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Never Just a Game: Players, Owners, and American Baseball to 1920
A fascinating story, well told. (Choice)
Never Just a Game will be useful for many economic, business, and labor historians, even those who are not sports fans. (Journal of Economic History)
The book will appeal to both the serious student of business history and the layman with merely an interest in the game itself. (Business History)
A detailed study of baseball's labor-management relations from the first all-professional team, the undefeated 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, to the 1919 Black Sox, an era when the owners, not the players were in total command. (Jerome Holtzman, Chicago Tribune)
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Never Just a Game
Players, Owners, and American Baseball to 1920
By Robert F. Burk
University of North Carolina Press
Copyright © 1994 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
From Congregants to Contestants
The origins of American baseball, and of its labor history, are best found not in a single town, or in the mind of a single inventor, or on a single date. Nor are they to be found in a particular social model, whether it be industrialization, urbanization, or that newer hybrid, modernization. Although the earliest ball games can be traced back to far distant rural societies, for the more immediate ancestors of our "national pastime" we must turn to a distinctive people, inhabiting the preindustrial villages and hamlets of Stuart England, and to the regional culture and folkways they introduced to North America in a series of migrations beginning in the 1620s. For although the game of baseball had many distant ancestors and was influenced by a variety of factors, it claimed one primary cultural midwifethe Puritans of colonial New England. Early base ball games of varying types and with varying numbers of participants reflected basic folkways of the Puritans. Subsequent custodianship of baseball by their descendants shaped the rules, patterns of organizational control, and class and ethnocultural makeup of the sport in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. By the antebellum era, "respectable" Yankees' fear of socioeconomic and ethnocultural "declension" in the ballplayer ranks led to both the elevation of playing-skill requirements and, increasingly, the removal of club management responsibilities from players' hands.
The Puritan sporting activities that eventually evolved into antebellum baseball embodied, in the words of historian David Hackett Fischer, the "combination of order and action, reason and emotion, individuality and collective effort" of an idealized community of saints, or a perfect congregation of the elect. Following the exodus of some 21,000 English dissenters to Massachusetts in the initial eleven years of that colony, the children of this migration exploded in numbers to 100,000 by 1700 and over a million by 1800. Within a century and a half they spread far beyond the borders of the Bay Colony to northern and southern New England, eastern New Jersey, Long Island, upstate New York, and northern Ohio. Wherever they went, they took with them as part of their cultural tradition the playing of ball games, and it is no historical accident that antebellum baseball first flourished in these same areas of the North. "Barnball" or "cat" ball games for small numbers of participants became very popular among New England boys. But given the Puritans' overriding emphasis on preserving the internal unity and harmony of their modest, godly communities of husbandmen, artisans, and tradesmen, a larger-scale form of ballplaying that could accommodate anywhere from twelve to twenty players per side"town ball"grew rapidly in popularity in the eighteenth century.
It has been argued that colonial Puritan strictures against popular amusements in general stagnated the life of baseball among adults and thereby necessitated the game's spontaneous reinvention in antebellum New York City. But that argument, much like earlier claims regarding the Puritans' sexual practices, overstates a prudish stereotype, extends it well into the eighteenth century, and ignores everything about the ball games that was utilitarian to the Puritan creed. Ministers did issue strictures against "idle recreation," "Popish" or pagan activities, and play on the Sabbath; one divine, for example, decried "Morris-dancing, cudgel playing, and baseball," among other activities. They also attempted to restrain the more informal types of ballplaying among their young, who they assumed lacked the maturity to exhibit instructive and self-improving teamwork rather than exuberant individual display. But the very need to proscribe some boundaries upon ballplaying, without issuing absolute prohibitions, testified to the popularity of base ball games in New England communities. If accommodated to Puritan priorities, ball games were ritual occasions for community and spiritual socialization, the display of fellowship and skill, and the acting out of life's tests of harmony and piety by sober, respectable men. Because the games, when strictly controlled by rules and conducted by mature, "manly" congregants, did not undermine the "New England way," they did not carry the same stigma of immorality as the "rough-and-tumble" blood sports of the "meaner" classes or the more ostentatious avocations of English Anglican elites. They could be devices for a godly community, through recreation, to "improve the time," not merely to "pass" it or "kill" it.
The unusual strength of nuclear families among the Puritans, and the deeply rooted congregational culture of their villages, ensured that even as New Englanders made the transition from Puritan to Yankee and oriented their lives toward worldly success, they continued to hand down from generation to generation their associational traditions and activities. As their descendants fanned out across the Northeast, they accordingly carried baseball to new homes. But if baseball in its various local forms flourished in the Yankee North, access and receptivity to it among non-Yankee ethnocultural groups remained sharply limited, despite the dramatic upsurge of immigration in the 1700s from North Britain (the Scotch-Irish) and the German provinces of central Europe. The depth of baseball's Puritan/Yankee roots, in other words, ensured the survival of such sporting activities until a more propitious time for popular expansion and commercial exploitation but also raised barriers to the arrival of that time and acted as a restraint upon the subsequent extent of ethnocultural transformation when it did occur.
By the time of the American Revolution, members of secular Yankee male associations, based in institutions such as militia companies, inns, and schools, included ballplaying in their fellowship activities. Soldiers at Valley Forge played in the harsh winter of 1777-78 despite the hardships. Following the Revolution, a Princeton undergraduate referred in his diary to a pastime called "baste ball," pursued covertly on the college grounds in 1786; a children's book published in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1787 included an illustration of ballplaying; and Daniel Webster took part in ball games at Dartmouth College in 1797. Brown, Williams, and Harvard students were known to enjoy the diversion by the early nineteenth century. Oliver Wendell Holmes, father of the celebrated jurist, scribed a classic description of his participation as a Harvard undergraduate in 1829, and William Alcott a decade later reminisced that among youthful sporting "addictions," "our most common exercise was ballplaying." Some twenty years before the Knickerbockers of the 1840s, a local variant of baseball called "the New York game" was being played by Yankee migrants to the Empire State. Famed Whig political operative Thurlow Weed belonged in 1825 to a fifty-member Rochester association that included baseball among its activities; and in the same year a Delhi, New York, newspaper carried notice of a baseball challenge issued by a Hamden team. As early as 1833, Philadelphia was home to the Olympic Town Ball Club. It may even be true, in a particularly ironic twist, that the once-reputed but since-discredited "founder" of baseball, Abner Doubleday, codified a set of rules before 1840, well ahead of Alexander Cartwright of the Knickerbockers.
