I had the pleasure of attending a panel discussion last Thursday night at the Smithsonian here in Washington. A crowd of about 120 filled one of the rooms at the S. Ripley Education Center to hear four historians talk about “The Greatest Baseball Stories Never Told: Origins of a National Pastime.”
Leading off was David Block, author of a brilliant new book Baseball Before We Knew It. Block, who lives in San Francisco, gave a slide presentation that included some of the documents he found during his research. He was particularly thrilled to find a German book from the 1700s that talked about an English game of base ball. He took copies of the page with him on vacation and kept asking German tourists to translate it for him. This recounting drew a chuckle from the audience.
After Block ended his presentation, he received a rare compliment. Historian John Thorn, the next speaker, came to the podium and said that Block was a hard act to follow. Thorn, perhaps our finest baseball historian, made news recently for his excavation work in Pittsfield, Mass. He discovered a 1791 by-law prohibiting base ball and several other ball games. The Pittsfield Prohibition is the first known "instance of the game of baseball being referred to by that name on the North American continent." (Thank you Paul Wendt).
Thorn mentioned his finding but gave a presentation on The New York Knickerbockers. His July 16 entry in his blog details his research.
Following Block and Thorn was no easy task, but the next speaker, Tom Shieber, curator for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, did an admirable job. His topic was the Doubleday Myth and Albert Spalding. It’s worth noting that it wasn’t too long ago, about 8 years I’m guessing, that the HOF website had a primer that basically said, “How do we know Abner Doubleday didn’t invent baseball at Cooperstown in 1839?”
Shieber talked about the jingoistic nature of Spalding. Long dissatisfied with Henry Chadwick’s writings that baseball evolved from the English game of rounders (Block's book has an excellent chapter on rounders), the famous retired player and sporting goods magnate formed a committee to figure out who invented baseball. He wrote letters to various officials and even a retired player. Spalding, however, was hardly objective. He wanted the origins to be American and, of course, got his way.
The last speaker was Frank Ceresi, a local historian and museum expert. The audience seemed to enjoy his presentation the most as he talked about how a group of civil servants in Washington formed a team in the 1860s. The Nationals got whipped more than once but eventually got better. Picking up the likes of George Wright and some other fine players from up north, the group of amateurs barnstormed “the west” in 1867. They won a bunch of games, including one against the vaunted Cincinnati Red Stockings. Chadwick went along and reported on the team’s daily doings and game results. Ceresi asserts that the Nationals’ tour was very influential as far as putting base ball more and more into the nation’s psyche.
After Ceresi finished up, he directed a Q&A session. I was very disappointed with the questions from the audience. Instead of asking these four great historians something about their research, (especially Block), questions were asked about baseball in general. Sigh.
After the Q&A, Hank Thomas, Walter Johnson's grandson and a baseball historian with expertise on the Senators, put on display a baseball card dating back to the early 1800s. It is the earliest known card of a bat and ball game.
All in all, a wonderful evening of baseball history in the nation's capital.