Tagged: Baseball History

Once Upon a Time in America

A while back I asserted there’s no lying in baseball. It warn’t true. If you took all the liars and cheats out of baseball there wouldn’t be enough honest folk left to play with yourself. The game itself, as we know it, is premised on deception. Take what many consider to be the core element of the game, the confrontation between the pitcher and the batter. In the early days of the game the pitcher had to announce his pitch. It didn’t take them long to figure out that the game was much more interesting if the pitcher attempted to fool the batter. You can bet it wasn’t long after that somebody was trying to steal the catcher’s signs.

Like America itself, baseball couldn’t even tell the truth about its origins. Abner Doubleday didn’t invent baseball anymore than Pilgrims were the first settlers in America. And when that fable was debunked, like compulsive liars they immediately offered another: Alexander Cartwright didn’t invent baseball, either. Indeed there is tantalizing evidence that baseball was played at Jamestown. David Block, in his excellent work Baseball Before We Knew It, recounts how A Polish worker, brought to the settlement for technical assistance, described in his memoirs playing a bat and ball game from Poland, which “even attracted the savages who sat around the field, delighted with this Polish sport.”

The savages—they weren’t quite politically correct in those days—were also adept at bat and ball games of their own. In 1837—two years before Abner Doubleday purportedly invented the game—the novel Female Robinson Crusoe describes Indians (more politically correct) playing a game remarkably like baseball. The Native Americans (almost politically correct) didn’t invent baseball, either. Albert Spalding, the sporting goods magnate who sold the Doubleday myth, was intent on making baseball distinctively American, but the truth is more likely that baseball came to our shores. The Native Peoples (now politically correct) got their ball game from the same place everyone else did.

Their imagination. Some ballyard, huh?

— Michael Norton


This weekend marks the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, marked by commemorations,  galas, exhibits, re-enactments, official visits, books, movies, souvenirs and enough half-crocked pseudo history to condemn Jamestown to oblivion for another fifty years. The Queen’s visit was a reprise of the last big bash, in 1957, two years before this grandfather was born. These things need happen every generation. I remember clearly the 200th anniversary of 1776. We buried a time capsule with our John Henry’s for the next generation. I suffixed my name with esq. (Esquire. Bill and Ted were not even yet twinkles in some screenwriter’s eye at that point), hoping future folk had an appreciation of irony and a sense of humor my frowning teacher seemed lacking.

The Jamestown Quadracentennial will pale in comparison to the Civil War Sesquicentennial, approaching four years from now. Once again that great conflict in American history will push Jamestown into the nether reaches of memory.

One of the fundamental motivations for launching The Jamestown Site was in preparation for a long and eagerly awaited study of the Civil War. Jamestown was where it all began. In Jamestown, indentured servitude, used to repay passage to the New World, morphed into chattel slavery. In Jamestown, the seeds of an agricultural economy based on forced labor were sown and took root. In Jamestown, African slaves first arrived in America. The Civil War began in Jamestown.

And the modern game of baseball began in the Civil War.

— Michael Norton

Save Our History

As you might have guessed from The Jamestown Site, I’m a history lover.  So it was with great dismay I learned about the possibility of losing the last remnants of Ebbets Field.  Kudos to Save Dodger History for making us aware of this pending tragedy and how we can help.  Comment on the site and let the baseball world know you care about preserving this national treasure.

Thanksgiving Turkey

As children we were taught that at the first Thanksgiving, the first Americans, the Pilgrims, sat down in peace with the real first Americans, the Indians, broke bread and gave thanks.

None of that was true, of course.The Indians weren’t from India, the Pilgrims were not even the first Englishmen in America, much less the first Americans, a distinction owed to the Indians, er, Native Americans. Nor was it the first fall feast. A feast celebrating the end of harvest time seems rather natural, and, in fact, has been widely celebrated across cultures for as long as men have been reaping the soil.

The origins of baseball have been similarly miscast. Of course everybody knows Alexander Doubleday didn’t do it. Neither did Cartwright. Something resembling baseball has probably been around since the Stone Age. Fending off rocks with a stick was a martial art for primitive man. Throwing up objects and hitting them with sticks seems almost instinctual in boys. I’ve observed that even the smallest of children grasp the sport in running to a place where they are safe. Baseball, like Thanksgiving, springs not from American soil, but from man’s inner most being. Thank God for baseball.

And thank God my son returned home safe and sound from his tour of duty this week. Made for a truly wonderful holiday.

