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19 posts categorized "Eccles Fellows"

07 June 2019

Is ‘America’s National Pastime’ Up for Grabs?

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Professional baseball heads to London later this month with its sacred status in American culture once more in the spotlight. While the two-day series between the historic rivals, the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, was an instant sell-out in London, back home crowds are declining, television ratings are falling and, despite the best efforts to speed-up play, games are dragging-on for longer than three hours - an eternity in today’s era of instant gratification. Those fans that do attend games or watch on TV are older and whiter than America as a whole. On social media Major League Baseball is dwarfed by the sporting behemoths of the NFL and NBA, the fame of baseball’s elite players a fraction of that enjoyed by the global superstars of professional football and basketball. It’s not surprising that each new season begins with commentators questioning whether the so-called ‘national pastime’ is in irreversible decline.

Baseball blog June I

Ed Linn, The Great Rivalry: The Yankees and the Red Sox, 1901-1990. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1991. British Library Shelfmark: General Reference Collection Mike Ross 281.

And yet this simple contest of pitcher and batter is this year celebrating its 150th anniversary as a professional sport with its role as an emblem for American culture still jealously defended. Indeed, that very longevity is a source of strength:  baseball’s romanticized all-American creation story, which rejects its origins in the English game of rounders, may now be acknowledged as myth, but it provides the bedrock for its many cultural claims.  Ever since 1919, when the philosopher Morris Cohen first declared baseball a ‘national religion’ which offered ‘redemption from the limitations of our petty individual lives and the mystic unity of the larger life of which we are part’, baseball-obsessed scholars and multiple purveyors of cultural output have offered the game as a lens through which to view the complexities of American history. It is a rural game popularized in America’s industrializing cities; a team sport of democratic instincts soiled by its shameful record of racial and gender exclusion. It captures the essence of American capitalism in the endless struggle between owners and players over the division of its revenues. With baseball’s twentieth century expansion south and west, and the suburbanization of its fan base, it mirrors the march of post-war prosperity into new regions of the country; and all the time it demonstrates its capacity to cater simultaneously to two conflicting strains of the national character - unbridled consumerism and anxiety-fueled nostalgia.

Baseball blog june 2019 2

Morris Cohen, 1880-1947. Painted by Joseph Margulies. CCNY Library collection. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Re-enforcing these connections, a lively stream of cultural output still flows – in literature, language, film and music – which celebrates the continuity of American life and the mythical role of fathers in the generational transmission of American values.  Baseball’s story, so the argument goes, is America’s story

Of course, not everyone accepts these sweeping metaphorical claims – the baseball historian Daniel Nathan has lamented the sentimentality, ignorance and nationalism that ‘becloud our sense of baseball history and reality’. In baseball, Nathan asserts, romance has obscured the reality of the commercial and cultural onslaught from America’s other big sporting beasts. Similarly, Edward White has complained of the ‘unfounded assertions, rampant over-generalizations and exercises in wish fulfilment’, made by baseball’s scholarly and media boosters.

So which side is right in this long-running battle over cultural inheritance? Is the label of America’s ‘national pastime’ up for grabs, or was it surrendered long ago? These issues will be debated in a special event at the British Library, Take Me Out to the Ballgame: Baseball and American Culture, on Friday 28 June, 19.00 – 20.15, the eve of the Red Sox-Yankees London series. Taking part in the panel discussion will be distinguished baseball writers, baseball historians and past-practitioners of the game, with the event chaired by Matthew Engel, the eminent cricket writer, now a wholehearted convert to America’s game. If you want to join the conversation, book your tickets here: https://www.bl.uk/events/take-me-out-to-the-ball-game-baseball-and-american-culture

Chris Birkett

The British Library is the home to the Mike Ross Collection of baseball books and memorabilia which contains more than 300 items relating to America’s national pastime.

Chris Birkett is undertaking postgraduate research on the Clinton presidency and baseball at King’s College London, where he is a Professor Sir Richard Trainor Scholar, supported by the Eccles Centre at the British Library

22 May 2019

The Power of Memoir

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Where does the personal reside in our understanding of history, social issues and human experience? And what does the form of the memoir distinctively illuminate?

