Ask any old-timer at a baseball park about the game’s good old days, and you are likely to hear a sparkling elegy to the 1950s, often dubbed baseball’s golden era. Watch the weathered faces wax tearful in remembrance of baseball’s untarnished youth: Mickey Mantle on the base paths, Willie Mays in center field, Stan Musial barreling down on pitches at home plate. Compared to today’s steroid-injected, advertisement-saturated arena, that purer era is the go-to throwback jersey over the national game’s currently sullied reputation. Back then, youngsters are told, the drama was relegated to the field and players competed simply for the love of the sport. The only chemical substance that interested players was booze, and you didn’t have to inject that into your buddy’s bum, you just threw it down the gullet like a real man.
Ask author Peter Morris about baseball’s good old days, and he will likely bring up the ‘50s as well — the 1850s, that is. Morris’s latest book is the meticulously researched But Didn’t We Have Fun?: An Informal History of Baseball’s Pioneer Era, 1843 – 1870, and in it he brings to life a period that he believes best embodies baseball’s true ideals. In the golden era Morris’s book evokes, baseball was played nearly entirely by amateurs, members of social organizations who sought to represent their neighborhoods and cities with the utmost in gentlemanly conduct. As important as the game’s proceedings was a post-game banquet, when the competitors would toast each other gregariously and cheer their exploits on the field. Umpires were local dignitaries seated at a remove from the game’s action, called in rarely and only then to dispute questions of unsportsmanlike conduct. Rules were fluid and meant to provide general boundaries for friendly competition. There was no such thing as a called ball or strike; pitchers served at the discretion of the batter, who waited for a ball he could put in play.
The bookends bracketing Morris’s story are two of the 19th century’s most storied baseball teams: The New York Knickerbockers and the Cincinnati Red Stockings. The former’s members are generally thought of as baseball’s founding fathers, and the rulebook they wrote in 1845 is considered the sport’s constitution. Fourteen years later, the latter fielded the first baseball club with a salaried starting nine, and so the Red Stockings have come to symbolize the sport’s advent from amateurism to professionalism. The years intervening between these watershed teams are often neglected by historians, although they represent a period of crucial growth. In under two decades the sport developed from a set of disparate bat-and-ball games, played mostly by children and loafing adults, into a highly-organized, highly-competitive mini-industry already making a claim to be “the national pastime.”
The closest modern equivalent to baseball before the Knickerbockers is today’s tag, and we can imagine what we might say about a group of men who decide to write down a set of rules for playing tag and schedule tag matches on their specially ordained tag-grounds. Morris concedes that quite reasonably Knickerbockers have a rather stodgy reputation: the men were sticklers for ritual and rules, who handed out fines for profanity and who frowned upon competitiveness that grew too heated. While giving the Knickerbockers due credit for homogenizing the game through the spread of their rulebook, Morris wants to make a fundamental argument that the Knickerbockers, and the hundreds of clubs that sprung up in their image across the country, more than anything just wanted to have a good time.
Morris’s primary instrument used in making this argument is the voice of the individual players. Where other histories of baseball obsess over the sport’s development as an economic concern or its relationship to greater societal changes, Morris seeks to illuminate the early game at the personal level. But Didn’t We Have Fun? evinces tremendous research, quoting extensively from accounts of games and descriptions of baseball culture culled from a myriad of sources: contemporary newspapers and sporting journals, letters, memoirs and autobiographies, and oral histories. We hear straight from the mouths of players how they traveled to and from contests with rival towns, passing the train hours with “songs, shouts, visions of a jolly day, a glorious return, etc.” or how members of the local female population did their part to keep a team’s duds up to snuff, as a player for the Elizabethtown, NY Adirondacks recalls “The lettering on the suits was of course done by Elizabethtown’s fair ladies, some of whom afterwards found husbands in the ranks of those stalwart ‘Adirondacks.’” Morris shows himself to be a fanatic of the period, and he glories in explaining long-forgotten rituals as game-ball signing and married men versus bachelor matches.
But Didn’t We Have Fun? often feels like a great ghostly discussion panel, with characters long dead given free range to bloviate at will. Quotation marks pepper the prose, and Morris is too often willing to let his historical personages speak for themselves and seems to avoid at all costs intruding upon the storytelling to provide background or debate veracity. Thus, in introducing an anecdote about a post-game parade from a member of the Brooklyn Atlantics of 1868, Morris says offhand that the team had “recently captured the national championship,” though he makes no attempt explain what winning the national championship at the time entailed. Harold Seymour, whose three-volume history of the game set the standard for baseball scholarship, could get absorbed in explaining the complexities of championships pre-World Series for chapters at a time. Undoubtedly Morris has read Seymour, so he probably thinks that kind of in-depth background would interrupt his flow, but readers not as steeped in baseball history will be left with many questions about the characters they are reading about. Not nearly enough information is given about the lives of the players being chronicled: Who were they? What were their occupations? Were they first or second generation Americans? These are only some of the questions I found myself writing in the margins. Morris is for the most part wise in skimming over needless details, but one wishes that the balance between primary source and historical analysis were a little closer to even.
Morris is so sure that the era of 1845 — 1869 was much better for baseball that he neglects to consider other aspects of the game, which no fan would want to return. His discussion of African American baseball is pitiful, and it can’t be explained for lack of material either. Octavius Catto was a contemporary of Frederick Douglas who founded the first African-American ball club, the Pythians of Philadelphia. Catto tried to enter his team in an organization of amateur clubs but was rebuffed, the encounter probably the first-ever emergence of a color line in baseball. Yet Catto’s story merits zero discussion in But Didn’t We Have Fun. Morris commits a more offensive error near the end of the book when, in waxing philosophic about the importance of amateur, or really, unserious, teams such as the House of David (a traveling club whose members abstained from haircutting and shaving) and Eddie Feigner’s “The King and His Court” club (a four-man softball team), he lumps in the “Negro Leagues” as a similar sideshow spectacle that reminded us how baseball was “just a game at heart.” Anyone who knows how inspirational and financially viable the Negro Leagues were to the African American community in the 1930s and ‘40s will be embarrassed to see such an awkward display of ignorance from the author of an otherwise impressive book.
Despite its flaws, But Didn’t We Have Fun? is on the whole an entertaining, enlightening journey. For fans and non-fans alike, Morris’s book serves as an interesting window into the leisure culture of the nation leading up to and following directly after the Civil War. The book reminds us not only of the richness of baseball pre-Black Sox and pre-steroids, but the richness of life in the days before recreation became dominated by mass media and television. There is much to be admired in the way these men and women honored sportsmanship, hospitality, and athletics for athletics’ sake. And if the questions Morris’s book raises leads readers into more substantive accounts of the time period, then that is an accomplishment hardly worth frowning upon.