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Q&A with UCLA history professor Joan Waugh on baseball in America’s Gilded Age

UCLA history professor Joan Waugh is one of the country’s pre-eminent scholars on American history in the latter half of the 19th century and in particular the Civil War. She’s also a lifelong baseball fan who during her class “United States History 1865–1900,” spends one lecture focused on how baseball became American’s national pastime. On, Sept. 21, C-SPAN aired a recording of Waugh telling the story of baseball from the 1840s to 1900, emphasizing its establishment as a sport and as a business. The broadcast is on baseball but the context is that its growth mirrored that of the country as a whole during the “Gilded Age,” reflecting its strengths and drawbacks.

You’re widely known as an authority on the Civil War and Reconstruction, so when did you get into baseball and in particular baseball history?

That’s easy! Baseball (and sports) is part of our country’s social, economic and cultural history. In the 19th century, baseball went from being a boy’s game in the 1830s (from the English sport, “rounders”) to a popular amateur “manly” sport by the late 1850s. Many thousands of soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War played baseball in their camps, and brought their enthusiasm home with them. It is no accident that after the war, baseball became professionalized, with the Cincinnati Red Stockings becoming the first team to place all their players under contract in 1869. The rise of baseball to its status as “America’s Pastime,” occurred in the decades after the Civil War, and its modernization paralleled, the rise of big business in the Gilded Age.

Thinking both as a sport and also as an industry, how does baseball back then compare to baseball now?

Although the rules, the uniforms and the composition of bats and balls have changed over the years, I believe that most fans would recognize the game as it was played in the 1890s. (Although today’s emphasis on the home run was lacking back in the day!) However there are three changes I would point out that are worth noting.

Diversity. Then: Baseball reflected the society as it was at the time. Players hailed from the rural areas, but many were also recent immigrants — especially Irish and German, attracting a huge fan base from those communities. The widespread racism of a country that accepted Jim Crow laws prevented talented African American baseball players from participating in professional baseball. White players simply walked off the field, refusing to play with them. Shut out, black players and entrepreneurs formed their own successful leagues.

Now: When UCLA’s Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947 with the help of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Branch Rickey, baseball entered a new era. From the 1950s onwards, baseball welcomed African American players, but also recruits from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Asia and Latin America. Baseball now is truly a global sport.

Player control of their careers. Then: The introduction of the reserve labor clause and its insertion into every player’s contract beginning in 1879 made baseball players employees subject to the power of the owner of their baseball club. It meant they could not make a better deal for themselves by moving to another team; they could not be “free agents.” It enraged the players, and they responded by forming a union. Led by a Columbia-educated shortstop named John Montgomery Ward (New York Giants), the National Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players mounted a strike that was crushed by the owners.

Now: In 1969, St. Louis Cardinal Curt Flood challenged the reserve clause. His courageous action sparked a revolution in the balance of power in baseball, extending to other sports as well. By 1975 the reserve clause was dead and every baseball player a free agent. The players’ union’s power rose as did the role of sports agents in negotiating contracts, and of course, star players now command huge salaries for their services.

Status in American culture. Then: Baseball was “America’s Pastime”

Now: Baseball is a distant second to the NFL and college football in television ratings. To me, baseball will always be the national game. ...

Read entire article at UCLA Newsroom