In 2018 novelist Tessa McWatt used her residency as an Eccles British Library Writer’s Award holder to work on a memoir on race and story-telling which traced the hybridity of her genetic make-up and the issues of racism she has faced on both sides of the ‘divide’. Her practice-based research is engaged in issues of colonialism and the historical and structural underpinnings of the creation of race and how her personal experience has been embedded in those structures.

On 3 June, Tessa will be speaking at the British Library in conversation with two historians, Sarah Knott and Norma Clarke, chaired by Erica Wagner, to talk about how embracing their own experiences and investing in the memoir form has enabled them to develop and extend their work as scholars and writers.  In preparation for their event, we asked them to given an example of how an historical item from the archive helped inform their projects: Sarah on maternity, Norma on family and Tessa on race.

Sarah Knott:

An Interesting Condition excerpt

Excerpt from Abigail Lewis [Otis Burger], An Interesting Condition (London: Odhams Press Ltd, 1951), pp. 180-181. Shelfmark 8417.cc.29.

1949 New York. Otis Burger wanted to stop each contraction and see what it felt like. It was odd having an entirely new sensation inside. She had been reading the English doctor Grantly Dick-Read, who thought childbirth should be painless ‒ disliking his determination to reduce women to their biology, but appreciating his tenderness. Her fear was the hospital feeling of being naked, and at the mercy of strangers, like a specimen of some sort. Male doctors were condescending; they seemed to think the difficulty was all in the mother’s mind and that birth was too much of a commonplace for the mother to make such a silly fuss.

Otis Burger wrote her remarkable maternal memoir, An Interesting Condition, some decades before the women’s liberation movement encouraged others to pick up their pens and make maternity properly visible. The book was unusual enough that it was printed not just in her New York but also in London, thus making its way into the hands of ordinary English readers as well as the collections of the British Library. That she published under a pseudonym was some indication of the taboos that needed to be broken.

In writing Mother: An Unconventional History, I plundered personal writings like these to understand past experiences of pregnancy, birth and being with an infant. And I took inspiration, too, from what happens when you think, like Otis Burger, in a memoir form. Blending memoir into history, and history into memoir, I found myself asking questions I might otherwise have overlooked. In bleary sleeplessness and with an infant close at hand, I wondered, what was the history of the maternal night? Or, what were the new sensations of feeling continually interrupted, or hearing the sound of an infant’s cry? I found answers not just in past memoirs but in a host of other kinds of materials to be found in libraries and archives, from leather-bound how-to guides to slave narratives and social scientists’ surveys, to private letters and scribbled diaries.

Sarah Knott, Mother (Penguin Viking, 2019)

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Norma Clarke:

My Daugter Maria Callas cover

Evangelia Callas, My Daughter – Maria Callas, as told to Lawrence G Blochman (London: Leslie Frewin, 1967) Shelfmark W77/5490

Not Speaking tells the story of a family quarrel and it does so partly through conventional narrative, partly through oral history interviews and partly by means of investigations into literary subjects: Homer’s Iliad with its quarrelling heroes features throughout, Pope’s poem, The Rape of the Lock, has traction (brother hairdressers Nicky and Michael Clarke are at the heart of the story) and Robert Graves and George Sand in Majorca figure because Majorca is one of the settings, along with Athens and London. I had no intention of researching Maria Callas and it was only by accident that she became included. But asking my mother questions about her life as a girl growing up in Athens led me down unexpected byways. The mother of Prince Philip, for example, Princess Alice, had remained in Athens during the war, and spoke very good Greek; my mother admired her. Maria Callas was also in Athens. Maria left Greece in 1945 and turned her back on her mother and sister, declaring that they hated her and she them. The women were no longer on speaking terms. And then I read a quote from Callas that riveted me: ‘I know my mother wrote a book about me, but I never read it.’

