Historical Baseball Questions (Ken Burns)

I’m watching “Baseball”, the Ken Burns documentary. Although I enjoy these, he does not always spend a lot of time on a specific topic. They usually leave me with a bunch of questions. I’ve only seen the first two episodes thus far. I will have more.

  1. Baseball is said to have been a refined version of “town ball”, which apparently had loose rules. One change was that in “town ball”, the batter was out if physically hit with the ball while running back and forth. So they’d be chucking a hard baseball at someone to get them out? Really?

  2. The New York Knickerbockers used to travel to the Elysian Fields in Hoboken to play. Initially crowds formed around the diamond. But once popularity skyrocketed and stadiums like the Polo Grounds were built, mobs of people were still allowed on the edges of the foul lines. How often did people get hurt? How often did fans get hit with fouls, or argue with the umpires?

  3. Doubleday, a war hero, was given credit for inventing the game after a 2 year investigation funded by Spalding, desperate to claim it was an American invention. No one now apparently thinks he even saw a professional game. However, the Civil War greatly popularized the game, which people brought back to their hometowns.

A) If this is true, is it possible Doubleday does deserve some credit if he established some rules for soldiers playing?

B) Are there any other sports or games which became popular due to a war?

  1. I always thought Jackie Robinson broke the barrier for black athletes. How is it one hears little about earlier players like Moses “Fleetwood” Walker? Why did the series not discuss White or even earlier players who were forced to pretend they were not Black?

  2. I did not know the National League was originally puriticanical, then the competing American League originally featured cheaper tickets and beer before being periodically cleaned up. Seems baseball always attracted hooligans. Fans were originally tolerated going on to the field to argue plays. Players tried to spike opponents. Pitchers threw spitballs. How were these cleaned up?

  3. Given the propensity of many early players to brawl (like Frank Chance) or be misanthropes (like Ty Cobb), why were popular eccentrics like Rube Waddell too tough to tolerate?

  4. I did not know Evers was a perpetual grouch who did not talk to Tinker for two years over a dispute about a taxi bill. What’s the story here?

  5. Given boxscores have existed for so long, giving much loved tradition and continuity, how do experts rank historical stars like Waddell, Mathewson, Wagner or Cobb? How do they compare them to modern greats?

  6. The screwball (fadeaway) pitch may have been the idea of Negro League pitcher “Rube” Foster and passed along to Mathewson? Is it still used? I used to watch Fernando Valenzuela throw it years ago.

  7. Baseball was originally a strictly amateur sport, but good players started getting paid around the 1850s. Were there earlier examples of professional sport leagues? Did they also have player union issues due to “greedy” owners? Individual athletes like gladiators, do they count?

  8. Do you ever here anything but the chorus to “Take Me Out To The Ball Game”? There’s a whole song, popularized during cinema bouncing-ball singalongs. When did cinema singalongs stop being a thing?

  9. They discuss the “Merkle Boner”. Fans rushed onto the field after a long single brought in the winning run. Merkle ran to the clubhouse instead of touching second base. The ball was thrown into the crowd but found its way back to Evers who tagged Merkle out long after the celebration. Was this the right call under the circumstances? Seems very dubious to me.

  10. Throwing games started in the 1850s and reduced attendance. A great early star was kicked out for taking a $100 bribe with 3 others. Obviously it resurfaced for the Black Sox Scandal. My older brother claimed Pete Rose was thrown aside, but only bet for his team and never against them. Is this true? Likely? Was he treated fairly?

  11. I played T-ball, then baseball as a lad. When was T-ball invented?

  12. We used to mock the other team. “Hey batter, batter”. “Pitcher’s got a rubber arm”. Don’t see that as much in other sports - infield chatter. “Hey golfer, golfer. Drive, golfer, golfer.” But fan insults have a long history in baseball. In 1906, the loud Boston crowd changed the lyrics to “Tessy” to say ‘Honus Wagner hits badly’, and it rattled the opposition. It wouldn’t today. Was it even possible to ignore the crowd then?

  13. The reserve clause basically stuck good players with one team for life. Was this common in other sports?

  14. “The Christian Gentleman”, Mathewson, wouldn’t give interviews to sports writers he heard were unfaithful. How would he know? Is there much truth to this, or folderol to promote a desired clean league image?

  15. When did they get rid of the barrel of whiskey at third base to incentive runners? A great tradition. Should be brought back. Any other semi-professional team games (except Tequila Volleyball) where drinking during the game was once so encouraged?

  16. Is it bizarre that early stars supplemented incomes by appearing in plays and vaudeville shows in the winter? Or is this just a rehash of Dancing With The Stars?

