What Can We Learn from New York (Yankee) History?

Never count the New York Yankees out. They have history and tradition on their side, not to mention a payroll that approaches $200 million, about three times that of their opponent in the American League Division Series, the Cleveland Indians. And tonight the bats came out of hiding, and the Yankees defeated the Indians 2-1, avoiding a sweep and earning the right to play another game.

Of course, as the Yankees discovered to their chagrin early last week in Cleveland, on any given night the $65 million payroll can defeat the $200 million payroll. But the bigger budget surely helps you to survive the grind of 162 games that gets you to the postseason. And you have to admire the team for refusing to give themselves up for dead in late May, when they were 14.5 games behind the Red Sox with a 21-29 record. Eventually they started to hit — a lot. And they found some bullpen help in their own minor league system, in the form of a fireballing 22-year-old named Joba Chamberlain, whose father was born on the Winnebago reservation in Nebraska.

ny-yankee-logo.jpgYup, it’s the Yankees, not the Indians, who have a Native American on their team. Not to mention one of the most famous Japanese sluggers in Hideki Matsui and an ace pitcher (Chien-Ming Wang), who hails from Taiwain, in addition to the usual complement of nationalities and ethnicities that you can find on a major league team these days. The Yankees have emulated not only New York’s emphasis on big business, but the city’s cosmopolitanism as well. And so has US baseball.

I’m not a Yankee fan, though I’m not a Yankee-hater either. It’s just that it’s often seemed a little like rooting for Microsoft. But maybe that’s what most Americans think about New York City generally.

Context is everything. I started watching baseball as a third-grader in New York in the fall of 1969, so I became a Mets fan. I’ve been one ever since, through good times, bad times, and ugly times. I’ve even held myself personally responsible for some of those ugly times (this year included), as the result of a certain bargain I made during the sixth game of the 1986 World Series. I’ve written about that on my site patell.org in a piece called “The Crypto-History of the Historic Collapse of the New York Mets.”

Nevertheless, except for rare occasions like the 1986 season, the Mets toil in the shadow of the Yankees, one of the most famous franchises in all of sports and certainly the most storied team in US baseball history. Twenty-six World Series championships; thirty-nine American League pennants. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Derek Jeter, A-Rod: a parade of some of the most famous names in baseball history.

So, given the way in which the history of major league baseball has been intertwined with the history of New York, why has baseball as an institution worked so hard to deny the urban roots of the professional game? George Will has described “the myth that Abner Doubleday invented the sport one fine day in 1839 in the farmer Phinney’s pasture at Cooperstown” as part of this “agreeable nonsense about baseball being an echo of our pastoral past.” Actually, writes Will, “the thing Doubleday helped begin was the Civil War. (He was stationed at Fort Sumter when the first shots were fired.) The New York Times obituary of Doubleday did not even mention baseball” (Men at Work, 294).

Until recently, baseball historians agreed that, although baseball is now believed to have evolved from the English game rounders, its modern form does have a founding moment: on June 19, 1846 a New York bank clerk named Alexander Joy Cartwright led his Knickerbocker Base Ball Club to Hoboken to play the New York Nine. The Knickerbockers lost that day, 23-1, but in the end (so the story goes) they prevailed: their elaborate rules for playing baseball were widely imitated, and their style of play ultimately proved more popular than the variant played in Massachusetts.

In fact, however, Cartwright probably did not “invent” baseball either. A box score and newspaper account from The New York Morning News describes “a friendly match of the time-honored game of Base” that was played on October 21, 1845 at the Elysian Fields “between eight members of the New York Ball Club and the same number of players from Brooklyn.” The account contains indications that something close to the modern game of baseball was being played by different groups throughout the New York area in the 1840s and that several innovations in the rules believed to have been made by Cartwright were already in use in 1845. What this discovery indicates is that baseball did not have “the clear founding moment” that most fans would like to believe it did.

Indeed, most baseball historians believe that a founding moment for the game will never be discovered because the game most likely evolved over time. The 1845 account was rediscovered in 1990 by Ted Widmer, a Harvard graduate student, who is now the director of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

Eleven years later, a research librarian at NYU, George A. Thompson Jr., discovered two newspaper accounts of a game played in April 1823 in New York City on a site just west of Broadway between what is now Eighth Street and Washington Place (largely occupied, appropriately enough, by buildings belonging to NYU). It seems that both the National Advocate and the New-York Gazette and General Advertiser had had received the same letter from someone who had observed the game. The Gazette summed up the letter in a paragraph that began: “We have received a communication in favor of the manly exercise of base ball.” The Advocate published a longer account: “I was last Saturday much pleased in witnessing a company of active young men playing the manly and athletic game of ‘base ball’ at the Retreat in Broadway (Jones’). I am informed they are an organized association, and that a very interesting game will be played on Saturday next at the above place, to commence at half past 3 o’clock, P.M. Any person fond of witnessing this game may avail himself of seeing it played with consummate skill and wonderful dexterity.” Thompson noted at the time that the letter contained no explanation of what “base ball” was, suggesting its author assumed that it would be familiar enough to newspaper readers.

The association of pastoral imagery with baseball, which began with the denial of the sport’s urban origins through the substitution of Doubleday for Cartwright, continued as the nineteenth century progressed, despite the game’s clearly urban demographics: the sports historian Allen Guttmann notes that in 1897 “only three of the National League’s 168 players were from the rural South, while 31 men came from Massachusetts alone” and that the “early years of the game brought forth a disproportionate number of Irish-American and German-American city dwellers” (From Ritual to Record,100-101).

All of which leads me to ask: what does it mean that our so-called national pastime is in fact an urban rather than a pastoral game, a sport whose institutional history is intricately intertwined with the history of New York City? I’m starting to think that all that “pastoral nonsense” isn’t all that “agreeable.” It seems to me to be complicit with a kind of Americanism that gets the country involved in quagmires. Perhaps it’s time we started embracing the urban roots of the American self — and the kind of cosmopolitan vision that the urban often makes possible.

Anyway, look for some baseball in our cultural history of New York City.