Academic journal article Nine

Crossing Bats: Baseball in the Villages of the Upper Miami Valley, 1865-1900

Academic journal article Nine

Crossing Bats: Baseball in the Villages of the Upper Miami Valley, 1865-1900

Article excerpt

As portrayed by urban sports historians, middle-class Americans in the late nineteenth century saw baseball as a palliative, indeed nearly a sovereign, remedy for the apparent dislocation in the burgeoning urban-industrial cities of the nation: as host for a pastoral simplicity useful for urban dwellers "reluctant to part with best elements of the said and known world of the small town" yet seemingly relevant in an increasingly impersonalized society; as a means for ameliorating social problems affecting indigent children and promoting social integration of people from all walks of life; as a propaedeutic for teaching teamwork, hard work, and respect for authority; as a recreational activity for improving the mental and physical health of participants and spectators; and as a refuge from the stern regimen of industrial labor. (1)

Obversely, the urban historians have offered few explanations for the popularity of baseball in thousands of American villages--even though the villages and their countryside accounted for 65 percent of the nation's population in 1890 and 61 percent in 1900. (2) Aside from referring frequently to the notion that urban dwellers, their mnemonic instincts at work, identified with baseball because it summed up values of a pastoral past, they have found little of intrinsic interest or importance in small communities unburdened by rapid growth and its attendant pathology. Among sports historians, only Harold Seymour, a pioneer of baseball history, has explored the game in any depth in villages and towns. He has argued that "down-home" teams gave small communities cohesion, fostered local pride, and helped slake the "parched social landscape of rural America." (3) But limiting his subjects largely to uniforms, equipment, fields of play, and transportation of baseball teams in communities scattered throughout the nat ion, he has left ample room in what he calls "The House of Baseball" for a more intensive study of the game in select villages in the several decades before 1900.

Providing additional space have been historians looking at the rationale and evolution of baseball in an urban context. Especially, Warren Goldstein has offered a view, though unintentionally so, that may be instructive for observers of baseball in small communities. In Playing for Keeps, essentially a work on baseball in the urban East, he contends that "modernists" in the 1860s and 1870s purged baseball of its noncompetitive elements, infused it with pecuniary considerations, stressed "excellence" in play at the expense of elemental play, and stripped it of its boyish aspects. (4) Only after the modernists had fashioned a dominant framework for baseball could "traditionalists" fabricate an image of an Edenic past when amateurism, play for recreation and "pure sport," and unpracticed play characterized the game. But perhaps in villages, the image had reality.

THE VILLAGERY OF BASEBALL

One can see the villagery of baseball in the late nineteenth century in the upper Miami River Valley in western Ohio, in a stretch of sixty miles north from Miamisburg to Wapakoneta. Notably, in eleven villages--Miamisburg, Germantown, Yellow Springs, Spring Valley, Bellbrook, Eaton, West Liberty, St. Marys, New Bremen, Cedarville, and Wapakoneta--proprietors of weekly newspapers, at once editors and reporters, told readers of birthdays, deaths, and social events--and of nines "crossing bats." The editors also ran reports on baseball in other villages scattered throughout the valley--DeGraff and Rushsylvania, for instance.

The population in the villages, all defined as such by state statutes, ranged from 350 to 3,600, with the majority (six) home to 1,000 to 2,000 persons. (5) All were trading centers for the rural vicinity, and a few were sites of small "manufactories" turning out products for a residentiary and regional market. Nearly all at a remove from the principal railroads in the Miami Valley, they had little promise for growth. …

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