News From The 19th Century

Before you can start an e-zine, or any publication, you need a snappy title. When this particular publication first started in December 2002, the chosen title was "19 to 21", since it was anticipated that it would cover baseball from the 19th to the 21st Centuries. And while most of the news has been from the 20th and 21st centuries, there's no denying the attraction that the 19th Century holds.

AP – Montana Territory , June 18, 1876 – General George Armstrong Custer today predicted that his 7th Calvary will make short work of the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne Indians, thus bringing a quick end to the Great Sioux War.

Oops. Wrong 19th Century story.

Philadelphia Public Ledger – Camden , NJ , July 4, 1833 – The Olympic Town Ball Club of Philadelphia today played the first-ever American ball game between two organized associations, defeating a club from this city by the score of 80-64.

Now that's news…

Before you can start an e-zine, or any other publication, you need a snappy title. When this particular publication first started in December 2002, the chosen title was "19 to 21," since it was anticipated that it would cover baseball from the 19th Century to the 21st Century. And while most of the news over the past eight volumes has been from the 20th and 21st centuries, there's no denying the attraction that the 19th Century holds to the baseball historian. Maybe it's "seeing" the National Pastime grow and develop from its origins. Maybe it's the near-forgotten heroic figures of the 19th Century; the Harry Wrights, the Jim Creightons, the Hicks Hayhursts, the Doc Adams, the Harry Stoveys, the Henry Chadwicks, the O.P.Caylors, the Hustling Horace Phillips, the Lip Pikes, the Bob "Death to Flying Things" Fergusons. Those guys. Or maybe it's just that, when discussing/investigating/researching what was still developing from a kid's game, there's still a lot to learn about 19th Century baseball.

Everyone knows that Fred Merkle should have gone all the way to second base in the bottom of the ninth in that Giants/Cubs game in 1908. But, at this point in time, no one really knows what the score was, or what individual scored the most runs, or who the players were, or even what rules they were playing, of that game on the 57th Independence Day in Camden , NJ . All we can say with any kind of certainty was that it was, given what we know now, the first ball game in America between two organized clubs.

While the results and details of baseball and baseball-like games from the early part of the 19th Century remain largely hidden in the mists of time, there is a strong contingent of individuals devoted to bringing this history – so significant to both the early years of the sport and the early years of the nation – out of the mists of time. Many of them belong to the 19th Century Committee of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). Recently, SABR held its 40th Annual Convention in, of all places, a college football town... Atlanta . Rumor has it that major league baseball is also played there, although, as remarked upon in passing by Rob Neyer (one of the heavy hitters in this field) in his blog, you could never tell it by the "crowds" that turn up at Turner Field (also reputed to be the last line of the "Star Spangled Banner," i.e., the "home of the Braves.") Still, SABR came to Atlanta in August 2010 and, thanks to the kind efforts of Triviameister and SABR board member D. Bruce Brown, your humble scribe was able to brave  Atlanta traffic to take in the meeting of SABR's 19th Century Committee.

While covering said meeting was an enlightening and enjoyable task, it was also somewhat intimidating to your average history nerd. Put it this way, the gathering that took place in the meeting rooms of the Sheraton Downtown was basically a Who's Who of 19th Century baseball historians. The experts on the subject. A virtual Hall of Fame of historians and authors. The World Series of 19th Century baseball scholarship. Feeling somewhat like a Little Leaguer who had snuck onto a major league roster, I showed up with my notebook and a certain degree of apprehension.

