NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture 10.2 (2002) 170-171
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Baseball as History
Jules Tygiel. Past Time: Baseball as History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 258 pp. Paper, $15.00.
Jules Tygiel's Past Time shows how fascinating the history of baseball can be when you get beyond mere records, teams, and player personalities. This loose collection of nine essays (a clever design element treats them as innings) spans the history of baseball from the rise of the "national game" in the 1850s to the appearance of "populist" fantasy and rotisserie baseball in the 1980s.
In the introduction, Tygiel tells us that his book is really about American history and that he is not interested in merely examining the development of baseball. Rather, he intends to relate baseball to the larger changes occurring in American society. In "The Homes of the Brave," for example, Tygiel lays bare the demographic and social forces behind the relocation of teams in the 1950s and 1960s, starting with the Boston Braves' move to Milwaukee in 1953. In "New Ways of Knowing," he explores how the introduction of telegraph and radio and, subsequently, good roads and the automobile spread the popularity of the game and a team's "fan territory" from 5 miles at the turn of the century to 200 miles in the 1920s. I was intrigued that some fans believed that by listening to the game on the radio, they saw the game more clearly than fans at the stadium. Supposedly, they could visualize the action in their minds without the many distractions offered at the ballpark.
About half the essays are organized around the great figures of each era, including Henry Chadwick, the founder of baseball statistics, in Chapter 2; Charles Comiskey, Connie Mack, John McGraw, and Clark Griffith in Chapter 3; Babe Ruth in chapter 4; and Branch Rickey and Larry MacPhail in Chapter 5. Some of the liveliest writing deals with the conflict between these giants, such as MacPhail versus Rickey.
Tygiel's superb storytelling provides much of the book's appeal. For example, for the first-ever radio broadcast of a baseball game in 1922, announcer Grantland Rice had no idea what the role of a radio announcer should be. He simply described what happened in a voice "a little flat, atonal, somewhat awkwardly [End Page 170] modulated and unmistakably southern" (p. 68). He contributed no additional commentary, leaving dead space between the plays. The broadcast officials wanted him to keep talking but he didn't know what to say. Babe Ruth did little better with his radio interview. Confronted by the brand-new medium and unfamiliar script, Ruth froze in front of the microphone. The interviewer grabbed Ruth's prepared speech from him and pretended to be Ruth. Since few people knew the sound of Babe's voice, the ruse worked. Letters to the radio station praised Ruth's surprisingly rich tones.
Mostly, the essays are a delight. While contextualizing baseball in American social history, Tygiel mines the best anecdotes and quotes from baseball over the ages. His prose is always lively. No doubt, most of the events and trends that Tygiel presents in Past Time can be found elsewhere, but I don't know of any baseball history that presents the material in such an engaging fashion. I will assign Past Time to students in my Sport, Society, and Culture class because it so ably shows how sport can be a prism through which we may view history and society.
George Gmelch is a former first baseman in the Detroit Tigers farm system and professor of anthropology at Union College in Schenectady, New York. His latest book, Inside Pitch: Life in Professional Baseball, is published by Smithsonian Press.