  17. Black teams or players were often refused hotel accommodation, might spend hours seeking it. Why not a team rail car? When was this problem really resolved?

  18. “As long as America has baseball, it will never tolerate monarchy”. Is this true of dictatorship?

  19. Why was baseball so anxious to win English fans, or play in Egypt by the pyramids? The British denounced it as rounders and preferred cricket. Why was it deemed so important to win British approval? Why Egypt - was this en vogue after Howard Carter? Baseball became popular in Japan, the Dominican, Cuba, Venezuela. Was this the chicken or the egg? Probably the American presence after WW2 explains Japan, but did a Dominican or Cuban succeed in the majors first before popularity exploded, or was it an American of Dominican background succeed first and popularize things?

  20. Is baseball a more democratic game than soccer (football)?

  21. Spalding was a good ball player. He established a big sporting goods company. Originally, they tried to encourage every player on the team to have a distinct uniform. It looked ridiculous, so did not get too far. But how far did it get?

I only have a good answer to one of these.

The other major North American sports leagues (NFL, NBA, NHL) didn’t have the reserve clause, per se, but they didn’t have real free agency until about the same time that it came to MLB (the 1970s), if not a bit later, meaning that, until that point, players in those leagues rarely had the ability to freely choose where to play. The modern free agency system in the NFL didn’t start until 1993.

Answering this one, too.

No evidence was found that Rose ever bet against his team, though the investigator, John Dowd, later said that he believed that Rose had done so.

Part of the issue was that Rose flatly denied having ever bet on a game, up until he accepted being placed on the ineligible list (and he didn’t really admit that he had done so until he published a book in 2004). He fought against the investigation, refused to cooperate with the commissioner, and even filed a lawsuit against the commissioner during the investigation.

Dowd found that Rose was wagering large sums of money – several thousand dollars a game. And, as a manager, Rose arguably had more influence over the outcome of a game than he would have when he was just a player.

MLB’s rules, of course, prohibit betting on any baseball game, even betting on your own team.

Ever since then, Rose has, of course, continued to try to get reinstated (because he clearly and desperately wants to be in the Hall of Fame), but has never gotten a lot of sympathy from MLB, or the various commissioners who have looked at his case. The fact that Rose wasn’t forthcoming during the investigation (or for about 15 years afterwards), plus the fact that, after he was banned, he apparently continued to gamble on baseball, haven’t helped his cause.

Is it fair that his “indefinite suspension” is now over 30 years old? I don’t know; Rose certainly has advocates who feel that he has served his time. OTOH, he was kind of a dick about it for a very long time, too.

By fiat.

The screwball (fadeaway) pitch may have been the idea of Negro League pitcher “Rube” Foster and passed along to Mathewson? Is it still used? Yes

Do you ever here anything but the chorus to “Take Me Out To The Ball Game”?

In my shows, I sing the verse (“Katie Casey was baseball mad…”) and challenge the audience to identify the song, before I do the familiar chorus. So, yes, but not often.

The most common version of the story is that before an exhibition game, Evers left the hotel by himself in the only cab available and didn’t offer any of his teammates a ride. When Tinker finally got to the park he confronted Evers and they had a pull-apart brawl on the field, after which they agreed not to speak to each other. They already didn’t like each other and it was a last straw kind of thing.

I think the closest present day equivalent would be when pro athletes host Saturday Night Live. It’s not typical but not quite what I would call bizarre.

It’s been a while but I’ve heard it, usually the Carly Simon version, during the introduction of some teams’ pregame shows on radio.

Short answer: probably not.

A teammate of Merkle’s (Fred Snodgrass?) who was interviewed in the oral history The Glory of Their Times claimed that there had been an almost identical circumstance in a game just a few weeks earlier, and the umpire ruled differently (i.e., the run counted). Snodgrass claimed it was common for players to head to the clubhouse without touching base on walk-off victories, to avoid getting caught up in the crowd streaming onto the field.

The pennant race was really tight; every game was vital. The zeal of the Cubs players (Evers, and Joe McGinnity) likely influenced the umpires to enforce the rules strictly.

It seems the screwball is not being used often, and there hasn’t been a screwballer since 2007?


I’m not sure that it was ever a pitch that a lot of pitchers used. Even 40 years ago, when Fernando Valenzuela was a phenom, and threw the pitch, it was seen as being an uncommon thing.

As I understand it, throwing a screwball requires a difficult arm motion, and several recent articles suggest that it’s been supplanted by other pitches which have a similar motion, but are easier to throw, such as the circle-change.

