Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Let There Be Baseball

Alert fans of Jane Austen have long known that Abner Doubleday couldn't possibly have invented baseball in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York. (For those disinclined to investigate links, Catherine Morland plays baseball in Northanger Abbey, written sometime between 1795 and 1798.)

Now historians in Pittsfield, Massachusetts have unearthed a 1791 law prohibiting people from playing baseball within 80 yards of the Pittsfield Meeting House, which presumably had expensive glass windows. They're claiming it as the earliest written reference to baseball. This puts them an unimpressive four years earlier than Austen, although they would rather you compare them to a much later "earliest reference" in an 1823 American newspaper.

But even their four year head start doesn't seem to hold up, according to this historical account, which references a 1744 woodcut drawing of boys playing a game called "baseball," and a 1748 letter describing English Royals "diverting themselves with baseball, a play all who are or have been schoolboys are well acquainted with." The topper is the complaint of a Puritan minister that "I have seen Morris-dancing, cudgel-playing, baseball and cricketts, and many other sports on the Lord's Day," which another site dates to 1700.

So who cares? That's a good question, actually. I'm not a fan of other sports, so I might be missing something, but I'm not aware of any other sport that is so obsessively dedicated to its own history. Since the dawn of modern organized baseball in mid-19th century America, the game has been heavily weighted down with myths and symbolism. Supposedly, baseball illuminates the American character, and pastoral longing, and democracy, and every other damn thing you can imagine. This Stephen Jay Gould article on the baseball origin myth puts it well:
The silliest and most tendentious of baseball writing tries to wrest profundity from the spectacle of grown men hitting a ball with a stick by suggesting linkages between the sport and deep issues of morality, parenthood, history, lost innocence, gentleness, and so on, seemingly ad infinitum. (The effort reeks of silliness because baseball is profound all by itself and needs no excuses; people who don’t know this are not fans and are therefore unreachable anyway.) [...]

Stories about beginnings come in only two basic modes. An entity either has an explicit point of origin, a specific time and place of creation, or else it evolves and has no definable moment of entry into the world. Baseball provides an interesting example of this contrast because we know the answer and can judge received wisdom by the two chief criteria, often opposed, of external fact and internal hope. Baseball evolved from a plethora of previous stick-and-ball games. It has no true Cooperstown and no Doubleday. Yet we seem to prefer the alternative model of origin by a moment of creation—for then we can have heroes and sacred places. By contrasting the myth of Cooperstown with the fact of evolution, we can learn something about our cultural practices and their frequent disrespect for truth.
Gould's essay explains how necessary it was to the myth of baseball-as-microcosm-of-America that a thoroughly American origin be established - thus the denial that baseball is related to British stick-and-ball games, in favor of the myth that it sprung fully-formed from the head of Abner Doubleday. The necessity for an American origin, combined with baseball's heavy employment as an icon of boyhood, perhaps explains why none of these loving historical explorations of the game's roots ever bring in Northanger Abbey, where baseball is the province of a fourteen-year-old English girl.

Se we'll probably always be groping for baseball creation myths, even after our faith in the divine inspiration of Abner Doubleday wanes. It's no coincidence that the folks in Massachusetts have chosen to present their evidence like this: "Pittsfield is baseball's Garden of Eden."

(For the best articulation ever of baseball's mythic resonance, I recommend Michael Chabon's Summerland. It's much more true than those books which are merely factual.)