THEY EVEN LIE TO US ABOUT BASEBALL
Nothing appears to be more American than baseball. Its folklore is clean and precise — Abner Doubleday invented baseball in 1839 at Cooperstown, New York. To this day, even baseball announcers talk about Doubleday when making reference to baseball purism.
There is one thing wrong with this idyllic view of baseball, however: baseball was not invented by Abner Doubleday. The only invention was the myth that was fed to the American public in the early part of the 20th century by a committee led by A.G. Spalding. There is no evidence to show that Doubleday ever saw a baseball game in his life. Unfortunately, most fans today still believe the myth of the game’s origin. Fortunately, the sport’s beginnings are much more interesting and diverse than those portrayed by Spalding.
Of all popular American sports, only basketball was invented by an individual. James Naismith was commissioned to create a co-educational, recreational sport and he produced basketball. American football is a variant of the British sport of rugby, which stemmed from soccer. Ice hockey is a product of the combination of field hockey and soccer. Baseball was imported into America from England in a crude form. Many people played cricket in 19th-century America and they picked up the less-structured game of baseball for recreation. Until about 1860, cricket matches drew large crowds and baseball contests were watched by only a few spectators, mostly women and children. In time, however, the combination of the two sports produced the beginning of baseball as we know it today.
Robert William Henderson is considered to be one of baseball’s leading historians. His research over decades includes various ball games and his findings are accepted by most baseball historians. By quoting noted anthropologists, Henderson concluded that all modern ball games are derived from ancient religious rituals. The main theme of all the rites was fertility of crops, or people, and, in his description of the first recorded "batting contest," held in Egypt over 5,000 years ago, Henderson states:
Stickwielding worshippers of the Egyptian god of agriculture, Osiris, would place his image on a cart and try to rush it into the Temple of Papremis. An army of priests, also wielding clubs, would line up just outside the Temple and try to fight them back. Though many heads were split in this annual affair, it was only mock combat and more of a traditional drama around crop-planting time.
The first recorded batting practice used human heads instead of balls to hit, but eventually the ancient peoples also found the merits of balls in their cultures. Games with a ball also started as rituals, not recreational pursuits. Egyptian high priests and king-gods used a ball as the central object of springtime ceremonies that represented fertility. Because the ball became an object of potency, ball-tossing games were common among women. Archaeologists have found carvings of semi-clothed women, playing ball, in the tomb of Beni Hasa, which was built before 2,000 B.C.
Ancient Greeks and Romans played ball, but for different reasons than the Egyptians. Instead of using a ball for religious rites, the Romans and Greeks used ball-playing strictly for conditioning.
The ball games used for religious rites spread from the Egyptians to the Arabs and they finally found their way into southern Europe with the invading Moors. Coincidentally, artifacts from the same period showing people playing with balls and bats have been found in other areas of the world. In Mexico, figures have been unearthed that portray actions similar to those in the Arab world of the time, yet there was no similarity in the religions of the areas.
The Christian church saw how popular the pagan fertility rites were and decided to use them in its Easter ceremonies. Eventually, Islamic customs were embraced in some parts of Europe and the combinations of the rituals of the two religious cultures proved interesting in baseball’s prehistory. Records show that early in the 12th century, the Archbishop of the High Church of Vienna passed a ball back and forth with the clerics who were lined up for the processional. After the services, the Archbishop threw the ball among the crowd, who then followed the Moorish custom of splitting into teams.
The custom became increasingly popular and spread throughout France and Spain. Players developed two varying styles of propelling the ball. They would either kick it (leading eventually to the sports of soccer and rugby) or swat it with a stick (leading to such games as lacrosse, golf, cricket and, eventually, baseball).
When the ball-playing segment of the medieval Easter festival crossed the English Channel, the British developed a different variant that started to resemble baseball as we know it. The new game was called "stoolball" and was played in churchyards. In early stoolball, the pitcher tried to throw the ball into an upturned stool while an opponent attempted to bat the ball away before it reached the "home" stool.
Eventually, more stools were added and the game of stoolball increased in popularity. By now, stoolball was being played as recreation. Religious rites had lost the exclusivity of the game. The stools were finally replaced by sticks in the ground that resembled bases or goals.
When the new game with the posts replaced the one with stools, rules were introduced and the British sport of "rounders" was established. The game’s popularity grew and many people in England played the new sport. By the beginning of the 18th century, some parts of England used the word "rounders" for the game, while others chose "base-ball," an obvious reference to the bases that were implanted into the ground.
