Thursday, 18 July 2013

An Appreciation of Baseball History...and How British Football Can Learn

We can learn a lot from baseball history.
One aspect of baseball is unequaled in any other sport: its preservation and celebration of history. There is an historical narrative to baseball, decorated with lovable names and encrusted with dramatic events, which is cherished and maintained by its devoted stewards. In no other sport can a single game situation, a lone statistic, or the style of a certain player inspire close comparison with something documented sixty, seventy, even eighty years before. However, this is the very essence of baseball; a fabled story developed through appreciation of its own most sacred chapters.

A sport rich in nostalgia, baseball has an extensive history to share. There is a well-worn debate as to the geographical origins of the game but, in less recognisable forms, it was initially played in the mid-nineteenth century. Since, it has captivated and enthralled small American hamlets and huge modern metropolises alike; indeed, it has become America's
National Pastime of choice.

The game of baseball has always inspired its followers to pick up a pen and write. Even in its earliest days, games and rules were documented; British born writer Henry Chadwick creating the first boxscore and early metrics such as Batting Average and ERA. In accordance with the sports natural progression, more writers began to see baseball as a subject lending itself well to narrative hyperbole.

In 1888, poet Ernest Thayer encapsulated the growing prominence of baseball in the American psyche with his classic
Casey at the Bat. This poem, using a fictional 'Mudville Nine,' provides a concise insight into the passion and meaning increasingly endowed upon baseball; the crowd living and dying with every pitch until an overconfident Casey strikes out to end the game. A cornerstone step in the evolution of America's baseball fascination is forever enshrined in that most celebrated poem.

A further poem, penned in 1910, is equally evocative. The piece, written by Franklin Pierce Adams, centres around a famed Chicago Cubs infield combination, and was further emblematic of the burgeoning connection between baseball and prose:
Baseball's Sad Lexicon – Franklin Pierce Adams, 1910
These are the saddest of possible words:
“Tinkers to Evers to Chance.”
Trio of bear Cubs, and fleeter than birds,
Tinker and Evers and Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double-
Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:
“Tinkers to Evers to Chance.”

The mere fact that this poem was even written demonstrates the unique yearning for expression which baseball elicits. However, the fact that, over a century later, this work still registers with even casual fans is remarkable. A majority of Chicago Cubs fans can recite the poem, and well know its intricate backdrop of perpetual pennant tussles with the old New York Giants. Such is the attention to fine historical detail which separates baseball from most other sports. As the game became more intricate and refined, so too did the coverage, which began to sell more newspapers than current affairs or politics. In a halcyon era, journalistic heavyweights such as Grantland Rice and Damon Runyon further embellished the game with sharp reporting. A whole new genre was added to the American literary sphere: baseball writing.

It is the finest of arts, I believe. The greatest books that I have read are all about baseball; works by Roger Kahn and Thomas Boswell, Roger Angell and David Halberstam, Lawrence Ritter and Eliot Asinof, Peter Gammons and Dan Shaughnessy filling my extensive baseball library and bringing the entire history of a nation to life. I don't profess to know excessive amounts about French-born American historian Jacques Barzun, but I know he was correct when he asserted that “...w
hoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”

You may be thinking,
“why have you chosen to randomly write about baseball history?" Well, all is explainable. A recent visit to the British National Football Museum in Manchester revealed just how far our national sport languishes behind with regard to its preservation of history. Sure, we can browse the first official rulebook of Association Football, and look at replica mock-ups of the Jules Rimet Trophy won heroically at home in 1966, but it is all far too superficial. As a footballing culture, we acknowledge the surface details, and are aware of a vague outline of past events, but do not penetrate to discover the finer nuances.

If I want to know how many strikeouts a three-fingered starting pitcher recorded during 1909 National League play, I can readily find that information. 172. If I want to know why he only had three fingers, that detail is there too. He [Mordecai Brown], slipped whilst feeding material into farm machinery  thus losing two digits. Now, this may seem a little surreal, but the point demonstrates how poorly football has been preserved throughout history. Such is the nature of football history, I'm aware of only the most famous players from 1909, but any records for goals scored or assists are extremely elusive. Many will say that those records are out there, and can be found with a deep and intensive enough search. But this is the point exactly. In the baseball sphere, this data is available with a few clicks of a computer mouse, a quick flip through a
Bill James Baseball Abstract. In the football world, there is no such pride in detailed historical preservation.

There would be ample benefits to a clearer trove of football history. The pub debates about Messi and Pele could be much more easily reconciled, if we had more incisive and accurate reporting from both eras, and serious statistics extending far beyond 'World Cups won,' and 'International caps.' In baseball, the equivalent debates are backed-up with such invaluable sources. We can make a viable case for Mickey Mantle outshining Willie Mays; Don Mattingly being inducted in the Hall of Fame; and for Ted Williams breaking Babe Ruth's then-standing Home Run Record had it not been for years of Military service. In football, our debates are always subjective, or built upon the merest of facts, such as League Championships won or transfer fees. This has to change.

It's inescapable that, as football fans, we have been dealt an unfair hand by the inadequate style of reporting and historical preservation in the past. If chronicled better at the time, the games greatest characters, players, and achievements would be
further emblazoned in our knowledge. But this is why we must learn now. We cannot leave a similar legacy for the next generation; we must fundamentally change the ways in which we report, understand, and cherish the footballing narrative so enjoyed by billions. In an age of 140-character restriction and 6-second videos, we're already fighting an uphill battle to create a much deeper store of football history, but we shouldn't give up. It's never too late to focus on the finer details, pay homage to them, and share them in exquisite prose. Baseball has done so for nearly two-hundred years. 

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