Exploring Baseball Americana

The Library of Congress’ new exhibit provides a rich view of baseball’s past. (Otis Shepard via the Library of Congress)

When one walks into Baseball Americana, an exhibition on display at the Library of Congress through December, one of the first things visible is a tattered piece of paper covered in flowing script. It is a page taken from the diary of John Rhea Smith, who in 1786 was a student at the College of New Jersey (known today as Princeton). By his account, Wednesday, March 22 was “A fine day [to] play baste ball in the campus but am beaten for I miss both catching and striking the Ball.” Smith’s lament is the earliest known written reference to baseball in America, predating the ratification of the United States Constitution by two years and the birth of Abner Doubleday by more than three decades.

The diary of John Rhea Smith. (Library of Congress)

The historians at the Library of Congress speculate that Smith’s curious spelling — “baste ball” — was a corruption or mistake. It is one of many different archaic spellings of the name of the sport that, though in its infancy in the 18th century, would soon become the predominant American pastime. Just next to Smith’s diary, the exhibit documents the rise and fall of the many variants: “Base-Ball” appeared in 1787, “base-ball” in 1799, “base ball” in 1818, “Base Ball” in 1845. Finally, in 1899, “baseball” appeared for the first time, and would push all the other variant spellings out within just a few short decades. The spelling hasn’t changed in the 120 years since.

Baseball Americana is a production of the Library of Congress in partnership with Major League Baseball, the Baseball Hall of Fame and ESPN, and it’s well worth attending. Baseball is thoroughly intertwined with America’s mythology of itself, so it is unsurprising that the Library of Congress possesses a great many remarkable artifacts of the game’s history and development. Some examples, from the Library’s collection, or on loan to the exhibition from partners and private individuals: the 1857 “Laws of Base Ball,” known as baseball’s “Magna Carta” and recently rediscovered and sold at auction for $3.2 million; an 1863 lithograph of Union prisoners of war playing baseball in Salisbury, North Carolina; Ty Cobb’s $4,000 contract with the Detroit Tigers for the 1908 season; a 1943 Ansel Adams photograph of a baseball game played by Japanese-American internees during World War II in the Manzanar Relocation Center; a 1950 letter from Jackie Robinson to Branch Rickey; a ball from Kenny Rogers’ 1994 perfect game.

The exhibition has a specific purpose: to illuminate how baseball and America are intertwined. It is specifically interested in baseball’s role in “providing a shared sense of belonging in the stands, on the field, and anywhere baseball is played and loved,” according to the Library’s official guide. It largely succeeds at that laudatory and patriotic purpose, though the picture it paints of both baseball and America is decidedly incomplete as a result. And as we look past the exhibit’s narrow focus and slanted purpose, what remains is a rich and engaging display of baseball’s past and present.

Japanese-Americans at the Manzanar Relocation Center watch and play a game of baseball. (Ansel Adams / Library of Congress)

John Rhea Smith’s diary and the lopsided timeline of spelling variants are a fitting introduction to Baseball Americana. The exhibit portrays change as a major theme of baseball at all points in its history; per the exhibition guide, baseball “hasn’t stayed the same in anyone’s lifetime.” But not all change is created equal, and the impression that results from Smith’s diary — an early period of uncertainty giving way to a modern era of stability — recurs throughout the exhibit. The mercurial nature of pre-modern baseball casts today’s incarnation of the sport in a stale light, with an unavoidable sense that something has been lost between then and now.

Frequent and seismic upheaval characterized baseball’s first two centuries of existence in America. Geographic growth was constant. In baseball’s youth, an 1867 “western tour” by the Washington Nationals extended to the furthest frontiers of baseball’s popularity in Chicago, but just two years later one of the Nationals’ provincial opponents on that tour (the Cincinnati Red Stockings) had become the best team in the nation. The Civil War and the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad spurred further growth of the sport inside America’s borders, while Cuban students spread baseball to the Caribbean and Latin America and an American professor brought it to Japan. Major league baseball’s expansion was slower, but eventually traced a similar path. The western edge of the league moved to Kansas City in 1954, then Los Angeles in 1958, and finally to Seattle in 1969; the first international team (the Montréal Expos) also debuted in 1969.

The rules of the game were also in constant flux during this period. The sport defined in the 1857 “Rules of Base Ball” is recognizable — nine players to a side, nine innings to a game, 90 feet between bases — but only just. Until 1864, a ball caught on the fly or on the first bounce counted as an out. Gloves were completely absent from baseball in the 1850s, seen as an effete affectation of the injured or sensitive in the 1870s, and an essential piece of equipment in the 1890s, before finally taking their familiar webbed form in the 1920s. The ball varied wildly in its composition and construction until the American League and the National League agreed on a standardized form in 1934. Doctored pitches were not banned until  1921. The mound was created in 1893, with the precise height left up to the home team until 1950 and not fixed at its current height until 1969. In ways small and large, the rules of baseball were always changing throughout the 19th and most of the 20th century.

