The first book I have chosen for this book club is one I am currently working my way through. The way in which I plan to go through these chapters is one or two at a time with my general thoughts or ideas. I am not necessarily doing a book report here, but providing a bit of a commentary.
But Didn't We Have Fun? An Informal History of Baseball's Pioneer Era 1843-1870
by Peter Morris
Chapter 1: Before the Knickerbockers
This chapter is largely concerned with the games that preceded what we would have some inkling of recognition of baseball. What struck me as interesting about these games in the 1830s or so is how populist they were. Young and old adults would get together in the morning before work in the city square or find an open space on Sunday and play a game. This game consisted of a ball, typically quite soft, a bat, and some number of stakes or bases. There were no rule books, but the game took up a number of different iterations and braced against any standardization. The game was the antithesis of a national game. It was different everywhere. Rounders was not popular. Cricket was not popular. Rather it was a highly localized ball and bat game that was influenced by the English fare and the necessities of local elements. Sometimes the number of players available were few or incredibly numerous and therefore rules had to change depending on whatever needs had to be met that particular day.
It is incredibly difficult to write a history of something that was not considered with much seriousness. People simply do not write these things down. It has made researching the foundation of the game as quite a difficult endeavor. The evidence at hand is often patchy and filled with colored memories. It reminds me of the plethora of games I invented in my youth. Even being squarely involved in a game I played with my friends that involved using a bat and a football to play a kind of golf, I would be hard pressed to remember the rules or the name we called it. I am not even sure we had a name for it. We certainly had fun and that was the point.
As the author presents it, the standardization of baseball appears to have had a lot to do with legitimizing adults playing a children's game. The Olympics of Philadelphia played their games across the river in New Jersey due to ball games being illegal in Philly. Apparently, the members of the club were given a great deal of flack for spending so much time on a frivolous activity. The result was for the club to write a constitution in 1838 to try to make their endeavor more respectable. I find it interesting that baseball may have become baseball in part due to simple shame.
However, what I take from this most is this: baseball in its infancy was an abstract thing. The ball, the bat, points, and running were all important aspects of it, but it was molded. It makes me think how untenable it is for people to be traditionalists in baseball preaching for it to remain authentic. Has there ever been an authentic thing about baseball? The history of the game suggests otherwise. Rules change dramatically. Players change dramatically. Fields change dramatically. Everything about the game changes. It is why we have tried so hard to develop ways to measure baseball where players are compared within their era against their colleagues. Face it, Babe Ruth would be Matt Stairs at best. Jim Palmer would be quite normal. The game changes and often it grows more difficult or, at least, it becomes more competitive. Those wishing for the authentic game are merely pining for a specific type of baseball that may or may not have existed for a brief moment in time.