There, sitting a couple of rows behind me was the man who wrote the book(s) on 19th Century baseball, the Pride of Wallingford, CT, Bill Ryczek. All he's done is author the three best books on 19th Century baseball ("Baseball's First Inning," "When Johnny Came Sliding Home," "Blackguards and Red Stockings"). A few rows behind him is THE expert on the origins of baseball, from much farther back than the 19th Century... David Block, author of "Baseball Before We Knew It" and a close personal friend and "discoverer" of Johann Christoph Gutsmuths, the first chronicler of the prime ancestor game of baseball, dating back to the 1790s. And, over in the other half of the room, is the superstar, the Babe Ruth, of this field. One of the few baseball historians who literally needs no introduction. John Thorn. All three of these gentlemen played significant roles in the coming forth of my book, "Base Ball in Philadelphia" and, if I ever find the time to complete my history of baseball, "The Mount Rushmores of Baseball," all three will be carved (along with Tom Altherr… sadly, I missed him at the meeting) in the virtual Mount Rushmore as seminal figures of the 19th Century game.

Having somewhat recovered from sitting in on such august company (which notably included committee chair Peter Mancuso), I managed to take a few notes on some of the exciting work of the 19th Century Committee. So what's happening? What is the news from the 19th Century? Well, this is a field of scholarship that requires a lot of research by a lot of people. As a result, a lot of the best publications in the field of 19th Century baseball are joint efforts by a large number of people (which is one reason why the work of Messrs. Ryczek, Block and Thorn is so remarkable -- their names are the only ones on their books). Now, getting a large number of people from all over the country to work together typically isn't easy, but, the results are worth the effort. The Committee's previous books, notably bios of many of the 19th Century's noted players and executives, have been very well worth the effort and the price. And, mirable dictu, it turns out that committee members are currently at work on not one, but two, outstanding additions to the scholarship on 19th Century baseball.

Although much of that scholarship in the past has been devoted to individuals, the games of the 19th Century is the subject of a major book project currently underway, entitled "Inventing Baseball: The 100 Greatest Games of the 19th Century," this work, when completed (probably late in 2012 or early in 2013) will include a thousand or more words on each of what the experts have voted on as the top 100 games from 1833 (that's the Olympic/Camden game referenced above) to 1900. According to Mancuso, it took three months just to take in the nominations and rank the top 100 games of this era.

In case you're interested, number one on the list was a slam dunk, June 14, 1870, when the Brooklyn Atlantics ended the Cincinnati Red Stockings remarkable two-year long winning streak in a game of extraordinary rarity, even beyond marking the end point of the Stockings' undefeated run (the actual number of games being still a matter of discussion.) The contest, which ended 8-7 Atlantic , was extraordinary as both a very low-scoring game (the term they used then was "scientific") and rare extra inning game. After playing to a 5-5 tie in regulation, the aforementioned Harry Wright of the Stockings insisted on extra innings. Wright's insistence looked good when the visitors scored two in the top of the 11th. But Atlantic came right back and scored three in the bottom of the inning, helped in part by a single by the aforementioned Mr. Ferguson. This hit was one of the most notable in baseball history, partly because of the game circumstance but mostly because it is the first recorded instance of switch hitting. Normally a right-handed batter, Ferguson turned around and, under the most dramatic of conditions, batted lefty against Asa Brainard. Why? Because Ferguson and the rest of the Atlantics had spent most of the afternoon hitting ground ball outs to George Wright, Harry's brother and the pre-eminent shortstop in the game. Thus, Ferguson turned around to try and keep the ball away from George, which he did.

And that's just one of the games to be featured in this work. Others will include the Olympic game in Camden, the aforementioned Mr. Creighton's final game (he died shortly thereafter, apparently from an injury sustained during the game, although that's not certain, either), the first fixed game, the first-ever no-hitter (in a Princeton vs. Yale game in 1875), Tony Mullane pitching with both hands in the same game (shades of Pat Venditte), and Matt Kilroy setting the single season strikeout record (of 513!)

Exactly how this book will be distributed is still to be decided. Thorn, who came up with the title and wrote the Introduction, lobbied at the meeting for a SABR member-wide distribution. In other words, have the book serve as a member benefit, as well as a benefit to the scores of authors whose work will be represented. There also may be a trade publishing deal in the future that would produce a hardbound version.

