But Didn't We Have Fun?

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

The thesis of But Didn’t We Have Fun? is that the American national pastime originated in a variety of bat-and-ball games played by children and by amateur groups of adults for amusement and camaraderie. Peter Morris punctures a number of myths, among them that Abner Doubleday invented it all in Cooperstown, New York. Refuted also are assertions that baseball was a direct descendent of British rounders and that the Civil War boosted its popularity and augmented its dissemination (more important than soldiers as ambassadors were collegians in an era of unprecedented social mobility). Club teams withered away during the four years of carnage, and few veterans participated in the postwar boom because of wounds sustained, atrophied skills, or time-consuming adult responsibilities. Morris compares baseball’s forerunners to the many varieties of hide-and-seek or tagwhose informal guideposts changed depending on local customs, the nature of the playing field, and the number of participants. Whatever name they went bybarn ball, sock ball, patch ball, round ballmost employed a soft sphere thrown at runners to get them out, a practice commonly called soaking. In Connecticut, wicket was similar to the British cricket with bowlers, fielders, and batsmen. Round-town players in Virginia swung one-handed with a paddle. A writer described town ball in Cincinnati, Ohio:There were no basemen to whom the ball was thrown, but the sphere was hurled directly at the base-runner. As the excitement of the game intensified the ball began to be made harder and heavier to aid the throwing. This led to an unusual number of accidents, resulting from the players being hit by a too solid ball. It was this dangerous outgrowth of town-ball playing which first suggested to some Yankee mind (whom nobody knows) to put basemen on the bases and let the ball be thrown to them instead of at the runner.

Fielders did not wear gloves, leading to telltale finger deformities. When four-foot stakes were used, runners ran around them in order to avoid injuries. This practice of not touching the bases continued even after flat stones and bags filled with sand or sawdust replaced the stakes. Sometimes two runs were credited if a batsman circled the bases and then made it safely to first again. Before pitchers became dominant, high scoring games of a hundred runs or more were not unusual.

In 1845 members of New York’s Knickerbocker Club drew up twenty rules, many dealing with matters of etiquette and sportsmanship. The umpire’s role was twofoldto settle arguments pertaining to the rules and to record for posterity what happened. Often a local dignitary ensconced in an easy chair under an umbrella, he rarely injected himself in disputes on the field. Better positioned were the players themselves, who were expected to be fair and honorable. The infield was diamond-shaped, set at forty-two paces from first to third and home to second (in the 1850’s bases were designated to be placed ninety feet apart). Among the innovative rules were the abolition of soaking (or throwing at runners) and making two-strike foul balls do-overs rather than in play or strike three. A batter was out if a fielder caught the ball in the air or on first bounce. Though not set in stone, the number of players was customarily nine. In the infield were three basemen plus a shortstop, whose main function initially was to retrieve throws from outfielders. Widespread acceptance of these rules outside New York proceeded slowly. Following their 1856 publication in Porter’s Spirit of the Times, they gradually won wider acceptance. In 1858 Daniel Adams formed the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP), which adopted the Knickerbocker rules. The elimination of soaking allowed for a harder ball that traveled farther and made the game more exciting. As William A. Cochran wrote, the faculty at Wisconsin’s Beloit Collegewas in heavy sympathy with the boys, and cheered them with their presence as well as by their voices. The grave, sedate, dignified President was an habitué of the ball ground, and it is reported that he would become so enthused at times that he would rise in his carriage and wave his silk hat, in a very dignified manner, to cheer the boys.

Sister sororities and other female spectators brought out the best in handsome New York...

(The entire section is 1769 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 4 (February 15, 2008): 186.

Library Journal 133, no. 2 (February 1, 2008): 77.

The New York Times Book Review, April 6, 2008, p. 6.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 43 (October 29, 2007): 38.

The Washington Post Book World, April 6, 2006, p. BW16.