Academic journal article Base Ball

Basepaths and Baselines: The Agricultural and Surveying Contexts of the Emergence of Baseball

Academic journal article Base Ball

Basepaths and Baselines: The Agricultural and Surveying Contexts of the Emergence of Baseball

Article excerpt

Recent research has established that baseball and baseball-type games predate the 1840s. In other words, they predate the hoary but erroneous 1839 Abner Doubleday/ Cooperstown/Immaculate Conception theory of baseball's invention. Most notable among the books has been David Block's definitive Baseball before We Knew It, and my own articles, "'A Place Leavel Enough to Play Ball': Baseball and Baseball-Type Games in the Colonial Era, Revolutionary War, and Early American Republic" and "Chucking the Old Apple: Recent Discoveries about Pre-1839 North American Ball Games."1 George Thompson's discovery of 1823 accounts of baseball in New York City and John Thorn's uncovering of a 1791 Pittsfield, Massachusetts, ordinance prohibiting baseball-playing, among other sports, have been two of the more exciting examples of this research.2 The energies of SABR's Origins Committee, expanding to roughly 200 members under the leadership of Larry McCray, have resulted in a valuable database, Protoball, a Protoball glossary, and a monthly newsletter, Originals, updating the finds.

Baseball thus existed, but the question now arises: Why did baseball appeal to an increasing number of Americans in the early Republic? Why in those transitional decades, moving from the settlement of the Revolutionary ferment to the volatile Jacksonian trends, did Americans move toward allegiance to baseball-type games? What other American developments may have affected, modified, paralleled, or drawn along the expansion of baseball and baseball-type games? Certainly baseball did not emerge in a cultural vacuum, a total escape from the agricultural and commercial cares of the times.

To start down a path toward some sort of answer, it is necessary to revisit the Country Game thesis. According to this interpretation, baseball originated in rural environs and even as the sport exploded in urban locales by the 1840s and 1850s, players and spectators alike ever since have celebrated baseball as some sort of pastoral design, a pleasant recreation of the rural past fading before their eyes, a harkening back to some sort of golden age of rustic simplicity and harmony. Many commentators have celebrated the rural roots of the game, waxing eloquently about green fields as temporal heavens, barefoot boys with cheeks of tan whiling away summer afternoons, and rural virtues manifesting themselves in the practitioners of the game.3 Never mind that once professionalism overtook the amateur game, most players did not hone their skills in cow pastures and the juggernaut of commercialism relegated small-town baseball to minor league, bush league, and farm team statuses. But longings for the rural origins have persisted so strongly that the creation myth of baseball-the Abner Doubleday "Immaculate Conception" scenario-involves Elihu Phinney's pasture in Cooperstown.

These claims often rest heavily on nostalgia, an attractive but fundamentally false collection of sentiments, or on a Leo Marxian model of the pastoral middle landscape, rather than a closer understanding of the material and cultural connections of agriculture and the folk games that gave rise to baseball. As worthy as those emphases on the concept of the middle landscape are, in the end they fuel an idealized portrait of farming that most actual farmers themselves would not have recognized. But those same agriculturalists experienced a concrete specificity of objects in their work duties, tangible materials that provided a framework for their lives and also served as important ingredients for ballplaying.

The Agricultural Contexts of Baseball: Getting Good Wood on the Ball

The bat is, of course, one of the key instruments for bat-and-ball games. Today bats come in ceramic and aluminum versions, as well as the traditional wooden ones. For early Americans, wood was a constant reality in their lives. In the eastern woodlands colonists found a staggering abundance of forests, which allowed even the most amateur carpenter the choice of very prime wood and encouraged profligacy with wood supplies. …

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