What, then, was the significance of the emergence of the Knickerbocker Baseball Club in 1842 and the establishment by member Cartwright of the "Knickerbocker rules"? To begin with, the presence of the Knickerbocker Club in New York City was an example of the geographic spread of the game beyond New England by migrating Yankees and a sign of the continuing power of the associative ideal among such northerners in the form of urban voluntary organizations. In the more congested yet impersonal spatial and economic setting of the antebellum city, these new institutions of association, like their Puritan forerunners, gave Yankee men of middling respectability a sense of place and promoted their collective physical, emotional, and spiritual improvement in the face of internal and external corruptions. Antebellum Yankees sought to preserve the essence of traditional values and rituals within voluntary associations adaptable to the city's unique environment. After playing ball together on a vacant Manhattan lot since at least 1842, the members of the Knickerbockers were forced to seek new grounds, so they formed a dues-paying club in 1845 in order to rent for $75 a year the Elysian Fields, a playing ground in Hoboken, New Jersey, accessible by ferry across the Hudson River.
The Knickerbockers of antebellum New York City are most noteworthy, however, because, through a combination of promotion and luck, their rules emerged as the standard guidelines for the sport of baseball. Apart from altering the rules by which they playedand the fact that they met in a room of Fijuz's Hotel, owned by one of their number, instead of a church or town meeting hallthe Knickerbockers echoed ehtnocultural patterns of the past, resembling their Puritan ancestors and other Yankee aggregations. Of the forty-six known surnames of members of the 1845 Knickerbockers and its two early contemporaries in the city, the "New York" and "Brooklyn" clubs, nearly 75 percent (34 names) reflected pre-colonial English ancestry. Many of the names, such as Cartwright, Fisher, Miller, Smith, and Tucker, bespoke ancestral roots in medieval English trades, or, as with Brodhead, Marsh, and Vail, made literal reference to family topography of origin. Five other surnames suggested earlier Norman French or Huguenot roots, also consistent with the great migration of seventeenth-century Calvinists to New England. In contrast, only two names were Dutch in origin, two Irish, and three German.
Yankee by religious and ethnic roots, the Knickerbockers also illustrated the truncated system of class orders of their Puritan ancestors. A study of fifty club members from 1845 to 1860 reveals the presence of seventeen merchants, twelve clerks, five brokers, four professionals, two insurance salesmen, one bank teller, one sugar dealer, one hatter, one cooperage owner, one stationer, one U.S. marshal, and several "gentlemen." Alexander Cartwright, the originator of the club's pioneering playing rules and field geometry, combined the talents of a bank teller, surveyor, and volunteer fireman. His elder brother claimed proprietorship of a bookshop in the city. Of those members identifiable for the 1845-50 period alone, a majority of forty-four worked in white-collar occupations, with slightly over one-third engaged in commercial and financial entrepreneurship, about one-fourth functioning as professionals (doctors or lawyers), and another two-fifths employed in lesser white-collar trades or clerical positions. Of the handful who were more affluent, Benjamin C. Lee (whose father was also an honorary member), claimed a $20,000 estate in 1845, and J. Paige Mumford, another "gentleman," was the son of a well-known merchant who had fallen upon hard times by 1845.
Such a truncated (if not quite "upper-class" in most cases) membership of Yankees suggests that the Knickerbockers and similar emerging clubs in New York, Brooklyn, and other northern cities also resembled New England congregations and Yankee voluntary associations in their methods of membership selection. As in Puritan churches of an earlier day, which had required testimony from members in support of applicants' elect status before permitting them admission to the community of saints, early baseball clubs functioned as decentralized, member-run associations that decided among themselves who would or would not join their fellowship. Members chose officers from their number, and those officers found themselves, like earlier New England ministers and public officials, in the ambiguous posture of being both of the membership/electorate and apart from it insofar as they were expected to exemplify superior virtues and principles. Administrative functions resided in a president, vice-president, secretary, treasurer, and three directors, chosen after the fashion of a town-meeting by the membership. They met separately about once a month during the playing season and exercised such responsibilities as arranging for facilities, determining a practicing and playing schedule, securing club equipment and attire, picking the active players and team captains for each outing (whether intra- or interclub), and acting as conduct judges and issuers of disciplinary sanctions for violations of club rules.
The Knickerbockers and their contemporaries viewed as supremely important the maintenance of "manly," upright fellowship, harmony, and decorum. For them, excellence in performance meant exhibiting character as well as skill. But most on-field competition took place within individual clubs rather than between clubs and varied greatly in seriousnessfrom practices to "friendly" contests to "social games" to outside "matches." Additionally, a member's duties to his associates and to the principles of manly fellowship went far beyond the playing field and playing season. Games of any type were but one aspect of the entire responsibilities of a member, which included participation in meetings, elections, postgame banquets, and off-season activities such as balls, suppers, and skating parties. A club, in other words, represented a select fraternity of like-minded men, a voluntary association of sober, respectable Yankees dedicated to healthful recreation, fellowship, and public virtue. Attendance, propriety, and cooperation were expected and demanded; selfishness, loutishness, and truancy were punished; and more violent disruptions of comity were excoriated.
