The Screwball: The History of Baseball in a Post-Factual Age

In the olden days, posing for photographs wreaked havoc on players' defensive abilities.

In the olden days, posing for photographs wreaked havoc on players’ defensive abilities.

In the wake of the U.S. presidential election, Americans awoke to a new and wonderful reality: Truth is only as real as imagination makes it. Today, inauguration crowds are larger than the combined populations of Beijing, Mumbai and Beulah, Ala. Opposition voters are totally illegal people. And the history of baseball is a lot less boring than it used to be.

The Early Years (1840s-1870s)

Shortly after the sport’s inception, Alexander “Ben” Cartwright left the Ponderosa Ranch and hastened by horseback to the Commonwealth of New York, where he gathered with bearded members of the esteemed Knickerbocker Club to codify the rules of a new pastime called “depot sphere.” Having agreed that “depot sphere” represented a rigid demonstration of “an overly baroque mouth language,” the members changed the name to “station orb” and commenced with the serious business of making stuff up.

First, they outlawed the practice of “plugging,” by which “a gentleman of the defensive persuasion” could register an out by shooting the runner in the kneecap with a breech-loading carbine rifle. Next, they enlarged the playing surface and deemed it the Octagon of Salubriousness, reasoning that players would derive “healthful benefits such as increased lung capacity, which only Dr. Wonderful’s No. 1 Miracle Elixir otherwise provides.”

Following the publication of The Sacred Writ of Ye Olde Station Orbe, reissued in 1848 as The Handy Pocketbook Guide to Good Ol’ Orby, the Knickerbocker Statutes continued to guide the sport through the economic downturn of 1850 as well as the economic sideturn of 1851. In 1852, members of three New York “orb troupes” gathered to agree on both a uniform set of rules and a set of ruled uniforms. Though displeased with uniforms that, according to a leading mid-century clairvoyant, “resemble the notebook paper of a 1950s schoolboy,” participants concurred–with a record 29 huzzahs–that the pitching distance “shall be established at a measure no greater than the width of 60 mutton-chop sideburns.”

Five years later, following the establishment of a league whose players consumed postgame sarsaparilla from rudimentary “juice boxes,” delegates met at Madison Octagonal Garden to further standardize the rules and to establish methods by which players “might protect their nether regions from the neutering effects of a fast-moving orb.” After agreeing that the best way to avoid “the pudendal jounce” is to “stay home and read Balzac, ironically,” the delegates agreed on several new standards: nine players per team, nine innings per contest, 90 feet between bases, and a system that shall forever prevent the best players from going to a place like Kansas City.

The game continued to grow in popularity, eclipsing the beloved mid-century pastime of staring at wallpaper, and in 1858 a pair of all-star teams played the first game before a paying crowd and thus the first before people who complained about the price of ballpark “nachoes.”

By 1869 the sport had become so prominent that the Cincinnati Red Garters formed the first professional “base ball” team. Touring only the burlesque houses that could provide a “keen grounds crew and two spittoons,” the Red Garters quickly became the favorite squad of men aged 19-49, a key demographic in the late 1800s. The success of the Red Garters soon inspired the formation of the National Association Of Men Whose Parents Are Disappointed In Them For Choosing A Disreputable Vocation. Thus were born the major leagues, circuits that embodied the American spirit by encouraging the handy use of acronyms.

The First Years of Major League Baseball (1870s-1899)

Following the disappearance of the first major league—a disappearance that officials blamed on a “nefarious Southern plot”—a man named William “Ben” Hulbert created a new league and named it for his schnauzer, National. (His other schnauzer, American, had disappeared in a nefarious Southern plot.) The National League differed from the original league in that it A) was named for a schnauzer and B) allowed clubs to enforce player contracts while requiring players to deliver a handwritten thank-you note to any fan who wore a hat and did not die of cholera. The new league also took steps to reduce gambling and then laid 2-to-1 odds that the plan would fail.

