In our sun-down perambulations, of late, through the outer parts of Brooklyn, we have observed several parties of youngsters playing base, a certain game of ball…Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms…the game of ball is glorious. ~Walt Whitman
Thus begins the first disc of Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns. This is a series that I’ve checked out from the library and started watching multiple times, yet never managed to finish. In an effort to change this, I’ve decided to commit myself to writing about each “Inning” of the series here. This way, I have a form of accountability to encourage me to get through the whole thing.
Approximately the first twenty minutes of the first disc serve as kind of a nostalgic, feel-good introduction to the series and the game. Images of Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson, Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, and several others flash across the screen to a background of melodic music and various speakers ruminating about what an incredible game baseball is.
The First Inning then begins with the myth of baseball’s founding by Abner Doubleday. Burns describes the story behind Doubleday’s supposed invention of the game, then immediately refutes it, asserting that Doubleday likely never even saw a professional game. Baseball, rather, is most likely a direct descendant of two British sports: rounders and cricket. The game went through multiple variations until the founding of the New York Knickerbockers and the codification of rules by Alexander Cartwright. Henry Chadwick soon appears on the scene and becomes instantly enamored with baseball. Chadwick went on to invent the box score, using statistics to track players’ performances. The National Association of Base Ball Players was then formed to help maintain control over the sport and further codify the rules.
The outbreak of the American Civil War presented a disruption to organized baseball. On the other hand, it also served to help spread the game’s popularity as soldiers returning home at the end of the war took knowledge of the sport with them. In spite of the end of slavery, black teams found themselves banned from organized leagues. Women and girls, also, struggled for the right to play ball, as it was deemed too violent and dangerous for the fairer sex.
Burns chronicles the evolution of baseball from its status as an amateur pastime to a professional sport — a business. It is evident from his focus on the establishment of the reserve clause that Burns intends to delve into the subject further. It only makes sense to do so, of course, given the impact that this clause would have on the occurrence of so many events throughout the game’s history. Burns also puts some attention on gambling, which, as we know, would also impact baseball’s timeline of events.
The First Inning covers the development of the NL, the AA, the Players’ League, and the rise of Albert Spalding. A number of players are introduced, including Cy Young, Cap Anson, King Kelly, and John McGraw. We also meet Moses Fleetwood Walker and the bigotry he faced in the big leagues as a black player. This, followed closely by a discussion of Branch Rickey’s early life, present a foreshadowing recognizable by anyone familiar with the game’s history.
Most histories I have seen covering this period in baseball seem to treat the game with a kind of veneration. Personally, this is perhaps my favorite period in the game’s history to learn about, possibly in part due to this sense of awe that it brings out about baseball. So much of what happens next has already been established, yet there is still something pure and clean about baseball during the 19th century.
Sportswriter-turned-skipper for the New York Giants, Horace Fogel, had a reputation for making some questionable decisions in his short tenure as manager. Most notable was his attempt to turn second-year pitcher Christy Mathewson into a position player, in spite of Mathewson’s having won twenty games as a rookie. Fogel’s rule over the Giants dugout came to an end on June 10, 1902, fired by the organization, and Mathewson went on to the Hall of Fame — as a pitcher.
World War I broke out in late-July 1914, following the assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary, though it was not until April 1917 that the United States officially entered the war. America had remained neutral in the conflict, at least until German U-boats began to strike at ships with Americans passengers on them. In retaliation, the United States declared war on Germany mere days before the start of the 1917 baseball season.
As the war raged on, Major League Baseball proceeded with its full schedule, in spite of the fact that most minor leagues shut down for the season. Very few professional players joined the military at first, either through the draft or through voluntary enlistment. This, unsurprisingly, did not sit too well with the American public. Even as owners donated money to the war cause and gathered up baseball gear for soldier recreation, the public demanded greater sacrifices from organized baseball. In response, owners cut down on team travel, reduced the 1918 schedule from 154 games to 140, and trimmed player salaries. When the criticism continued, owners answered with the insistence that baseball played a role as the national pastime. Its contribution to the war effort, they claimed, was in its ability to keep American spirits high.
Early in the 1918 season, however, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker determined that being a baseball player was a non-essential occupation to the war effort. Furthermore, all draft-eligible men employed in “non-essential” occupations were required to apply for work directly related to the war or take a chance on being called into military service. Baseball owners managed to delay the “work or fight” requirement until the end of the season on September 1st, and continued fighting in order to gain a longer reprieve for World Series participants. In spite of its misgivings, the government relented.
Nevertheless, an average of fifteen players per team found themselves drafted or chose to
enlist prior to the deadline. All teams, as a result, sought out replacements, who were often younger, less experienced, and less talented. As the quality of play deteriorated, so did fan attendance in stadiums. The 1918 World Series ended up being a match up between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. It remains the only World Series to be played entirely in September (running from the 5th to the 11th), due to the premature end of the regular season, and a number of players threatened to strike due to low attendance.
Game 1 of the 1918 World Series became the first time “The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed at a Major League game. Thanks to the war effort, no doubt, baseball seemed eager to continue to prove its patriotic contribution to the cause. (“The Star-Spangled Banner” would become the national anthem in 1931.) The Red Sox went on to win the Series, four games to two, led by a young pitcher by the name of Babe Ruth.
Meanwhile, in Europe, players who found themselves participating in the war had a not-so-enjoyable experience. Grover Alexander, considered to be one of the top pitchers of the time period, suffered from loss of hearing, shell shock, and would later develop epilepsy. He would later be driven to alcohol abuse, as a result of his experiences during the war. Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson were part of a gas defense drill that turned out very badly when a number of soldiers missed the signal to put their gas masks in place. Ty Cobb managed to escape unharmed, but Mathewson inhaled a considerable amount of poison gas. His health deteriorated over time, and Mathewson died of tuberculosis seven years later. Also among those sent to Europe were George Sisler and Branch Rickey. In total, an estimated two hundred and fifty ballplayers ended up serving in the military, while others joined the reserves or found war-related work.
If the war continued into 1919, rumor had it, owners would be forced to cancel the 1919 season altogether. Fortunately for baseball, however, Germany formally surrendered on November 11, 1918, thus ending the First World War.
It seemed like it was back to business as usual for baseball. However, the 1919 season would prove in phenomenal fashion that this was hardly the case. While baseball managed to continue limping along during the war, the racetracks had been forced to shut down entirely. As a result, gambling in baseball skyrocketed. This, combined with the efforts of owners to recoup loss funds as a result of the war, would set off a domino effect that resulted in a metaphorical explosion by the end of 1919.
Led by legendary pitcher Christy Mathewson, the Giants lost to the Cardinals on May 24, 1909. It was the first time in five years that the New York team suffered a defeat at the hands of the Redbirds, having beat them 24 consecutive times prior to this game.
A young ballplayer looks on his first spring training trip as a stage struck young woman regards the theater.
Henry Mathewson, the younger brother of Christy Mathewson, signed with the New York Giants on January 20, 1906. The younger Mathewson did not prove to be as talented as his brother, however, appearing in only two Major League games over the next two seasons for a total of 11 innings and sporting a 4.91 ERA.
Many Fans look upon an umpire as a sort of necessary evil to the luxury of baseball, like the odor that follows an automobile.