Book Review: "Baseball's First Inning"

To truly understand baseball - or anything else for that matter - it's best to know everything possible about its earliest days. A new book details some of the greats of the game from those early years.

When discussing outstanding multi-volume histories of baseball, and the authors of same, the subject matter has traditionally been limited to those two venerated titans of the 1960s, the late Dr. Harold Seymour of New York and the still very much on the scene Dr. David Quentin Voigt of Reading, Pennsylvania. While these two gentlemen have been justly feted for their seminal and ground-breaking works on the history of the game, the time has come for those of us who value, research, study and read the history of the game to make room for a third multi-volume historian (and history) in the pantheon. His name is William J. Ryczek, and the third volume in his trilogy of early baseball history, just published by McFarland & Company, Inc., is "Baseball's First Inning."

To briefly re-cap what has gone on before... Ryczek has been working backwards from 1875 for almost 30 years. Or, at least, he's been researching the results, people and history of baseball for the past three decades or so. This almost half-lifetime of work first bore fruit in 1992, when "Blackguards and Red Stockings" was published. This volume, the first and still the best study of the wild and wooly era of the National Association (if you don't believe me, ask John Thorn, he says it's still the best work on the NA), is invaluable to anyone who wants to understand how that first professional baseball association functioned, lived and died from 1871 to 1875. Covering all five NA seasons in detail, reading Blackguards is a must for anyone who wants to understand the sport's chaotic earliest professional years. Six years later, Ryczek brought out "When Johnny Came Sliding Home." This work covered the years from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the NA (in other words, from 1865 to 1870), a remarkable time when the spread of the game was boosted by the War and by what Voigt called "creeping commercialism," practically re-inventing what had previously largely been a pastime for mid-19th Century Yuppies in the northeast United States.

Now, it's time to go back to, not the future, since Ryczek is working backwards, but the beginning. Ryczek has concluded his trilogy with "Baseball's First Inning: A History of the National Pastime Through the Civil War." (McFarland, July 2009, 269 pages, $29.95, ISBN 978-0-7864-4194-5. Available through or by calling 800-253-2187.) Starting essentially with baseball's recognizable origins as baseball (more on that later) and proceeding through the final full year of the War of Northern Aggression (that's what they still call it here in the South… but don't get me started on that), it is a work that cements the author's place in the Baseball Multi-Volume Hall of Fame. Finding a fine middle ground between Seymour's academic erudition (informative, but not the easiest read) and Voigt's more informal style, Ryczek's monumental research, extensive footnoting (better than either of the two distinguished academicians, in fact, Seymour didn't use footnotes at all), easily readable style (something he has in common with Voigt), and intriguing appendices (seven in all… in fact you can get a feel for the game Ryczek writes about almost as well from the appendices as you can from the text) present the reader with a baseball thrill the near-equal of seeing your son line a double past the third baseman.

Ryczek's Preface notes and pays tribute to his distinguished predecessors in the field of writing about baseball's origins… Robert Henderson, David Block, Marshall Wright, George Kirsch, Patricia Millen, Tom Shieber, Peter Morris, the Protoball Three (Thorn, Tom Heitz, Larry McCray)… and asks the logical question, has this subject (i.e., baseball up to 1864) already been covered? Fortunately for those who care about the on-going quest for truth, Ryczek came up with the correct answer. That is, each of the previously-mentioned authors covered a single aspect of baseball in great detail, but no one had put together the big picture. Besides, history, and our understanding of it, is ever-changing as long as new data, new concepts, new interpretations, continue to come forth. And, in the early history of baseball, that's as much a given as the Yankees or Mets overpaying for free agents. Harold Seymour, for instance, for all his expertise, tended to go along with the Henry Chadwick theory that baseball developed from rounders. Thus, there is always room for a new look at history, at least as far as a subject like baseball – one that has been subject to scholarly scrutiny for only 40 years or so – is concerned, and each succeeding author (at least the good ones) builds on and learns from the work of their predecessors.

What Ryczek learned, and passes along to us, is covered in 269 pages that start with the origin of the game that is clearly recognized as baseball. In that respect he overlaps Block's work, in that Ryczek picks up where Block, who focused mainly on baseball's ancient antecedents in "Baseball Before We Knew It," left off. First Inning also covers the same chronological ground as Wright's "The National Association of Base Ball Players, 1857-1870," but with a different perspective, since Wright's work is more a Paleozoic Baseball Encyclopedia (i.e., a statistical compilation) than anything else.

Although he does start at the beginning, with the Knickerbocker club, Ryczek does not provide a linear story, as he did in Blackguards. He does give extensive coverage to the key seasons played during the Civil War, but this is more of an overview, covering the major happenings, the game's major areas on concentration, the major controversies, some of the top clubs, some of the top players, and even some of the other sports (ball, fighting and chase sports, although he misses pedestrianism) of the period. In short, when Ryczek aimed to provide the big picture, not just of baseball, but of an era, he succeeded.

Naturally enough, given the importance and location of the early baseball clubs, much of Ryczek's story focuses on the New York and Brooklyn arena, that is, the prominent clubs and players thereof. And, striding across the pages like the Colossus of Rhodes, is the one man without whom any story of early baseball would be, not incomplete, but irrelevant. No, doofus, it's not Abner Doubleday, although that myth is still so entrenched in the general public's mind (go ahead, ask casual baseball fans who invented baseball… see what kind of answers you'll get) that Ryczek feels the necessity of retelling the story of the Spalding Commission (for that's what it really was, Abraham Mills was awarded de facto naming rights because he chaired Al Spalding's puppet parade) in his first chapter. No, as everyone should know, the key person in baseball's development from a kids' game to the National Pastime was… no, it wasn't Alexander Cartwright, either. Even if you want to debate (along with Ryczek) who among the Knickerbocker club members was most responsible for "baseball," it should be clear after reading First Inning, that the real Father of Baseball was… the Father of Baseball, Henry Chadwick... who is still the only sportswriter who is actually a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

To a certain extent, and rightfully so, this is the Henry Chadwick story. However, there's much more to First Inning. Ryczek, through his exhaustive research, also reports on the other hotbeds of baseball and baseball-like games in his 20-year focal period; Philadelphia, Massachusetts and (this may surprise some readers), New Orleans. He delves at length into the great rules controversies of the era, notably whether a ball caught on one bounce should be considered an out, and the overarching issue of just what that guy in the middle of the diamond was supposed to be doing… pitching (i.e., tossing) the ball to the batter, or trying to get him out by jerking his arm, and throwing the ball as hard as possible. The importance of the second debate, which Chadwick ultimately lost out on, by the way, cannot be overstated. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this point is to note that a 74 MPH underhand jerk from the now-Little League distance of 45 feet away (because that's where the pitcher was in those days) will get to the batter in about the same time frame as a 100 MPH fastball thrown from 60 feet, six inches.

There can be no doubt about it, William Ryczek has given us an excellent snapshot of the middle years of 19th Century America, and the development of what became, and remains to this day, its national sport. He has educated us to not only this pastime, but others as well, including even sportswriting, for heaven's sake. (His chapter on "The Sporting and Not So Sporting Press" is a hoot, and not just for broken down old 20/21st Century sportswriters.) For anyone interested in baseball's early history, or America in the years leading up to the Civil War, "Baseball's First Inning" is a "must have."

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