Her mother wrote a book about her! Books by daughters about mothers are ten a penny, but books by mothers about daughters? I couldn’t wait to read it. I rushed to the British Library, and within 70 minutes I had in my hands, My Daughter – Maria Callas, by Evangelia Callas (1960). It’s a book that vibrates with fury, and I reflected that Maria was probably right to keep it at a distance, but for me it was revelatory.

Norma Clarke, Not Speaking (Unbound, 2019)

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Tessa McWatt:

Chinese Oracle Bones

Shang dynasty characters on fragments of an oracle bone dating between 1600 and 1050 BC. British Library, Or. 7694/1516

“What Are You?”

It’s a question I was asked as an eight-year old in a suburban Toronto classroom by my teacher, after the word “Negro” came up in a book the class was reading. It was a word that none of the kids in the room – all ‘white’ except for me -- knew the meaning of.

Shame on Me began as a journey to understand how to answer the question. It looks at all of the strands of my genetic make-up – Scottish, African, English, Irish, Chinese, South Asian -- to find some kind of meaning in biology. But when I began to research the history of race, of the particular ‘miscegenations’ that formed me, it occurred to me that it’s all down to story-telling. I might as well ask an oracle.

Then I came across the Chinese Oracle Bone (dating from between 1600 BC and 1050 BC) in the British Library. I was hooked. I started to frame my book around the idea that ‘knowing’ is storytelling. I saw the Chinese oracle bone as an ancient 23&Me. Diviners used them to answer the elite’s questions about health, birth and death; about crops, the weather; about the outcome of battles or simply whether a particular ancestor was causing a king’s headache. The shoulder blades of ox, sheep, boars, horses and deer, or the shells of tortoises were cleaned of flesh, scraped, polished, and then diviners carved questions into them using a sharp tool. During a divination session, the bone was anointed with blood before questions were posed to ancestors. The diviner then applied such intense heat that the bone or shell cracked, and he interpreted the pattern of the fractures to answer the questions posed.

A bone with the power to provide these kinds of answers would surely provide an answer to ‘What are You?’

If only.

Tessa McWatt, Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging (Scribe UK, forthcoming, October 2019)

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Mother and Not Speaking covers

To find out more, join Sarah, Norma and Tessa in conversation with Erica Wagner at the British Library on Monday 3 June. More details: https://www.bl.uk/events/memoir-identity-experience

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 July 2018

Call for Applicants: Eccles British Library Writer’s Award

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North America (John Rocque)

Above: John Rocque's, 'A General Map of North America' [Maps K.Top.118.32]

The summer marches on and while we are all tempted to kick-back and enjoy this unusual spell of consistent sunshine the writers in our audience may, nonetheless, want to have an eye on their plans for next year. The Eccles Centre’s call for applicants to the 2019 Writer’s Award is currently open and you have until the end of August to apply. For those of you who don’t know, the Award amounts to £20,000 for a twelve month residency at the British Library. Applicants should be working on a non-fiction or fiction full-length book, written in the English Language, the research for which requires that they make substantial use of the British Library’s collections relating to any part of the Americas (North, Central and South America, and the Caribbean). We are very excited to be broadening the horizons of the Award for this year and hope authors using the wider Americas collections will apply.

Wulf ander's choice C12682-03 (lo-res)

Above: Andrea Wulf (bhoto by Ander McIntyre) and an illustration of a monkey created by Humboldt for the account of his voyage (149.h.5.(1), from BL Images Online)

Previous awardees include Benjamin Markovits, Will Atkins, Andrea Wulf and many others. Each of our Award holders has used the Americas collections of the British Library to add extra depth to their research. For example, Will Atkins used the collections to research the history of exploration of deserts in the US as well as the history of events like the Burning Man festival. Meanwhile, Andrea Wulf drew from the Library’s collections, especially our printed book and maps collections, to conduct her research into the life and travels of Alexander von Humbolt. The Americas collections are broad in scope and potentially useful items can be found in the form of printed books, manuscripts, newspapers, government documents, photographs, maps, pamphlets and many more materials types. As a result, a wide world of inspiration awaits our 2019 Award holder.