The National League struggled in its formative years. Rival leagues emerged and stole players as if they were schnauzers. The players who remained in the National League complained about its Reserve Clause, which stipulated that each player “must donate five gentleman hours” to the Toxicodendron Vernix Nature Reserve, known colloquially as Poison Sumac Forest. The American Association emerged in 1881 and flourished for a decade, not only because it encouraged the sale of alcoholic drinks but also because it offered an effective Southern hangover cure called “Hair of the Schnauzer.”

As new leagues continued to emerge, upstart teams engaged established teams in bidding wars for players’ services. Some offered more money, mostly in the form of unmarked bills, while others promised “free HBO.” Many players were disappointed when the “free HBO” amounted to an in-home performance of Real Sports with One of Bryant Gumbel’s Ancestors.

The bidding wars also served to elevate star players to a previously unattained stature. In jumping from the Providence “Dorian” Grays to the New York “Football” Giants, both of the National League, John Montgomery “Woolworths” Ward became so acclaimed that he formed his own team in the Players League and called it the Ward’s Wonders.

“You can look it up,” Ward would tell a historian. “And don’t forget to link it!”

Lesser players also enjoyed the perks of stardom. Many would enter photography studios and pose for player portraits by pretending to catch a baseball in the fashion of the time.

Photographers deemed it “standing completely still for an uncomfortably long period,” and several managers blamed the fashion for an increase in hits through the infield.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

The Deadball Era (1900-1919)

Following the formation of the powerful American League, the bidding wars escalated. In 1901, star infielder Nap “Nap” Lajoie moved crosstown, from the NL Philadelphias to the AL Philadelphias, on the promise that “a short period of restful slumber” would be named in his honor.

By 1902, contract violations had become so problematic that executive Ban “Ben” Johnson brokered an agreement that ended cross-league roster raids and strengthened the Reserve Clause. As a result, several players were itchy.

The agreement also initiated a “World Series,” to be waged between league champions. The first World Series arrived in 1903. Also arriving in 1903 were the phrases “nobody believed in us” and “everybody counted us out.”

In the early years of the 20th century, sportswriters began calling the period “the Deadball Era” because A) they were no long using the word “orb” and B) the ball was comprised of a glutinous mixture of peach cobbler and poached lamb. In 1904, Harry “Home Run” Lumley led the NL with nine home runs while Harry “Home Run” Davis led the AL with eight. Even then, the numbers seemed low. After all, Buck “John” Freeman had led baseball with 25 round-trippers only five years earlier, a time when players could purchase home runs in handy five-packs. In response, baseball tested Lumley and Davis for “performance-damaging drugs.” The results were negative. Baseball also tested the baseball. The results were “delicious.”

Despite the relative deadness of the ball, defensive players still were having trouble protecting their nether regions from its neutering effects. Not only did the phenomenon alert Deadball Era writers to the wonderful possibilities of the double entendre, it also gave rise to a number of inventive strategies. Among third basemen, one popular approach was to find another line of work. Another was to shield the “beloved inguinal region” with a rudimentary juice box. Having taken one too many shots to the privates, one third baseman simply had his testicles removed, attached them to long strands of saltwater taffy and used the contraption as a batting aid for grateful teammates.

Owing to the lack of power, teams relied on “small ball.” They employed strategy and speed, often punching the pitcher in the braincase and then running swiftly away. They also used bunts and stolen bases. Sometimes they sold the stolen bases to underworld figures, often in exchange for “performance-enhancing drugs” such as “Dr. Wonderful’s No. 2 Miracle Elixir…Now 10 Percent More Miraculous And Also Tangerine-Flavored!”

As the Deadball Era continued, fans complained not only about the low scoring but also about to bun-to-weiner ratio in their “hot dogs.” In 1909, executives responded by adding cork to both the ball and the weiner. Batting averages increased as a result, rising from an AL-wide .249 in 1910 to .273 in 1911, as did cases of intestinal blockage. In 1912, Ty “The Georgia Peach Cobbler ’N Poached Lamb” Cobb exemplified the newly offensive era by batting .410 and punching the daylights out of disabled people in the stands.

