07 June 2019
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.
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.
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: https://www.bl.uk/events/take-me-out-to-the-ball-game-baseball-and-american-culture
Editor's notes: 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. 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.
20 September 2017
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. 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).
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).
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.
14 October 2014
As mentioned in the Babe Ruth blog back in July, the Library was recently pleased to acquire the extensive baseball collection of Mike Ross.
Of its 300+ items, about two thirds were published in the 1980s and 90s – with the rest dating between the late 1940s and 2000s. In subject matter they span the panoply of baseball publishing. There are biographies and autobiographies of players such as Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson and Sandy Koufax, to name but a few; team histories include the Red Sox, the Phillies, the Dodgers and the Yankees; there are books about the Minor Leagues, the Negro League, the American League, the 1919 World Series, the dead ball era and baseball during World War II; and there are works by those associated with the game as managers, owners, umpires, scouts, sports writers and broadcasters.
Not surprisingly, given its vital role in summarizing performance and evaluating players, numerous works incorporate or are devoted to statistical analysis. In addition to annual editions of the American League Red Book, the National League Green Book and team media and information guides, there are also numerous works by Bill James whose innovative statistical approach – ‘sabermetrics’ – earned him a place on Time’s 2006 guide to the 100 most influential people in the world.
Finally, the collection includes literary works that take baseball as their theme, runs of baseball journals including National Pastime and The Baseball Research Journal and – in addition to numerous works highlighting best player, moment, decade or season – there are a few that take a slightly more circumspect approach to the national game.
The collection is now on its way to Boston Spa where it will be catalogued by our colleagues – we will keep you posted on its progress!
05 September 2014
Above: HMS Fury and Hecla in winter quarters near Igloolik (1822-23). Frontispiece to vol. 1 of Parry's account, 'Journal of a second voyage for the discovery of a North-West Passage...' [BL: G.7394]
Last week two Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers reached the North Pole. In and of itself there's nothing unusual here as planes, ships and subs have been reaching the Pole for a long time now. What made the news story, though, was how the Canadian crew celebrated - with a game of hockey at the North Pole.
Interestingly, while this is a news-worthy pastime, it is not a new way of celebrating a milestone or just filling time in the High North. For many years sports have been played to celebrate reaching notable locations (when the German ship Polarstern reached the North Pole in 1991 a game of football ensued) or just to pass time while locked into the ice. Such was the case during the search for the Northwest Passage where the monotony of long periods of time spent locked into the ice were broken up with many activities, not least a bit of sport on nicer days (i.e. when not snowing, foggy, blowing a gale, etc.).
At the top of this post you can see a plate depicting a scene near Igloolik in 1822-23, where sailors pass the time standing around, hunting, working with local Inuit (right in the background) and playing a spot of cricket. We can only imagine how it must have felt, so far away from home and in such an alien environment, to break out the cricket bat and be taken back to memories of leisure time cricket on the green wickets of an English summer.
Above: Inuit children from the Arctic Red River area play football during the summer. In, 'The New North' (p.232) [BL: 010470.ee.18]
A later photograph from the travels of Agnes Cameron captures what she calls, 'Farthest North Football' and it's a reminder of how much cultural exchange was instigated by whalers, traders, prospectors and explorers making their way north in ever greater numbers. Unfortunately Cameron's work doesn't make it into 'Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage' but Parry and his cricket playing crew do; so for more on them, the history of cricket in the Arctic and the expedition's interactions with local Inuit make sure you come along to the exhibition once it opens on November 14th.
Finally, it's worth noting that Santa has also (unseasonably) visited the icebreakers' crew, but that is a story for another blog post and for his (more timely) appearance in 'Lines in the Ice'.
11 July 2014
One hundred years ago today, on 11 July 1914, George Herman ‘Babe’ Ruth, Jr made his Major League Baseball (MLB) debut as a left-handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. During the next five years – which included three World Series championships – Ruth transitioned from pitcher to powerful slugging outfielder, and in September 1919 he broke the MLB single-season home run record. Yet three months later, in a move now regarded as one of the worst transfer deals in history, he was sold to the New York Yankees.
On 1 May 1920, just weeks into the new season, Ruth hit a ball out of the Yankees’ home stadium, a feat only previously achieved by Joe Jackson. His second home run came the very next day. By the end of May he had broken the record for home runs in one month. In June he broke this again, and on 4 September he both tied and then broke the organized baseball record for home runs in a season (previously held by a player in the minor Western league). In his fifteen years with the Yankees, Ruth established himself as one of the greatest players of all time, with records including: career home runs (714); slugging percentage (.690), which remained unbroken until 2001; and runs batted in (RBIs) (2,213).
Although not noted for its baseball holdings, the British Library holds a significant collection of early twentieth century sheet music extolling the virtues of America’s national game. Several songs focus specifically on Ruth, including Jas Kendis’s ‘Joosta Like Babe-a-da Ruth’ (New York, 1928; BL shelfmark VOC/1928/KENDIS) which tells of a protagonist so good at baseball that, just like Ruth: ‘He smack-a da baseball up-a so high / He smack ’em in June, it’s come down in July’. Another evocative item, published the year after Ruth retired from MLB, is Babe Ruth’s Baseball Advice (Chicago, 1936; BL shelfmark 7915.w.6), which must surely have been one of the most-desired Christmas and birthday presents for young boys across the United States.
