The Great Match, and Other Matches, published anonymously in 1877, appears to be the first American novel whose entire plot involves baseball. The book opens with the Dornfield nine celebrating a victory over their Milltown rivals, and it closes with Dornfield winning the championship match. In between, the author introduces characters and events in both communities that reveal several themes: athletic rivalry, romantic intrigue, and conflicts between old rural tradition and new urban society. While few pages actually describe baseball action, players are key characters in the novel, and the author uses contemporary debates in baseball to support the plot. The story is amusing, and its depictions of the national pastime add much to our understanding of what baseball meant to rural communities in the 1870s.
Critical assessments of The Great Match have differed widely because of readers’ expectations based on genre. The primary reason for these variations is that the book was published anonymously, and the author’s gender and identity have remained a mystery. Readers expecting either traditional nineteenth-century boys’ fiction or sentimental romance find The Great Match disappointing. The central character is the young fanette Molly Milton, and most of the baseball discussions filter through her perspective. While the novel includes plenty of action—baseball, fistfights, body building, and scandal—this is not the primary focus. Instead, such details contribute to the heroine’s observations as Molly considers which, if any, of the male characters qualifies as a suitable romantic match for her. Meanwhile, the central male character, Dick Softy, considers which woman, if any, would make a suitable match for him. This brings new meaning to the title, since the championship ballgame might be the “Great Match,” with other romantic matches integral to the plot; or, the romance between the heroine and her unexpected hero could be the “Great Match,” with baseball and other events in the background.
While romance is a central theme, the novel is not purely sentimental. Most [End Page 11] sentimental fiction is interior, contemplative, and focuses on the workings of the heart. Its heroines are sedentary and spend most of their time in parlors, bay windows, or bedchambers—thinking, reading, talking, and writing about life rather than actively living it. By contrast, the heroine in The Great Match is “a coming woman”: Molly moves outdoors, involves herself in the baseball team’s business, cheers aggressively at games, and participates as an active member of the community. She knows which players have broad chests, solid shoulders, and strong legs but places greater value on moral strength. The novel’s hybrid genre and nontraditional heroine have helped keep its author’s identity a mystery.
The Great Match was the fifth volume of Roberts Brothers’ No Name Series, which the publisher advertised as
a series of Original American Novels and Tales, to be published Anonymously. These novels are to be written by eminent authors, and in each case the authorship of the work is to remain an inviolable secret. “No Name” describes the Series perfectly. No name will help the novel, or the story, to success. Its success will depend solely on the writer’s ability to catch and retain the reader’s interest. Several of the most distinguished writers of American fiction have agreed to contribute to the Series.
This announcement originally appeared in the Boston Daily Advertiser during midsummer 1876, and the publisher also included it in the front matter of each new volume. Formed in 1863, Roberts Brothers had originally specialized in juvenile fiction, but then expanded to publish books for adults. Thomas Niles led the firm, and one of his early successes was signing Louisa May Alcott, who published Little Women with Roberts Brothers in 1868.1 However, when the national economy faltered, the popularity of Alcott’s work was not enough to sustain the entire business. During the “Long Depression” following the Panic of 1873, all publishers struggled, and as a smaller firm trying to win market share from more established rivals, Roberts Brothers needed a gimmick to sell books. Thus, Niles developed the...