If this has inspired you to leave the sun lounger and consider putting in an application, we would love to hear from you. For more information about applying for the Award, as well as insights into the work of previous winners, please visit our website. If you have any questions or would like to talk to someone about the award you can also get in touch with us at: eccles-centre@bl.uk.

Phil Hatfield, Head of the Eccles Centre

14 June 2018

Call for Applicants: Fulbright-British Library Eccles Centre Scholar Award

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Above: Klondiker's buying mining licenses in Victoria, BC. J. W. Jones, 1898 [Picturing Canada project on Wiki Commons]

Summertime is always exciting for the Eccles Centre as we announce new calls for our various awards and fellowships. Keep an eye on the Americas blog for news of our various award schemes over the coming months but today I wanted to write about our US-UK Fulbright Commission Scholarship. This is a relatively new part of our programme and is a partnership with Fulbright to bring a US-based scholar to the Library so they can work on the North American collections held here. Work can be on any area of the collections relating to Canada, the Caribbean and / or the United States and applications connected to the Centre’s research priorities are encouraged.

The Fulbright-Eccles Scholarship is a unique opportunity for a US-based scholar as it provides a significant award (£12,000) to cover a dedicated research trip of twelve months. As well as using the collections of the Library our Scholars are encouraged to take part in our events programme, including our evening lectures and Summer Scholars season, and present about their work with partner institutions outside of the Library, such as the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford. This provides a rich set of opportunities to develop ideas and discuss them with a variety of audiences during the scholarship. We are also happy to facilitate a Scholar in conducting wider work with the Library and helping them get to know other parts of the Library’s operation, such as our innovative Learning Team, British Library Publishing and others.

Our 2018-19 Scholar will be Professor Andrew Hartman who will be using the British Library’s collections to conduct further research on the influence of Karl Marx on American political thought. The research will form part of Professor Hartman’s upcoming book, Karl Marx in America, which is contracted to University of Chicago Press. The Fulbright-Eccles Scholar is one of over 800 U.S. citizens who will teach and conduct research abroad for the 2018-2019 academic year through the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program; if you would like to apply to be our Scholar in the 2019-20 academic year please do see our website for further information and get in touch with us.

Phil Hatfield, Head of the Eccles Centre

09 May 2018

Spring news from the Eccles Centre

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North America (John Rocque)

Above: John Rocque's, 'A General Map of North America' [Maps K.Top.118.32]

Our colleagues from the Americas Collections have kindly allowed us a slot on the blog, so we thought we would let you know about some changes that are coming to the Eccles Centre. Spring is a particularly exciting time of year for the Eccles Centre as we welcome our new Visiting Fellows. Our Fellows are drawn from across the UK, Europe and North America and the Centre provides them with a financial award to support research using the North American collections of the British Library, plus a one-year membership of the Library.

Our Visiting Fellowships announcement marks the end of our 2018 awards and so our attention is now turning to calls for applications for our 2019 cohort. An invitation to apply for the Centre’s Fulbright Scholarship is now available on the Fulbright website and we will soon be advertising the next round of our Writer’s Award. Those of you who read The Bookseller will have seen Catherine Eccles’s recent piece about the award and noted that the scope of works eligible will stretch across the whole Americas during 2019. Watch this space for more details.

Further changes to our awards will be obvious when our call for 2019 Fellows comes out this summer. We are keen to help applicants see the potential of the Library’s collections more clearly and so from 2019 there will be a series of research priorities championed by the Centre. These are not meant to be exclusive, we still want to hear about all research the Library’s North American collections can support, and instead provide a window into areas where the collections are particularly strong. The priorities will also shape the Centre’s events schedule for the coming year and, hopefully, create a cohort of fellows working in similar areas. With this in mind the priorities for April 2018 – April 2019 will be:

  • North American and Caribbean Indigenous Studies
  • Literary, theatrical and artistic connections in Canada, the Caribbean and the US
  • Book history and arts in North America
  • Pacific politics and geopolitics
  • Migration in/from/through Canada, the Caribbean and the US
  • LGBTQ histories and culture in Canada, the Caribbean and the US

Should anyone wish to discuss possible research projects, collaborations or events that tie in with these priority areas please get in touch with us at eccles-centre@bl.uk.