In the way of a religious congregation, the Knickerbockers used dues, fines, and punishments to help maintain their exclusiveness, finance their activities, and define their purposes. Also as in congregations, violations of certain rules concerning decorum and behavior were more common than others, as club members tested the boundaries of group discipline while avoiding any challenge to the association's basic integrity. Individuals paid annual dues of $5.00, plus a $2.00 initiation fee. Switching allegiance to another club meant forfeiting the dues. Early fine schedules proscribed penalties of fifty cents for disobedience, twenty-five cents for either expressing one's views before an umpire's call or questioning the call afterward, and six cents for each instance of the use of profanity. The latter fine reflected both a desire to reinforce proper decorum and a recognition of the greater frequency and modest significance of the offense in question. Given the greater responsibilities and expectations placed upon captains, the club assessed fines of $1.00 per incident upon them for neglecting their duties or prematurely leaving the field. Truancy on the part of players and captains alike became increasingly common, however, arising from conflicts between club responsibilities and work or health demands, despite efforts to accommodate work schedules by designating Mondays and Thursdays as "play days." One miscreant explained, "I have been too weak to run and to achey [sic] to strike a ball," while another lamented that his business had demanded "every moment of [his] time thus far in the season." It has been suggested that one reason the Knickerbockers did not play interclub matches for five years after 1845 was the frequent truancy of members from practices and meetings.
Under the Knickerbockers' operating rules, for internal matches the club selected teams of nine men, including a captain. Outsiders, particularly if they were members of another recognized club, could be asked to fill in if necessary to have eighteen players. The Knickerbockers firmly observed the nine-man team standard and ranked its members from a "first nine" to a "muffin" team, based upon social status, the judgment of officers, and acknowledged skill level. Such ranking, however, also proved most compatible with the creeping competitive urge to identify and field the best team for interclub contests. Players "warmed up" before games by fielding balls hit to them, but did not take "batting practice." The early terminology of the sport identified particular areas of the field, in keeping with Cartwright's design, distinguishing between the "outfield" (with its left, center, and right subsections) and "infield" (including the positions of first, second, and third base and shortstop). But the players occupying these positions at any given time had not yet been defined specifically as "shortstops" or "left fielders," and their attire did not include positional indicators such as numbers; a participant was a "baseballist," or an "artist," not a narrow position specialist by name, even though in practice assignments to particular spots were growing more frequent. This nondifferentiation reflects most members' status in trades that had not yet been superseded by task-specific, component wage-labor work. Baseball's preindustrial artisan origins and its practicioners' placement of priority on controlled, nonviolent exercise are also evidenced by the fact that the sport emphasized manual and mental versatility and dexterity in the field, as well as moderate running, rather than raw hitting power or pitching trickery.
With continuing local variations in rules, organizational details, and disciplinary sanctions, the number of baseball clubs in New York, Philadelphia, and other northeastern cities mushroomed in the late 1840s and early 1850s, following the patterns of Yankee migration and commerce. In New York and Brooklyn, the Knickerbockers were followed by the Independent Club, the Excelsiors, the Eagles, the Putnams, the Eclectics, and many more. Newark and Long Island alone claimed eleven or more ballplaying associations by 1854. In the metropolitan area the Knickerbockers, Gothams, Eagles, and Empires dominated Manhattan, and the Excelsiors, Putnams, Eckfords, and Atlantics became the best-established quartet in Brooklyn. As the number of clubs proliferated, teams assumed more distinctive local identities, with patriotic names, symbols, and colors resembling those of militia companies. The Eclectics, for example, sported dark blue flannel pants, white shirts trimmed in blue, red belts, and white caps with blue stars. The Charter Oaks of Brooklyn featured white pants, white caps with blue peaks, and black belts emblazoned with the team name. The shift to distinctive team attire reflected some concessions to practicality of play but perpetuated the earlier preoccupation with projecting collective harmony and outward respectability.
A concern for harmony and respectability notwithstanding, as the number of teams and interclub matches expanded, so too did reports of on-field lapses of decorum and discipline within and between teams; such lapses ranged from swearing and fighting on the field to betting, indecent anecdotes and songs, and public drunkenness off it. The perceived loss of "order" in the game as well as its modest geographic and social spread in the urban Northeast were signals of a more fundamental, however subtle, shift in the game's focus for its participants. Traditionally, intraclub activities and fellowship had been emphasized, with the secondary aim of displaying, and verifying, to oneself and one's immediate brethren, a presupposed social and spiritual worth within a relatively stable local order. Now the players' emphasis was shifting toward ballplaying in interclub contests as a means to preserve a public status under siege or to accumulate a greater measure of outer worth, both materially and spiritually. The emerging ethic, whether held by a middling Yankee craftsman or shopkeeper fearful of declension or by a lower middle-class worker or immigrant seeking respectability, was less communitarian, more competitive.
Such gradual changes in ballplayers' basic values and purposes were fundamentally the product of two sets of forcesone spiritual, the other material. The first of these, a long-term consequence of the Second Great Awakening, was the erosion among Yankees of traditional notions of predestination and spiritual election. The belief that upright, virtuous behavior merely reflected an essentially fixed spiritual status yielded before a "softer" Protestantism that allowed greater leeway for individual and collective striving for betterment and preparation for salvation. The new ethic encouraged Yankees to view their individual and collective outside activities as a means of protecting a status among others that could be lost, or of securing a new status that could be gained, though engagement with the outer world. Materially, the shift reflected the intensifying economic pressures and insecurities of a changing urban occupational structure and a growing ethnic mixture within the limited spatial confines of the antebellum "walking city." Yankee petty proprietors, artisans, and clerks sought to protect themselves from the declension of the factory system, while those in the more respectable new echelons of specialized manual labor, whether native-born or immigrant, sought to obtain the same social standing that their white-collar "adversaries" intended to preserve.
Increasing expressions of concern by "traditionalists" within the sport, and by reporters of similar cultural background who were beginning to cover it reflected the realization that the ballplaying fraternity was losing its exclusiveness. By the mid-1850s, mirroring the shifting production structure and social mobility patterns of antebellum cities and the influx of Irish and German immigrants, the game was becoming both less Yankee and less preindustrial in its personnel and guiding spirit. If efforts at total exclusion of non-Yankees were destined to fail, the alternative response by those holding sufficient prestige and power within the clubs was to accelerate the segregation of management from player personnel and functions. If a more heterogeneous playing fraternity could not be counted upon to display traditional values on the field or to police itself, lines of cultural exclusion from the ballfield would be upheld if and where possible. But where they could not, an increasingly centralized and segregated managerial hierarchy would regulate player behavior while vigilantly guarding its own reins of power from intrusion. At the same time, reflecting the growth of the "acquisitive ethic" among all "types" in the sportwhether Yankee or newcomer, player or nonplaying duespayer and "stockholder"ball club participation became based less and less upon the desire for fellowship and more and more upon the financial rewards and status to be gained.
