Tuesday, March 07, 2006

When Was the Golden Age of Baseball Again?

Young baseball fans growing up in today's America know one thing for certain, in the past there was a golden age of baseball. During this golden age the players were all gentlemen, there was no cheating, and the game was pure and beautiful. After all, the newsstands are filled with books and newspaper articles about how Barry Bonds is a veritable pharmaceutical factory. We are in an era without heroes and love a sport better forgotten until it becomes more like it once was.

It is with this backdrop that baseball historian Harvey Frommer wrote his newest book Old Time Baseball. His introduction hints at the sports need of a return to a "better" time:

In 1975, my appreciation of the game of baseball deepened and
expanded...that year made me acutely aware of the hold of the game on America, of its roots, its idiosyncrasies, its magic...
Baseball in 2005...[T]he blaring rock music, the private boxes filled with people who too often have scant knowledge of and even less feeling for the game...crass commercialism fueled by print and electronic media...

Frommer's introduction is filled with the lament of the scholarly lover of baseball. It seems as if Frommer began his book looking for a lost, better, more innocent era than the one today. But if that was his goal, he failed. He succeeded instead to show how baseball has always been a sport with its scandals, lies, and artificial pageantry.

Old-Time Baseball is a brief, but detailed, look at baseball's growth from an amateur game to a professional sport during 19th century America. The book is the story of a game that went from idle recreation to national pastime. The story is one of false mythology, collusion with gamblers, and ruthless businessmen. It is a great story and one that puts the modern controversies of the game into context. This doesn't mean that the current controversies aren't legitimate, they are, but it does mean that controversy, conspiracy, and eventual correction are mainstays of the wonderful game that is baseball.

Frommer's book is useful both as entertainment and as a future reference which collects an abundance of baseball information into its mere 188 pages. You can read the book in a few hours, but to truly soak in the information takes repeated visits.

The first chapter is a simple timeline of baseball's history. It provides a list of important dates in the development of America's pastime and is thus a chapter readers will find themselves returning to again and again. Do you want to find out when the first recorded triple was hit? According to Frommer, that would be April 24, 1876 by Levi Meyerle. Though more interesting is the fact that on July 18, 1882, Tony Mullane pitched both right- and left-handed during a game. The second through fourth chapters are a narrative description of the development of the game throughout the century and the fifth chapter is a collection of biographical sketches of many of the great players of the gilded age. All of the information in the book is useful, even if it is dryly written.

While the book begins with what appears to be despair at the modern game, it ends on a high note. It is as if the author has regained faith in the modern game by looking honestly at the game's past. I can remember how reading The Southpaw and The Natural put into perspective some of my own worries that the game was less than it once was. An honest look at the past is tonic to this wonderful game, a game which has rules friendlier than most who play it.

Frommer closes:

Despite the naysayers that have surfaced through the decades, baseball is still our national pastime...Baseball is still comforting regularity, a sport played and viewed from childhood on.

Frommer's book was a pleasant addition to my readings during the Void between the World Series and the World Baseball Classic.

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