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New Book Chronicles History Of “America’s National Past Time”


Why is the game of baseball is often referred to as "America's national past time"? We speak to baseball historian Harry Katz about his new book, Baseball Americana, which chronicles the early days of baseball in the late 18th century up to the current game that's played today.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. The Library of Congress doesn't often get the attention it deserves. The Smithsonian Institution, the National Gallery and other repositories of the nation's antiquities have a higher public profile. But the wealth of information and history at the Library of Congress really make it more of a treasure house than a library. It houses millions of books, recordings, photographs, maps and manuscripts in its collections. Examples of the incredible range and depth of the information contained in the archives of the Library of Congress are on view in two new coffee table books. “Baseball Americana” is a compendium of vintage photos, articles and artifacts that traces the history of the game from its earliest beginnings in the late 1700s through the 1960s. And a book called “Herblock” marks the 100th birthday of the great political cartoonist and features more than 200 of his cartoons taken from the Library of Congress archives. Joining us is a man who collaborated on the creation of both books. Harry Katz is former head curator in the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress. Harry, welcome to These Days.

HARRY KATZ (Literary Editor): Thanks for having me, Maureen. I…

CAVANAUGH: Since the World Series is headed into game five tonight…

KATZ: Right.

CAVANAUGH: …I thought we’d start with the book “Baseball Americana.” The listed authors are Harry Katz, Frank Ceresi, Phil Michel, Wilson McBee and Susan Reyburn. And I’d also like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. You know, if you have a question about the early days…

KATZ: Sure.

CAVANAUGH: …of baseball or if you have memories of your favorite teams or players, give us a call. 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Harry, I’ll bet you when most people think of the Library of Congress, they don’t think about baseball.

KATZ: No, they probably don’t; they think of books.


KATZ: But I had the great fortune of working with the library’s rather amazing pictorial holdings. I was in charge of 14 million works on paper there. It’s really staggering when you think of what’s at the Library of Congress, and it belongs to the people. It belongs to, you know, the American citizens. We pay for it through our taxes and we take care of it. And the staff there is amazing. I had a number of years there, I still work there on special projects, and the folks who helped me put the book together work on staff, know the collections, and that was our great advantage going through those holdings and picking out what we thought were the best. One thing is, when you look at this book, behind every image in the book there are thousands more online if you go to the Library’s website, and see amazing pictures of baseball’s history.

CAVANAUGH: So tell us a little bit of what is contained in the baseball archives at the Library of Congress. First of all, why is baseball a subject of interest for the nation’s historical archives?

KATZ: Well, it’s the most historic game tied to base – to American history. We all, you know, so many of us think of baseball and its invention, we think of Abner Doubleday, but that was really a creation of baseball leadership around 1900, 1905. A group of baseball leaders led by A.G. Spalding, the Spalding Company, everybody knows about in terms of sporting goods. He was a leading pitcher in the 19th century and went on to create the sporting goods empire. But he and a bunch of his cronies got together and created this myth out of whole cloth of Abner Doubleday, a Civil War general, and then tried to tie it to American history and create this American game. But they didn’t have to work so hard. Baseball, as we are learning now that we’ve debunked this myth, was really an English children’s game that came over with a number of these variants of bat and ball games and as early as the 18th century, as we now know. If you look in the book, you’ll see a picture from an American edition of an English book of – it actually is called baseball, and it came over as – in the mid-18th century. We documented the first picture of baseball in 1787, the year we signed the Constitution.

CAVANAUGH: And you have a diary excerpt about…

KATZ: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …a baseball game, right?

KATZ: Yeah, a college student at the – at what became Princeton College, Princeton University, talking about playing baseball, playing poorly as it turns out, he wasn’t very happy with his performance. And what that – We have a picture of the diary, 1786; first picture of baseball, 1787. America and baseball grew up together and so we embrace the game. It’s a democratic sport for a democratic nation. Everybody played. Women played, men played, kids played, grownups played. You know, so when George Washington was president, you know, kids were playing in the street. It was a very exciting thing for us as, a group of authors, to go in and find things we didn’t expect and to see the game develop as the country developed. And you’ll see that play out in the book.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Harry Katz. He’s one of the co-authors of a new book, “Baseball Americana,” and the images in it are compiled from the archives of the Library of Congress. I think that more than anything else this book is just full of surprises. You’re talking about, yes, women playing baseball, you’re talking about the influence of the other parts of the Americas on the game at a very early stage.