Baseball by the 1850s simply could not be maintained on the same basis as it had even a decade before. The Knickerbockers, for their part, tried to hold the line through the device of scheduling matches only with clubs that used (and thereby could afford to pay the fees of) the Elysian Fields. But by comparison to other urban sports, baseball was too cheap to play (with equipment too easily made or bought and replaced) and too adaptable in various forms to the spatial constrictions of the city to remain exclusive for long. A comparatively more fluid class structure made efforts at social exclusion far from foolproof, particularly within such less continuously intimate, secondary associations as ball clubs. Some immigrants, and certainly many more second-generation Americans, could pass for upright Yankees on the basis of their conduct, occupational success, or intermarriage. Barring that, they could form their own baseball clubs. The nationality-conscious fears of a post-1848 flood of Europeans drowning out traditional Americanism, ironically, itself encouraged baseball's growth in popularity among non-Yankees. In contrast to English rounders, cricket, or other competitors that had continuing ties to an Old World nationality, American baseball attracted Irish and German "outsiders" who saw it as both a form of New World accommodation and a repudiation of the alternative games of traditional ethnic enemies.
By the mid-1850s, urban communities of Irish immigrants and their offspring in particular were contributing increasing numbers of players and clubs. Of 228 identifiable members of clubs in Newark, Jersey City, and Orange, New Jersey, in the late 1850s, about 7 percent were first-generation Irish; in Orange by itself, the figure exceeded 1 member in 5. These totals do not even include members born in America of Irish descent, for whom data is not available. Specific clubs became noted for their high proportion of Irish manual workers, including the Washington Club of Hoboken (mainly laborers) and the Columbia team of Orange (predominantly hatters). Such a drive for participation and acceptance was shared by native-born urbanites whose access to the game had been limited not by ethnicity but by past class, family, and geographical barriers. Now access by these aspiring manual workers also could not be easily policed in the name of order. Whether native or immigrant, those entering the Yankee middle-class world of baseball clubs sought to emulate the behavior of their immediate "betters" by rejecting the less respectable working-class "bachelor subculture" of blood sports and by cultivating a sense of respectability through their adoption of patriotic labelsderived from place-names, the names of famous individuals, or appropriate character traitsfor their own nines.
From the ranks of an occupationally and ethnically shifting blue-collar lower middle class, then, the baseball fraternity steadily received more entrants. The Eckford Club of Brooklyn, named after Scottish shipbuilding mogul Henry Eckford, featured shipwrights and mechanics. The New York Mutuals, born of the Mutual Hook and Ladder fire company, soon became the sporting possession of the Tammany Hall political machine. Policemen stocked the Manhattans, while the Phantoms sprang from an association of barkeepers, and the Pocahontas Club from dairy company employees. The Metropolitans originated in an association of schoolteachers, and the Baltic, Jefferson, and Atlantic clubs based themselves in food tradesmen, especially butchers, with more flexible afternoon work schedules than other manual craftsmen. Data for New York City compiled by Melvin Adelman indicates a subtle "downward" shift in the occupational status, if not necessarily the income level, of the player force by the mid-1850s. A smaller percentage of members, especially "actives," than before came from the ranks of white-collar entrepreneurial and professional categories, and a higher proportion was drawn from skilled manual workers and lower white-collar clerks. Similar studies of New Jersey nines by George Kirsch verify that skilled manual workers by the late 1850s increasingly outnumbered their nonmanual counterparts, and the combined number of manual workers and lower white-collar clerks constituted over 60 percent of the total identifiables.
It is important not to exaggerate the breadth of the "opening up" or "declension" (depending on one's perspective) of baseball's class structure, even though significant changes were occurring. Of the skilled craftsmen who made up ever-larger percentages of active participants on the field, most still came not from factory-organized or "sweated" trades but ones in which workers still retained a comparatively high degree of control over their work schedules and rhythms. While the on-field participation of professionals and entrepreneurs dropped, this did not mean that the sport had become accessible to the working poor or to large segments of the working class in general as we would usually define it. The Eckford Club's employees, for example, ranked among the best-paid manual laborers in the city, with incomes comparable or superior to those of clerks. The blue-collar share of the player force rose notably higher in Brooklyn, reflecting its more "plebeian" character, than in New York City, where as late as mid-decade the white-collar proportion remained at the high level of 87 percent. But over the next five years, the skilled blue-collar share in New York City nearly tripled to almost one-third of the total. In the combined metropolitan area, while more than three-quarters of identifiable club members had been "white-collar" in the first half of the 1850s, in the latter half the percentages of skilled blue-collar and lower white-collar clerical participants converged and totaled over three-quarters of the membership. Over the same five years, Newark, Jersey City, and Orange, New Jersey, clubs claimed a blue-collar average of 36 percent of their membership, with a high of nearly 74 percent in the Orange nines. Among five Newark clubs, the blue-collar share ranged from less than one-quarter to well over half, and in all but one aggregation it claimed the largest share of any occupational grouping.
As the number and occupational diversity of clubs grew, so did the frequency and spectator popularity of interclub matches, which converted the ballfield from a place of ritual fellowship to an arena of contest pitting neighborhoods, ethnic and religious groups, parties, companies, and occupational classes against each other. Game schedules began to stretch at both ends of the outdoor season into March and November. By 1856 the New York metropolitan area alone featured a playing "season" of fifty-three games. Two years later, the metropolis claimed approximately 50 adult clubs, as well as 60 youth auxiliaries and feeder clubs. New Jersey likewise claimed at least 130 active clubs by late in the decade, including 36 in Newark and 42 in Jersey City alone. Teams secured additional playing fields to accommodate the demand, including the Capitoline Grounds in Brooklyn, a field in Englewood, New Jersey, the Reed House facility in Harlem, Hamilton Square in Manhattan, the Excelsiors' facility in South Brooklyn, Wheat Hall in East Brooklyn, and a field on Long Island. Brooklyn, once dubbed the "city of churches," appropriately assumed a new identity as the "city of baseball clubs." Hoboken, the "stronghold of lager beer," now became known as a citadel of baseball too. Two-to-four-hour matches, beginning in midafternoon to accommodate players' work schedules, drew 5,000-10,000 spectators.