Evidence of our research priorities can be seen in the Centre’s upcoming events for the spring and summer, with ‘Buffalo Bill Goes to China’ and ‘The Death of Captain Cook’ speaking directly to our new priorities. So too does the Centre’s support of the British Library’s, ‘Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land’ and the season of events that accompanies the exhibition. We are also excited to be supporting an, 'In Conversation' with The Last Poets; Sarah Churchwell’s critical history of ‘America First’; and our two Black Lives Matter events, ‘From Black Lives Matter to White Power Presidency’ and ‘Black Lives Matter in the US and UK Today’, amongst our packed schedule

We hope the changes to the Centre excite you as much as they do us and we look forward to seeing you at one of our events soon.

Phil Hatfield, Head of the Eccles Centre for American Studies

18 December 2017

Early American Science: Benjamin Rush

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As described in my previous blog Early American Science: Benjamin Franklin, scientific investigation was a central part of eighteenth century philosophical enquiry. A desire to understand the detailed workings of the natural world was not seen to be antithetical to the idea of God the creator, but rather a means of studying and thereby celebrating the infinite variety of his creation. Indeed, far from there being a psychological or theological block on scientific enquiry, it had been institutionally and culturally encouraged since the late 17th century, becoming not only acceptable but also fashionable.

The basic ground rules of this spirit of enquiry are encapsulated in the title of Benjamin Franklin’s ground-breaking work Experiments and Observations on Electricity (London, 1751; shelfmark: 538.l.5.(6)) just as they are in Medical Inquiries and Observations (4 Vols., Philadelphia, 1805; shelfmark MFR/3019 1 Reel 36:1), the most important writings of Franklin’s friend and fellow Philadelphian, Benjamin Rush (1746-1813).

 Benjamin_Rush

Benjamin Rush: an engraving by James Barton Longacre (1794-1869) from a painting by Thomas Sully (1783-1872). Courtesy Wikipedia.

Like Franklin, Benjamin Rush was a practical empiricist. He became the first professor of chemistry in America (at the age of twenty-two), was the United States’ most eminent contemporary physician, and is still regarded as the father of American psychiatry. And just as many contemporary politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are attempting to unify health and social care, so Rush – himself a politician and a signatory of the Declaration of Independence – saw no divide. He firmly believed that both physical and mental health were intrinsically affected by social conditions and mores, and was a keen advocate of government intervention on a considered basis, akin to the modern practice of nudge theory.

A glance at works written by Rush and listed in Early American Science: A Selective Guide to Materials at the British Library  illustrates both the breadth of his interests and the continuing importance of his areas of concern. These include: ‘An account of the state of the body and mind in old age’ in Sir J. Bart Sinclair, The Code of Health etc., Vol. 4 (Edinburgh, 1807; shelfmark 41.d.18); Medical Enquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind (2nd edition, London, 1789; shelfmark 1039.k.31); An Inquiry into the Influence of Physical Causes upon the Moral Faculty (Philadelphia, 1839; shelfmark 8404.e.33.(2)); A Dissertation on the Spasmodic Asthma of Children (London, 1770; shelfmark T.991.(2)); and An Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits upon the Human Body and Mind (Boston, 1812; shelfmark 1507/278).      

Rush was a man of strong opinions and could sometimes be fractious. He certainly did not lack either physical or moral courage. As surgeon general of the army he fought alongside General Washington at the Battle of Princeton, but was later sacked for ‘disloyalty’ after he sought to bypass Washington while attempting to reform the administration of the army’s hospitals.

Rush battle

In this painting by John Trumbull - The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777 - Benjamin Rush can be seen behind George Washington; both are on horseback. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Even more famously, Rush stayed in Philadelphia to treat the sick (including himself) throughout the 1793 yellow fever epidemic that killed one in ten of the city’s population. Indeed, Rush was uniquely influential in the development of medicine in the early years of the Republic. In 1792 he became the first Professor in the Institutes of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. In the following two decades he taught an estimated 3,500 students. His Sixteen Introductory Lectures (shelfmark: X.329/1803) influenced many more after his death and has been republished three times during the past half century. [1]

A humanitarian, Rush was an active campaigner for penal reform and a lifelong opponent of slavery. His 1773 Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements on the Slavery of Negroes in America (shelfmark MFR/3017 *1* Reel 140:14 140:13) led the next year to the creation of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, the first such institution in America. [2]

Benjamin Rush, like Benjamin Franklin, is buried in the Christ Church Burial Ground, Philadelphia.