KATZ: Umm.

CAVANAUGH: And I wonder what some of your favorite images and historical items are in the book?

KATZ: Well, we’re used to seeing books that, for example, take the professional game. And so – but we go far beyond the professional game. We go, for example, one of my – There’s a famous photographer called Lewis Hine, who worked for the Child Labor Committee in, again, around the turn of the 19th century until the 20th century. And there’s a photograph of glass factory workers. You know, so many ballplayers came out of real poor, working class families where their choices were to work in mines or factories or just menial jobs, and then they went on to greatness and higher salaries. But there’s one picture that really struck me. Lewis Hine documented working class kids and the conditions that they worked under but there’s one photo of glass factory workers in Indiana, and these kids, several of the – they’re probably teenagers. They look like these teenage kids, they’re smoking pipes. One is actually holding a rifle, and you think these are the toughest kids I’ve ever seen. I do not – You talk about Industrial League, these guys were tough. I don’t want to play those guys.

CAVANAUGH: And one of the interesting things about “Baseball Americana” is that you trace black players in baseball…

KATZ: Right.

CAVANAUGH: …as they go in and out of mainstream leagues. It was – We have the idea that black players started playing in Negro Leagues but that’s not the case, is it?

KATZ: No, it’s not true at all. They were playing, you know, from the get-go. I think we always think of these sort of formalized baseball but, you know, people played baseball from the start. It wasn’t necessarily an organized league. But you pick up a bat, you pick up a ball, and you start playing. That’s what we did as kids, that’s what kids did and grownups did from the start. So you have to get out of that mindset of organized ball. But blacks were playing from the early stages. We have a guy named Octavius Catto who almost nobody but the most erudite, the most, you know, immersed baseball scholars will recognize. He was in Philadelphia. He was not only a great baseball player, he was also a very important early civil rights leader in Philadelphia and he was one – played in Philadelphia. He was a leading sports figure, a leading religious figure and was actually gunned down for his civil rights efforts. So – And most scholars don’t even know that he existed, so we’ve actually brought out these people, these characters and this history that a lot of people from sort of leading experts down to people just, you know, trying to understand a little more about history in the sport will be surprised about.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Harry Katz and I’m talking about the new book “Baseball Americana.” If you’d like to join the conversation, 1-888-895-5727. Now one of the things it says in this book is that the game helped to reunify the nation after the Civil War. How did it do that?

KATZ: Well, it did that because, you know, it was largely a northern phenomenon, northeastern phenomenon, before the game. And remember, you know, the country was just growing before that in terms of the western expansion. And so what happened is the soldiers brought it to the south, the soldiers brought it to the west. After the war as the country began to come together after that huge conflict, then there were trains and there was much more transportation and communication between the regions and so the settlers brought it wherever they went. The soldiers brought it. And it was one of those games where everybody could come together. You might disagree about politics, you might disagree about religion, you might be on different levels of socio – you know, you might be a gentleman or a worker, you might be a farmer or a townsperson, but you could go out there on the baseball diamond, you could play together and then at the end of the game, you know, you said, great game, now let’s have a picnic and celebrate our efforts. So that’s the way it brought it together. You just sort of transcended all your differences.

CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering how early on did we see the start of baseball cards?

KATZ: Well, the first baseball card that really is recognized as the first baseball card is in the book. It portrays the Brooklyn Atlantics, who were the amateur national champions. They were from, obviously, New York City, which was really the place where organized baseball grew up. There were leagues, regularly scheduled games, and it was quite active, although we also have the Massachusetts, the old town game, and we talk about the early development of that but – So that’s the first dated baseball card that’s been discovered and that was more of a souvenir rather than a collectable issued series. Those came out with actually tobacco cigarettes in the 1880s, they were – and tobacco products were sold with – there were tobacco labels that were, you know, developed even as early as the 1850s and 1860s. But the first tobacco cards were small cards issued with tobacco packs in the 1880s to promote cigarettes and promote the different products.