Baseball had become a serious matter of victory or defeat, of gain or loss, in which hardened specialists now were required. The growing popular fervor for baseball within an expanding proportion of the middling classes found display in workingmen's nines practicing at 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. to prepare for matches. With increasing frequency, clubs devoted their practices primarily to preparing their best ninesnot usually their higher-status membersfor interclub contests. By the latter half of the 1850s, while high white-collar proprietors and professionals still made up one-fifth of New York-area players who had seen action in at least one contest in the last five years, they constituted but 13 percent of "actives"those seeing duty in at least four first-team games in a year or ten contests within five years. By contrast, nearly half of all actives among New York metropolitan nines at the time were skilled blue-collar employees. When the Excelsiors lost a match in difficult weather conditions to the Atlantics, writers attributed the outcome to the fact that the Excelsior playing force of clerks and proprietors simply lacked the outdoor hardiness of their blue-collar rivals. Another sign of the pursuit of individual and collective fame and gain was the emergence of all-star and championship contests. The first "all-star game," between New York and Brooklyn squads, occurred in 1858 at Long Island's Fashion Race Course, with 1,500 fans paying fifty cents each to attend.
With continued improvement and expansion of antebellum transportation and communication, the interior urban centers of the Northeast and Midwest received more ballplaying ambassadors and imported the New York game. In upstate New York, Syracuse, Cazenovia, Canandaigua, Batavia, Troy, Albany, and Buffalo clubs organized local teams. In 1860, the Brooklyn Excelsiors launched a two-week tour of six matches with nines from western New York, won all of the matches handily, and then returned to play the Atlantics in the first "national championship" before a crowd of 8,000. By 1857, the public square of Cleveland, Ohio, already provided the setting for daily contests. Chicago soon boasted of the prowess of its teams. Detroit sponsored the Franklin Club; and even before it gained statehood, the Minnesota Territory claimed a team. South of New York, Washington, D.C., gradually gained attention for its nines, which often drew players from the ranks of the city's government clerks.
Given New York's supremacy as the North's commercial, transportation, and immigration hub, and given the success of the Knickerbocker rules in dominating play within Gotham's metropolitan area, baseball's outward march was also the march of standardization of playing rules and organizational patterns. New England towns and cities, possessing a better claim as the game's original custodians than New York, nonetheless found their versions of playing rules pushed aside by the New York game. The Massachusetts game stubbornly persisted, like the congregational ideal itself, in spite of its impractical retention of "soaking" (recording an out by hitting a runner with a thrown ball), ten-to-fourteen-man squads, stakes instead of bases, and one-hundred-run requirements for victory. Several teams endured under the traditional rules in Boston, but the improved rules were introduced there in 1857 with the arrival of a New York watchcase maker and former Gothams player. Soon the city's Tri-Mountains converted to New York rules and withdrew from the Massachusetts Association of Base Ball Players. By 1860, even Philadelphia's Olympic Town Ball Club succumbed to the new orthodoxy, after twenty-seven years of playing by the "traditional" rules.
At the same time that baseball officers and press boosters celebrated the game's impressive growth and claimed for it the title "national pastime," many of them also issued jeremiads on the social and moral declension of the sport. Newspaper accounts cited increasing rowdyism and gambling by players, spectators, and even umpires, and near-riots triggered by gangs and pickpockets. By 1860, a riot blamed on one team's working-class Irish fans forced the early suspension of a Brooklyn championship match. Increased fines by clubs of up to fifty cents per incident for profanity, disobeying the captain, or challenging the umpire did not lessen the on-field problems. Concerns about moral and social declension were not unique to baseball and were directed at many other urban institutions of the 1850s, including fire and police companies and political party organizations. According to the New York Clipper, Gotham's leading sporting publication, baseball's gambling problem was but a symptom of the larger "spirit of faction" generated by the swelling "foreign element of our immense metropolitan population."
Baseball's tradition-minded boosters, however, were far from ready to give up on the game. Their own consciousness of nationality was a major reason for their insistence that America lay claim to its own "national pastime," and their tendency to discount any evidence of Old World paternity for baseball. They heralded the game, despite its corruptions, as the truly representative American (i.e., Yankee) sport, a "democratic" contest in which two teams of respectable men tested themselves against each other in a "natural" setting in orderly, fair, manly competition. They also hoped that the game's virtues could make the sport, through the "reforming" agencies of its clubs, a source of cultural instruction, moral uplift, and ordera "redeeming" institutionfor an increasingly chaotic urban society. Press spokesmen dubbed teams "missionary organizations preaching the new gospel of health," "the greatest safety valve of society," and an "important and valuable adjunct to the church." The Detroit Free Press, praising the accurately named Early Risers (whose members practiced before 7:00 a.m. because of their work schedules), claimed baseball occupied "their leisure time in healthy exercise counteracting the growing tendency to visit saloons and other places of resort with which the city abounds, thus saving them from early immorality." In a similar vein, Porter's Spirit of the Times credited baseball with promoting "patience, fortitude, self-denial, order, obedience, and good humor."
But could baseball clubs redeem the American city and at the same time achieve a national stamp of recognition as had the German Turnvereins, unless the Old World "corruptions" of the immigrants were screened out? How could the Yankee distinctiveness of baseball be restored and maintained? The more extreme nativists in baseball, as in the larger society, assumed that exclusion could be accomplished as a simple consequence of morphology. German immigrants were presumed to be naturally stocky, jovial, self-disciplined but lumbering sorts physically unsuited to baseball, while the Irish were depicted as subhuman simians in their brute strength, emotional and violent excesses, and childlike immaturity. But what if in physical features and overt behavior "Paddy" failed to embody the more easily isolated caricature? How, then, to guard against a more subtle acceleration of baseball's social and moral declension and preserve avenues for its emerging "reforming" and acquisitive roles?
