Monday, May 26, 2008

It's easy to forget

I mentioned earlier that I'm reading The Head Game: Baseball Seen from the Pitcher's Mound by Roger Kahn. Originally I picked up this book from the library because I thought it would give me insights into the intricacies of the battle between a major league pitcher and batter, but so far it's been a disappointment in that department. However, I'm about four chapters into the book, and it has gone into some interesting baseball history.

Here's an excerpt:
You cannot trace the early evolution of baseball with consistent precision, nor can you even follow the game far back through the centuries. It was never a sport of kings and bishops, as tennis was, and our knowledge of medieval times springs almost entirely from court and church. (Ordinary medieval folk left no records behind; few could read or write.)

To be sure, baseball is related to rounders, an English game of ball played not on a diamond but on a pentagon, and to cricket, the "summer pastime of the English race." A British manuscript from 1250 delineates two male figures playing a game of bat and ball. The left-hand figure is a batman, who holds hi weapon upright. The right-hand figure is a fielder, who waits with hands extended. Another manuscript, in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, entitled "The Romance of Good King Alexander," shows a bowler--cricket for pitcher--and defensive players in the field. All are monks. The date of this manuscript is April 18, 1344; one can dreamily imagine that spring afternoon on a greensward in the Thames Valley or on Salisbury Plain as the first opening day.

King Edward III (1327-1377) disparaged creag, as cricket was then called, and in 1477 Edward IV tried to interdict the sport entirely. Anyone allowing creag to be played on his premises was subject to three years' imprisonment and a fine of twenty pounds. This was to discourage entrepreneurs, the medieval Rickeys and Steinbrenners and Murdochs. The players themselves were subject to two years in jail and a ten-pound fine. All implements--the balls and bats--were to be burned. English kings wanted their yeomen to work at martial skills, particularly archery. In the royal view, games of bat and ball were useless to the developing empire. But bans against creag in the fifteenth century seem to have been no more successful than the prohibition against drinking whiskey in the United States 450 years later.
And speaking of the United States:
Alexander Cartwright, an amateur athlete and surveyor, prepared the first written baseball rules in New York City in 1845. Cartwright set the number of players at nine per side. He sketched a model of the playing area with bases approximately thirty strikes apart. His diamond is recognizable today. But finding a modern balance between pitcher and batter was beyond Cartwright's formidable inventive skills. that balance was half a century away.

In the Cartwright diamond, the pitcher released the ball behind a line forty-five feet distant from home plate, which was round, rather than the pentagon we know. One can understand the reasoning of Cartwright, the surveyor. Separate the bases by ninety feet; spearate the pitcher and batter by half the distance. For the rest of the nineteenth century, baseball people tinkered ceaselessly with just about every aspect of the pitcher's trade. By raising or lowering the mound, by redefining the strike zone and fine-tuning the interpreations of balks, baseball people still tinker today.

The Cartwright rules spread through the Northeast after 1846, and Union soldiers carried them throughout the country during the Civil War. In the eleven months of the siege of Vicksburg, baseball became a favorite leisure game of the besieging army. Just four years after the war, the first professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, loaded with former cricket stars, appeared.
While it seems obvious now, I hadn't previously put that 1869 Red Stockings team in the context of the Civil War's immediate aftermath. Furthermore, I find it fascinating to picture the location of that team. Cincinnati borders Kentucky, which was a critical state in the Civil War.

While wars have raged around the world, these past 143 years since the Civil War have been relatively peaceful on our nation's soil; and for 139 of those years we've had professional baseball.

It's easy to forget how much of our nation's good fortunes are dependent upon the brave men and women who have served in our military throughout the decades; and to think, that military has sometimes included some of our best baseball players.

So I guess this was kind of a long post just to say that, while most days out of the year I ashamedly forget our military's heroic record of sacrifice, today I do remember.

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