“Base-ball Established as a Business calls upon us to revise our Notions of its Usefulness”

16 Feb

Concern over the post-Civil War baseball boom was not isolated to obscure, financially troubled newspapers.  Shortly after The Harrisburg Topic editorialized on the “silly, even foolish” attention to baseball, The New York Times weighed in on the subject.

While not as staunchly against the game as their Pennsylvania counterparts, The Times had serious concerns:

“The game of baseball is, in many respects, worthy of encouragement.  In a community by far too much given to sedentary occupations and dyspepsia, it furnishes and incentive to open-air exercise, and we should be glad to see it even more resorted to than it is, among the class who would profit most by its benefits.”

Yes, said The Times, baseball was a fine outlet for “our merchants and lawyers and over-worked clerks, after their day of harassing mental labor,” but what loomed on the horizon was the cause for grave concern:

“It is one of the defects of our national character, however, that no sooner do we get hold of a good thing of this sort, than we proceed to make it hurtful by excess.  Base-ball as a recreation was well enough, but base-ball established as a business calls upon us to revise our notions of its usefulness.”

The new, professional game, said The Times, even lacked the one benefit the paper supported—a healthy outlet for players:

“On the contrary, it is so dangerous to life and limb, that in insurance language it would be labeled extra hazardous.  Fatal accidents on the ball-filed have been so common of late as hardly to excite remark, and maiming is the rule and not the exception among members of first-class clubs.  One of the best players of the Red Stockings was so injured in a recent match that he is unable to walk without crutches. (George Wright injured his right leg in an August game in Cincinnati against the Troy Haymakers).  In fact a veteran base-ball player, whose teeth have not been knocked out, or whose bones have not been repeatedly broken, is a lucky rarity.”

George Wright

George Wright

And, like many of the other voices against the growing popularity of the game, The Times said the “moral aspect of our national game” was the most troubling issue:

“At its best, it is an excuse for gambling; at its worst, a device for viler ‘jockeying’ and swindling than ever disgraced the turf.”

The professional game was a scourge that needed to be dealt with:

“It seems time, therefore, that we should ask ourselves what is to be gained by giving to the business of ball-tossing the consideration and importance which seem ludicrously disproportionate to the subject, and are well calculated to seduce the unthinking into profitless pursuit.  Perhaps we may set down to the score of journalistic hyperbole the assertion of one Western paper that the dissolution of the Red Stocking Club would be a national calamity.; but nonsense hardly less preposterous is hourly talked and telegraphed over the country on the same topic.  The spectacle of grave merchants calling a public meeting and subscribing thousands of dollars to establish a club which shall be able to beat another club is sufficiently diverting.  But when we come to have printed in our telegraphic column, side by side, with the war dispatches, and scarcely yielding to them in importance, the various interesting announcements, first, that John Smith has been expelled from the Pipkinsville B.B. Club for getting drunk, and then, next day, that he has been restored, apparently for the same reason, and that the fact has been a matter for public rejoicing, amusement in tinctured with disgust.  We are tempted to suspect that we have been worshipping a very senseless idol and that a young man of health and energy may find many ways of earning a livelihood more creditable to himself and more profitable to his country than by playing in baseball matches.”

Despite the concern about the press “worshipping a very senseless idol,” The Times continued to dutifully report baseball stories at the same rate as the paper had before the editorial; including the November announcement that the Red Stockings were disbanding.

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