19th-Century Baseball Fiction: A Survey

By McCue, Andy | Base Ball, April 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

19th-Century Baseball Fiction: A Survey


McCue, Andy, Base Ball


A Baseball Novel Wanted:

"It's a wonder to me," says a publisher, "that nobody has yet written a baseball novel. I should think such a venture would meet with a large and ready sale, if it did not become a craze with the horde of admirers of the game in this century. It might be written around some romantic incident and worked up with a clever plot.

"Hawley Smart, the English novelist, you will remember, drew on the racecourse for the material he used in his famous romance, From Post to Finish. I have heard people who did not care a snap of a finger about horses say they had read it with the utmost pleasure. I am convinced that a well-constructed baseball novel would catch many of the same class of readers, for there is an excitement about popular sports of any description which is not without its effect even upon the uninitiated."

-New York Tribune, July 20, 1890

While it would be another five years until a baseball novel rated a review in The New York Times, the kind of novel the anonymous publisher desired had been published already, in 1877, as The Great Match and Other Matches. It was, perhaps, not up to the publisher's standards, or those of the prolific, popular, and now largely forgotten Hawley Smart; but it was the first recognizable example of a genre that would encompass dozens of novels annually by the 21st century.

The American publishing industry, like the business of professional baseball, was not mature in 1877, nor was it in 1890. It published fewer than 1,000 books a year, many of them almanacs and religious works. In a poorly educated, rural country, there was simply not much of a market. The industry's mainstay, in fact, was taking advantage of America's lack of a copyright treaty with Great Britain, which permitted its members to publish successful British authors without paying royalties. These works-many of them fiction-catered to the better educated, eastern, urban market.

Before the Civil War, the fiction that was published tended to be highly didactic- especially in books written for children, those most likely to have baseball as part of the story. In its first appearances, it is a couple of pages describing a game, scenes which feel like frosting to lure the young reader to the liver and lima beans underneath. By the century's end, however, baseball is the driving plot element of entire novels. And, even in the dead-ball era, the authors had a notable tendency to have Our Heroes hit home runs.

There were 22 "baseball novels" written in the 19th century, using a flexible definition of the genre. In general, especially in the early years, we are dealing with works in which baseball is not a central element, or the key metaphor, as it is in Bernard Malamud's The Natural or Mark Harris's The Southpaw. Instead, it is a page or two, then a chapter, then, finally, a key element in the plot.

For this article, the earliest mentions are examined in some detail, even when those mentions are brief. There is also a brief list of other baseball novels of the time frame, deliberately excluding the extensive Frank and Dick Merriwell and Rover Boys series, which began in the mid-1890s but reached their fullest popularity in the 20th century. Last, three key novels which illustrate some themes about how the game was perceived and how it intertwined with other issues of national concern-the search for a national identity and the meaning of race-are discussed.

The Bobbin Boy, or, How Nat Got His Learning, an Example for Youth, by William M. Thayer. Boston: J.E. Tilton and Co., 1860.

This is the first notable mention of the game in fiction, and it covers parts of three pages. The Bobbin Boy purports to tell the life of Nat, now the governor of "the best State in the Union." It's what we would come to call a Horatio Alger tale. Nat starts his career as a bobbin boy in a knitting mill and works his way up.

The game scene is from Nat's youth and, if we are to take the book's internal chronology seriously, it would have taken place in the 1830s. …

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