Fear and loathing in Cooperstownby Jon Daly
May 01, 2009
We were somewhere near the Castleton Bridge when the greenies began to take effect. Joe W and I were flying through the Hudson Valley in a fire-apple red convertible. I was wondering if he noticed the bats. Our trunk looked like a mobile Mitchell Report. We had 75 vials of testosterone cypionate, some transdermal patches that Conte sent us, enough hGH to make Hal Bodley young again, a couple of bottles of nuxated iron, and a jar filled with a galaxy of uppers: vivarin, greenies, ketamine, ephedrine, pseudoephedrine – you get the point.
The only thing that worried me was the nuxated iron. There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible than a man in the depths of a nuxated iron binge. And I knew we’d get into that rotten stuff soon. We had to. It was an atavistic trip. Not only were we driving 150 or so miles to Leatherstocking Country, we were also going over 100 years back in time to the 19th century.
Flash back 24 hours. I was hanging out in the Boiler Room when a man who looked like Eddie Gaedel approached me, cellphone in hand. I placed it to my ear and listened. It was Studes. He wanted me to go to Cooperstown and cover SABR’s 19th Century Committee conference, which was being held that weekend. For years, SABR’s Deadball Committee would have a spring training event called Boiling Out in Hot Springs, Ark. Paul Wendt suggested that the Nineteeners do something similar. Boiling Out has petered out over the past couple of years, but this was an inaugural conference for this group.
I’d been meaning to go to the Giamatti Research Center anyways. My buddy The Wig had a theory that Bowie Kuhn was happiest when he was researching the paranormal and pseudoscientific. For example, during the 1981 player strike, Wiggy thinks, Kuhn left the country on an expedition in search of the Loch Ness Monster. Wiggy also smokes a lot of banana peels and watches reruns of Kolchak the Nightstalker, but I’ve been meaning to check out the Kuhn file. Now I could do it on an expense account.
We rolled into town about noon and stopped at the Doubleday Café. I had the sweet sausage sandwich before heading over to the Hall of Fame library. When I got there, it was packed. Paul Dickson was there. In addition to looking at the voluminous files on Commissioner Kuhn, I was also researching Thomas Lynch. He was a fin de siècle personage who umped in the Gay Nineties before become NL president in the aughts. There were three Tom Lynches, apparently. The last file was the one I was looking for.
Afterward, there was a chill icebreaker reception at Cooley. I talked to Bob Tiemann, Peter Morris, Gerrold Casway, Frank Vacarro and Cliff Blau. Vacarro and Blau are working on a project that identifies every field captain in baseball history. This is a vestigial position nowadays, but was essential in the early days that were the weekend’s topic of discussion.
I also talked to Blau a bit about evaluating 19th century players. This was of utmost interest to Joe W. We were a couple pitchers of Old Slugger Ale deep, but I think that Blau said that modern methods of player evaluation didn’t work as well for early players. For one thing, there were so many errors. Due to this, a few stats are more important for evaluating 19th century players than they are for modern ones.
For example, pitcher wins are more important; up to a point. And runs scored for batsmen likely gave a clearer picture of their offensive contributions than most other stats. This is a subject near and dear to Joe W’s heart. He is part of a subcommittee that put together a ballot of 19th century legends overlooked by Cooperstown. The committee as a whole will vote in June on Ross Barnes, Pete Browning, Bill Dahlen, Jack Glasscock, George Gore, Paul Hines, Bobby Mathews, Tony Mullane, Harry Stovey and Deacon White.
I also talked to my old friend Bill Ryczek. Bill’s been a hero of mine of sorts since I read an article about him back in ’01 in the local paper. A mild-mannered banker by day, he’s spent his nights writing books about sports in the 1860s and 1960s.
But the local eye candy wasn’t that sweet and Cooperstown rolls its sidewalks up early except during the summer. Joe W was starting to get the munchies around 10, but nothing was open except Cooley’s and Sherman’s Tavern, another watering hole across the street. I just went to my room at the Tunicliff Inn and listened to a triple play of Bad Company on WOUR (Utica-Rome’s Classic Rock Connection with Gomez and Dave in the Morning!) before turning in. I was looking forward to Saturday.
The Inn had a breakfast buffet, but the crowd there was giving me a bad vibe. So I went back upstairs and called room service and ordered in. I requested identical twins from SUNY–Oneonta to serve me in bed while decked out in PVC. The front desk did not disappoint. About 20 minutes later, two blonde sisters arrived. They were sharing a jimson weed spliff and served me four Bloody Marys, two grapefruits, a pot of coffee, Rangoon crepes, a half pound of corned beef hash, eggs Bruce Benedict, a slice of lemon meringue pie, two margaritas, and six lines of the finest Bolivian marching powder for dessert. Breakfast is my psychic anchor, a ritual as important to me as High Mass is in Canterbury. Studes is probably wondering why I’m writing over a hundred words on breakfast instead of The Meaning of Abner Doubleday, but I’m trying to stay faithful to the notes I took over that weird weekend.
