An accomplished baseball historian reminds us when a go-ahead Western city and an upstart league turned the country “base ball mad!”
Only 20 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, professional baseball had already been around long enough for corruption scandals to have almost killed it. To compete with the staid and stained National League, the newly formed American Association slashed ticket prices and offered beer sales and Sunday baseball to appeal to immigrants and the working class. These innovations, plus a rough-and-ready brand of ball, spiffy uniforms, and remodeled and well-regulated ballparks, all helped to set new attendance records and smooth baseball’s entry into the 20th century as America’s national pastime. Providence Journal deputy editorial pages editor Achorn (Fifty-Nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had, 2010, etc.) tracks the hard-fought 1883 pennant race, focusing particularly on the St. Louis Browns—the first iteration of today’s Cardinals—and their mercurial, Steinbrenner-esque owner, Chris Von der Ahe. Among many colorful characters, the Browns featured the young Charlie Comiskey (who’d have his own brush with scandal as owner of the 1919 Black Sox), manager “Ted” Sullivan, who first used “fanatics” to describe the game’s passionate supporters, and Arlie Latham, whose swift base running led his language-challenged owner to exclaim that he could run “like a cantelope.” Achorn mixes in stories about other league standouts: the doughty pitcher for the eventual champion Philadelphia Athletics, Bobby Matthews; their minstrel performer turned owner, Lew Simmons; their Yale man, Jumping Jack Jones, whose unorthodox delivery baffled hitters; and Louisville’s Pete “the Prince of Bourbon” Browning, whose bespoke bat made apprentice woodworker Bud Hillerich wealthy. Scheming owners, rampant racism, hard-drinking players, beleaguered umpires, crazed spectators and lurking gamblers—all these were also part of the league and of Achorn’s unblinking but still admiring presentation.
A thoroughly enjoyable re-creation of the gusto, guts, glory and grime of the game’s early days.