The Library’s recent acquisition of the Mike Ross Baseball Collection – which includes several hundred books and programmes and a run of the UK Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) Examiner – significantly boosts our baseball holdings and future blogs will keep readers posted on its accessibility.
06 July 2014
As cycling fever descends on the UK (and the British Library!) we are marking American cycling success: on this day (6 July) in 1986 Davis Phinney became the first American cyclist to win a stage of the Tour de France. His success was replicated just 10 days later when, on 16 July, Greg LeMond became the second American rider to win a stage. LeMond then went on to become the first non-European professional cyclist to win the Tour de France (which he did again in 1989 and 1990). He is currently the only American to officially win the Tour—following Floyd Landis' and Lance Armstrong's disqualifications for doping.
With Le Grand Départ currently visiting Yorkshire and due in London tomorrow, the British Library has been showcasing its organisational cycling prowess: several intrepid members of staff, including Team Americas’ own Matthew Shaw, and a British Library Reader cycled the 200 miles from the British Library’s main site at St Pancras in London, to Boston Spa in Yorkshire in 48 hours on 3–4 July. The Library is also highlighting Collection items related to cycling with a free display on the history of cycling and the Tour de France currently open at Boston Spa.
The display includes accounts of the early days of cycling as a mass pastime and sport, including an 1897 description of a ‘bicycle gymkhana’ and more recent journalistic accounts of the legendary cycling extravaganza. Also featured is Samuel Abt’s 1990 biography of Greg LeMond, LeMond: the Incredible Comeback.
The display also includes typographical prints responding creatively to the 2011 Tour de France – including Mark Cavendish’s Green Jersey win – and the original manuscript of Tim Moore’s best-selling French Revolutions, his 2001 account of cycling the entire 3,630km route of the 2000 Tour de France.
A paperback of Tim Moore’s 2001 best-seller French Revolutions, alongside an original draft by the author and a hand-drawn map of the route he took (following the 3,630km route of the 2000 Tour de France), on display at the British Library at Boston Spa. Photograph by the British Library, CC-BY-NC.
The Tour de France display at the British Library at Boston Spa is free to visit until the end of August during Reading Room opening hours (9.00-4.30, Mon-Fri).
For more on the 1986 Tour de France, see Richard Moore, Slaying the Badger: LeMond, Hinault and the Greatest Ever Tour de France  (London, 2012). YK.2013.a.3441.
03 July 2014
A display to celebrate the Tour de France’s fourth visit to the United Kingdom for the Grand Départ 2014
Since 2011, in what they call an act of ‘endurance letterpress’, the American printers and designers Jill Cypher and Ray Nichols from the design and print house, Lead Graffiti, have produced a typographical response to each day of the three-week-long Tour de France – one of the most demanding and most beautiful sporting events in the world.
And we have three sets of these posters: images from the 2011 edition can be seen in Boston Spa, along with one or two other American items, while posters from 2012 and 2013 can be see in the Front Hall of the British Library, on the walls next to the Readers' Lounge (floor 3) and the Staff Lounge (floor 2) until November. Jill and Ray are blogging about it on the Lead Graffiti site.
Tour de Lead Graffiti, clamshell edition from 2013.
Meanwhile, a short story published to celebrate the Yorkshire start of the Tour, Stoller's Départ, should be available in the Shop. All being well, a copy should soon be deposited at Boston Spa, after we arrive with it following our ride there in our own 'Tour de BL' (#TdeBL).
- Matthew Shaw
27 June 2014
Cover of Douglas Cowie, Stoller's Départ (London, 2014).
The Grand Départ of the 2014 Tour de France has not escaped the notice of Team Americas. Next week, you will be able to see the Tour de Lead Graffiti at St Pancras, a colourful set of typographical posters produced to celebrate the 2012 and 2013 editions of the Tour by the American printers, Lead Graffiti (we will post more about this; the exhibition is also listed on our What's On pages). Plus, we've contributed to a display of cycling material, which includes a draft of Tim Moore's French Revolutions: Cycling the Tour de France, at our Boston Spa site. I have booked the following Monday as annual leave to watch the arrival of the peloton in London.
We are also putting our cleats where our mouths are, and participating in what we realise is a bicycle-based recreation of Dick Turpin's ride to Yorkshire, roughly following the route of the 2014 Tour in reverse and riding from our St Pancras site to Boston Spa in two days. We will be carrying something with us: copies of a specially-commissioned short story by the American author, Douglas Cowie, and which can be seen above. At the end of the ride we will deposit it at Boston Spa to be catalogued after its journey of a little over 200 miles (320 km in proper Tour units). Doug has written a bit about it on his website, here.
The story is based on a real ride from the former British Museum Library to the British Library at St Pancras, taking in John Bunyon and some other possibly familiar places and characters en route. You can pick up a copy for a few pounds along with other cycling-related materials at the BL Shop or online.
And the title? Well, if you are familiar with the US film, Breaking Away, then the surname of the main character may ring some bells.
American Collections blog recent posts
- Is ‘America’s National Pastime’ Up for Grabs?
- ‘Stealing Signs’: Baseball, Past and Present
- Baseball in the Library
- Farthest North Cricket (and other Arctic sports)
- Remembering Babe Ruth
- Remembering American success in the 1986 Tour de France
- Tour de Lead Graffiti: 23 posters in 23 days
- Tour de France: Stoller's Depart
- World War One: Inter-Allied Games
- The New York Cosmos