- Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game, Vol. 7, Fall 2013 ed. by John Thorn Jefferson
John Thorn, official historian of Major League Baseball since 2011, has long nursed an unmatched obsession with the “early game”—baseball from its beginnings as one variation within the spectrum of informal cricket-related stick-and-ball games, up to the pre-1920s, pre-Babe Ruth “dead-ball era” of the major leagues. This particular fascination has yielded his role as editor of Base Ball: Journal of the Early Game, now in its seventh volume, the subject of this review.
The existence of this journal illustrates that Thorn is not alone in his keen interest in and devotion to the time period. The recently published seventh volume testifies to the growing scholarly attention to this occasionally nebulous early history of the sport. Perhaps attracted to the period precisely because there is still so much of the historical record that needs piecing together, the scholars featured in the seventh iteration of Base Ball offer a diverse assortment of studies that, while certainly “sport history,” also speak to a wide array of other historical subgenres, including legal history, transnational North American history, religious history, African American history, history of the American West, and pop-culture history. With this in mind, as the best of sport history often is, many of these pieces would be of interest to historians not exclusively focused on sport for what they reveal about American culture and experience in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The volume’s clear centrepiece is the pair of articles by Hugh MacDougall on the life of Bud Fowler, who became the first black American to play professional baseball when he was briefly conscripted to pitch for Massachusetts’s Lynn Live Oaks in 1878. In addition to bouncing around white ball clubs from New Hampshire to Kansas and later organizing his own all-black barnstorming team, Fowler also practiced the barber’s trade the length of his adult life and belonged to the surprisingly powerful and respected Knights of the Razor fraternity for black barbers. Even more intriguing is Fowler’s foray into drama in the form of The Retired Black Planter, a play of his own composition, which tells the story of a freed slave who endeavors to purchase the plantation of his former master. With its subtle themes of black empowerment, MacDougall reprints this play in full. Fowler proves to be a fascinating character, one that may be of interest to nonacademics, as well as historians proper. [End Page 427]
Other highlights from this volume include Richard Herberger’s recreation and analysis of the 1857 convention on rules and standards of the game; William Humber’s investigation into the early days of Canadian baseball and its foremost apostle, William Shuttleworth; and Rob Edleman’s overview of the wildly popular and often baseball-themed turn-of the-century Frank Merriwell books for boys. But in terms of readability and popular appeal, the contribution that comes closest to MacDougall’s work on Fowler is Angus McFarlane’s “Baseball Goes East: The 1876 San Francisco Centennials’ Magical Mystery Tour.” Writing with an eye toward capturing the cultural zeitgeist of America’s centennial as he chronicles the aptly-named Centennials cross-country baseball journey, MacFarlane gives a fascinating snapshot of the period. Human details like the close quarters of nineteenth-century rail travel that guaranteed travelling companions “would be either best friends or worst enemies for life” (193) enliven MacFarland’s subject and make the article worth reading for the armchair historian as well as the academic.
It is likely that Thorn and his associates gave Base Ball: Journal of the Early Game its curious, two-word title as a nod to the time before the compounded, one-word spelling of game was standardized and when a multitude of variations on and spellings of the name of this stick-and-ball game coexisted. It also gestures to the similar transition from...