In 1913, pitchers regained a measure of mastery upon discovering the “emery pitch.” By scuffing the ball with an emery board or a live porcupine, pitchers could make a pitch dance “like Isadora Duncan.” Adding to their advantage was the continued use of the spitball. By skewering the ball on a solid rod and rotating it over a fire, pitchers could make a pitch dance “like Isadora Duncan on steroids.” And by allowing it to baste in its own cork juices, savvy hurlers could also plate the ball as a delightful amuse-bouche.

Though felonious in the eyes of a prepubescent Eliot Ness, the strategies proved effective. Run-scoring dropped to its pre-1911 levels. In 1918, Heinie “Hiney” Groh led the NL with just 86 runs scored. A year later George Burns led the AL with the same number, though he later acknowledged that Gracie Allen “was getting all the good hit-and-run opportunities.”

In response to the low scoring, baseball leaders in 1920 introduced several strategies to increase offense. They outlawed the spitter and emery pitch, mandated the use of more baseballs per game to prevent their softening, and encouraged the use of “Dr. Wonderful’s No. 1 Miracle Clear Or Cream.”

The Live-Ball Era (1920-)

By 1921, offenses were hitting four times as many home runs as they had in 1918. Meanwhile, pitchers were experiencing 3.8 times more whiplash. According to experts, the discrepancy centered on the presence of starter Lefty “No Neck” Smith.

So powerful were offenses that writers stopped calling the 1920s “the 1920s” and started calling them “the Live-Ball Era.” In response, baseball’s leading vegans quit the sport on account of “cruelty to baseballs” and began picketing stadiums with signs reading, “Meatballs Are Murder, You Guys.” When told that baseballs aren’t actually living creatures, left fielder Cantaloupe Jones responded by placing a ball between a pair of toasted nine-grain buns, topping it with soy-based mayo and charging $18.95 for it.

With the rise of offense came the rise of Babe “George Herman” Ruth. Fans called him “The Sultan of SWAT” because he once rappelled down a three-story Southern building in efforts to infiltrate an illegal schnauzer mill.

In 1921, Ruth broke his own record of 54 home runs by swatting 59. He also broke his own record of 46 bouts of intestinal blockage after consuming an AL-record 272 cork-based hot dog wieners. One fan responded by calling him “The Bamb-wieno.” It did not catch on.

The 1920s also brought a crackdown on gambling. Following the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, in which players wagered on whether their socks were “matte black or really more of a charcoal,” Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Dew Landis sent a pair of reserve infielders to the first of Stalin’s proto-gulags after they wagered on whether a gulag is “a self-supported prison camp or a stew of beef and vegetables, flavored with paprika.”

By 1938, the New York Yankees had established a dynasty by winning eight World Series in 17 years, including four straight. Fans throughout the Schnauzer Belt responded by calling the team the “Dadgum Yankees.” Later, a team of Ivy League ethnolinguists translated the term to mean “Damn Yankees” and then produced a Broadway musical by the same name. In it, a character named Avery Mann “gets fed up with this whole bleepin’ Yankees thing.”

It would run for 1.9 million performances.

The War Years (1941-1945)

With several stars engaged in the war effort, baseball saw the emergence of many players who otherwise would not have had a chance to perform in the big leagues. One went by the name of “Gary Cooper.” Wearing the uniform of the Yankees, Cooper somehow accounted for 2,721 hits and 493 homers with a swing resembling that of an actor who, in the words of one observer, “portrayed a ranch foreman at the Box H Ranch in Medicine Bow, Wyoming.”

The Postwar Years (1945-)

When the stars returned from the war, several replacement players tried to remain in the major leagues by “playing better.” They failed.

The Expansion Years (1953-1969)

Entering the 1950s, baseball had been concentrated in what one U.S. geographer called “east of the West and north of the South.” Indeed, roughly three quarters of major league teams were located in the five boroughs of New York, while the other two thirds were situated in Boston, Philadelphia and the Boston-Philadelphia suburbs of Pittsburgh and Northeast Pittsburgh.

