Mr. Doubleday's game

October 15, 1990|By James H. Bready

BASEBALL: THE PEOPLE'S GAME. By Harold Seymour. Oxford University Press. 639 pages. $24.95. WEEKENDS, the back elevator at the old Sun Square building used to be jammed with young men in baseball uniforms. They had come straight from the recreation department, American Legion, church and other amateur-league ball fields, to bring in the box scores. In those days, the sports pages printed columns of box scores in fine print.

That space is given over now to the chewers and the rechewers of major league baseball. Maybe it's a gain. The elevator, after all, was small and a uniform's dirt could brush off. But we ought to ask: Is baseball still legitimately the national pastime when more and more Americans have never really played it? Well, next century's historians can argue it.

Today, historical investigation still busies itself with the formative decades, as baseball evolved from corner lot and level cow pasture to Camden Yards. The printed record, and the light it throws on American life, have grown long indeed, but insiders still venerate the name Harold Seymour. When a man can title his book simply "Baseball," it's worth noting. This is the third installment -- the first two were subtitled "The Early Years" (1966) and "The Golden Age" (1971). They marched chronologically forward to 1930.

In the wait for Volume III, bystanders wondered whether Seymour, document-glutton though he is, would continue to come up with new stuff, when inning by every blessed inning baseball's past is now being tramped over by the myrmidons of the Society for American Baseball Research and the North American Society for Sport History. Make that, for today's big leagues, pitch by pitch.

Ah, but Harold Seymour didn't used to be just a college history professor; earlier, he was batboy for the real Dodgers and a high school and college infielder. Now Volume III is out, and Seymour has crossed up the opposition, hitting it where they are not. "The People's Game" includes no crowded elevators but 609 text pages packed with the ordinary teams of school, factory, settlement house, Sunday school, prison, armed force, Indian reservation, girls, blacks, down to about World War II. No question: Baseball improved the circumstance of growing up in the U.S.

Baseball was seldom the only organized athletic activity in these settings, which forces Seymour occasionally to strain for evidence of its influence. There's no denying that the sport was an outlet for repressed physical energies; while that might have been socially advantageous in 1920, it isn't always a major factor in 1990. And, sadly, the role of organized baseball has sometimes been odious, as in its racial segregation from 1898 to 1945. (Neither St. Louis team, NL or AL, would sell a grandstand seat to a black spectator until 1944.)

Count on Seymour for some great stories. You think of Ray Chapman as the only player killed in the line of duty? During the Philippines occupation, an Army player slid into second base without having thought to remove the bolo knife from his belt.

And, even if not footnoted, there's always the great research. One of Frederick Douglass' sons was catcher for the Washington Alerts and played at least one game in Baltimore. Which son? Charles E., a detail no Baltimorean was able to track down. Actually, there is very little Baltimore in "The People's Game." The many box scores of long ago seem to have been accompanied by very little editor-level curiosity as to the people organizing and playing in these games.

There's an inadequate index but a great bibliography, crediting many of the newer, younger researchers. And what will Seymour do next, once the scores are in from yet another year's World Series? He just swings that big bat, smoothly, convincingly.

James H. Bready, a retired editorial writer, is historian of the Baltimore Orioles.

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