George Goodwin

George is an Eccles Centre Makin Fellow at the British Library and author of Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America's Founding Father. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016. (Shelfmark: YD.2016.a.3841).

Notes

1.  Benjamin Rush, Sixteen Introductory Lectures. Oceanside, N.Y: Dabor Science Publications, 1977. Repr. of the 1811 edition published by Bradford and Innskeep, Philadelphia. (Shelfmark: X.329/18023)

2.  Benjamin Rush, Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements on the Slavery of Negroes in America by Benjamin Rush. Philadelphia: J. Dunlap, 1773. (Shelfmark: MFR/3017 *1* Reel 140:14 140:13)

Further Reading 

Claire G. Fox, Gordon L. Miller and Jacqueline C. Miller, comps. Benjamin Rush, M.D.: A Bibliographic Guide. Westport, Conn.; London: Greenwood Press, 1996. Shelfmark: 2725.e.3276.

Lyman Butterfield, ed. Letters of Benjamin Rush (2 vols). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951. Shelfmark: 5577.100000 30(1).

Carl Binger, Revolutionary Doctor: Benjamin Rush, 1746-1813, New York: W.W. Norton, 1966. Shelfmark: 5577.100000 30(1).

25 September 2017

Following Sarah Royce

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In 1849, Sarah Royce left her Iowa home and set off with her husband and daughter for California. Reading Royce’s stoic memoir, A Frontier Lady (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932; shelfmark: 010409.ee.40) I wondered how she really felt as she crossed America in pursuit of her husband’s dreams. My curiosity evolved in my second novel, which follows two women from Chicago to California during the Gold Rush.

HannahRoycebook 4jpg

 Sarah Royce. A Frontier Lady: Recollections of the Gold Rush and Early California. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932. (Shelfmark: 010409.ee.40) 

I’ve been studying first-hand accounts of other women who made that very journey—from the good-natured letters of Mary-Jane Megquier to the pessimistic journal of Mary Bailey. But though these accounts are often vivid, I’ve struggled to imagine the landscapes they describe—the blankness of the plains, the bitter waste of the desert, the steep green relief of the Sierras. So, with the support of the Eccles Centre, I decided to make the journey myself.

The California Zephyr train travels the 2,438 miles from Chicago to San Francisco. It broadly follows Royce’s route; but where Royce’s journey took six months, the train takes fifty-two hours. It was a thrill to watch scenery I’d previously encountered only in books—the lonely prairies, the great bloody sunsets, the strange sunken rivers of the high desert.

Hannahprairie

The prairies of Iowa. Image, author's own.

Seeing the landscape first-hand made a journey that was previously only an idea, a reality. And while I often encountered the unexpected—I hadn’t grasped that the trail was continuously flanked by mountains from the onset of the Rockies, nor had I anticipated that the Utah desert would look so like the moon—much of the landscape was as I had pictured it in the library.

Hannahsunkenriver

A sunken river in Utah. Image, author's own.

The trip was revelatory; but it also gave me confidence to write what I’d already imagined. For me, confidence is one of the most important outputs of researching fiction. As Zadie Smith said, “It’s such a confidence trick, writing a novel. The main person you have to trick into confidence is yourself.”

Hannah Kohler

Hannah is a joint winner of this year's Eccles British Library Writer's Award. More information about this Award, and all of the Eccles Centre's activities, can be found at www.bl.uk/eccles-centre 

Sources: Apron Full of Gold: The Letters of Mary Jane Megquier from San Francisco, 1849-1856, edited with an introduction by Polly Welts Kaufman. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994 (shelfmark: YA.1995.a.22660); Ho for California!: Women's Overland Diaries from the Huntington Library, edited and annotated by Sandra L Myres. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1980 (shelfmark: Document Supply 80/24701).

