Don’t Know Much About History

For my birthday, Adrienne presented me with a copy of John Thorn’s excellent book “Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game”.

Among the things I’ve learned:

– The rule allowing a batter to run if a catcher drops a third strike is one of baseball’s oldest (1845), pre-dating both called strikes (1858) and balls (1863).

– At the first game for which spectators were charged admission (New York All-Stars v. Brooklyn All-Stars, 20 July 1858), it cost ten cents to watch the game, but 20 cents to park a one-horse carriage and 40 cents to park a two-horse carriage. Gouged on parking, even then. Ah, tradition.

– The first between-innings (a cappella) rendition of “YMCA” occurred at a game between the Knickerbockers of New York and Eckfords of Brooklyn in September 1847. (OK, I made that one up.)

The most impressive – and distressing – thing I learned is that 88 years before baseball’s “color line” was broken by Jackie Robinson, the integrated team Charter Oak Juniors played in my hometown, Rochester, New York and featured Frederick Douglass, Jr., son and namesake of the great abolitionist and orator.

Why did I not learn about this until I’m 50? As I wrote in this space three years ago, the first ballot cast by a woman in a presidential election took place in Rochester almost five decades before female suffrage, but I was never taught that in school. Now it turns out our phys ed history was as deficient as our civics history.

Nineteenth century Rochester, New York was a hotbed of abolition and women’s rights. Susan B. Anthony (who cast that 1872 ballot) and Mr. Douglass and the fact that Rochester was a stop on the Underground Railroad were all given slight mention in our lessons, with similarly slight pride.

Twentieth century Rochester was a hotbed of Babbitry, nicknamed Smugtown, USA by astute observer Curt Gerling. Along with our ninety minutes on Douglass, Anthony and the Underground Railroad, we had guided tours of George Eastman’s house. Mr. Eastman was the founder of Eastman Kodak, the city’s largest employer.

Maybe I’m being too hard on the ol’ hometown. Perhaps it’s not just bias. In the late 1980s, I tried, without success, to get the town fathers of Wellsville, New York to recognize the imminent 1990 centennial of the great John McGraw’s (who was neither African American nor female) season of baseball play in that village. No one seemed to care.

The color curtain was drawn in 1870, by the New York Base Ball Association declaration that “colored clubs” were prohibited from play. Foreshadowing Plessy v. Ferguson by 26 years, it was suggested such clubs should form an association of their own. As if to drive home that point that identity trumps behavior, the same meeting approved the reinstatement of two white players who had been banned for accepting money from gamblers to throw a game.

Today, 64 years after the great Mr. Robinson re-integrated baseball, the New York Times reports Jim Crane, the wanna-be purchaser of the Houston Astros, may be prevented from doing so by Major League Baseball due a history of discrimination complaints in his business practice.

Baseball’s a game of tradition. Tradition is not automatically a good thing.

© Mark Floegel, 2011

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