Blogs > HNN > Luther Spoehr: Review of Peter Morris's But Didn't We Have Fun? An Informal History of Baseball's Pioneer Era, 1843-1870 (Ivan R. Dee, 2008).

May 4, 2008 11:01 pm

Luther Spoehr: Review of Peter Morris's But Didn't We Have Fun? An Informal History of Baseball's Pioneer Era, 1843-1870 (Ivan R. Dee, 2008).

In 1867, shortly after the Civil War, the baseball players of the National Club of Washington, D.C., did what award-winning baseball historian Peter Morris calls “the previously unthinkable”: they embarked on a 3,000-mile road trip to Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Chicago, thus “becoming the first Eastern team to venture west of the Alleghenies.”

The traveling party did not include a gaggle of club executives, reporters, or specialists in combating jet lag. Nor is there any record of players each receiving a $40,000 bonus for making the trip.

Their trip was underwritten by private sponsors, and the Nationals were treated as honored guests at every stop, but they were hardly pampered, particularly when it came to their travel regimen. (After missing their train in Cincinnati, they hopped a freight to Philadelphia and arrived for their game, tired and disheveled, with an hour to spare.) But the Nationals saw themselves primarily as goodwill ambassadors, and, says Morris, their “historic tour was a great boon to the spread of enthusiasm for the game.”

By 1867 that game was on the verge of a great change. The 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first openly professional “base ball” team, would go on tour and beat all comers; their success would lead the Cincinnati Base Ball Club to “divorce” them. In 1871 the National Association of Base Ball Players split into amateur and professional groups.

How the game unexpectedly got to that point is the subject of Morris’ thoroughly researched, entirely engaging book. He begins with the game of the 1830s and 1840s, in all its variety, informality, and sociability, when the pitcher’s only job was to get play started by letting the batter hit the ball, and the umpire sat in splendid isolation, called upon only occasionally (“Judgment, sir!”), when players themselves couldn’t make the call.

Morris aims to breathe life into those stiffly posed, solemn figures in the daguerreotypes, arms crossed, faces hidden behind mustaches. “Fun doesn’t always get recorded for posterity,” he notes wryly, but, after all, these were “clubs.” Playing baseball was only one activity among many, intended to promote sociability and community spirit.

Morris achieves his main purpose, and more. He traces the game’s westward advance — often along canal and railroad routes — and its evolution toward competitiveness and standardized rules. As he does, he takes the reader deep into the culture of 19th-century America, as revolutions in transportation and mass communication pushed everything, even casual pastimes, toward professionalization and commercialization.

“The past,” said E.P. Hartley, “is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” So travel back to the Elysian Fields (of Hoboken). Meet the Knickerbockers and the Excelsiors, Jim Creighton and Harry Wright, and watch them transform baseball, sometimes unwittingly, for better and for worse. It’s well worth the trip, and you won’t have to worry about jet lag.

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