CAVANAUGH: I’m interested in finding out what were the images that – in this book that surprised you?

KATZ: Well, there were a number of them. There’s a rather remarkable image of Babe Ruth having been knocked unconscious after running into a wall chasing a foul ball, 1924. He, you know, he’s a legend for his homerun prowess but he was a hardworking, you know, baseball player. Much more credit should be given to his athleticism than we grant him. He actually was knocked out for five minutes, got up, finished the game, went ahead and played the second game of a double header.


KATZ: So, you know, we don’t…

CAVANAUGH: …tough people.

KATZ: …give him credit for that. You know, this – you know, so there are images like that. There’s a remarkable photograph of an African-American team in the 1880s and these guys look like just fantastic ballplayers from Connecticut. And, again, banned from baseball and that’s the tragedy because they didn’t get to play and we don’t know who they are and now we have to go back, fill that history. So a lot of surprising images that nobody has seen because, you know, since they appeared, they haven’t been published.

CAVANAUGH: You know, if one were to compile a book like this about football, it seems to me it would be a very, very different book. This “Baseball Americana” is sort of a, if one can say, a friendly, welcoming book. What is it about baseball that is so deeply ingrained in making it America’s sport?

KATZ: Well, I think because baseball is friendly and welcoming. I mean, to an extent, you know, football is a much more violent – you know, I love football and I love watching football but it’s not for everybody and baseball is for everybody. It’s sort of like, you know, you have a picnic and a baseball game breaks out, you have a baseball game and a picnic breaks out. You can sort of come to the game and enjoy it, you can sit there and talk about, you know, what’s going on in your life, you can tune in to the game or not. It’s also a game that everybody can play. You can pick up a bat, you can do it informally, or you can really pay attention. Football’s very different. It also started much later. It didn’t start until, really, the 1860s, 1870s, long after we were, you know, a country and established. But not everybody can play or participate, it just doesn’t appeal to everybody. Now, you know, not everybody is into baseball the way some people are but there’s a democracy about it and if you look at this book, if you have any interest in sports at all, you’re going to find something in here. And we go back and there are men, women, children, people of all ethnicity. We’ve got Cubans playing baseball, we’ve got Native Americans playing baseball, we’ve got women playing baseball back into the 19th century at the highest level. We’ve got, you know, Myrtle Rowe is one of my favorite images. A total surprise. She’s not, you know, we have women professionals playing back around 1900, 1890, but Myrtle Rowe was playing for a men’s semi-professional team on a contract for three years outside Pittsburgh. I, you know, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine we’d find something like that, and she’s an absolute doll.

CAVANAUGH: Now with all apologies to the Phillies fans, we seem to be on the cusp of another World Series for the Yankees.

KATZ: Well, you could say that, Maureen, however I’m a Red Sox fan and now I should say there’s some fantastic Yankees stuff.


KATZ: We even – In this book, we even have Roger Maris, so, you know, all kudos to the Yankees. They seem to be hitting this year and tearing it up. However, I’m a Red Sox fan and, you know, we all know what happened in 2004 so, Phillies, don’t lose heart. You’re still in there. You gotta play the game. That’s the other thing about sports that I love. You know, as Yogi Berra, that other great Yankee, say, hey, it ain’t over till…

CAVANAUGH/KATZ: …it’s over.

KATZ: So, you know, hey, they play it and you go out there and see what happens.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, I can see this is a sensitive subject.

KATZ: Yeah, be careful there.

CAVANAUGH: So I’ll back away.

KATZ: No, no. That’s what it’s about, you know.

CAVANAUGH: Is there anything from San Diego’s baseball history? Anything maybe San Diego native Ted Williams? Anything along those…

KATZ: Well, you know, Ted, you know, one of the greatest.


KATZ: He, you know, the Splendid Splinter. I actually, I – you know, I’m a fairly recent transplant. I love what’s going on right now in San Diego with the Padres. I think new ownership is going to really take off and they’re doing a lot of great things, a lot of new energy and you could see what happened with that team in the last half of the season. So I’m very excited for what’s happening.

CAVANAUGH: Anything about our history in the “Baseball Americana?”

