Friday, October 19, 2012

On the Coffee Table: David Block

Title: Baseball before We Knew It
Author: David Block
Image via BARNES & NOBLE

Block's book is the culminating work of a very ambitious research project to determine the cultural origins of the game of baseball.  Necessarily, the book begins with debunking the most commonly espoused theories.  Block argues convincingly that neither the spontaneous invention of the sport by Abner Doubleday nor the descent from the English game of rounders is likely.  More to the point, neither is supported by historical evidence.  In truth, sports involving balls, bats and/or bases have been around for centuries and developed in different regions of Europe before coming to the Americas.  Block offers his own theories as to the game's origins but admits upfront that primary sources are scant.

Block's book does not address a matter of great curiosity to me: the sheer oddity of the game itself.  Oh, you don't think baseball's a strange sport?  Try watching with an inquisitive child sometime.  I guarantee you will feel like an idiot and a lunatic inside of five minutes.

Child: So, that was a ball, right?

Parent: No, it was a strike.

C: But he didn't swing.

P: Well, you see, the umpire thinks it was a hittable ball.

C: How can he tell?

P: The pitch was inside the strike zone - over the plate, between the top of the belt and the knees.

C: Oh...  (clearly more confused than when we started)

Abbott and Costello barely scratched the surface.  As basic game concepts, basketball, hockey, soccer and even football are far easier to understand.  With baseball, anything beyond "hit the ball, then run as far as possible" gets into murky waters in a big hurry.  Force out vs. tag out?  Balks?  The varying dimensions of Major League outfields?  Dear friend, be highly skeptical of anyone who tells you he actually understands the Infield Fly Rule. 

Perhaps the very weirdness of the game helps to support Block's argument.  Baseball is like a language, with rules that could only have developed as part of an oral tradition over several generations.  Compare this with basketball, whose rules were codified upon the game's inception.  With only moderate tinkering, a basketball game played today resembles Naismith's original concept very closely.  Every rule change has been discussed and documented by governing organizations.  The game is still, at its heart, very simple and easy to understand.  Baseball's development has been far more nebulous.  Its quirks are part of its charm, no doubt, but quirks nonetheless.  Perhaps they could only have emerged through cultural evolution rather than institutional consideration.


  1. I have been to two baseball games in my life -- a Padres game in Qualcomm (sp?) stadium and a Rangers game in Dubya's stadium. I was bored. To tears. Perhaps it is because I did not even know there was such a thing as an Infield Fly Rule.

    It must be said, though, that I 'played' -- and loved doing so -- softball in college on a rickrack Baptist league team. We had a field behind our dorms and I loved staying out there playing catch with my best friend Wendy until it got too dark to see. Also very fond of batting cages. But I probably won't be picking up a book on the history of baseball any time, soon ...

    1. Baseball and softball are definitely more fun to play than to watch. I will grant you that. Somehow, though, baseball's even more fun to "follow." I'll take a highly competitive basketball game over baseball anytime but the latter is a lot more rewarding to write about - the slow pace of the game allows for deeper musings.

      This book probably doesn't offer much for the non-fan. However, Block offers interesting thoughts as to how myths based on mere conjecture come to be accepted as historical fact. The jingoism prevalent at the turn of the 20th century led many to "prove" that baseball was a purely American invention. The fact that these claims were entirely unsupported didn't matter - they reaffirmed what people wanted to believe. Why question them? Intellectual curiosity? For shame...

      This tendency is hardly exclusive to baseball. How many apocryphal tales became accepted as legitimate history? Washington and the cherry tree? Surely there have been others, too.

    2. 'The fact that these claims were entirely unsupported didn't matter - they reaffirmed what people wanted to believe.'

      This, I have learned, is the human condition -- unless we try *really* hard for it to be otherwise. It's an uphill battle, though. All the way. But the mind has muscle memory, too.

    3. And yeah, Steve Dallas is a postmodern neoclassic archestereotype. (I'm just makin' up words, here. Pullin' 'em out of my pocket and throwin' 'em around like legal tender.)

    4. Many years ago now, I read an excellent book entitled "The Mozart Myths" by William Stafford which debunked the various theories about the composer's death. While all of the Mozart stuff was inherently interesting to me, the real point of the book was exhibiting the difficulties of trying to piece together reliable biographical information about anyone after they're dead. Most of what anybody knew about Mozart was from his correspondence. While there was a lot in the letters, there were also plenty of gaps left to fill. As far as the official historical record was concerned, whoever came up with the best story carried the day.

    5. For the last two months, I have been researching a particular event for my next novel. It is about a group of people whose towering contribution to the human family has created a sharp division in history but has not had a lot of airplay in fiction. In fact, I have only found one other novel with this historic backdrop and the storyline was a murder mystery that happened to be set in that town as opposed to an exploration of its inception and what really happened there.

      Most of what I have collected are memoirs written by the wives of the major players published by the historical society. They have not enjoyed wide distribution. I have been in contact with a couple of descendants from people who were involved and have visited the area three times since I began the project. In trying to piece together the facts of a two-year period shrouded in secrecy, I have held at the forefront of my mind the knowledge that, should I achieve what I want to with this piece of historical fiction (which, as a reader of primarily non-fiction, I am deeply invested in factual fidelity,) my story or version of the events will be among the ones that shapes the popular imagination on the period.

      As you say, whoever comes up with the best story carries the day. It's a thrilling, emotionally- and intellectually-stimulating challenge and I have hoped, every day since I've begun down this path, that I will be able rise to the occasion.

    6. It sounds like a fascinating project. As you suggest, exhaustive research is the key to doing it right. I look forward to the end result.