- Reporting Baseball’s Sensational Season of 1890: The Brotherhood War and the Rise of Modern Sports Journalism by Scott D. Peterson
This monograph by an emerging scholar is an attempt to extend the academic study of baseball beyond its usual boundaries—for example, history, statistics, and economics—into the interdisciplinary approaches of cultural studies. Answering a call by Michael Oriard and Elliott Gorn from twenty years ago, Peterson examines how history, cultural meaning, and power structures intersect during what he calls a “sensational season.” In particular, he considers in depth the work of three sports journalists as representative of “the owners, the players, and the marginalized middle found in the class and labor struggle of the culturally significant 1890 baseball season” (2).
It is always dangerous to import too much to any one season. Baseball’s popular literature is littered with such efforts, books that try, often in vain, to argue that the season under the author’s consideration is “the first,” “the last,” “the best,” “the only,” or “the one that . . . .” Peterson does not fear this difficulty; he embraces it with gusto. His viewpoint is that the 1890 season was unlike any other, a season in which major league teams competed, on and off the field, in three leagues. The National League, established by businessmen intent on wresting control of the game from the players, began its fifteenth season, and the American Association, founded by owners who at first challenged the older league but later reached an accommodation, began its ninth season. The Players’ League was the outlier. Organized in part by discontented players who had earlier founded the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, the sport’s first union, it attacked the business model of the older leagues and the hegemony that baseball capital lorded over baseball labor. That the Players’ League lasted just this one season is the crucial fact that gives this book its shape and its rationale.
Peterson’s choice is to track this season primarily through one publication, the weekly Sporting Life, and more particularly through the work of a trio of journalists. Henry Chadwick, already ensconced as the “Father of Baseball” for his pioneering efforts to popularize and exalt the game, was the conservative editorial voice defending the National League and all it stood for. Chadwick was sixty-five years old in 1890 and did not take any journalistic road trips. Rather, he observed the entire season from his home in Brooklyn, the only city with a team in all three leagues. Tim Murnane, a former player turned Boston sportswriter, wrote consistently in favor of the upstart league and in defense of the players who abandoned the security of the National League to defy its dominance. Most intriguing, though, was rookie journalist Ella Black, not only a newcomer to the field but a mystery woman about whom we know extremely little to this day. Black appeared as if out of nowhere just before the season began, somehow got a job as Sporting Life’s Pittsburgh correspondent, and disappeared after the season was over. Battling the notion that anyone who knew baseball as well as she did had to be a man, Black gained a tenuous legitimacy only after meeting personally with Chadwick, who attested to her gender identity and her personal knowledge of the game. [End Page 134]
In his coverage of these writers’ work, Peterson is nothing if not thorough. He has divided the season into five chapters and given each week its own section that includes an introduction, an analysis of each reporter’s weekly contribution, and a conclusion. Readers may question the narrow parameters of Peterson’s approach, especially his decision not to probe beyond the pages of Sporting Life, but no one can rightly question the depth of his research. Proceeding as he does enables Peterson to make his argument, reflected in the book’s title and explained in the introduction. In his view, the 1890...