(Vol.3) The People’s Game

Oxford University Press (1990)


Baseball: The People’s Game is a monumental book which is hard to describe in a small space. Harold Seymour has been among other things a batboy for the Brooklyn Dodgers and a college history professor. The first volume of his history of baseball (The Early Years) was published in 1960, and grew out of his Ph.D. dissertation at Cornell. The second volume (The Golden Age) came out in 1971 and took the story of the professional game up through the Twenties. These books are, along with the work of David Voigt, the most authoritative on the beginnings of the sport and its development into what Seymour calls “a highly organized business monopoly.”

Dr. Seymour had intended to continue his series chronologically but as he notes in his introduction, “it occurred to me that the game outside Organized Baseball had been scanted, so then I decided to discontinue work on Organized Baseball and prepare this book instead.”

The People’s  Game begins with the diagram of a house, the plan for the book, Harold Seymour’s House of Baseball. The foundation of the house is boy’s baseball. Next comes the basement: Indians and prisoners. On the ground floor are softball players, armed forces players, semi-pros, industrial players, town teams, and college players. On the upper floor is Organized Baseball, a small minority. There is also an annex for women’s baseball, and an outbuilding to which black baseball was consigned.

It only took him 20 years to do the research, but of course he leaves off at the beginning of World War II. Baseball teams, hundreds and thousands of baseball teams. Just thumbing through the pages at random, we find descriptions of these ballclubs:  Pratt Institute in Brooklyn; The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC); The Young Men’s Hebrew Association; The Industrial School for Boys in Shirley, Mass.; Keio University in Japan; St. Mary’s College in California; Princeton University; the Geary, Oklahoma town team; White Oak Cotton Mill in North Carolina; Carter Ink Co. of Cambridge, Mass.; The Young Communist League; the Elks, Odd Fellows, Rotary, Kiwanis and Masons; the House of David; the Clowns; the Halliburton Cementers of Duncan, Oklahoma; Twentieth Century-Fox Studios; the Benteen team of the Seventh Cavalry; the team from the cruiser Olympia; Marines stationed in Panama; Chemawa Indian School; Carson City, Nevada, State Prison; Vassar College; the Baltimore Bloomer Girls; Ohio State Women’s Reformatory; the Cuban Giants; Web’s Harlem Tigers. Everybody had to have a baseball team.

The Civil War did much to popularize baseball. It enlivened camp life, and men from different parts of the country  learned to agree on standardized rules and methods of play. It was the game the soldiers brought home, and they never lost their love for it. The Spanish-American War, a generation later,  helped spread the game to the Caribbean and the Pacific:

Two pieces of contemporary fiction, one in Harper’s in 1907 and the other in Army and Navy Life in 1909, reveal baseball relations between occupying soldiers and Filipinos. In both stories, the Filipinos hoodwink the soldiers into believing they know little about baseball before the soldiers challenge them to a game. After the soldiers have bet everything they can lay their hands on, including their rifles, the Filipinos defeat them and clean up the winnings.

Just this year, some kids from the Phillipines repeated the act at the Little League World Series (until it was found that their coaches broke the rules).

I especially liked the chapters on the semi-pros, which inspired an interview we did with some local old-timers, and an article in our Spring 1991 issue, “The Bleachery Ramblers”.

Going back to the same section this year I found answers about Satchel Paige, the most famous black pitcher of his era. Paige’s fragmentary Negro League statistics don’t seem to match his legend. We might imagine him as a pitcherfor the Kansas City Monarchs in the same way that Glavine is a pitcher for the Braves, but reading this book you realize that in those days, outside of League games, there was also barnstorming, exhibition play, and just plain hiring yourself out.

There used to be a big semi-pro tournament sponsored by the Denver Post. Unlike Organized Baseball, it was integrated. Seymour writes:

None other than the House of David won the 1934 tournament, behind the inimitable black professional pitcher, Satchel Paige. That year, 1934, the black Kansas City Monarchs entered the tournament—the first time an all-black club became eligible... But the Monarchs lost the championship to the House of David when, in the deciding game, Paige pitched that team to a 2-1 victory over the Monarchs and won for the House of David the prize money of about $7,500. 1936 an all-black team, led by Paige, the Negro All-Stars, the only black team in the tournament, won the prize. It included the professional players Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, and Buck Leonard. The tournament packed the park for twelve days at its capacity of 6,500 people. A white team from Minnesota that included Alex “Double-Duty” Radcliffe, a black pitcher, also participated in the tournament.
In 1937... the Negro All-Stars, with Satchel Paige, won again. This time the Denver Post identified Paige’s team as the Ciudad Trujillo Team because the club had just returned from a triumphant playing tour in the Dominican Republic. Whatever its name, the Negro All-Stars won the prize of $5,719.15.

As our grandparents would say, that was good money in the Depression. If you want to know how softball got started, that’s in here. Why there are so many playgrounds with baseball diamonds in the United States; how college teams started recruiting athletes; what the Hot Stove League was; Olympic baseball in the 1930’s; stickball, punchball, and stoopball; a crowd of 100,000 to watch the White Motor Company team; a California ballclub which travelled by stagecoach; the old story about the home run that landed on a moving train; ore discovered under home plate at a mining camp in Montana; a Civil War game which was interrupted by an enemy raid (the Confederates captured the center fielder and the regiment’s ball)...

Incidentally, a couple of years ago we were at a baseball banquet with Bob Wood, Smoky Joe’s son. Bob, like Harold Seymour, lives up in Keene, NH. Somebody else who lives in that area is Ken Burns, the filmmaker who did “The Civil War” for PBS. Bob told us Ken Burns’ next project was a film about baseball, and that Dr. Seymour would be involved in it.

The first three volumes of Baseball have been re-issued as a paperback set by Oxford.

Reviewed by David Nevard (1992)
Postscript: Baseball Historian Harold Seymour Dies
In our September 1992 issue we reviewed Baseball: The People's Game by Harold Seymour, not knowing that the great historian was near death. The book review was our small tribute to a man who spent 30 years of research into the origins and growth of baseball. His obituary in The Washington Post noted that "He was among the scholars to show that the sport  had its  birth in his native New York City rather than Cooperstown, N.Y., as was widely believed." Dr. Seymour, who was suffering from Alzheimer's disease, died at a nursing home September 26 in his adopted home town of Keene, N.H. He was 82 years old and had been collaborating with Ken Burns on a forthcoming film about baseball.

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