Intrigued by the potential for new markets, executives made a push for westward expansion. The first team to move: the Boston Braves. After rejecting a welcome basket from the good citizens of Fargo, N.D., the Braves relocated to Milwaukee and changed their name to the Boston Milwaukees. Later they changed it again.

In 1958, New Yorkers received the first of several reports that there are places outside of New York. One such place was called “California,” and California proved it by taking two of the city-state’s most iconic brands, the Giants and the Dodgers. In what one observer called “true California fashion,” the teams sustained their heated rivalry by engaging in a fierce competition to “invent terms even more insulting than ‘Flyover Country.’”

In the early ’60s, baseball complemented the relocations by adding four expansion teams: the Angels of Disneyland, the Senators of D.C., the Colt .45s of Harris County and the Mets of “an as yet unnamed borough.” Then in 1969, baseball added four more teams: the Kansas City Royals, the San Diego Padres, the Seattle Salty Dogs and the Montreal Ex-Pros.

The Ex-Pros were very old men and performed poorly.

The Decade of Change (The 1970s)

As the 1970s commenced, players were discovering that television roles had begun to vanish. In the 1960s, Leo Durocher had made appearances on Mr. Ed and Masterpiece Theatre, and Wes Parker had appeared on The Brady Bunch and a BBC docudrama about artisanal cheesemaking in the Lake District, but suddenly, only Jim Fregosi could land a part. On an episode of The F.B.I., he portrayed a large freckle on the back of Efrem Zimbalist Jr.’s neck.

In 1970, however, Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood landed the role of a caped crusader fighting baseball injustice the only way he knew how—by citing the 13th Amendment and antitrust legislation in efforts to challenge the Reserve Clause and negate his trade to Philadelphia. Though he ultimately lost the case in the U.S. Supreme Court, Flood did pave the way for free agency. Shortly thereafter, Dodgers pitcher Andy “Andy” Messersmith profited as a free agent by selling his services to the highest bidder: The Rockford Files.

The changes didn’t end with Messersmith’s role as a file cabinet. In 1972, the D.C. Senators moved to Arlington, Texas. Upon getting off the airplane, the Senators sought an immediate move to a cooler climate but quickly found that the surface of the sun had not been zoned for commercial use.

In 1973, baseball continued to seek ways to improve offense. Having already lowered the mound to 18 feet below sea level, MLB told the American League to adopt the “designated hitter.” The league promptly complied, naming him “Ron” and taking him for ice cream.

On April 8, 1974, Atlanta’s Hank “Hammerin” Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home-run record by stroking his 715th. In response, people with pointy pillowcases on their heads threw half-eaten Swanson’s frozen dinners at their TVs and then discovered the frozen corn had damaged the screen. Others, hearing the commotion, tried to move the eyeholes from the back of their heads to the front. They failed and remained hungry because the mouth holes also had stayed in back.

The ’80s (1980-1989)

Several players had mullets.

Others did not and were ostracized from the “Mullet Community.”

The Years of Growth and Strife (1990-)

By the early 1990s, baseball had expanded in several ways. The rise in cable-TV games, coupled with a steady increase in stadium attendance, had created a sharp escalation in player salaries and thus a “marked increase,” as one pundit put it, “in players whose mullets are bouncier, shinier and more manageable due to a higher-quality conditioner.”

Given their greater exposure, richer contracts and more manageable mullets, players enjoyed a previously unattained stature. Some used their status to spearhead international aid organizations “so that no man, woman or child will ever greet the new day without thinking of me first.” Others endorsed products ranging from shampoo to conditioner.

With their surge in stature, players also experienced an increased demand for autographed memorabilia. Unsophisticated in the ways of business, several players unknowingly affixed their signatures to three-year gym contracts. Some enjoyed the free gym bags.