 

20 September 2017

‘Stealing Signs’: Baseball, Past and Present

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Cheating in baseball is as old as the game itself. Whether a pitcher doctors the ball with saliva making it difficult to hit, a runner deliberately spikes an opposing fielder as he slides into base, or a batter uses a ‘corked’ bat to get extra propulsion on the ball, underhand practices are part and parcel of America’s national pastime. But recent allegations that the Boston Red Sox unlawfully used high-tech Apple watches to gain an advantage over their biggest rivals, the New York Yankees (New York Times, 5 September 2017), has reignited the debate about the blurred line between gamesmanship (bending the rules) and outright cheating.

The case against the Red Sox centres on allegations of ‘stealing signs’ from their opponents – spotting the coded gestures made by the fielding team which indicate what type of pitch is likely to be thrown - and relaying them to the batter via an Apple watch worn by one of the Red Sox coaches. In baseball’s complex code of honour ‘stealing signs’ is acceptable, but using electronic aids to help you do so is officially foul play.

While the baseball authorities ponder what punishment, if any, to impose on the Red Sox, they may find themselves considering a remarkably similar case of technology and cheating, which made headlines more than a century ago. The story involves a Philadelphia Phillies coach called Pearce ‘Petie’ Chiles and an electronic buzzer buried beneath his feet.

Pearce_Chiles

Pearce Chiles. Wikimedia Commons.

It is recalled in detail by Joe Dittmar in the 1991 edition of The Baseball Research Journal, one of multiple volumes of the annual Historical and Statistical Review of the Society for American Baseball Research held in the British Library’s Mike Ross Collection of baseball books and memorabilia.

The scheme to ‘steal signs’ deployed by Chiles back in 1900 was ingenious and surprisingly sophisticated: a co-conspirator sat in the stands equipped with a spyglass to spot the signs made by the opposing catcher. He then sent a signal to an electronic buzzer in a wooden box buried beneath the spot where Chiles stood to coach on the third base line. Each sequence of buzzes represented a certain type of pitch and Chiles would tell the Phillies batter what pitch to expect next. The subterfuge was only uncovered when an opposing fielder’s suspicions were aroused by the strange jerking movements made by Chiles each time the buzzer went off. The fielder dug up the ground with his spikes and struck the outside of the buried box, revealing a mass of wiring. The Phillies had been caught red-handed, but there was no admission of guilt and no official reprimand. Today’s Red Sox will be hoping for similar leniency.

Stories of deceit, dishonesty and playing fast-and-loose with the rules are woven into baseball folklore and recounted in numerous items held at the Library: from John McCallum’s account of the legendary Ty Cobb sharpening the spikes on his boots just to inflict injury on opponents in The Tiger Wore Spikes: An Informal Biography of Ty Cobb (New York,  1956; shelfmark General Reference Collection, Mike Ross 144) to Eliot Asinof’s classic narrative of the ‘fixed’ 1919 World Series, Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series (New York, 1963; shelf mark DSC W55/1273).

1919_blacksox

Chicago White Sox, 1919. Image in Wikimedia Commons. PD-US

While the Commissioner of Baseball and president of Yale, Bart Giamatti, loftily pronounced baseball ‘a living memory of what American culture at its best wishes to be,’ perhaps Dan Gutman’s compilation of stories about baseball’s shadier side captures the essence of the sport’s moral ambiguity rather better: It Ain’t Cheatin’ if You Don’t Get Caught (New York, 1990; shelfmark General Reference Collection, Mike Ross 304).

Baseball ain't cheatin

 Dan Gutman. It Ain't Cheatin' If You Don't Get Caught. New York: Penguin Books, 1990. Shelfmark: General Reference Collection, Mike Ross 304.

Chris Birkett is undertaking postgraduate research on the Clinton Presidency at King's College London, where he is a Professor Sir Richard Trainor Scholar, supported by the Eccles Centre at the British Library.