Book Notes #6: Baseball Fever

Last year, while Michael Lewis’s Moneyball was still the talk of baseball, another, far more obscure book appeared that also asked its readers to rethink their understanding of the national pastime: Baseball Fever: Early Baseball in Michigan, by the eminent historian Peter Morris. The book, which was awarded SABR’s coveted Seymour Award last May, traces the game’s development from its very beginnings into the sport we know today.

For Morris, Michigan acts something like the deep ice borings of an arctic geologist: a core that, if read with proper care, can illuminate a far broader history: “Precisely because Michigan was never at the forefront of baseball’s development,” he writes, “examining how its residents became passionate about the game will help us understand a vital and forgotten part of baseball history.” The result is a provocative account of the game’s progress that summarizes the latest scholarship and challenges many of the assumptions historians have either clung to or taken on faith for decades.

What has thus far drawn most attention to the book within the small cadre of 19th century baseball experts is Morris’s examination of the role played, or not played, by the Civil War in popularizing the game. Traditional histories, following Albert Spalding’s jingoistic America’s National Game of 1911, have long held that the war galvanized American sentiment for baseball, and that veterans returning from the field contributed to its spread across the country, particularly in the North. But Morris finds little support for these assertions in the actual record, concluding that “it seems appropriate to regard the belief that the Civil War played a major role in the spread of baseball as an unproven theory or even as part of a legend that may have been specifically designed to ensure baseball’s status as the national game.”

Morris instead attributes the game’s spread to the migration of urbanites from the East—and in particular from New York City, where, in his words, “baseball first caught on as an adult activity”—to the cities and then rural areas of the Midwest. “Only when baseball became established in the country’s heartland did it truly become the national pastime,” writes Morris. Baseball Fever is, indeed, shot through with compelling analysis. A chapter is devoted to the trials and tribulations faced by women and African-Americans in baseball, the former being discouraged from play (but encouraged to watch), and the latter being at first “welcomed” on the field “but then excluded when the possibility that they would outperform whites began to emerge.”

The true the heart of the book, however, is Morris’s study of recreational “muffin” games, and their contribution to the growth and sustained development of the sport. While professionalism in the postwar period has generally been understood as a boon to the game’s popularity—despite some of its unseemly elements—Morris argues that it conversely posed “a very grave threat” to the sport’s longevity by “disenfranchising” those unable to play competitive ball. Muffin games, so named for their frequently muffed plays, “offered both a belly laugh and a reminder that, in spite of the excesses of professional baseball, the game itself still belonged to everyone.” It’s a compelling argument, and Morris supplies a stream of amusing anecdotes as reinforcement, from a fairly hilarious account of an 1867 game between the staffs of two Detroit hotels, to the story of a team of corpulent base-ballists known as the “Never Sweats,” who lived up to their moniker by commissioning surrogates to run the bases for them during then-common “Fats versus Leans” games.

One suspects that the extent to which Morris’s conclusions regarding the game’s development in Michigan are applicable to the United States more generally will be the subject of some debate. But Morris has set the agenda, and his book will undoubtedly remain a touchstone in the years to come.

This coming March will mark the publication of another tremendous advance in baseball scholarship, David Block’s Baseball Before We Knew It: A Search for the Roots of the Game. (Stay tuned for a review in this space.) Together, these two books rewrite much of what we know about the game’s early history. We heartily endorse them both.

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