Past Time: Baseball as History

by Jules Tygiel

Oxford University Press, 2000

Jules Tygiel is a professor of history at San Francisco State U., and his previous book Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy was a masterpiece. His new book Past Time is a mosaic history of baseball in nine chapters, with each chapter stopping to examine some important person or event which shaped the game. I got this book from the library because Larry McCray, Gene Carney and I were having a discussion about cricket and the beginnings of baseball, and Gene helpfully mentioned that Jules Tygiel's new book covered the subject quite well. It certainly did, in Chapter 1, "The National Game", which tells how the New York Game of baseball became the National Game of the United States, as instead of the Massachusetts Game, or perhaps even cricket. This is the kind of history I like, the kind that wraps baseball up in the bigger picture of History, and that shows the human side of the game.

The second chapter is about "Grandfather" Chadwick and the invention of baseball statistics, such as the batting average and the earned run average. Chapter Three is about four famous ballplayers who became managers and owners: Charles Comiskey, Connie Mack, John McGraw, and Clark Griffith. Chapter Four is about the 1920's and new developments such as radio and the player agent. Chapter Five is about supply and demand during the Great Depression -- Branch Rickey worked to increase the supply side by building up farm systems, while Larry McPhail increased demand with night baseball, radio, and publicity stunts. The next two chapters deal with how Negro Leagues were killed by integration (ironically, "the end of segregation would mean that fewer, rather than more African Americans would earn their living from baseball.") and the 1951 Dodger-Giant playoff, which was the first nationally televised sports event, a cross-country link to the West Coast having just been completed by AT&T.

Chapter 8 is titled "Homes of the Braves: Baseball's Shifting Geography, 1953-1972"; no ballclubs have changed cities since the Senators moved to Arlington, Texas. Tygiel's revisit of the Dodgers' migration is especially interesting. For instance, it's often believed that the Dodgers were "given" Chavez Rivine, where they built their Stadium. Actually, Walter O'Malley first swapped farm teams with the Cubs, acquiring Wrigley Field- LA (home of the Home Run Derby). Then he swapped the Wrigley Field land for Chavez Ravine. The Ravine had been a Mexican neighborhood until it was cleared by the Federal Government for a housing project. But in a referendum the voters of Los Angeles defeated the housing project. By law Chavez Ravine reverted to the City, reserved for "appropriate public use". The City had a hard time finding a use until the Dodgers came along. O'Malley got a good deal but not a gift. The arrangement was similar to what the Red Sox are trying to do in Boston -- a privately-funded stadium built on land cleared by the government. This chapter also has a good discussion on the Continental League which grew out of the geographic and demographic turmoil of the 1950's.

The last chapter, the one we just left a short while ago, is called "Populist Baseball: Baseball Fantasies in the 1980's". Tygiel details Rotisserie Baseball (invented over dinner at a New York restaurant called Rotisserie Francais); fantasy camps (Cubs fans had the first); Sabermetrics (popularized by Bill James of Kansas); the publication of USA Today (Washington DC) which liberated baseball stats for the masses; and Hollywood movies like The Natural, Field of Dreams, and Bull Durham which idealized and romanticized baseball.

Tygiel doesn't really get into a couple of other trends: the baseball card mania, and fanzines like the one you are reading. The growth of fanzines reach its zenith in early 1994 when a group of fan publishers met in the Arlington Va. offices of Baseball Weekly, representing Boston, Cooperstown, North Side of Chicago, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Philadelphia, and in absentia, Hawaii.

"The trend culminated in 1994 when when PBS presented Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns," writes Tygiel. By this time, "The blatant excesses, rhetorical overkill, and obvious self-indulgence of the fan movement of the 1980's invited a critical skewering." Also in 1994, baseball went on strike. By the time the strike ended, many card stores were out of business. Many Rotisserie leagues had folded. Bill James had stopped publishing. Hollywood no longer found baseball romantic. And alas, many of our fellow fanzines had folded.

 

Review by David Nevard

© 2000 Buffalo Head Society

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