Do You Kiss Your Mother with that Mouth?

First let me state I am not a Barry Bonds fan.  In fact, I have as much reason to despise Bonds as anyone.  Being a native San Franciscan, I would be a natural Giant fan, except I abhor Bonds as an abomination.  Not because of steroids, mind you, but because I consider him to be a lout who absurdly fouled prodigious talent. 

Regardless, Bonds is the greatest hitter I have been privileged to see in my lifetime.  And he has a point:  fans should show some restraint and respect for the next generation.   The fact that it is hypocritical for Bonds, who, like many modern athletes, accepts no responsibility for being a role model, to make the argument is beside the point.  The treatment of Bonds is a disgrace.

Let the young ones believe in Santa Claus.  They will learn the harsh realities of life soon enough.  Bonds will be judged by history, and that soon enough, because soon enough he will be history.  Like Ruth before him, Bonds is mortal.  He is flesh.

And he has flesh and blood.  He has children who attend the games to see their father play.  He has a mother, too.

Can we show a little respect?  That is a most valuable lesson my mother taught me.  Happy Mothers Day, Mom, wherever you are (she passed away long ago).

The Bonds that Bind

Los Angeles.  San Francisco.  With the names of these cities you would think it would be a holy war, and you would be right, except both of these franchises were New York’s, with storied histories which stretched back longer than Babe Ruth held the home run record.  Before there was The Babe and the New York Yankees, there was John McGraw and the New York Giants.  One of the legacies of Ruth was the exodus of the senior circuit of America’s largest city.  The Babe was big enough **** all the air out of a city as large as New York City.

Mcgrawjohnhowtoplaythegame Neither the Dodgers nor the Giants could draw like the Yankees, and both were having difficulties negotiating with the city for new stadiums.  Walter O’Malley, owner of the Dodgers, was offered a city financed and owned stadium in Flushing Meadows, Queens:  the current location of Shea Stadium.  What happened next depends on who you talk to.  O’Malley, a real estate magnate who wanted a piece of the stadium deal, would claim New York politicians forced him to move.  Others believe O’Malley manipulated the situation to take advantage of the business opportunities offered by the wide open baseball market on the west coast.  In either case O’Malley needed a team to play against, and he convinced archrival New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham to join the Dodgers moving west.  On April 18, 1958, the Los Angeles Dodgers defeated the San Francisco Giants at the Coliseum.

Dodger Stadium was the last publicly financed stadium for forty years as cities, shocked by the example of the Dodgers and Giants, caved to the demands of owners for new stadiums.  Ironically San Francisco refused to subsidize a new stadium for the Giants to replace Candlestick, so Peter Macgowan privately financed Pac Bell (now AT&T) Park.  To pull it off, he needed a superstar to pack the seats.  Thus begins the saga of Barry Bonds.  — Michael Norton

Remembering Jackie

The Tides got shelled last night, at the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Red Barons, affiliate of the Phillies.  Well, sort of.  The relationship has soured, and next year the 18 year affiliation will end.  Guess Pennsylvania is not the state of brotherly love.  I haven’t really been able to get engaged in this series, in part because when you can find information on a player, it is usually something like “is nothing more than organization depth for the Phillies”.  I’m wondering if the Phillies have basically abandoned the Red Barons, shipping all their prospects to AA Reading.  The Red Barons do play in one of my favoritely named ballparks:  Lackawanna County Stadium.  Unfortunately there’s no lack of want in Scranton Wilkes-Barre.  Guess I should speak softly, though: the Red Barons have won three of four in this series.

Next up for the Tides is the Rochester Red Wings, affiliate of the Twins and one of the original teams in the International League via the Eastern League.  The International League itself is very old.  In 1897 the Rochester ballpark burned and the team, then called the Jingos, finished the season in Montreal, with the understanding the team would return to Rochester the following season.  Montreal decided possession was nine-tenths of the law, and Rochester had to buy the Scranton membership to stay in the league.  The International League gets its name from its historical connections to Canadian teams.

The Jackie Robinson story really begins with the Montreal Royals of the International League in 1946, where Robinson was positioned to prepare him for what was to come.  On this date, April 18, Robinson went 4-for-5 with four runs, a dinger, 4 RBIs, 2 stolen bases and forced 2 balks.  MiLB.com is chronicling Jackie’s exploits in the International League this season in its series, Remembering Jackie.