- Re-Playing Playing for Keeps:A History of Early Baseball
I remember the moment vividly. It was 1979, and I'd come to have lunch with my closest adviser in graduate school so we could discuss the momentous subject of my doctoral dissertation. I had found an intriguing combination of sources—a payroll ledger from a New Haven lock factory as well as the diary of a young Irish worker in the same factory—and had already used them to write a pretty good seminar paper. Tentatively, I broached the idea that these might be the ingredients for a successful study of labor, community, and working-class consciousness.
As we worked our way around the salad bar in the Silliman College dining hall at Yale, Richard Wightman Fox (now Professor of History at the University of Southern California) turned to me, plate in hand, and said, "There are dozens of studies like that already, and there'll be plenty more. You should do something different—something you love. Why not write about baseball?" I stood there, stunned at this outrageous notion. What was he thinking? Baseball, we both knew, had only gotten in the way of my academic life. I once had to reschedule the lecture I was supposed to give as a teaching assistant in Richard's class, because my (then) beloved Yankees had gotten into the playoffs, and I was running back and forth to Yankee Stadium, not getting home until the early morning hours. Another time, in a fit of ambition, I tried to write an essay review of some recent books about sports by academics but ended up too intimidated by the prospect of putting my unformed thoughts down on the page—as opposed to riffing at the ballpark, and the idea died.
"Richard," I finally managed to croak out, "you want me to commit professional suicide!" "No, no," he protested. "It'll be great!" I don't remember any more about that lunch. I do remember the year I spent working on a prospectus, and my ill-fated hunt for an adviser. A famous political historian, who had advised my undergraduate senior essay, so disliked my draft prospectus that he marched down the hall into the American Studies office, slammed it down on the secretary's desk, and declared to anyone within earshot that he refused to be associated with such a ridiculous project. My department convened a special meeting, named a committee and chairperson, and I was on my way. Sort of.
I didn't really know what shape the dissertation would take, only that it would be a social and cultural history of nineteenth-century baseball and include attention to play as work, and to the game as business, urban, and immigration history. The most perceptive criticism of my prospectus came from a fellow graduate student, Christopher Wilson, now at Boston College, who likened it to a magician putting swords through a basket: here's the "labor history" sword, and now I shall insert the "immigrant" sword. The problem was that those intellectual swords had made my subject disappear. [End Page 432]
Friends and acquaintances thought that I either had the greatest topic on earth—or that I had lost my marbles. My mother fell into the "You're writing about what?" category. "For this you needed to go to Yale?" she asked, pained that she could no longer kvell to her friends. How was baseball worthy of an Ivy League Ph.D., for goodness' sake?
Unintentionally, unconsciously, I was recapitulating, in intellectual terms, the earliest years of the organized game, when adult male ballplayers struggled to have their play recognized as "manly sport" instead of a "boy's game." People didn't exactly edge away from me at graduate student parties, afraid that self-destructive decision-making might be catching, but I did soon find myself perched (and occasionally hanging for dear life) on a rather lonely intellectual limb, which added a little extra angst to the commonplace wisdom that whatever else they are, dissertations aren't much fun.
Unlike most of my fellow graduate students, though, I got to read mountains of baseball journalism from the 1850s and 1860s...