And the rules that governed the off-the-field aspects of the game were hardly more stable, in the major leagues or in the sport as a whole. The aforementioned Cincinnati Red Stockings were able to rise to dominance so quickly thanks to their innovative strategy (in the 1860s) of paying players, allowing them to acquire all the best talent from around the sport. Less than two decades later, owners colluded to stifle even the limited freedom the players had gained by instituting the reserve clause, which would last until Curt Flood’s holdout in 1970 and the gradual onset of free agency.

But many of baseball’s deepest changes came outside the boundaries of major league baseball. Professional women’s leagues sprang into existence in the early 20th century and gained popularity in the 1940s, driven by the dearth of male players caused by World War II. Barred from participating in white organized baseball, the Negro Leagues developed alongside white professional ball, flourishing in the 1920s and ‘30s, and eventually driving major league baseball’s admittedly halting integration in the middle of the century. Inside the foul lines and outside, baseball was always changing.

Catfish and Me
Reminisces of a meeting with an all-time great.

The impact of these changes might not be totally apparent when listed individually like this. But what Baseball Americana does well is make the magnitude and constancy of these changes impossible to ignore. Baseball originated as an amateur game played by white men on the east coast of America, with almost no equipment and barely recognizable rules. By the middle of the 20th century, baseball was international, professional and amateur, multiracial and -ethnic, and full of specialized equipment. The shift is nothing short of remarkable.

But just as remarkable is the stability that characterizes baseball’s recent history, as major league baseball and the sport itself undergo fewer and smaller changes than ever before. Geographically, the majors are stagnant: the last time MLB added an expansion team in 1994, it also relocated one of its two international teams inside the United States’ borders. Another round of expansion is likely coming in the next decade or so and could add one or more new international teams; Commissioner Rob Manfred has raised Vancouver, Montréal (again), and Mexico City as possibilities. Placing a franchise in any one of them would leave the majors only slightly more geographically spread than in the 1970s, but would still be a welcome departure from the last several decades.

Nor has the sport welcomed new demographics into its ranks: while Baseball Americana prominently features Mo’ne Davis and her electrifying success at the 2014 Little League World Series, it fails to mention her desire to pursue collegiate and professional basketball, an unsurprising development given the meager support that exists for professional women’s baseball. And while racial diversity in the majors has reached an all-time high according to the latest TIDES Racial and Gender Report card, with 42.5 percent of players being of color, the league has given back a significant portion of its gains among African-American players. After accounting for 18 percent of players on Opening Day rosters in 1991, African-Americans made up just 7.7 percent of players in 2018.

Inside major league baseball, the compensation structure has remained stable since the onset of free agency, with big money often going to veteran free agents, younger players paid less than they would garner on the free market through pre-arbitration and arbitration, and gross undercompensation for minor leaguers. And while you wouldn’t know it from the howling that results every time the commissioner proposes any type of rule change, even his wildest dreams are nothing compared to the upheaval that baseball’s rules underwent in the 19th and 20th centuries. The most aggressive suggested changes — roster limits by position, baserunners at the start of extra innings, a mercy rule — are peripheral tweaks, and much less impactful than the adoption of gloves, or catcher’s masks, or foul lines, or any of the other seismic changes baseball’s rulebook underwent in its youth as a matter of course.

Whitey Herzog’s batting chart for Eddie Murray, 1989–90. (National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

Is it fair to describe modern baseball as unchanging when the sabermetric movement is still in full swing? Moneyball occupies a prominent place in Baseball Americana — Rob Neyer interviewed Michael Lewis to open the exhibition — and teams’ recent embrace of analytics is discussed at length. In some respects, to be sure, sabermetrics has brought major changes to modern baseball. In the last two decades, existing measurements of player ability have improved, while quantitative measurements of other abilities (spin rate, first-step speed) have sprung into existence; the understanding of how those various abilities are converted into wins has sharpened dramatically. Every job in baseball — coach, general manager, scout, player — is different than it was in the 1990s and 2000s. Countless fans (myself included) understand and are engaged by baseball in a way that wasn’t possible 20 or even five years ago.