KATZ: No, well, what happened is, you know, the Padres really only began in ’69 and…

CAVANAUGH: That’s right.

KATZ: But, however, with California, there’s an amazing history. We go – we take California history back to 1866 in the Pacifics up in San Francisco. We’ve got the California League, we’ve got California League baseball cards back in the 1880s. We’ve got Pacific League, you know, which began in 1903, so we’ve got a whole history. We’ve even got that baseball’s bad – the original bad boy, Rube Waddell playing for the Los Angeles Lulus in 1902. So, you know, if you remember the Lulus, now you’re really…

CAVANAUGH: You’re pretty good.

KATZ: Yeah, you’re pretty good. So if you’re at all interested in California baseball, you’re going to see some things that’ll really knock your socks off.

CAVANAUGH: Now tell me, why did you choose to end the book in the 1960s?

KATZ: Well, it’s the end of the sixties and a lot of things – Obviously, there was this expansion but there was a sort of landmark case with the reserve clause where Curt Flood sued baseball to basically win his contr – his ability to move, you know, to win his life back. And that essentially – the players were able to win their freedom from the owners to get their contracts. The result was that players’ salaries skyrocketed. You know, it was a win for the players but the players’ salaries skyrocketed, baseball changed. The first sports card dealer in America started around that time, so sports cards became a commodity instead of something that kids just sort of traded for their own sake. So there was kind of a sea change in terms of how cards and this kind of pictorial material was treated. Autographs and cards became much more of commercial items instead of just sort of being valued for just pieces of nostalgia. So there was kind of a feeling, and then the nature of the game – One of the reasons I wanted to do this book, I played baseball as a kid and I felt like reading the paper these days, you read the sports page and almost everything you read has nothing to do with sports. And I just said, let’s take back the game. Let’s get back to its history. You know, we read about – we read these books about history, we see the same pictures over, we read the same recycled history. I wanted to do this history right and get back. Historians are now starting to get back and peel back the layers of baseball’s history and so now I think we’ve started that process. It’s not the end, but it’s the start.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s end this segment with a question from one of our listeners. Steve is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Steve, and welcome to These Days.

STEVE (Caller, San Diego): Yeah, hi, thanks. Two quick questions if we can get them in. I’ll just ask the first one, if you have time then go with the second one.


STEVE: But the first question is, when did pitchers stop being great all-around players? Like in high school, you know, the pitcher is always the guy who can throw, he can hit. When did, in professional baseball, did they say, okay, you are a pitcher now, you’re only to be a throwing machine period and you can’t…

KATZ: Well, that’s a good question. Well, you know, Babe Ruth was originally a pitcher and turned into a slugger. Probably around, I would guess, the forties or fifties when pitchers really started to come into their own.

CAVANAUGH: And, Steve, your second question?

STEVE: And the other question is if you look at the overall stats now and, let’s say, take away the crazy ones from the steroid years, how do they compare with the old days of early professional baseball?

CAVANAUGH: Thanks, Steve.

KATZ: Well, there’s much more of an emphasis now on long ball. You talk about the early days, there was different equipment. They call it the dead ball era, and that really extends throughout, really, up until Babe Ruth comes along and starts slugging. It was very typical to have, you know, even home run they called him Frank “Homerun” Baker. He played in Philadelphia. He’d only average maybe eight or ten homeruns a year. It was what they call small ball or inside baseball. It’s like what you see in the National League much more without the DH where there’s much more an emphasis on running the ball, on running the bases. Really, the emphasis now is much more on slugging and, you know, the long ball than it ever was early in the game.

CAVANAUGH: So it doesn’t even make any diff – any sense to compare stats.

KATZ: No, it really – it’s really hard to do that. Very different training regimens, different kind of athletes these days, and the equipment is very different as well.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we’ll end this part of our discussion here. We’ve been speaking about “Baseball Americana,” and the listed author’s my guest Harry Katz, along with Frank Ceresi, Phil Michel, Wilson McBee and Susan Reyburn. When we return, we’ll move on to another book using the resources of the Library of Congress, a retrospective of cartoons by Herb Block. You’re listening to These Days here on KPBS.

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