[QUOTE=“Dr_Paprika, post:1, topic:924614, full:true”]

  1. Baseball is said to have been a refined version of “town ball”, which apparently had loose rules. One change was that in “town ball”, the batter was out if physically hit with the ball while running back and forth. So they’d be chucking a hard baseball at someone to get them out? Really?
  2. The New York Knickerbockers used to travel to the Elysian Fields in Hoboken to play. Initially crowds formed around the diamond. But once popularity skyrocketed and stadiums like the Polo Grounds were built, mobs of people were still allowed on the edges of the foul lines. How often did people get hurt? How often did fans get hit with fouls, or argue with the umpires?[/QUOTE]
    Baseball in the 19th century was generally a more violent free-for-all than it was later. In fact, when the American League was formed in 1901, part of the marketing pitch was that they promised a more gentlemanly, less dirty sport than the National League.

It was still common well into the 20th century for excess crowds to simply stand behind hastily erected ropes in the outfield. Yeah, it was crazy. And yes, they fought with umps a lot. 'm not sure how to quantify all this, but things then were less sterile and professional than they are now to say the very least.

No. Doubleday was not some obscure guy; he was as famous then as, say, William Westmoreland or Colin Powell are now. He also left behind extensive correspondence and diaries, and in them, so far as anyone can tell, he never once mentioned baseball. Saying Abner Doubleday had anything to do with baseball at all is exactly as accurate and likely as saying that the guy who played Norm on “Cheers” was the Secretary of State.

As to the last question I assume Burns is pressed for time. As to the former, Moses Fleetwood Walker obviously isn’t the historical figure Robinson is:

  1. Walker’s very brief career didn’t change anything; Robinson opened the floodgates. He was the first player, but he truly broke the door down, and other Black men soon followed.

  2. Walker played for a team in the American Association in 1884, a league that ceased to exist in 1891, and in fact 1884 was the only year Walker’s team existed. The extent to which the AA was even a “major league” is pretty limited; pro baseball in 1884 was not major league to the extent we think of it today. Robinson played in the scope of modern major league baseball for what might quite literally be the most popular professional sports team that has ever existed, if you go by tickets sold.

  3. Robinson was one of the greatest players of all time - a fact often forgotten, but he was an absolute force - whereas Walker was not.

Well, the spitball was just banned, that’s all. The other stuff has gradually just vanished by, I dunno, attitude changes?

Some of it is professionalism. Baseball is a WAY bigger industry now. Can’t let the fans interfere with the product when it’s worth this much.

I don’t recall this part, but Rube Waddell pitched for 13 years, so apparently they tolerated him for quite some time.

This is a real ongoing debate, but basically, most baseball fans compare guys to their peers. There is a propensity to count 19th century baseball as less than 20th century baseball, and I think it’s fair to say that the general quality of baseball has always been going up.

Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb were two of the 10 greatest players who ever lived. I am absolutely, 100% certain that if you took a time machine, kidnapped both men early in their careers, and brought them to 2020, they would adapt to modern baseball with amazing speed and be exceptional, MVP-level stars. The shape of their statistics would probably change - both men would have lower batting averages and strike out more, but would hit more home runs - but they’d be awesome. I expect Mathewson and Waddell would be great too, though there’d be more adaptation involved.

The specific purpose of a screwball was to give a lefthanded pitcher a breaking pitch that breaks away from a righthanded batter. Since most batters are righthanded, righthanded pitchers have less use of such a thing, so right there its need is a bit limited. Remember that a pitcher is at a disadvantage when facing an opposite-handed batter, in part because their breaking pitches tend to break towards the opposite handed batter, and those are easier to see and hit, so lefthanded pitchers have that disadvantage more often.

I don’t know many current screwball users. It’s hard to throw, and pitches go in and out of fashion for some reason. Even back in the day, MOST lefties did not throw one. (It is possible for a righthanded pitcher to throw one too, but there’s little reason to; the only example I can think of was Mike Marshall, who is now mostly famous for being the only pitcher to pitch in more than 100 games in a season.)

It is according to the rulebook. Having said that, I have read that this rule was actually NOT usually enforced in 1908 (it is strictly enforced now) and that is, obviously, really bad, and one of the reasons rules must be very consistently enforced; a disaster is always waiting if they are not.