By 1993, so much money and mullet hair had flowed into baseball that Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Selig added two teams to “help absorb all this cash, and all these parties in the back.” Joining the National League were the Miami (Florida) Marlins and the Fargo (North Dakota) Gift Baskets, whose players, upon finding the crackers stale, immediately became the Colorado Rockies. Players league-wide responded to the additions by complaining about the humidity, though not the heat, in Miami and by wheezing en route to first base in Colorado. Studies later confirmed that Colorado had run out of breathable air during John Denver’s extended-cut recording of Sunshine on My Shoulders.

In the midst of ongoing labor strife, major league players officially went on strike in August of 1994. Union leader Norma Rae Hershiser told the Associated Panini Press that players had grown “weary of the cold and uncomfortable conditions down in the diamond mines.” Reminded that major league players don’t actually work in diamond mines so much as on a manicured baseball diamond,” Hershiser shrugged and said, “Sorry, I already made a tee time.”

Baseball resumed shortly after a foursome of American Leaguers settled their bar tab at Augusta, and on Sept. 6, 1995, Orioles shortstop Cal “Junior” Ripken helped to “win fans back” by playing his 2,131st consecutive game of Scrabble to break Moe Berg’s major league record. Ripken also beguiled fans by playing “zoiloversalles” on a triple-word score.

In 1998, sluggers Mark “Quarter Pounder” McGwire and Sammy “With Fries” Sosa further reengaged baseball fans by earning online pharmacy degrees.

The Steroid Era (1990s-Early 2000s)

Seduced by the success of McGwire and Sosa, other players began getting online pharmacy degrees. Still others got their degrees at the local gym. Upon arrival at spring training, several players appeared to have improved their physiques, in some cases boasting muscles on top of muscles and in other cases sporting abnormally large prosthetic testicles.

One player, who requested anonymity on account of his name being Jose Canseco, told an interviewer that the ease and efficiency of his pocket pharmacopeia had allowed him ample time “to, um, do a lot of push-ups.”

In 2001, Giants slugger Barry “Lamar” Bonds shook off the bunt sign 73 times in efforts to break McGwire’s 1998 record of 70 home runs. It worked. In response, many fans suspected that Bonds had received a legitimate prescription for Dr. Wonderful’s No. 4 Miracle Yogurt.

“I don’t eat yogurt,” Bonds responded, “but if I did, I would eat it out of my oversized cap.”

Writing under the pseudonym “Jose Canseco,” Jose Canseco in 2005 published the controversial Juiced: Using a Centrifugal Juicer to Extract Key Nutrients From Beets and Carrots.

Written as a first-person tell-all tale, the book named Juan “Juicy” Gonzalez and Jason “Juicier” Giambi as “the most juiced juicers in major league juicing today.” In one of the most inflammatory passages, Canseco wrote that he gave Giambi “a vintage juice box that smelled suspishesly (sic) like an 1850s male crotch.”

Following the release of Juiced, 11 major leaguers appeared before Congress to offer testimony regarding the use of performance-enhancing juice. In response to questioning, McGwire replied, “I’m not here to talk about the past,” but then launched a 28-minute polemic regarding the Teapot Dome Scandal and its influence on McGrain v. Daugherty.

In 2007, singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell concluded a 20-month investigation into the use of anabolic fruits and human growth vegetables with the release of The Mitchell Report, a collection of original folk-rock songs that one reviewer called “appropriately focused on imported jackfruit.” Mitchell’s most affecting song, The Steroid Era, would give rise to the name of the era.

The Sabermetric Revolution (2009-)

In the early years of the 21st century, math and science enthusiasts began using a series of tubes to apply an objective, data-driven methodology to baseball analysis. In the years that followed, the self-styled “sabermetricians” issued a “conclusive report”—supported by graphs, charts and numerals—that Abner Doubleday indeed had invented baseball.

John Paschal is a regular contributor to The Hardball Times and The Hardball Times Baseball Annual.
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7 years ago

What the heck? Why the political message? Sad and stupid – hope it hurts you financially.

Not really needed
7 years ago
Reply to  John Paschal

This is literally 3500 words of passive/aggressive whining about Trump. Impressive that you did it without actually saying “Trump”. However, the very first sentence of the article betrays you.