It was such concerns, including the budding awareness among club officers of baseball's commercial potential, that gave rise to a hierarchical formal governance structure and a regulatory mentality by the eve of the Civil War. Already within the clubs, the higher socioeconomic classes claimed a larger and larger share of offices as their participation as on-field actives dropped. According to one study of club officers in New York City from 1856 to 1860, only 16 percent were blue-collar workers, and this figure amounted to but half their actual share of the total baseball membership. Brooklyn's skilled manual workers were likewise underrepresented in club offices, although not so disproportionately, constituting 30 percent of the membership but less than 24 percent of officers. Representing the other side of the coin, only about one New York and Brooklyn nonofficer member in eight claimed a higher white-collar professional or proprietary occupation. Equally revealing was the fact that the higher the official level in baseball's emerging governance structure of the 1850s, the greater the socioeconomic gap between officials and grass-roots members.
It is in the context of this growing stratification of the governance of baseball, driven by fears of player declension and visions of profits, that the creation of the National Association of Base Ball Players should be seen. Although member clubs, like political parties of the era, still emphasized the ideal of local player/member self-rule, the reality was becoming quite different. Over a dozen clubs in 1857 sent delegates to Smith's Hotel in New York City and elected Dr. D. L. Adams as the association's first president. More importantly, they established a committee to administer and exercise control over member clubs' playing rules (one result was the adoption of the Knickerbocker rules as the official standard of play). By the next year, when the presidents of the Knickerbockers, Gothams, Empires, and Eagles summoned delegates from all of the "organized" clubs in the metropolitan area, twenty-two teams responded, and their representatives formally created the National Association on March 10, 1858. A committee appointed by the delegates assumed the task of formalizing an administrative structure by drafting a constitution and bylaws. Although the first National Association could but tenuously claim its title, given that New York state clubs outside the metropolitan area, to say nothing of clubs outside the Empire State, had not been invited, it gradually opened itself to state and then regional expansion. Its national delegates and officials, in turn, were chosen not directly by club members but by an intervening level of state association delegates. The delegates and officers of National Association conventions were, on average, even more Yankee and elitist in background than local club officials. Porter's Spirit of the Times alluded indirectly to this fact when it lamented the National Association's decision to exclude junior clubs (those with members under the age of twenty-one) from representation, an action the paper attributed to a "clique of men" supposedly concerned with their own money, status, and fitness.
The National Association established standardized requirements for member clubs and, in so doing, shifted control of the sport upward. Officials at the national level now would set playing and off-field rules and requirements, while individual club officers assumed the unenviable burden of implementing the new guidelines and policing the compliance of club members. To belong to the national body, a club had to have at least eighteen members. This membership requirement, combined with the rising imperative to achieve victory through a featured first nine, made governance by a larger number of nonplaying but dues-paying "stockholders" more likely for clubs belonging to the association. With such changes, local administrative power shifted. Club applications for National Association membership, due at least thirty days before the group's annual convention in order to allow for a careful review, also could be screened through the requirement of a two-thirds vote of approval by the national delegates, while late applicants, if otherwise acceptable, could be given a probationary status until the following year. Each member club, regardless of the size of its membership, claimed two national delegates and two convention votes. The association initially charged club dues of $5.00, although it later reduced them to the formality of a $.50 charge.
Within the National Association and the sporting press, debates intensified between those labeled in some quarters as "traditionalists" and others dubbed "modernists." Actually, the main principals in both camps usually shared a "traditionalist" Yankee heritage as well as the hope of restoring within and between clubs a shared set of values and rules of conducta renewed sense of mutual heritage, collective harmony, and order. They differed, however, on whether it could best be achieved by turning back the clock and returning to an ethnoculturally purer, decentralized, and amateurish fraternity of sportsmenthereby forsaking the full capitalist possibilities of the sportor by adopting administrative structures and rules to enforce a particular cultural ethic upon an increasingly heterogeneous, acquisitive, and competitive playing force. In keeping with the latter course, among the first regulations of players' conduct adopted by the National Association were limits on their ability to move from one club to another, bans on direct financial compensation for their individual services, and regulations of ethical conduct. Now before a player could participate for a new team in an interclub match, he had to prove a thirty-day tenure with his new club. The association, besides banning individual play for pay, also barred players, umpires, and scorers from betting on contests.
Under the enforcement procedures laid out by the national body, a nine-member Judiciary Committee received the cases stemming from the new regulations. Clubs submitted charges against accused violators to the National Association's secretary, and the panel ruled on the cases within ten days of their arrival. Rulings of the Judiciary Committee could be reversed by a two-thirds vote of the annual convention following the decisions. Encouraged by the National Association's lead, state and regional panels further elaborated punishments and procedures down the line. As a result, "throwing a game" now required a player's formal expulsion from his club, barred other member clubs from securing his services, and even prevented member clubs from playing matches against nonmember teams containing such players. Another "sad-but-necessary" crackdown against individual and team social misconduct came in 1859, when the association banned postgame banquets and refreshments hosted by home clubs on the grounds that these traditional expressions of fraternal fellowship had degenerated into mere extensions of on-field rivalry and rowdy behavior.
Other on-field rules changes forced a heightened level of specialized skill and physical and mental dexterity and reflected the twin desires of club operators for both a more appealing product and greater labor control. Just as limits upon player mobility and mercenary behavior could promote a less willful, more upright and stable player fraternity, it was reasoned, so too might heightened skill specialization weed out those who were undisciplined, immature, or physiologically ill-suited by age, class, or ethnicity. Among the rule-based skill changes, the association barred fielders from using their hats or caps to record outs. The "fly rule," which required catching a batted ball, whether foul or fair, in the air rather than on the first bounce for an out, became a lively issue of delegate debate until its adoption in 1864. Some opposed it as a departure from the sacred past; modernizers defended the proposal as a way to improve the quality of play and of the players. Proponents of the change claimed it would make the sport more "manly," and, again exploiting the nationalistic angle, insisted that it would show American sportsmen capable of as much skill as English cricketers (who employed a fly catch rule). In general, by the end of the 1850s, clubs were increasingly characterized by positional specialization on the part of individual players and continuing refinements in the skill requirements for each position.