Well, get ready for a debate, but here are the facts:

  1. The rule is that if you bet on a game your team is involved in, you are placed on the permanently ineligible list. (e.g. banned for life.) That’s what Rose did. So the rule was properly enforced. This is not an obscure rule; they literally post it in every MLB clubhouse, in multiple languages.
  2. Rose CLAIMS he only ever bet on the Reds to win, but he’s also a colossal liar. There is no direct evidence he ever bet on the Reds to lose, but his word is not any sot of evidence; he also lied about betting on baseball at all, then lied about betting on Reds games.
  3. Yes, he was treated fairly by MLB. The rule exists for very, very good reasons, and Rose, after his banishment in 1989, spent years lying and slandering people, is still a heavy gambler and associated with gamblers, and has done everything in his power to demonstrate he cannot be trusted or reinstated.

All this is somewhat separate from whether he should be in the Hall of Fame. The HOF is not part of MLB, and passed a rule prohibiting banned players from being inducted AFTER the Rose debacle. (I don’t think most folks realize this but prior to that there was nothing stopping the votes from electing, say, Shoeless Joe Jackson. They simply chose not to.) I can see an argument for inducting him even while he can’t be in MLB.

No one knows for sure. It was probably in the 1950s.

Not bizarre at all. Celebrities use their celebrity to make money, and that was good money back then. It’s no different from modern athletes endorsing products or doing cameos.

[QUOTE]20. Black teams or players were often refused hotel accommodation, might spend hours seeking it. Why not a team rail car? When was this problem really resolved?[/QUOTE[
The Civil Rights Act.


More fans. Money. Pro sports today still have outreach into foreign markets, with the NBA being particularly successful in this regard.

Actually no. Baseball became popular there before 1900 and was professional by the 1920s. I’m honestly not sure why it captured their imagination so quickly, but the Japanese were getting really, really good at baseball by the turn of the century.

I don’t even know what this means. How is a sport democratic?

If you’re talking about the Negro Leagues, the teams were located in major cities where there were accommodations available - just not the same accommodations the white teams could find. But if you’re talking about barnstorming teams, they went wherever they could find a game. Not every town was on a railroad line, and the teams’ schedules didn’t necessarily agree with the trains. They traveled by bus. I suspect the problem lasted as long as barnstorming itself.

Until relatively recently, players weren’t paid well enough to sustain themselves over the winter so they often needed to supplement their income. Stars had the benefit of parlaying their name into landing better jobs.

Even Nolan Ryan had to work during the off-season before he became a big name.


Bill James notes in his Historical Baseball Abstract that this was one of the reasons the Negro Leagues, despite drawing from only 10-15% of the talent pool, were disproportionately of high quality as compared to the majors. His reasoning - based on considerable evidence - was that Negro League teams become something of a roving scouting department. They would barnstorm from place to place and the savvier managers and owners kept careful notes on all the young men they played against, watching them develop year over year, so they often had excellent databases of the best young prospects. Because the Negor League teams would travel and play exhibitions during the summer, which MLB teams did not, their managers and owners could personally scout out fine young playuers all over the USA in actual baseball season; MLB teams were busy playing their regular schedules and so were mostly reliant on scouts.

Scouting and development back then sure was not the science it is now. The majors also had the disadvantage of being geographically limited; until the 1950s, of course, MLB was no further south or west than St. Louis, and travel was harder, so a prospect in Phoenix or Sacramento was less visible than one in Hoboken or Pittsburgh.

  1. Old pitchers used bottle caps to scuff the ball, sandpaper, spit, dirt - any number of manipulations. Made the ball harder to hit, and to see. But in the older games they would only go through a few baseballs. Wouldn’t any manipulation make it harder for the pitchers team to hit as well? Was anything legal?

  2. After Chapman was killed by a pitch, baseball cracked down on manipulation, changed the balls more often, made the stitches tighter. Supposedly, this led directly to the era of sluggers and home-run hitters which made baseball more popular. Were other changes made at this time to make the game more exciting and high scoring?

  3. Hitting a fair ball into the outfield but then having it go in to the crowd, behind a rope but physically on the field near the wall - was called a ground rule triple. When did this end?

  4. Babe Ruth had some wonderful seasons, a few lousy World Series, one where he batted .125, many excellent seasons later. Anyone ever speculate he took a bribe?

  5. Black teams played white teams 438 times and won 309. The best players were Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. Anyone ever speculate how well they could have done? Would do today?

  6. The farm system introduced by Branch Rickey to save money and develop talent, in 1919. Had this ever been done in any other sport?

  7. What was history’s verdict on Commissioners like Kennesaw Mountain Landis? Didn’t I once read they pulled his name from some MVP award to protest his discrimination?

