In class, I often discuss politics with students during our persuasive unit. And students, like most of us who are no longer in college, are completely confident that what they believe is correct – that the culture in which they live is correct – that we have it figured out as a society. Of course, it’s almost certain that we haven’t advanced to the level we’ll one day advance. Take as an example, women’s suffrage – it was 1920 before women were allowed to vote throughout the United States. Think about that for a moment. No, no, really think. Barring women from voting is unimaginable today, yet many people in 1919 thought they had it right. There’s something our society does today that in 20 or 50 or 100 years, our children, their children, and theirs will think of as absolutely outrageous.
That brings me to baseball in 1871. Baseball just wasn’t baseball in 1871. The rules seem nutty when seen through today’s lens. During this era, nine balls constituted a walk. So did eight. So did six, and five, and four. Pitchers threw from 60’6” and also from 50”. Underhanded pitching was the norm for a time, so was calling for high and low pitches. And let’s not forget bats that were flat on one side. I guess Ted Williams’ point about hitting a round ball with a round bat didn’t matter then.
Part of me says we should just skip most of this era, start in 1893 when the mound moved, and not bother dealing with Davy Force and his Washington Olympics or Bobby Mathews and his Fort Wayne Kekiongas. “Hey old salt, what’s say you and I head out to one of those base ball games to watch our beloved Ruby Legs battle those hateful Trojans of Troy.”
Another part of me, however, thinks about my students – the ones who are certain we’re doing everything correctly as a society today. Since I know they must be wrong, I must be wrong to want to reject the idea that baseball before 1893 wasn’t really baseball just because it’s something unfamiliar to me.
For the years 1871-1892 then, I’m completely on board. I’ll treat the greats of the game just as I will those from the 1920s or 1980s. But baseball also existed for a time prior to 1871, and I think I have to handle that era differently. Yes, it was baseball. Sort of. But there were no professional leagues. Statistics are pretty sketchy too, both because many statistics weren’t tracked and because many of those games have been lost to time. And we’re talking about just a handful of games played in most seasons in very small areas of the country.
In short, I’m not going to entirely ignore the days before the professional leagues that we all know, but I’m going to discount it tremendously. Beginning in 1871, I’m going to treat players just as I will 1921 or 1971.