Playing by the Book
Baseball History in the 1980s
In 1983, when excerpts from my book Baseball's Great Experiment appeared in Sports Illustrated, I found myself the subject of the weekly “Letter from the Publisher.” I posed for a baseball fan's rendezvous with destiny with a stickball bat resting comfortably on my shoulder and a shirt emblazoned with the symbol of my Paciﬁc Ghost League team. I prepared pithy quotes. “Being a baseball fan is great training for a historian, ” I sagely observed. “The types of things I did as a kid—learning the statistics of the players and the folklore of the game—have served me well.” 1 I meant this statement as a throwaway line, to be taken half-seriously. In retrospect, however, I have grown convinced of its validity. To be a baseball fan, by the very nature of the game, with its emphasis on records, summers past, and bygone heroes, is to be a historian.
An abundant baseball literature afﬁrms this assertion. Since the days of Henry Chadwick, journalists and fans have authored comprehensive chronicles and popular biographies. The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) has unleashed thousands of researchers to “recreate” baseball history. Yet only recently have trained academic historians applied the skills of our craft to an analysis of the national pastime. In doing so, we have hopefully created a genre that supplements, rather than duplicates, nonacademic efforts by applying the standards of the professional historian to the study of baseball.
What are these standards? Harold Seymour, who in 1960 wrote the ﬁrst scholarly treatment of the national pastime, offered an excellent set of guidelines in his introduction. Baseball, he charged, “has been badly served by history, ” in books “put together after only the most cursory kind of research.” He based his own work, on the other hand, “on wide research into the sources of baseball history which were examined—many of them for the ﬁrst time—in libraries and archives in various parts of