  8. Baseball was, and still is, ruled exempt from antitrust laws. Any other sports ever win this exemption?

  9. Purnell established a religious organization, the House of David, which forbade men from shaving. They formed a Harlem Globetrotters-like travelling team for 40 years. Were they put out of business by hippies?

  10. Some consider the best all round player to be “Honus” Wagner. Were there a bunch of kids named Honus for a year or two?

  11. The series says ball players were not exempt from the WW1 drafts. Mathewson was exposed to poison gas which scarred his lung and ruined his career. The series says it was during a drill. Then later, it says this happened in France. What did happen?

  12. A lot of the iriginal fields - The Elysians, Polo Grounds, Komiskey Park, Ebbets Field… are long gone. Wrigley Field is still there. Any originals left stilled used for baseball?

  13. Why were so many old teamed named the Giants? Reminds me of Canadian football when 2 put of 9 teams were called the Rough/Riders.

Technically, there are no “original” old-time ballparks. Wrigley was built for the Federal League and the Red Sox played on Huntington Avenue before they moved into Fenway in 1912. All the other old-time stadiums are gone; pretty sure Tiger Stadium was the most recent of them to be demolished.

Although the House of David has virtually ceased to exist, there has been a resurgence of their baseball tradition.

One thing to remember about baseball teams in the19th and early 20th centuries is that the team nicknames were usually unofficial (typically affixed to a team by a sportswriter), frequently changed, and often not used by the team itself. As I understand it, it wasn’t until the 1910s-1920s when nicknames became formalized, and the teams themselves adopted them.

The reputation for Landis is mixed. He comes across as the right man for the job when he started; he certainly helped to clean up baseball from the corruption that had existed before he was there. However, he likely stayed on the job far longer than he should have.

It’s generally believed that the integration of baseball was delayed due to Landis. Bill Veeck claimed that, in 1942, he acquired backing to buy the Philadelphia Phillies, and was planning to stock the team with numerous stars from the Negro Leagues. Veeck alleged that Landis personally intervened and ensured the Phillies would be sold to another party.

Yes, really. The ball wasn’t as hard back then, and may have been lighter. And possibly more important, the players weren’t as skilled. I doubt anyone then could throw 90 MPH.

There’s no evidence that Doubleday had anything to do with baseball. He was well-known as a war hero while he was alive, and professional baseball was a big thing by the time he died in 1893. Yet he seems never to have said anything to anyone about the sport. If he’d been involved in baseball in any way, wouldn’t he have said or written something about it?

It was actually the American Association, not the American League, that was known as “The Beer and Whiskey League.” The AA went out of business after the 1891 season. The American League, which became a major league in 1901, promoted itself as a clean league that didn’t have the rowdiness so common in the National League at the time.

Waddell was unreliable. He might not show up at the ballpark on days he was supposed to pitch, he was often drunk, he was easily distracted by things like fire engines while he was pitching. Cobb and Chance were jerks, but they’d show up and play hard every game.

Comparing players across eras is very hard because the conditions of the game have changed so much over the years. There’s also whether you want to know how well a player like, say, Babe Ruth would do if you were to transport the 1927 version of him to the current day, or whether you want to know how Babe Ruth would do if he were given the advantages of modern-day training, diet, medicine, etc. Generally speaking, athletes are better now than they ever have been, so a 1927 Ruth wouldn’t be dominant today the was he was then.

A whole lot has been written about this. If you’re interested, I’d suggest getting a copy of The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.

There have never been many screwball pitchers. It’s a hard pitch to learn, and it’s hard on the arm. Pitchers today are more likely to throw the circle change, which has a similar motion but isn’t so likely to cause arm injuries.

Actually, he tagged the base, not Merkle himself.

The Merkle incident shows how unwise it is to have rules on the books that aren’t enforced. And this wasn’t an obscure rule. In almost every game there’s a run that doesn’t count because the final out of an inning was a force out. There’s never been an exception in the rule for the last inning.

Interestingly, Evers had tried the same thing in a game against the Pirates earlier that season. One of the same umpires was there, and he didn’t invalidate the run. Apparently that umpire changed his mind for the Merkle play.

My feeling is that you have to enforce the rules, and that the mistake was letting players get away with doing what Merkle did for so long.

The rules say you’re not allowed to bet either for or against your team. Pete Rose knew about this, and broke the rule anyway. And Rose accepted a lifetime ban rather than fight the accusation.

Why would that be bizarre? Ballplayers didn’t make much at the time, and most of them had off-season jobs. If some of them wanted to cash in their fame by appearing on the stage, why shouldn’t they?

I appreciate your responses. I have a few more questions, added since the OP. I will have a few more when I watch the last half of the documentary.