In 1744, a children’s book, A Little Pretty Pocketbook, was published in England. It described many games, and, under the letter "B," was "base-ball." The word was in print almost 100 years before Abner Doubleday supposedly invented baseball. In 1789, Jane Austen described in her book, Northanger Abbey, how a young girl preferred "playing base-ball" to other pastimes.
By the beginning of the 19th century, many English immigrants had brought the game of rounders, or base-ball, depending on which part of England they came from, to the United States. While rounders has remained virtually unchanged in its form from the 19th century until today in Great Britain, the game started to be altered in the United States and began to resemble baseball as we know it today.
How did the Doubleday myth happen and why do many Americans to this day refer to him as "the father of baseball?" In 1907, A.G. Spalding gathered a group of men to give baseball an official history. Spalding, an avowed racist, had a revered name in baseball because of his involvement as a player in the formative years of professional baseball. By 1907, he, as well as some of his committee members, had become wealthy by manufacturing and selling baseball equipment, so they wanted to keep baseball as "American" as possible.
A supposed eyewitness came forward and told of how he saw Doubleday designing the field and laying sticks on the ground. That was good enough for Spalding and his associates. They did not take into account that the eyewitness was nearly 80 years old and he had never told anyone before of this amazing invention. Also, they never checked Mr. Doubleday’s background or they would have discovered that he was an 18-year-old cadet at West Point when he was supposedly inventing baseball in Cooperstown.
Historians have checked and the only relationship they have found that links Doubleday to baseball was a statement attributed to him during the Civil War. Doubleday, an army officer, evidently complained that his troops preferred playing baseball to fighting and he was not happy with the sport.
Spalding’s committee had voiced opposition to any foreign involvement in the development of baseball, so, when an eyewitness appeared and told the story they wanted to hear, they composed a "history."
There was nobody still alive who was involved with baseball in the 1820s and the 1830s who could have contradicted the eyewitness’ story, so it was adopted into U.S. folklore. A true, red-blooded Union Army officer and Civil War hero was the perfect inventor of baseball.
Since the 1940s, no baseball historian mentions Doubleday and baseball in the same breath, but the public, for the most part, is still unaware of baseball’s origins. The myth of Abner Doubleday, similar to the myth of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, still persists.
THE FIRST BLACK MAJOR LEAGUER
Jackie Robinson set the pace for black athletes in professional American sports. When he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, one of America's most shameful moments was put to rest. Finally, all men were equal on the ball field.
Today, when one reads about or hears the question, "Who was the first black Major League baseball player," the answer, "Jackie Robinson" comes forth. However, despite Robinson's breaking the color line in modern baseball, he was not the first black major leaguer. He was preceded by more than 60 years by Moses Fleetwood Walker.
Walker was born on October 7, 1857 in Mount Pleasant, Ohio. He was athletic and he possessed considerable intellectual prowess. Walker attended Oberlin College in Ohio and studied the subjects of mathematics, Greek, rhetoric, mechanics, natural philosophy, French, civil engineering, zoology, chemistry, astronomy, German, botany, logic, and Latin.
In addition to becoming a baseball player, Walker, during his life, was a businessman, inventor, newspaper editor, and author. He attended integrated universities and would play only on integrated teams. His baseball experiences embittered him so much that, in his later years, Walker became an advocate of the emigration of black Americans to Africa. He established a publishing firm that specialized in African-American issues, many years before such companies came on the scene.
After playing college baseball, Walker, a catcher, joined the Toledo club of the Northwestern Baseball League in 1883. He played 60 games and hit .251 in his first year of professional baseball.
In 1884, Toledo was accepted into the American Association, which was beginning its third year and was recognized as a major league. Walker went with the franchise and became the first black major leaguer.
Walker received mixed reactions in the league. Most players accepted his presence and the spectators, except those in the league's two southern cities, treated him fairly.
The Toledo Blade described Walker's first appearance in Louisville as an unpleasant one because he was hissed and insulted. According to the article:
"Walker ... is one of the most reliable men on the club, but his poor playing in a city where the color line is closely drawn as it is in Louisville ... should not be counted against him. Many a player under less aggravating circumstances than this had become rattled and unable to play. It is not creditable to the Louisville management that it should permit such outrageous behavior to occur on the grounds."
