Disclaimer: Peter Morris is an acquaintance; we have friends in common and occasionally see each other at the ballpark. Make of that what you will.
Not so long ago, Baseball History began at 1901; we were slightly aware of the earlier professional game, but didn’t pay it serious attention. There’s a new breed of baseball historian, these days, who’ve begun to fix this oversight. Peter Morris is hardly alone in this effort, but at this point he’s the most prominent author in the field.
In this book Morris explores how the game of baseball became respectable by focusing on the developing role of the catcher. I’m not sure his effort is entirely successful. But it’s certainly interesting.
The book features Peter’s usual meticulous research, and covers the evolution of the catcher’s role well. He successfully argues that professional catchers in the early days of the game–before protective gear was invented, and before modern pitching methods were legalized–were necessarily super-human in their ability to absorb punishment. That they had unusual skills is, of course, a given, as is the commonplace that later generations simply didn’t need those skills because of a combination of rules and equipment changes. And I buy the notion the the second generation of professional catchers was compared unfavorably to the game’s pioneer catchers, often without good reason.
I have concern, though, about the psychological structure Morris builds on these foundations. He argues that the “Gay Nineties” professional baseball generation took the changes seriously in ways that might, but needn’t, be true; that the game changed in that era is obviously true, but that the diminished role of the catcher had significant psychological effects on–well, anyone–seems beside the point.
A good read, regardless, and certainly worth study. Morris is finding things in nineteenth-century ball that no one else seems to have looked for.
This review was originally published on LibraryThing.