austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

She'd drop her crocheting to find out who's playing

Baseball! And with a word (baseball) you can instantly conjure thousands of the most lavishly overblown essays trying to make a mystical experience out of a reasonably pleasant way to pass the time using nothing but a stick, a ball, and at least eighteen other people. Baseball creates an average of 14.3 pretentious essays about its inherent greatness for every one essay football makes, 26.9 for every rhapsodic essay about basketball, 12.2 for every essay about cricket, and two for every essay about silly sports made up for science fiction shows or movies that never look like people actually play them.

The mystical blatherish aura of baseball extends even to its numbers, which can start shockingly strong arguments: try out 61, or 2632, or 755, or 1981, or 8s/12d per ton. (If they don't start an argument, you aren't being persistent enough, and should repeat them.) Normally only baseball teams will retire a number, but if you want to do it yourself, go ahead and pick a number that's not likely to be called on, something silly like 206. They'll never catch you. The National League was shocked to discover in 1993 that someone had retired the number 482 on them over five decades ago (in 1942 and five-sixths).

Baseball draws on a long history of mythical origins. What true fan couldn't tell of how the game's basic rules were created by the legendary Paul Bunyan, who wrestled John Henry's locomotive into the earth near Cooperstown, New York, where Casey Jones, confused as to why he was in a lumberjacking contest against some people with a steam-powered saw instead, uncovered the Cardiff Giants, who marked the spot for Home Plate from which first and third base lines would quarter the Earth's surface into one baseball park 20,000 kilometers in extent (inside-the-park home runs were more popular in those days) before pointing a bat and ``calling'' the future birthplace of Babe Ruth before moving to New York City? It's possible someone may have written it down wrong.

In reality, baseball derives in part from cricket, in which dozens of English people put on hockey goalie outfits and stand in the field for five days, pausing only to come inside and drink. The growing need for cricket pitches required the empire to spread out. For decades India's various countries didn't know they were being invaded by the British; they thought it was a series of test matches. Baseball also derives from rounders, a sport nobody I ever met knows anything about either. Eventually this all came together, but in the early days there were major variations. For example, in the ``New England'' game, the players had to stay on top of a narrow, mortarless rock wall, which resulted in many skinned knees, particularly when it had rained. Most of this was straightened out, and there are hopes that in the near future the bases may even be arranged in a square.

Baseball had trouble in its early days, due largely to the inability of teams to come up with good names. They started with teams like the Troy Trojans, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Hartford Hartfordians, the Chicago Illinoisians, the Detroit Michiganders, and so. It was only when the American Association tried to field the Boston Massachusettosoniasalicylicacidians that people had enough, and sought names based on something other than repeating a place name. Some of these initial nicknames were hurtful, and caused sensitive players to burst into tears, resulting in new names based on uncontroversial items like the fact players wear socks of particular colors before the mud sets in.

Others were closer to everyday life: the Brooklyn Dodgers supposedly got their name from the habit of ``dodging'' the trolley cars which would routinely roam the city streets, chasing pedestrians, charging up sidewalks, bursting out of the bedroom closets of sleeping players, and sometimes lumbering onto the field and catching players in a rundown between second and third base. If the runner stayed within the path this would be a ground-rules double. In many ways we're lucky that all the components for the game came together just right.

Trivia: The first history of baseball was The Book Of American Pastimes, by Charles Peverelly, published 1866. It got the date of the first game wrong. Source: The Jersey Game, James M DiClerico, Bary J Pavelec.

Currently Reading: Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation, Peter L Bernstein.


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