The growth of position and skill specialization carried with it, however, long-term implications that were unforeseen, if not necessarily unwelcome for baseball officials' purposes. It did not eliminate big, "slow-footed," or "muscle-bound" participants. As teams competed for victories and honors, they found that particular physical "types," though perhaps less well suited for multipositional duties, might actually be better suited for some stations. Catchers, even if they stood thirty feet behind the batter, still benefited from having a "barrel-chest" that could withstand the punishment of the position, as did third basemen also. Gangliness could become a positive virtue in a first baseman, as could straight-ahead running speed in an outfielder. Strength could certainly have its uses for a batter, particularly when wielding a mahogany bat up to forty-four inches long. Nonetheless, the players occupying infield positionsparticularly those in the middle of the diamond that required refined hand-eye coordination, mental concentration, and physical dexteritywere still seen as the truest exemplars of the traditional baseballist ideal. Lingering associations of ethnicity with physical and mental attributes in turn shaped patterns of positional specialization by ethnic group as well as physiology. And these patterns in turn influenced subsequent opportunities for captainships, nonplayer offices, and other avenues of upward mobility within baseball.
The clearest impact of rules changes and team policies encouraging greater skill specialization, however, was to lessen dramatically the ability of first-generation immigrants to become club ballplayers. On top of the constraints of time and physical endurance of a working-class life that tended to obstruct an immigrant's access to ballplaying, the unlikelihood of his having played the game as a youth (and therefore of having picked up its "inside" skill and subtle strategy) in the Old World, further reduced his chances of success. Even at its peak in the 1850s, first-generation immigrant participation in clubs probably accounted for at most 10 percent of total membership, divided about equally between English and Irish arrivals, with a sprinkling of Germans. After the 1850s that percentage plummeted, creating a long-term pattern in which those who were not American by birth were effectively excluded from the sport, although their American-born children would not necessarily be. The children, if not precluded by class and racial barriers, might still succeed where their fathers had failed, by playing the sport and absorbing its myriad refinements in their youth and on junior teams.
Accompanying changes in umpiring rules also signaled the gradual abandonment of the ideal of a self-regulating, decentralized ballplaying fraternity in favor of a player force supervised from above and no longer controlling its own workplace. In the early 1850s, clubs still had utilized a system in which each side selected one of its number to serve as an umpire. Both men positioned themselves at a desk or table on the third-base side, while a third man, chosen with the approval of both teams, sat "solitary and alone," with top hat, frock coat, and cane, as the final arbiter in case of disagreement between the other two. Although the first two individuals' presence evoked images of an adversarial advocacy process, what it more tellingly conveyed was the blurring of distinctions between player and umpire. Disputes between elected arbiters were noteworthy for their infrequency, again displaying the essence of good-spirited fellowship and gentlemanly contest. Abandonment of the "two-advocate" system in 1858 actually signified the emerging separation of umpiring personnel and their responsibilities from the player force as well as the centralization of on-field administration of the rules governing contests and conduct in response to the declension of decorum and good faith by players and spectators alike. In a related development, clubs endeavored to maintain attendance at games by middle-class women in order to convey a continuing image of respectability to ballplaying and to discourage through the female presence additional unseemly male displays.
What the sport's new governors in the National Association were groping for was an administrative structure for American baseball that, if it could no longer recreate the old congregational norms, could impose a standardized set of playing rules and codes of behavior that would offer instruction, uplift, and improvement to player and spectator alike. Outdistanced rivals such as the Massachusetts Association of Base Ball Players and similar town-ball devotees, still numbering at least seventy-five clubs by 1860, resisted outright surrender but continued to lose ground. The National Association expanded to fifty-three clubs by 1860 and, more importantly, by that date extended its administrative reach beyond New York City to the upstate region as well as to neighboring New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Reflecting the popularity of the National Association version of the game, the New York sporting press began carrying game summaries and box scores, and enterprising boosters compiled rudimentary performance statistics on teams and even individual players. Beadle's Dime Base Ball Player, a new guidebook edited by the English-born sportswriter Henry Chadwick, sold 50,000 copies. Pressing its advantage and adjusting its games to urban spectators' time constraints, the National Association replaced its twenty-one-aces endpoint for games with first a seven-inning and then a nine-inning standard. More than ever before, as the decade concluded, the lament of "The Baseball Fever" rang true:
Our merchants have to close their stores
Their clerks away are staying
Contractors, too, can do no work
Their hands are all out playing.
Even before the opening shots on Fort Sumter, baseball had drifted away from its moorings as a cultural embodiment of the congregational life of New England Puritanism. It had become more ethnically and occupationally diverse; more attuned to the public pursuit of, rather than the private display of, social worth; and, in an effort to preserve the fundamental virtues and values of the past amid such changes, more hierarchically administered and regimented. In the process, the narrowing proportion of members actively engaged in playing the games already had found their control of the clubs eroding in favor of nonplaying, usually wealthier, members, investors, officers, and delegates. As baseball continued to expand geographically and grow in popular favor in the 1860s and early 1870s, these developments offered club operators the promise of making it a lucrative business. Accordingly, issues of player-versus-management control within the industry, and the labor confrontations they would trigger, assumed an ever more prominent place in baseball's continuing evolution, with the stakes of the outcome escalating for both sides.
1. For recent examples of the application of social science theory to the historical study of sport, particularly baseball, see Melvin L. Adelman, A Sporting Time: New York City and the Rise of Modern Athletics, 1820-70 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), which relies heavily upon the modernization model of historian Richard D. Brown; and Stephen Hardy, How Boston Played: Sport, Recreation, and Community, 1865-1918 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1982), and Steven A. Riess, City Games: The Evolution of American Urban Society and the Rise of Sports (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), which stress the interplay of urbanization and the institutional evolution of sport. These approaches contribute greatly to our understanding of the changing structure of baseball since the 1840s and to the role of the material and spatial environment in such adaptations; however, they also tend to obscure the human "trees" in a forest of abstract theories and fail to emphasize the unique ethnocultural origins and traditions within the sport. The thesis for the cultural origins of American baseball presented in my text is drawn from David Hackett Fischer, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), esp. 3-11, 13-54, 146-51.
