Excerpt: 'But Didn't We Have Fun?'
The shortage of baseballs meant that a good one would literally be used until someone knocked the stuffing out of it. This scarcity affected how the game was played in several ways. For example, if a ball wasn't lost or dispossessed of its cover, it would be gradually transformed from lively to dead, and of course this had a dramatic effect on scoring. Another consequence was that practice time was severely restricted or even rendered impossible. "There was only one base ball in the town at the time," an account of the first game in Whatcom County, Washington, pointed out bluntly, "and as this was in the possession of the Wide Awakes, all the Black Diamonds could do was to sit and wait for the day set apart for the game."
Sometimes another substance was substituted for rubber. "In the lake regions and other sections of the country where sturgeon were plentiful, base balls were commonly made of the eyes of that fish," recalled an 1884 article in the Brooklyn Eagle about the early days of baseball. "The eye of a large sturgeon contains a ball nearly as large as a walnut. It is composed of a flexible substance and will rebound if thrown against a hard base. These eyeballs were bound with yarn and afterward covered with leather or cloth. They made a lively ball, but were more like the dead ball of the present than any ball in use at that time."
In 1858 a country club visited a Boston nine for a match of the "Massachusetts game" and brought a still more unusual ball: "It was understood that balls for this game were to be made of rubber and yarn, but in the absence of this particular mention the visitors produced a ball of minimum weight made of yarn wound as loosely as possible over a bullet to secure the proper size, and insisted on using it. The bats provided by the home club were of little use with such a ball, but the guests had been equal to all contingencies and brought flat sticks, not for striking the ball to the foreground, but to touch it merely and direct it from its course to the rear." Gloves had to be used for self-preservation, but the "bullet ball" still took quite a toll on the fielders' hands: "Whenever this game was afterward mentioned in the presence of anyone who took part in it, there was a show of fingers as 'relic' of that game."
Because baseballs were so precious and irreplaceable, clubs went to extraordinary lengths to preserve them. Most of these efforts centered on the covers, since it was generally taken for granted that the ball would continue to be used as long as the cover remained intact.
An early Boston ballplayer recalled that some pioneers responded to the problem of baseballs that "would not last through a game" by swaddling the innards in two covers. Gradually, however, ball makers learned how to make the covers tough enough to endure a beating by covering them "with alumdressed horse hide, that being the strongest leather known, being very elastic when water soaked, in which way it was used. The body of the horse being smoother, rounder and harder than that of other animals it follows that the skin would be more even throughout. The alum makes the leather white and may add some strength."
Considering the precious status of the baseball, players went to extraordinary lengths to avoid losing one. "We used but one ball then," remembered one early ballplayer, "and when some strong batter would lose it, the whole gang, including the spectators, would set out to find it. Occasionally some scamp would run away with it, and then there would be all kinds of trouble." Harry Wright, according to the recollections of one of his contemporaries, once waded across a creek and climbed a bluff to retrieve a ball batted by the legendary slugger Gat Stires.
These searches created a golden opportunity for some young fans. One such youngster who grew up in Port Henry, New York, later recalled that games were played on a lot known as the Mineral Ground, which was "situated on a flat piece of ground at the edge of a mighty ravine down which to the waters of Mill Brook there was a regular stream of 'lost balls' rolling on match days, and we boys thought no small beer of ourselves when we had hunted a fine 'bounding rock' out of the hollow and presented same to some great man player like 'Doc' Austin, Mr. Yale, our Principal at the School, Johnny Mack or some other hero of our boyhood days."
Not until 1877 was the syntax of the rulebook changed and the phrase "the base ball" replaced with its plural. Even after it became common to have enough baseballs on hand for games to continue after one was lost, they still represented a considerable expense to ball clubs. The Detroit ballplayer Joe Weiss recalled the situation when he began playing in the 1870s: "When we played a match an agreement was entered into that each club pay for half the ball, which necessitated the levying of an assessment of about six cents on each player."
As scarce commodities, early baseballs were often preserved long after being retired from use. Many decades later, pioneer Milwaukee resident Elisha W. Edgerton presented the city's Old Settlers' Club with "a baseball which the young fellows of Milwaukee used to play with in 1836 on a flat field north and east of the postoffice about where the southeast corner of Milwaukee and Mason streets now is. Mr. Edgerton made the ball himself, and the cover was sewed on by Mrs. Edward Wiesner, wife of the first shoemaker in Milwaukee."
The Knickerbockers' preference for a hard, lively ball proved a key step toward establishing the game as an adult pursuit. At first, as we have seen, the practical difficulty of making and preserving a functional baseball ensured wide variations. But when manufacturing processes improved to the point that greater consistency was possible, the new ball's form added two new complications to the once-simple game.
One was the reality that with a hard ball and no protective equipment, serious injuries could result. Catchers were especially vulnerable, as they had begun to creep closer to the plate to deter opposing base-stealers. A few experimented with gloves, but the typical catcher "had no protection against a foul, excepting sometimes he would hold a slab of India rubber between his teeth to prevent the knocking out of his teeth, if struck in the face." There were reports of catchers being knocked cold by foul balls or of one having to "work through a game with the blood dripping from his bruised hands." Players at other positions were more fortunate, but many of them sported "crooked fingers [that] testify to many a hot grounder and difficult fly." At first such injuries were viewed as badges of courage, but their charm wore off fairly quickly, and by the 1870s players sensibly began to don protective equipment.
The hard, lively balls also brought threats of broken windows and injured passersby, which forced many clubs to move outside the city centers. In Kalamazoo, Michigan, for instance, as soon as the local club switched to harder balls, they were forbidden to play downtown; other similar examples are described later in this chapter. Broken fingers and broken windows thus served as symbols of a more irrevocable break: a break with the simpler days of the past.
From But Didn't We Have Fun? by Peter Morris, copyright (c) 2008 by Peter Morris, by permission of Ivan R. Dee, Publisher.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.