Monday, May 5, 2008

BOOKSHELF: BUT DIDN'T WE HAVE FUN?

An Informal History of Baseball's Pioneer Era, 1843-1870

LUTHER SPOERHR, HISTORY NEWS NETWORK In 1867, shortly after the Civil War, the baseball players of the National Club of Washington, D.C., did what award-winning baseball historian Peter Morris calls "the previously unthinkable": they embarked on a 3,000-mile road trip to Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Chicago, thus "becoming the first Eastern team to venture west of the Alleghenies.". . .

Their trip was underwritten by private sponsors, and the Nationals were treated as honored guests at every stop, but they were hardly pampered, particularly when it came to their travel regimen. (After missing their train in Cincinnati, they hopped a freight to Philadelphia and arrived for their game, tired and disheveled, with an hour to spare.) But the Nationals saw themselves primarily as goodwill ambassadors, and, says Morris, their "historic tour was a great boon to the spread of enthusiasm for the game."

By 1867 that game was on the verge of a great change. The 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first openly professional "base ball" team, would go on tour and beat all comers; their success would lead the Cincinnati Base Ball Club to "divorce" them. In 1871 the National Association of Base Ball Players split into amateur and professional groups.

How the game unexpectedly got to that point is the subject of Morris' thoroughly researched, entirely engaging book. He begins with the game of the 1830s and 1840s, in all its variety, informality, and sociability, when the pitcher's only job was to get play started by letting the batter hit the ball, and the umpire sat in splendid isolation, called upon only occasionally ("Judgment, sir!"), when players themselves couldn't make the call. . .

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