Base Ball Pioneers and Base Ball Founders by Peter Morris et al, editors: a short review

Here are two impressive, and rather bulky, companion books, written by a couple dozen authors who’ve been researching the origins of the sport. Both concentrate on the years when base ball was developing from its New York roots into the National Pastime. Both books are excellent, and the overall project is a delight. These books begin around 1850 and end around 1870, though those dates were clearly treated as guidelines rather than boundaries. Base Ball Founders considers the development of the game in the northeast, while Base Ball Pioneers covers clubs in the rest of the country.

Generally speaking, both books are organized geographically. For each city or region considered, there’s an overview essay about development of the sport in the area, followed by notes about clubs that played in that vicinity. While there’s some slight variation in format, the typical club essay begins with an overview describing the club’s beginning, its ending, the social origins of its membership, the most important members, a number of specific games and/or seasons, and an assessment of the club’s importance in the sport’s development (or, in some cases, in local society). Most club essays are followed by biographical sketches of the club’s members. All have short bibliographical notes, and sometimes-interesting footnotes.

Each club essay is designed to be self-contained, which generates a certain amount of redundancy, but that turns out to be relatively painless. Although the books have a large number of authors, there are no jarring stylistic or organizational changes from essay to essay, which speaks well of the editors. The important differences between the club sections result from varying documentation–while some clubs are extensively documented, others left only light paper trails. (There are similar differences in the biographical essays, which is aggravated by the difficulty of researching the lives of folks with common names.) For those interested in such things, watching these researchers cope with varying resources is part of the enjoyment; these folks are quite aware of their sources, and discuss some of them at great length. And a surprise: The authors’ extensive use of quotation shows that “national pastime” became part of the sport’s lexicon much earlier than I’d expected.

These books are primarily about clubs who played early baseball–that is, the New York game. The Massachusetts game gets some coverage as many New England clubs began playing that version before accepting the national consensus, and other varieties of the sport get occasional mentions, but except in a couple club essays there’s little discussion of the reasons the New York game prevailed. This is a book about clubs and regions, and only incidentally about the sport’s roots and rivals.

All in all, two excellent books. Both should be in the library of anyone with a serious interest in the early history of the game baseball.










This review was originally published on LibraryThing.