As exciting as the forthcoming "100 Greatest Games" may be, it pales in comparison to another 19th Century Committee undertaking. Known as the "Pioneer Project," this ambitious work proposes to do nothing less than produce a baseball encyclopedia of pre-professional baseball. Considering the scarcity and scattered nature of the sources on the subject -- as noted, baseball developed from a kids' game, and not many newspapers or other written sources wrote much about kids' games in the first two-thirds of the 19th Century -- this seems scarcely possible. Indeed, Charles Peverelly's "The Book of American Pastimes" is essentially the only comprehensive, contemporary source on the game in this era, and it was written in 1866, some 20 years after the game was codified. Nonetheless, the 25 or 30 contributors (including Thorn -- the man is everywhere) to this massive work propose to include histories of all the major amateur clubs, bios of the prominent members and players of said clubs (including, for instance, the aforementioned Mr. Hayhurst who was, among other things, the first individual to try to overcome the Color Line), plus some general historical overview chapters. The current estimate is that it will be about 18 months before the committee can approach a publisher with this magnum opus. Don't be surprised if McFarland & Co., is approached.

In terms of hard news from the 19th Century (Committee)... one of the Committee's recent undertakings has been a poll to determine overlooked legends of the 19th Century. A vote is taken each year, somewhat along the lines of the voting of the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee, and the winner is declared that year's "Overlooked 19th Century Baseball Legend." To put it another way, the winner of this voting, in the opinion of those individuals who know 19th Century baseball best, is the individual most deserving of election to the Hall of Fame. As the news release distributed at the meeting states, "171 members of the 19th Century Committee cast their votes for the 2010 Overlooked 19th Century Base Ball Legend -- a 19th Century player, manager, executive or other baseball personality not yet inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown ." Last year's winner was The Gladiator, Pete Browning.

For 2010, when the envelope was opened by Mancuso, the winner was James "Deacon" White, who was not only one of the 19th Century's great players, hitters, catchers and, indeed, one of the first superstars of the professional game, but also one of the great characters. Well known for saying, after his contract was transferred, that no man was going to sell his carcass unless he got half of the price (yes, he really said it that way), White was also truly a virtuous sort who carried a Bible around with him. And, he also truly believed the earth was flat. If that was not true, he was known to ask, then why did pop flies come right back down to the same place?

Cooperstown is the same place that SABR was founded in 1971. However, among the 19th Century Committee, there is something of a disconnect with SABR's roots (or maybe hometown might be a better way to say it). To paraphrase Block after the meeting, the Committee is sort of disillusioned with the Hall, because they (notably the Veterans Committee) keep inducting less-than-sterling candidates from the 20th Century (Phil Rizzuto, take a bow), while ignoring a significant number of excellent candidates from the 19th Century, Browning and White being only two. Others that come to mind quickly (all of whom were on the "Overlooked" ballot for 2010) include Harry Stovey (who held both the single season and career home run marks at one time), Ross Barnes, Parisian Bob Caruthers, Pebbly Jack Glasscock, Doc Adams (who probably deserves more credit for the rules of baseball than any other individual) and Bobby Mathews (who won 300 games if you count his first two years, before there were any leagues.) Of course, just to show, as that noted philosopher Mick Jagger once said, that you can't always get what you want, there are plenty of other good candidates that were only included as write-ins... Dick McBride (the first 300 game winner), Al Reach (a parallel talent and career to Al Spalding, as well as being the first player to change cities for money), and Jim Creighton (the first superstar).  

Maybe none of these worthies will ever be elected to the Hall... the last three are real long shots (although they are highly deserving)… but the issue that was debated at the meeting was whether or not the Committee/SABR should even try by any means to influence the process. Thorn in particular feels that SABR is not at its best when lobbying. And that may be true, but it says here that the Hall, if it is truly interested in historical accuracy within its walls, will listen to the real experts on baseball from long ago. Not the former players who sit on the Vets Committee, not the mainstream sportswriters, not the BBWAA, but the guys who wrote the book(s) on this era; the John Thorns, David Blocks, Bill Ryczeks and Peter Mancusos, et al. They know their stuff, and they know it better than anyone else.

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