“In the wake of the U.S. presidential election, Americans awoke to a new and wonderful reality: Truth is only as real as imagination makes it.”

No motive here guys. Watch out for them Russian hackers.

I will say this required a lot more effort and imagination than the “Championship teams shouldn’t visit the White House anymore because it is outdated and I just came up with this opinion on the night of November 8th, 2016” article you guys ran last week.

When does the “The paying fan base is too old and too white because only 20% of American born players are black which is unacceptable in a nation where they are 13% of the population” article come out? Saving that one for around, oh say, April 15th?

7 years ago
Reply to  Matt

Were you triggered? I enjoyed the article. Funny and erudite – hope it helps him financially.

Not really needed
7 years ago
Reply to  CSW

We’ll have to see if Matt puts on his Guy Fawkes mask and burns a bunch of police cars and smashes the windows of his favorite local latte place to know for sure if he was really triggered.

But why wasn’t there a trigger warning for this article? Doesn’t John know how devastating being exposed to differing views can be?

7 years ago

Nope. Not the type. I won’t even help it hurt him financially (I like baseball too much to avoid fanraphs), but I can still hope …

7 years ago

I, too, am angry, for I was promised imagination and levity, and this article is 100% true. Due to my desperate need for attention, I will be reloading this page over and over until I receive a personal reply from the pinko responsible for hurting my delicate feelings. That’ll teach you not to rile the manicured shut-ins of the JBS.

7 years ago

I read the first paragraph and read no further.

No, politics does not have to infuse everything in our lives. My engagement with the political world at work and elsewhere on the web is plentiful. I do not come here for politics, but rather to escape it, if only for a little while.

Joe Pancake
7 years ago

The problem with the “no politics,” “stick to sports” position is that when you have a president, as we do, who doesn’t cohere to objective reality, just being factually accurate becomes a political position.

Trump constantly says things that are flat-out untrue — not exaggerations, not spin, not typical-politician wishy-washiness — but straight-up, factual falsehoods. And if you point this out (or use it as the intro for a silly story) then suddenly you’re “getting political,” even though you’ve done something (corrected falsehoods) that shouldn’t be controversial or political at all.

As long as Trump continues to say things like he had the biggest electoral victory since Reagan, *everything* is going to seem political, because simply acknowledging reality is equivalent to opposing Trump, and a lot of people still wish to live in reality.

BTW, I thought the story was funny and enjoyed reading it.

Stinky Pete
7 years ago

This may be your finest work yet, Mr. Paschal. Bravo.

7 years ago

Loved it, laughed my ass off, thanks!

7 years ago

“In the years that followed, the self-styled “sabermetricians” issued a “conclusive report”—supported by graphs, charts and numerals—that Abner Doubleday indeed had invented baseball.”

That’s Abner “Ben” Doubleday to you, fella!

free-range turducken
7 years ago

You know those old mixed up paintings where if you stare at them cross-eyed you’d see a real picture come out of a fuzzy mess? (I think it was called the “magic eye”). Well if post-truth is anything like your article, that’s what I got out of it. Someone who knows nothing about baseball history would read this and actually get a proper picture of baseball history even if all the facts are just post-truthtual.

I hope when I sober up tomorrow morning I can say the same thing about the comment I just made.

Thanks John!

Marc Schneider
7 years ago

Anything that Trump supporters don’t like is great IMO. They can go try to get a sense of humor like their “tremendous” president.

7 years ago

The only thing I dislike more than Trump is the horde of idiots who try to pretend like Trump is any different from all the other tyrannical psychopaths that have inhabited the White House. Please, just shut up.

Marc Schneider
7 years ago
Reply to  MC2

If you think Trump is the same as all other presidents, you are stupid beyond all words. And who the fuck are you to tell people to shut up?

Marc Schneider
7 years ago
Reply to  MC2

If you think Trump is the same as all other presidents, you are stupid beyond all words. And who are you to tell people to shut up?

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6 years ago

I think I have never seen such blogs ever before that has complete things with all details which I want. So kindly update this ever for us.