But the exhibition’s historical depth made it impossible for me not to compare the impact of the sabermetric revolution to the changes it borders in Baseball Americana and feel somewhat underwhelmed. The upheaval that baseball went through as a matter of course in its youth was self-sustaining, as change begot more change. Competing leagues, integration and internationalizing opened up new horizons for baseball; greater and fairer compensation made the sport a viable professional ambition for more people; rule changes made the game safer and more entertaining. Sabermetrics could have the same invigorating effect, and it certainly has altered the game’s landscape dramatically. But so far, for many fans those changes still pale when compared to the uproarious dynamism of the game’s early days.

By valuing credentials beyond past major league experience, sabermetrics could have opened the league up to a whole host of individuals (primarily women) who have historically found almost no purchase in front offices or on coaching staffs. It has so far fallen short of that potential, however. Ex-players have been largely replaced with Ivy League-educated MBAs and JDs, but the racial and gender composition of league management still tilts decidedly male and white.. Per the TIDES report, there were only three women in on-field coaching roles and only three people of color (all men) at the head of their team’s baseball operations departments in 2017. There are some encouraging signs — collectively, the major league teams earned a “gender hiring” grade of C- in the TIDES report, thanks to the 28 percent of their administrative positions that are filled by women, a number that is slowly trending upward — but currently, upper-level team and league leadership looks basically the same as it always has.

Moreover, sabermetric changes have been deployed to prize cheap inefficiency and justify franchises’ putting a product on the field that gives fans little to cheer for. Consider, for example, the manner in which the concept of the “win curve” — itself a relatively innocuous observation that certain teams are more incentivized than others to improve themselves in the short term — has enabled organizations to justify multi-year stretches of tightfistedness and intentional losing. Or consider how the Rays’ use of “the opener” — in a vacuum, an interesting and clever advancement in the advantageous deployment of a pitching staff — may also enable the franchise with the lowest payroll in the league to suppress player salaries in arbitration and free agency even more than usual. Sabermetrics has changed many things and brought a scientific rigor to the game, but some of that rigor has undermined the positive labor developments of past eras. The net result is that modern baseball, even with the many changes of sabermetrics, can still feel more stolid than its previous incarnations.

Change in and of itself may not be a good thing. Baseball offers many things to many people, including comfort. Stability is often comforting; modern baseball is largely the same as the baseball that any fans  alive today experienced in their youth, and that’s not without value. And some of baseball’s stability is the result of the sport finding a way of existing that works really well. Reinstituting the one-bounce rule or the spitball or the reserve clause just to shake things up would not be a good idea.

But the inescapable conclusion of Baseball Americana is that the feeling of turmoil and possibility that characterized baseball’s youth has faded away in the last several decades, replaced by something smaller and more controlled. That shift might be an existential threat to the sport — it’s not hard to connect the cramped feeling of modern baseball to the declining levels of youth participation, the aging of major league baseball’s audience, the sport’s declining cultural sway — but one doesn’t need to think that baseball is dying to think that this modern iteration of baseball is just not as fun. As a modern fan, I felt a real sense of envy when looking at the excitement and expansion that ran through Baseball Americana’s sections on the 19th and early-20th century.

The 1913 New York Female Giants. (Bain News Service / Library of Congress)

If baseball is to regain that out-of-control feeling, it will likely have to come from outside MLB. That’s the other trend one cannot fail to notice in Baseball Americana: the gradual fading away of alternative forms of baseball, as every level of the sport in every country is defined more and more by its connection to MLB and less and less for its own sake. In that framework, there’s little room for creativity or innovation of the type that baseball used to be all about. The moments in which the World Series is forgotten or irrelevant — the Home Run Derby, the Women’s Baseball World Cup, the Hall of Fame Classic — represent baseball’s best shot at returning to its chaotic, mercurial, promising roots.

Henry is a very-part-time baseball writer whose past work has appeared at Beyond the Box Score and Baseball Prospectus. Find him on Twitter @henrydruschel, and find his other writing at medium.com/@henrydruschel.
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Damn, modern baseball sounds like a real bummer. Maybe if we take away second base or make players hit blindfolded it will be more fun.

Yehoshua Friedman
Yehoshua Friedman

How about the World Series really being World? The Japanese and Mexican champions should have playoff berths and later other countries could be added. Paying MiLB players a living wage could help attract players of color away from football and basketball. To say nothing of a WMLB similar to WNBA.


for the author’s reading: Sparky Lyle – The Year I Owned The Yankees. Women in sabermetrics in 1991.

Las Vegas Wildcards
Las Vegas Wildcards

Baseball cannot manufacture interest when that interest isn’t organic. Women’s baseball simply can’t compete with softball, and it would be foolish to try otherwise. From youth, to high school, and college, softball has been a great deal for women across the country.