The Chicago White Stockings sold National League batting champion and future Hall of Famer Mike Kelly to the Boston Beaneaters on February 14, 1887 for what was at that time a record $10,000. Kelly would earn the nickname “King” while in Boston, where he would hit .311 during this three-year span with the team.
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.
In the Official Baseball Rules, the first sentence of Rule 3.03 states, “A player, or players, may be substituted during a game at any time the ball is dead.” It seems obvious to us today that substitutions cannot be made while the ball is in play, but this sentence was not included in the rule book for no reason.
The rule was created after a play by Michael Joseph “King” Kelly, a popular catcher-outfielder in the late-nineteenth century. As Kelly sat on the bench one day in 1891, an opposing batter hit a high foul ball. Kelly quickly recognized that the pop up would be out of the reach of all of his teammates. As a player-manager, Kelly jumped up and went after it, crying out, “Kelly now catching!”
This clever bit of quick thinking allowed Kelly to make the catch, but the umpire refused to call the batter out. Kelly insisted that the play was not against the rules, which at that time stated that substitutions could be made at any time. The rules were changed the following winter to prevent this type of play from ever happening again.