2. Fischer, Albion's Seed, 151.
3. Ibid., 146-51, 158; Gerald Astor, The Baseball Hall of Fame 50th Anniversary Book (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1988), 2; Riess, City Games, 21. For an instructive discussion of the Puritan outlook on recreation, see Nancy L. Struna, "Puritans and Sports: The Irretrievable Tide of Change," Journal of Sport History 4 (Spring 1977): 1-21.
4. Harold Seymour, Baseball: The Early Years (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), 5; Harold Seymour Baseball: The People's Game (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 40, 131-32; Astor, Baseball Hall of Fame, 2; Warren Goldstein, Playing for Keeps: A History of Early Baseball (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989), 12; George B. Kirsch, The Creation of American Team Sports: Baseball and Cricket, 1838-72 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 53; Akron Beacon-Journal, June 10, 1991.
5. Seymour, Baseball: The Early Years, 15; Kirsch, Creation of American Team Sports, 6-12; Goldstein, Playing for Keeps, 12; James M. DiClerico and Barry J. Pavelec, The Jersey Game: The History of Modern Baseball from Its Birth to the Big Leagues in the Garden State (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991), 5-19; Elsdon C. Smith, Dictionary of American Family Names (New York: Harper and Bros., 1956).
6. Seymour, Baseball: The Early Years, 16; Adelman, A Sporting Time, 121-23.
7. Goldstein, Playing for Keeps, 17-20, 34-35; Seymour, Baseball: The Early Years, 17; Adelman, A Sporting Time, 124.
8. Seymour, Baseball: The Early Years, 17-18.
9. Ibid., 18-23; Goldstein, Playing for Keeps, 12, 30; Adelman, A Sporting Time, 278. A new work describing the growing cult of material comfort among the antebellum middle classes, and their defensiveness toward the claims of their ethnic and class "inferiors," is Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992).
10. Adelman, A Sporting Time, 91-118, 135-37; Kirsch, Creation of American Team Sports, 92-95, 123, 149, 173; Riess, City Games, 15.
11. Seymour, Baseball: The Early Years, 24; Adelman, A Sporting Time, 125-26; Kirsch, Creation of American Team Sports, 131-32.
12. Goldstein, Playing for Keeps, 25-27; Adelman, A Sporting Time, 138; Kirsch, Creation of American Team Sports, 131-32, 149.
13. Seymour, Baseball: The Early Years, 24-25; Kirsch, Creation of American Team Sports, 69-70; Adelman, A Sporting Time, 127, 139-40.
14. Seymour, Baseball: The Early Years, 26-30; Kirsch, Creation of American Team Sports, 70; Adelman, A Sporting Time, 134; New York Clipper, September 8, 1860, 164. The thesis that antebellum Yankees employed voluntary organizations to assert control over other ethnic, working-class Americans is strongly argued in Clifford S. Griffin, Their Brothers' Keepers: Moral Stewardship in the United States, 1800-1855 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1960). A modified, later version of the "social control" thesis is in Paul Boyer, Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978).
15. Seymour, Baseball: The Early Years, 35; Kirsch, Creation of American Team Sports, 14-15; Seymour, Baseball: The People's Game, 6; Porter's Spirit of the Times, June 20, 1857, 245, and November 27, 1858, 196.
16. Adelman, A Sporting Time, 139-41. For keen insights into ethnic stereotyping by the press in the antebellum period, and a methodology for content analysis research into such stereotyping, see Dale T. Knobel, Paddy and the Republic: Ethnicity and Nationality in Antebellum America (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1986).
17. Seymour, Baseball: The Early Years, 35-36; Goldstein, Playing for Keeps, 44-45; Adelman, A Sporting Time, 127-28; Porter's Spirit of the Times, March 20, 1858, 337.
18. Seymour, Baseball: The Early Years, 36.
19. Ibid., 36-37; Goldstein, Playing for Keeps, 40-41.
20. Adelman, A Sporting Time, 129-31; Goldstein, Playing for Keeps, 48-49.
21. Seymour, Baseball: The Early Years, 38.
22. Ibid., 38-40, 50; Kirsch, Creation of American Team Sports, 55-61, 69; Goldstein, Playing for Keeps, 38-39; Adelman, A Sporting Time, 137.
Excerpted from Never Just a Game by Robert F. Burk. Copyright © 1994 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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The best study of the sport's turbulent early labor wars.--North Carolina Historical Review
Burk has provided the clearest and richest account of baseball's evolution as a business that I have seen. His narrative is well written, lively, and thoroughly enjoyable.--Andrew Zimbalist, author of Baseball and Billions: A Probing Look Inside the Big Business of Our National Pastime
Never Just a Game will be useful for many economic, business, and labor historians, even those who are not sports fans.--Journal of Economic History
Burk proves that when it comes to baseball's money issues, the more things change--the more they stay the same.--USA Today Baseball Weekly
A meticulously researched account of the history of labour-management struggles in baseball up to 1920. . . . It is also a lively, highly readable volume filled with fascinating anecdotes about players, rule changes, and so on. As such, the book will appeal to both the serious student of business history and the layman with merely an interest in the game itself.--Business History
A fascinating story, well told.--Choice
A detailed study of baseball's labor-management relations from the first all-professional team, the undefeated 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, to the 1919 Black Sox, an era when the owners, not the players were in total command.--Jerome Holtzman, Chicago Tribune
A fascinating look at baseball's origins, including the early days before it dawned on those involved that baseball could become a money-making enterprise. The preface alone is worth the price of the book.--NINE
Meet the Author
Robert F. Burk, author of Much More Than a Game: Players, Owners, and American Baseball since 1921, is professor and chair of the history department at Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio.
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