When and how baseball became America’s Pastime: An interview with David Rapp

October 4, 2018
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David Rapp has had a long career as a political journalist–including serving as editor of Congressional Quarterly. But he’s always been as much a baseball fan as a politics junkie, and this spring we published his first foray in that realm: Tinker to Evers to Chance: The Chicago Cubs and the Dawn of Modern AmericaBooklist called it “a potent reminder of how American first fell in love with its national pastime,” while Chicago magazine praised Rapp’s account of “a changing America that became suddenly and almost inexplicably gripped by baseball fever.” We asked Rapp some questions about baseball, then and now, and how it became what we’ll be watching in the playoffs tonight.

It’s almost hard to imagine America without baseball. But clearly the sport had to start somewhere. Can you talk about what baseball was like at the turn of the century?

After captivating American crowds with a freewheeling, if also rule-bending, form of entertainment in the 1880s, organized baseball turned cynical and sour in the 1890s. The players were crude and foul-mouthed. The fans were raucous, hungry for violence, and they cheered for mayhem on the field. And the owners were blatantly corrupt. Emerging fads like bicycling and “pedestrianism,” or walking races, were drawing bigger audiences than most baseball games, if only because they seemed more civilized and competitively honest. The surge of the urban middle class in American cities looked down their noses at baseball as a “rough and tumble game played by a nine of rowdies for the benefit of a crowd of hoodlums,” as one female writer put it.

So how did baseball make the transition into “America’s pastime”?

Two things happened in the early 1900s, both centered in Chicago, as it happened.  A visionary baseball impresario named Ban Johnson created the American League and declared war on the established, 25-year-old National League, which had a monopoly on the top players. Headquartered in Chicago, Johnson put his AL teams in big cities like Boston, Philadelphia and New York, poached big-name players, and began promoting a brand of “clean” baseball deemed suitable for women and children. Chicago’s NL franchise was the first in the senior league to respond in kind, led by a cerebral manager named Frank Selee. He assembled a collection of raw recruits (including young men named Tinker, Evers, and Chance) and slowly rebuilt the “Colts,” as they were called then, into a team that could contend for the pennant. The West Side Colts and the AL “White Sox,” which played their games on the South Side, began drawing fans from all across the city.

You include a quote from historian Gunther Barth who said, “In the ball park . . . men were exposed to the meaning of rules in the modern city and to that basic form of urban leisure, watching others do things.” What does Barth mean when he talks about baseball teaching the rules of city life?

Baseball is a highly structured game—“the most serious pleasure ever invented,” as the Tribune’s Hugh Fullerton put it back then. Three strikes, four balls, three outs, nine innings, nine players on a side—all laid out on a geometric “diamond” rather than a rectangular grid. Who knew where these rules came from? (We’re still learning that.) But baseball players and owners began accepting these constraints on competition and, rather than flouting the rules with impunity as was their custom in previous decades, showed off what they could accomplish within them. A reliance on teamwork and highly practiced role-playing became the examples of success. By 1906, when both the NL Cubs and the AL Sox met in the “World’s Championship,” the entire city had gone bonkers over baseball. The rest of the country would quickly follow suit.

 

Are there other ways that baseball at this time mirrored American culture, or vice versa?

Once baseball became “acceptable” in polite society, women and kids had reason to join in the fun. The ballpark became home to a festival of good cheer and ball players were touted as exemplars of decency and hard work. Their was no radio or TV at the time, but daily newspapers and advances in the telegraph made it possible to transmit game results to the entire nation in something close to real time. And countless magazines, the Internet of their day, found out that hagiographic feature stories on ball players and managers were like honey on a stick to all kinds of readers.

You write that “the phrase ‘Tinker to Evers to Chance’ became an American idiom as expressive—and as ubiquitous—as ‘slam dunk’ is today, conveying much the same meaning.” Yet this once-famous trio seems to have disappeared into baseball’s history. Can you tell us a little bit about why the ‘Tinker to Evers to Chance’ trio was so iconic? And why don’t we talk about them more today?

 

Shortstop Joe Tinker of Kansas City, second-baseman Johnny Evers of Troy, New York, and first-baseman (and player-manager) Frank Chance of Fresno, California, played as an infield unit for ten years, from 1903 to 1912—a tenure unprecedented and since unmatched for a trio of their caliber. Yet none of them were “stars” as we think of them today, even though they won more games together than any team in baseball history. Each had his own family and regional motivations for pursuing baseball as a vocation. Each had his own personal demons to confront and overcome. Their long-ago day in the sun rightly serves as the origin story of today’s Chicago Cubs.

It’s hard to say why they get little notice today. They were masters of the Deadball Era in baseball, soon eclipsed by lively-ball sluggers like Babe Ruth. The Cubs own century of futility since their last World Series title in 1908 also overtook the Tinker-Evers-Chance narrative of “invincibility”—the word often used for the Cubs back then. Now that the Cubs have finally returned to the pinnacle of baseball achievement, perhaps more people will realize this generation stands on the shoulders of giants.

 There has been some talk this season about baseball being in crisis—including lower attendance and games having more strikeouts than hits. Are there any lessons that the league could learn from the early years of baseball?

The ball was softer, and there were no outfield fences in early 20th century ball parks, so the game revolved around singles, bunts, stolen bases, and other “small ball” tactics designed to produce a precious, incremental run whenever the opportunity presented itself. In other words, a fan had to stay riveted on the field to catch the one pitch or play that might determine the outcome of game. Any single or  walk served as harbinger of a rally. It’s no curse today if a young major league ball player doesn’t know how to bunt or take an extra base. He spends more time readjusting his batting gloves than looking for signs from the third-base coach. That guy would never get a second look from managers Frank Selee or Frank Chance—might not get a first look if Joe Tinker or Johnny Evers had anything to say about it. Instead of focusing all our attention on the balls that leave the yard, keep an eye on the field itself, how defenders position themselves for different batters, how pitchers work inside and/or outside the plate, and how an alert runner anticipates a lazy throw from the outfield. The best teams still do all of that.

 

 

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