The Sporting Life reported different reactions in other cities. In Baltimore, 3,000 people turned out to watch Walker play and the paper said: "Every good play by him was loudly applauded." In Washington, the same publication reported that he made a "favorable impression."
Richmond promised trouble for Walker, however. Prior to a meeting of Toledo and Richmond, in the state of Virginia, the Toledo manager, Charley Mortin, received the following letter:
"We the undersigned do hereby warn you not to put up Walker, the Negro catcher, the evening that you play in Richmond, as we could mention the names of 75 determined men who have sworn to mob Walker if he comes to the ground in a suit. We hope you listen to our words so that there will be trouble, but if you do not here certainly will be. We only write this to prevent much bloodshed, as you alone can prevent."
The letter contained four signatures. When the names were checked, none was from Richmond.
We will never know if a lynch mob would have met Walker because he was injured prior to the Richmond series and he was through for the season. He suffered a broken rib when he was struck by a tipped foul ball.
Toledo finished eighth in the American Association. Because it was in financial trouble, the club folded after the season.
What was Walker's contribution to the club? He played in 46 games and compiled a .251 batting average. Walker hit four doubles, two triples, and fielded .888, which ranked him 26th in the league for catchers.
In the early 1880s, baseball was ahead of the rest of America in the area of racial integration. Many teams saw that there was a crop of black baseball players whose talent was untapped in the white leagues. In fact, Moses Fleetwood Walker was only one player among many whom the baseball community considered had the talent to play in the big leagues.
Walker's brother, Weldy, was called up to "the show" by Toledo at the end of the 1884 season and he appeared in six games for the Toledo club.
For the next few seasons, several black baseball players appeared in the minor leagues. By the end of the decade, however, the integration experiment was finished in baseball. Racism had dominated because many of the white players, managers and owners took a militant stand against black players entering organized baseball.
Because black players were stopped from playing in the white man's leagues, various black leagues emerged and produced legends such as Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. These leagues produced some of the most talented, imaginative and creative baseball the world has ever seen. Unfortunately, many of the tales of the Negro leagues are oral. Some leagues did not keep records, and the sporting press did not exactly place priority on covering the Negro leagues.
Before black players were fully ostracized in the late 1880s, some teams tried to disguise recruits. In 1887, Frank Grant, considered by many to have been the greatest black player of his era, signed with Buffalo of the International Association, a league which was equivalent to today's AAA minor leagues, one step below the major leagues. In reporting his signing, the Buffalo Express described Grant as a "Spaniard." Grant became the last black player to be signed in white professional baseball until Jackie Robinson made his debut.
In the following decade, a few black players tried to make the major leagues under the guise of being American Indians. That ploy never worked.
The final word about integration, though often only subtly put forward, occurred in 1908 when an official committee convened to give baseball a "legitimate" history. The committee members fabricated the beginning of baseball's history. Most were players in the major leagues in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, and were not fans of racial integration. Some had voiced opposition in their playing days to black players even setting foot on the same field as a white man.
The racial experiments of the 1880s were bold and courageous, but short-lived. Ironically, the unwritten rules concerning black baseball players became much more powerful than the social experiment of the 19th century. From the signing of Frank Grant by Buffalo until the time that Jackie Robinson first took the field as a Brooklyn Dodger, several generations of Americans had passed. The 1880s experiment lasted about six years, yet the following isolation lasted 10 times as long.
Moses Fleetwood Walker did not amass Hall of Fame playing statistics. However, he did break the color line, which, unfortunately, was re-instituted in 1887. It was not until another 60 years had passed that Jackie Robinson put the last nail in the baseball segregation coffin.
THE QUEST FOR THE KNUCKLEBALL
As most of you know, I have an extensive baseball background that eventually led to burnout. For the past decade or so, I have not watched 10 innings of baseball on TV, nor have I read more than a paragraph or so here and there. That is unless Tim Wakfield is playing.
Wakefield was a first-baseman with the Pittsburgh Pirates who was about to be sent down to the minor leagues. One day, while throwing on the sidelines, a coach walked by and saw Wakefield throw a knuckleball. "What was that," asked the coach? "Oh, just something I mess around with," Wakefield told him.
The coach was so impressed with Wakefield’s command of the knuckler that he talked the club into trying him at pitching. In 1992, Wakefield made an incredible entrance into the major leagues as a pitcher.
