Monday, November 17, 2014

Setting the Context for Context

As part of facilitating the NYC 19th Century Baseball Interdisciplinary Symposium on November 15th at John Jay College (CUNY), I had the opportunity to offer the following opening remarks.

Base ball historians and base ball umpires have some things in common, the most important of which is a shared mission to "get it right." Umpires try objectively to interpret what they see to make the correct call, while base ball historians interpret and analyze facts to get the story "right," to help construct a house built on a rock of facts.  Those who work in the pre-professional period (1840-1870) have the added challenge of not just trying to help build something, but also to help dispose of the debris of another house built not on the rock of facts, but upon the sand of myth - the Doubleday myth.  When I give a talk on early New Jersey base ball, right at the beginning, I test the audience by observing that when the first New Jersey clubs were formed in 1855, base ball was a relatively new game since it had been invented less than 20 years earlier by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown.  When I say that, about one-third of the audience looks at me as if to say, "This guy doesn't know what he is talking about," another third seems to think, "I'm not sure, but this guy may not know what he's talking about," and the remaining third looks at the other two-thirds as if to say, "What's the problem?"

So myth deconstruction continues, but committed as we are to the belief that the history of base ball is a history of evolution, not creation, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the process of evolution has times and places that are especially noteworthy.  The greater New York area is one of those places and the pre-professional era is one of those times.  Here, during that period, base ball first became organized, first became competitive and first received significant media attention.  That doesn't make the greater New York area base ball's birthplace, but it is fair to say it was the game's cradle or incubator.

In my view, it's also important to think of the greater New York regionally since different places made significant contributions.  New York City gave the game a critical mass of organized clubs at the same time New Jersey provided an important playing venue and the first instance of organized African-American base ball while Brooklyn broadened the playing population and increased the level of competition.  There were numerous interactions throughout the area some of which we most likely don't completely understand.  For example, the Eagle Club of New York was one of the city's oldest clubs, but after 1856 at least half of its regular lineup was made up of Jersey City residents.  Our initial reaction may be to wonder about far they had to travel to games when, in fact, their trip to neighboring Hoboken was easier than that of the New York members.

Thinking in terms of a geographic region is part of thinking about context.  Today's symposium is all about context which is especially important for the pre-professional period because the fact that much about base ball was just getting started or just getting noticed means original source material is less readily available.  For instance by 1860 in New Jersey, there was a random pattern of clubs throughout the northern part of the state - one connection seems to be that almost without exception the communities which had clubs also had a direct railroad link to Newark.  What that means isn't entirely clear, but the knowledge opens ways to better understand how the game grew and spread throughout the state.  Today, our hope is that by the end of the symposium, each of us will have a better understanding of the context that helped shaped "our game" in the greater New York area.

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