Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Literary Off Season

Long before Rogers Hornsby famously remarked that he spent the winter staring out the window, waiting for the start of a new season, base ball players, especially in the the north, had to endure months away from the ball field.  For many, the long work week of the period may have  absorbed the time previously carved out for practice and match play.  But even in those days of limited leisure, season's end meant at least some time was available for idle hands (and minds) to use for good or ill.  When the Warren Club of Roxbury, Massachusetts (now part of Boston) decided in December of 1860 to intentionally use the winter months for self improvement, it drew high praise and lengthy comment from the New York Clipper.  Reading in a Boston newspaper that the club "had organized itself into a literary and debating association for the winter," gave a Clipper writer, possibly Henry Chadwick, the paper's cricket and base ball editor, sufficient material and motivation to go on for almost a full column of unsolicited advice for any base ball club within the reach of his pen.

New York Clipper - December 22, 1860

If the Warren Club's approach to the winter hiatus was somewhat unique, their on-the-field experience also stood out from what was happening elsewhere in the country.  Like most of their neighbors, the young men from Roxbury opted for the locally popular Massachusetts game rather than the rapidly expanding New York version.  Rather than playing on diamond shaped fields, the Warren Club and their opponents took their positions on a square field with four foot high wooden stakes for bases with varying distances between bases, but in all cases less than 90 feet.  Also different from the New York game was the position of the batter or striker, who stood between the first and fourth bases, facing a player about 30-35 feet away, throwing, not pitching, a softer ball.  If the softer ball and shorter distance favored the pitcher, this was more than compensated for by the absence of foul territory, creating a field far too big to be defended even by the larger teams (10-14 suggested) of the Massachusetts game.  The softer ball was a necessity since like many non-New York games, runners could by retired by "plugging" or "soaking" them with a thrown ball.  And there were plenty of opportunities to do just that in a game made for high scoring with the winning team, the first to reach the century mark.

Massachusetts Game 

Regardless of the differences between the two games, however, winter weather sooner or later ended play for the year, freeing up the time for the Warren Club's decision that was so praised by the Clipper or at least by the article's author.  In recommending using the winter months for high quality literary pursuits, the Clipper writer presumably had something in mind other than the content of his own newspaper.  The first page of the same December 22, 1860 issue contained the first episode of a serial entitled "The Cock of the Walk" or "The Bowery Boys on the Trail of Blood."  Praised as "A Thrilling Story of City Life," written especially for the Clipper, the story opens well after midnight in "a drinking saloon in the Bowery," occupied by pipe smoking men, lacing their conversation with four letter words, made somewhat more tolerable by dashes in appropriate places.  Although the first episode only hints at at future content, there is more than enough questionable material to be confident the writer had other ideas for the proposed literary societies.  Any doubts on the subject were removed by another serial running inside the paper, "Belerius - the Gladiator, a Romance of Old Rome."

Having already made the decision to come together for literary pursuits, and assuming the Clipper wasn't an option, the members of the Warren Club faced practical choices about reading material.  While they could have fallen back on existing works like Shakespeare or most of the complete novels of Charles Dickens, ads in the Boston newspapers offered no shortage of new books.  For the scientifically inclined, there was the third volume of Louis Agassiz's Contributions to the Natural History of the United States, where supposedly "the views of Darwin on the origin of species are also considered."  If nothing else that would have provided plenty of content for the debating side of the association.  More practical perhaps in times of every day application was local author, Ralph Waldo Emerson's collection of essays The Conduct of Life intended to answer "the question of the times" - "how shall I live."  It was an especially pertinent question given what was going on in the nation, especially in the south, and the first two editions were sold out within a week.  The looming national crisis also gave special relevance to John Wingate Thornton's The Pulpit of the American Revolution, a collection of "political" sermons from 1776 intended perhaps to direct the reader back to the nation's founding principles.

Certainly these and other works gave the members of the Warren Club plenty of food for thought and discussion before the new season dawned.  By then, however, events had over taken every day life and, at least for some, the ball field gave way to the battlefield or stopped the new season before it even got started.  A search of Massachusetts newspapers post 1860 shows no further activity by the Warren Club. Only a few members of the club have been identified, but one, J. Henry Symonds spent the 1861 base ball season at the front with the 6th and 22nd Massachusetts, avoiding being hit with a different, much more lethal type of ball.  By war's end, the Massachusetts game had been supplanted by the New York game and if any members of the Warren Club returned to the playing field after Appomattox, it was probably with a new team, playing, for them, a new game.  The extent to which other clubs followed the Warren Club's example and the Clipper's exhortations is also unknown. That may be fortunate for today's vintage clubs which typically put a high priority on historical accuracy, but may not be anxious to spend the off season discussing Darwin, Emerson or the modern equivalent thereof.

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