In 1995, he was traded to the Boston Red Sox, where he has won more than a hundred games since. Last night, he was the winning picture against the New York Yankees in a 14-inning game.
So what? you may ask. The "so what" is that Wakefield is the only active knuckleball pitcher in the major leagues.
The pitch is much slower than other offerings of pitchers, such as a fastball, curve, or slider. But, it dances erratically on its trip to the plate, making it almost impossible to hit.
You may think this is a no-brainer: everyone should throw a knuckleball. It’s not that easy. Few people can make it dart in different directions consistently. And, most baseball managers and coaches do not understand the pitch and do not give anyone a chance who throws it. They always maintain that if the knuckler does not "knuckle," it will be a straighter-than-an-arrow offering that will be knocked out of the park. Rarely do they use the same logic for a pitcher who "hangs a curve" and gets hit hard.
True, if a knuckleball pitcher is having a bad day and the wind is to his back, he will not last long. This is a hazard for the knuckleball pitcher.
I read about the knuckleball in about 1960 when Hoyt Wilhelm was dazzling batters with it. For the next three years, I tried to throw one. I read all the pitching books and followed the instructions to a tee, but it never did anything but travel to the plate in a slow, straight line. I gave up.
During the 1970s, I read the book Ball Four by former New York Yankee, Jim Bouton. It was a story, not an instruction manual. However, he mentioned the knuckler and he stated, "Make sure the ball is cupped in the hand with the fingers on top." Never had I read before that the ball should be against the palm of your hand. Most other pitches are thrown with the ball away from the palm.
This made sense. If the ball was against the palm of the hand and was pushed away, a vacuum would be created behind the ball making it change directions. And, a knuckler is not thrown with the knuckles, but with the fingertips. It is pushed forward by the fingers, and when the ball is on its way to the plate, there is no spin. Every other pitch in baseball requires spin to break in a certain direction. If a knuckleball spins, it will not break.
In 1979, at age 31, my playing days were behind me. However, I thought that I should learn a knuckleball to be able to teach it to aspiring pitchers.
I needed a catcher who would not complain about squatting down for a half hour trying to catch my pitches that would be all over the place. A 16-year-old British girl who was a catcher in a league I ran volunteered. Well, she volunteered after I asked her a few times.
She was a big athletic girl who had no problem catching my slower offerings as I tried to master the elusive knuckleball. Her only problem would be chasing the balls I threw over her head or in the dirt in trying to gain some kind of mechanics for the pitch.
Almost every day at about 3:30 in the afternoon, I picked her up and brought her to the baseball field. The first few times were horrible. I did not throw one floater. The ball still had spin. But, I did not give up.
After about two weeks, I unleashed a pitch that had no spin. As soon as it left my hand, I knew I had found success. It seemed to take minutes to reach the catcher as it first broke left, then right and straight down. I did it.
The feeling of that first successful knuckleball pitch was indescribable. It was like an electronic device was controlling the flight of the ball even though I threw it. Magic.
It took about three more weeks until I was consistent with the knuckleball. By then, most had no spin. But, as I was getting better throwing the pitch, it became more hazardous for the teenage female catcher.
Unlike other pitches in baseball, one cannot control the direction of the break of a knuckleball. A curve ball always goes away and down: a slider away, etc. Once the knuckleball is released, a pitcher can only hope it hops and it gets somewhere near the strike zone. By the time we were finished and I had accomplished my journey of throwing a knuckleball with consistency, the girl had bruises on every part of her body that a baseball could hit: primarily the forearm and thighs. And, a few bruised fingers as well. She never complained once about performing such an unglamorous task for those few weeks.
In 1981, I began to manage baseball in the Dutch major league, a circuit that was equivalent to about A level minor league ball in the U.S. I took a mediocre pitcher and taught him the knuckleball. A 20-year-old Eric de Vries won the Most Valuable Pitcher Award in The Netherlands. When asked the reason for his turnaround, he told the press, "The knuckleball."
The following year, I was with another club. Eric, playing for a new American manager, had a mediocre year. I noticed he did not throw one knuckleball. When I asked him why, he said, "My new coach told me not to." Then I asked the reasoning and he told me, "He said that if it does not break, you’ll get hit hard." Some things never change.
Today, at age 57, I am stiff and sore from my years of playing sports, But, if I had it in me, I could go out and warmup and throw a futhermucker of a knuckleball. All thanks to that 16-year-old British girl.
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