,191 hits, 2,245 runs scored, 892 bases stolen, 1,961 runs knocked in, just 357 strikeouts in 11,429 times at bat, and a lifetime batting average of .367—only hint at the terrible ferocity he brought to the game. Largely friendless and in a state of near-perpetual rage, he played the game as if waging war. “It was his base,” the pitcher Rube Bressler recalled. “It was his game. Everything was his. The most feared man in the history of baseball.”

He was just as feared off the field, where his furies often spilled over onto innocent bystanders. Cobb slapped and chased a black groundskeeper whose only offense was trying to shake his hand and then, when the man’s wife sought to intervene, tried to choke her to death. He stabbed a black hotel night watchman who had dared ask him to identify himself, beat up a black construction worker who suggested he not stop in wet cement, and went after at least one fan who had taunted him too loudly from the stands. He was stomping this tormentor with his spikes when someone shouted that the man was helpless; he had only one hand. “I don’t care if he has no feet!” Cobb answered, and kept kicking until a park policeman pulled him away.

What lay behind this pattern of behavior that would have landed a less celebrated man in jail or an asylum?

The answer to that riddle, too, seems to lie in a grim boyhood. Cobb was the son of a Georgia country schoolmaster and editor whom he could never seem to please (“the only man who ever made me do his bidding,” Cobb remembered; “I could never match my celebrated father for brains”), who wanted him to go to college and become a soldier, lawyer, doctor, anything but a ballplayer. Tense and restless, the boy felt trapped—“in some sort of bondage,” he said—and at seventeen left home to take a job with a minor-league ball team in open defiance of his father, whose parting words were “Don’t come home a failure.”

THAT COLD WARNING, COBB RE- membered, “put more determination in me than [my father] ever knew. My overwhelming need was to prove myself as a man.” He hurled himself into baseball, led the South Atlantic League in hitting, and was just weeks away from signing the major-league contract that he believed would at last prove him a success in his father’s eyes when he received a telegram: His father was dead. He had been shotgunned twice by Cobb’s own mother, perhaps by accident, possibly deliberately to keep him from attacking a lover she had taken. “I didn’t get over that,” Cobb remembered as an old man, “I’ve never gotten over it.”

Working on the film and book taught me still another lesson. While most Americans care too little about their history, the baseball community is different. The real meaning of all those apparently impenetrable stats is that the past matters. Without them no player would know where he stood, no fan could measure his or her heroes against those who have gone before. That fact alone should endear the game to any historian.

My father hasn’t yet seen the television series. He has read advance galleys of the book and liked it, thank God, though he doesn’t think we did justice to the hero of his youth, George Sisler. I suspect he’s right. In any case I’m still not in any position to argue with him.

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