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  • "Baseball for the Insane":The Middletown State Homeopathic Hospital and its "Asylums"
  • James E. Overmyer (bio)

Dr. Selden Haines Talcott, superintendent of the Middletown State Homeopathic Hospital in Orange County, New York, had progressive ideas about how to treat the mentally ill. In a time not long after the basic treatment for "lunatics" was to warehouse them in asylums and poorhouses, Talcott believed a healthy mind should reside in a healthy body. As he put it, "the physical means for recuperating the worn and wasted systems of the insane may be stated in three words—heat, milk, and rest, and the greatest of these is rest."1 Talcott and his staff also believed in stimulating patients' minds through activities. The hospital had educational classes, theater, and its own patient-run newspaper. The doctors also encouraged their wards to exercise, in the fresh air if possible, and soon settled upon baseball as a way to give male inmates a workout and provide a sort of therapy to other patients who could become attentive fans and focus on the game instead of their troubles.

Baseball, the sole nationally popular team sport in America at the time, was not a new tool for mental health practitioners. Its usefulness in treatment had been known of for years, but the Middletown staff went a step farther. In 1888, they founded a team partially composed of patients, hospital employees, and some of the best local amateurs and semiprofessionals to be an informal part of the treatment regimen. That didn't last long because the team soon developed into a semipro powerhouse in the lower-Hudson River Valley area north of New York City, and thousands came to see its marquee games.

This was at a time when baseball was establishing itself at all levels. Beyond the two major leagues (the National League and the American Association) were "thousands of local amateur clubs, semiprofessional independent teams, barnstorming teams, town teams, company-sponsored leagues, and semiprofessional and professional minor leagues. . . . There was no well-defined line between amateur and professional play; teams would fill out their schedule with any team that people would pay to see."2 In those long-ago days before [End Page 27] major-league farm systems, the Asylums were known for drafting amateur stars, organizing big-league scouting, and developing major- and minor-league ballplayers.

The late nineteenth century was also a time of evolution in the medical profession in general, and the treatment of the mentally ill in particular. By the turn of the twentieth century, Middletown State Hospital was noted for its advanced methods of treating the mentally ill. The hospital opened in 1874, a time when American medicine, including the ideas of proper psychiatric care, was in a state of dignified turmoil. During the 1870s, it was still common procedure for many physicians to treat illnesses by extracting some (often quite a lot) of the patient's blood. Bloodletting, as it was called, was thought to drain away the dangerous humors that caused disease. Medicines were prescribed in large doses and often included ingredients that would appall modern doctors. "Most doctors treated fever not only with bloodletting, but with great quantities of laxatives," according to one medical historian, which "also brought on strong bouts of nausea; emetics, . . . which also produced heavy sweating; large doses of mercury . . . black pepper in whiskey, chloroform, zinc, iron or colds baths and cold drinks. Blistering was a common treatment."3 Mercury, given straight and in bulk doses ranging up to two pounds, was used for its sheer weight to blow away intestinal blockages. In combination with inert substances, mercury was used both inside and outside the body to treat diseases as various as constipation, syphilis, and itching. One common compound called "blue mass" (named for the color of its additives) was one-third mercury, and a single daily pill contained about forty times the modern Environmental Protection Agency's daily safe limit of the toxic element.4

The way the mentally ill were treated wasn't generally much kinder. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, few acceptable resources were available for the mentally ill. The first mental hospital, a private Quaker-run facility in Philadelphia...


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