Richard Hershberger Interview, October 2013
Interview with Richard Hershberger
Protoball: A few years ago you started posting to the SABR list-serve on early base ball, and quickly became one of our most prolific and discerning participants. What factors led to your interest in the topic? And what in your personal background affected your approach to the subject?
Hershberger: I have been a baseball fan and a history buff my whole life, so combining the two came easily to me. The trigger was some ten or twelve years ago when I stumbled across the online Brooklyn Eagle. I put in a search on baseball and was enchanted to find perfectly understandable box scores from the late 1870s. I was also mystified to find references to the "National Association." I had done some casual reading of baseball history before then, and knew of the National Association of 1871-1875, but this was a few years later. Here was a "National Association" I had never read of, and I wanted to figure that out. This turned out to be pretty trivial, but I was hooked.
Protoball: And what were your initial impressions of the field and the state of knowledge about early ballplaying?
Hershberger: A big part of what hooked me was my reading of the secondary literature. I quickly realized that there are huge swaths of nearly virgin territory. The basic chronology of baseball history had been worked out, at least for the top tier clubs, but very little analysis of why people were doing what. Much of what passed for analysis was actually a repetition of propaganda points. This situation is tremendously appealing to my quasi-academic amateur history bent. This is a field where someone like me can do interesting and original work. The first baseball history paper I published, in 2007, was on why the National League was founded (see http://mcfarland.metapress.com/content/q0733l45474n3332 -- LMc). This would seem like an obvious topic of interest, but it was hardly addressed. People took the existence of the National League to be the obviously correct order of things, and rarely thought to question why it came about. What discussion existed was either incoherent or didn't stand up to scrutiny. That was a particularly low-hanging fruit, but I have never since found any difficulty finding topics for research and analysis. Virtually everything to do with baseball's origins is rife with misconceptions. The Cartwright myth is a great example of this. People who justifiably consider themselves educated about baseball history routinely buy into the Cartwright myth, while disparaging the Doubleday myth. A more subtle example is the underlying--and usually unspoken--assumption how to model pre-modern baseball. People tend to see it as a series of forms starting from a distinct early form, through one or more intermediate forms, to the Knickerbocker rules of 1845. If they can name these forms, their job is done. So we get the claim that baseball came from rounders, with town ball as an intermediate form. The problem is that this is a terrible model. It doesn't fit how pre-modern games work, and it doesn't fit the most rudimentary facts of baseball history.
Hershberger: Going beyond that, there is a traditional history of baseball that was written in the early twentieth century. There is the old saying that history is written by the victors. In this case, history was written by the survivors. The guys who were still alive and active in the twentieth century got the attention. Henry Chadwick and Al Spalding were particularly shameless about inflating their early roles. Even when we aren't faced with personal aggrandizement, baseball history was written through the filters of competing interests, especially the classic conflict of capital versus labor. The result is that if you are serious about getting past that, you have to be aware of the traditional baseball history, and you have to be prepared to reject it if necessary.
Protoball: Our field has been transformed in recent years by major new works by Block, Morris, Ryczek, Thorn and others. What other diggers occur to you as our unsung heroes? What older work do you see as underappreciated for its insights?
Hershberger: I am reluctant to start naming names, since I will get myself into trouble when I inevitably overlook someone. I do, however, want to give mention to the late David Ball. He didn't publish much, but his research and insights were top rate. He and I corresponded a great deal. I still sometimes go back and review our email conversations. We had just begun planning a joint article defending the major league status of the Union Association. This is now on the very back burner. I hope to write it some day, but it won't be as good as it would have been with him. His passing away is a great loss to the early baseball community. As for older writers, I have to cite Harold Seymour and Dorothy Seymour Mills. It might seem a stretch to cite them as "underappreciated," given that their book is generally recognized as the foundation of our field. But I am constantly amazed at how well it stands up, fifty years later. I have learned when I have some mind flash to go check to see what they said on the subject. They often will turn out to have gotten there first. Beyond that, I admire Melvin Adelman's A Sporting Time. It is one of the finest books on early baseball, even though that is only about a third of the book. There was a brief time in the 1980s when academic historians ventured into baseball history. A Sporting Time is the cream of the crop: informed by theory while still grounded in concrete events. Protoball: Online searches have led us to many new insights about early ballplaying. Do you think that that new vein is now being played out as major newspaper uploads are completed, or can we look forward to lots more new sources in the next decade or so? Hershberger: Only a tiny fraction of newspapers have been uploaded. I don't know if there is the funding to continue such projects, but there is no end in sight of potential material. That being said, there is a lot to be said for old-fashioned browsing. Computer reading of text is imperfect even under ideal circumstances. Old newspapers, much less old newspapers on microfilm are far from ideal. If you rely on searchable data you are going to miss a lot. There is no substitute for sitting and reading, knowing that most of what you read won't be of interest. The less obvious breakthrough is the ability to take digital images of text. This isn't as sexy as creating searchable text, but it still is huge. In the old days a researcher had to go to a research library and sit there reading text, whether in bound volumes or microfilm. It was an exercise in speed reading and vicious triage of what to copy. Nowadays you take a camera or use the library's scanner and leave at the end of the day with a flash drive in your pocket. The actual reading is does at leisure, taking notes which will themselves be searchable. The activity of reading text and taking notes has been transformed, much for the better.
Protoball: What have you been working recently?
Hershberger: I always have several irons in the fire. Last spring I gave a presentation on the creation of the Cartwright myth. I am polishing the final draft of a written version, probably for the Baseball Research Journal. Probably the next piece after that will be on the early spread of the New York game. I realized some time ago that it was possible to make an absolute count of antebellum clubs. I have finished the raw count, and will be analyzing it. The count can't be complete, of course, but it gives semi-hard data of where the game was being played when, and by how many? My long term project will be a book on how baseball went from an obscure folk game to being formally organized and codified and recognized as the national pastime.