Leading off the conference was Jerry Casway. Jerry is the author of a book on Ed Delahanty and is an expert on Irish history. He talked about Ted Sullivan and Charlie Comiskey. I knew about the Old Roman; although I knew of him more as the Black Sox owner. I was dimly aware of him going through the ranks as a player and manager before becoming a magnate. He wasn’t unique in this respect. Spalding, Montgomery Ward, McGraw and Mack, among others, all had this career path. Sullivan, I probably heard of, but my brainsponge didn’t really absorb him. He was a bon vivant and a raconteur. According to Casway, Sullivan invented the term fan and the phrase “the show.” (Dickson wasn’t as confident about this.) Sullivan was sort of a Branch Rickey figure. He and Comiskey influenced Ned Hanlon and John McGraw and their influence still can be felt today.
After this, we viewed a DVD titled Baseball Origins. They screened this in Cleveland, but I’m not sure where I was when that was on. Anyway, it’s a documentary that looked at the British origins of baseball, following author and historian David Block around the English countryside looking at some related games. They showed rounders and stoolball but the most interesting one was a pub game called bat and trap that they play in Canterbury.
The DVD also discussed some early American history of the game. It covered the discovery of an ordinance in Pittsfield, Mass. from 1791. Ball players were breaking church windows and the parson was upset. It also talked about Doubleday and Cooperstown. I never realized this, but a movie back in 1939 depicted the invention of the game. A snippet of it was shown and it looked as hokey as you’d expect. When Doubleday was named the inventor of the sport he was conveniently dead and unable to refute the story. But it’s as American as George Washington and the cherry tree.
Lunchtime. I grabbed Casway and asked him about the Irish influence on the game. He was thinking about making a comment after the DVD. He told me that the Irish felt comfortable batting because it was a similar to using hurling sticks. Like baseball, hurling requires hand-eye coordination. Handball, another sport that requires hand-eye coordination, was also Irish in origin. Alas, he felt that a lot of the evidence about Irish recreation was destroyed over the years. We ate at a place called Templeton Hall. John Thorn was the keynote speaker. His remarks are here.
Afterward, we returned to the Bullpen Theater; site of the conference. There was a panel discussion led by Fred Ivor-Cambpell that included some authors and publishers. I’ve mentioned Morris, Ryczeck and Thorn. The other panelist was Gary Mitchem from MacFarland. This part was kind of dry shop talk, so I won’t bore you with the details. However, Thorn did talk about how he was once Rick Reilly’s editor or publisher; I forget which. He thought that Riles was a good stylist, but that he wrote about nothing.
Paul Dickson was up next. He’s written numerous books. Most importantly, for our purposes, he is a baseball lexicographer and just released the third edition of his dictionary. He wrote the first edition because his son was asking him about some baseball terms while watching an Orioles game. When he went to the library, he realized that there was no such animal as a baseball dictionary, so he wrote one. It took him a few years to collect the 5,000 entries. Ten years later, Harcourt Brace and Jovanovich republished it. This time, it contained 7,000 terms.
It is now10 years later and another edition (10,000 entries now) has come out. Over the years, sabermetric, Spanish and Japanese terms have been added to the lexicon. A couple of tidbits: Jazz was a baseball term four years before it was used to describe a musical genre. Grand Slam came from bridge and didn’t appear in baseball lingo until the 1920s. Think tank was a term for someone’s skull used by a sportswriter in 1893. I get the impression that Dickson has spoken before audiences before.
Rounding out the conference was Ben Robinson, who just received his masters in History at Guelph University. His thesis was about the differences between the National League and the American Association and he gave us an excerpt from that. I sat next to his parents at lunch. Nice folks. Hey, they are Canadian. Peace, Order and Good Government and all that jazz.
We stayed longer in Cooperstown than we planned. At least I did. Joe had to get back to Connecticut early Sunday morning and left me there—just me and a massive hotel bill that I knew I couldn’t pay. And I couldn’t wire Studes for the money. In the current financial situation, the Hardball Times didn’t have access to the quick and easy credit like it used to. (Oh, the bills that Gleeman used to run up!
But that’s a story for another time.) So I did what any responsible Doktor of Journalism would do. I broke into the Hall of Fame early Sunday morning, lifted Highpockets Kelly’s plaque, hocked it at the first pawnshop I saw, rented a Vincent Black Shadow and got the hell out of there.
Before we left, Peter Mancuso, the committee chair, talked about having another conference next year. St. Paul was mentioned as a possible site, as were a couple other ones in the Northeast. I’d like to cover it again, as long as it isn’t in Cooperstown. Chief Nicols probably has given her polizei orders to shoot me on sight, should I ever set foot in their fair village again.
Jon has been a SABR member since 2001. He has written several biographies for SABR's Biography Project including ones on Jim WIlloughby, Evar Swanson, and Billy Southworth. He is currently working on bios of Schoolboy Johnny Taylor and Bowie Kuhn.