Back to the Holiest Member of the Ball Sport "Trinity"
BY JOHN TURNER
On John Wilson's recommendation, I just finished reading Bill Felber's A Game of Brawl. Wilson's description:
Bill Felber uses this season to shed light on a crisis that faced baseball in the 1890s, as the sport was increasingly marred by violence, profanity, and cheating ("cutting" bases when the one umpire's attention was turned elsewhere, holding the belt of a player who planned to tag up and score from third, and so on). The Orioles, alas, were as notorious for their dirty play as they were admired for the splendid skills that made John McGraw, Wee Willie Keeler, and their teammates household names. In comparison, the Beaneaters were positively genteel.
Wilson recommended the book to accompany this year's World Series. Given that the 2007 Fall Classic singularly lacked much drama, A Game of Brawl made for illuminating reading alongside the release of the Mitchell Report. Already full of Good (the Red Sox) versus Evil (the Orioles), Felber's story is full of foul play and rampant cheating: spiking opponents, wielding bats as weapons, browbeating umpires, and hiding extra balls in the long outfield grass to use to throw runners out.
Felber's book (this is the somewhat contrived rationale for this post!) includes a few nuggets of American religious history. For example, Cleveland's owner fought a losing battle against his state's Blue Laws in an attempt to increase attendance and revenue by playing on Sunday. The Boston Beaneaters exist as a proud residue of Protestant Puritanism against the Orioles from polyglot Baltimore. [As in 2007, 1897 Boston sports fans could have used Niebuhrian caution to guard against sanctimonious self-righteousness (admittedly harder to obtain since Reinhold Niebuhr was only five at the time)].
It's also interesting to note that athletes of the late 1800s seemed much less interested in evangelical Christianity than athletes today. Even allowing for the association of sports with vices like sex and gambling, one also thinks of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the evangelicalism of the Colorado Rockies, and football players praying before games. Such things never come up in the 1897 pennant race.
If baseball often resembles an American morality play, cheating seems to be its original sin. With the dirty tricks of the 1897 and the gambling scandals of "Shoeless" Joe Jackson and Pete Rose in our memories, why should we be shocked at Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and now Roger Clemens?