"A Plague Is Upon Us"

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by Steve Sisto, September 2021

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Nowadays, it seems as though there are a lot of people complaining about the current state of the game of baseball. Whether it's the seven-inning double-header rule, instant replay, or steroids -- everywhere you look, somebody's angry about something. And it isn't all that uncommon to hear people say that they wish baseball could go back to how it was in the past, when teams could simply play the game without having to worry about anything else. But the truth is, even if you go back more than 150 years, you can still find people not happy with the game of baseball.

We begin in 1859, where The Cecil Whig, a newspaper in Maryland, wrote that:

"However much our boys (from 18 to 48,) may be opposed to balls of some descriptions, they unhesitatingly, in the broad glare of day, in the presence of many who wish to but are afraid, engage in what all moral denominate, if not the basest, at least very base ball. A plague is upon us; the bats have left their crevices and fly about in daytime, knock around as if accustomed to the light and turn the boys to circus runners, making them disturb the nervous with their balling."

The language here, while quite aggressive, is also strikingly poetic. Comparing baseball bats to the flying animal of the same name evokes powerful imagery (such as picturing Pete Alonso trying to hit a home run while swinging a myotis septentrionalis) that is enough to make even the most ardent baseball fan rethink the game.

(Not a bat used by Pete Alonso)

Next is something even more morbid, from 1870 in The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky: "To the parent whose son dies in infancy there must be something peculiarly soothing in the thought that, no matter what may be the fate of the child in the next world, it can never become a member of a base-ball club in this." Imagine being a newspaper editor who hates baseball so much that you would actually print this for your readers to see? Is having a child who grows up to become a baseball player really so bad? Talk about a tough crowd. At least it appears as though not everyone at the paper felt the same about baseball as this writer, because this line was printed later that month about an upcoming visit from the Red Stockings: "Such opportunities of witnessing a science in its perfection are extremely rare, and should not be neglected."

Also in 1870, a grand jury in Baltimore declared baseball to be a "nuisance," calling it "the greatest nonsense in the world, and leads to more harm than good." This, of course, begs the question as to why this issue was taken up in the first place. Granted, a grand jury discussing baseball in 1870 is not entirely dissimilar from the 2005 Congressional hearings about steroids in baseball, but it's still a mystery as to why baseball was called "nonsense." Baltimore finally got a professional baseball team 12 years later with the Orioles, and so one would think that the city changed its opinion of the game by then.

Now to the crime beat. In 1858, The Western Reserve Chronicle in Ohio reported that two men, Loftus Greary and D. Weed, were fined $3 each, which they both chose over going to jail for three days. Their crime? Playing baseball on Sunday. So next time you watch your favorite baseball team on a Sunday, don't forget that it used to be illegal. But that's nothing compared to what happened to William R. Grove of Indiana in 1868. At just 17, he was arrested for breaking into boxes at the Post Office and stealing money from them. According to The Evansville Daily Journal, "He is of good family and has a good trade, but lost two situations successively by neglecting his business to attend to base ball matters, he being a member of a club. This led him to idleness and crime." With Greary and Weed, they made the mistake of playing baseball on the wrong day of the week and had to pay a fine, but with Grove, it was baseball being blamed for driving him into a life of crime. Is baseball an acceptable defense in a court of law? (Being a Mets fan should be proof of insanity, that's for sure.) Perhaps that will become an article in the future.

Finally, there has been plenty of talk in recent years of an alleged decline in the popularity of baseball, and most people seem to believe that this is a new problem. Baseball is the nation's pastime, after all, so it's logical to think that it has always been loved far and wide. However, that is not the case. According to The New York Times: "We observe indications of a decline in interest upon the part of the public in the game of base ball. This is doubtless owing to the unwise enthusiasm of the too ardent admirers of the pastime… If this tendency to immoderation is not speedily checked the game will die out -- consumed by the misplaced fervency and zeal of those who abuse its advantages." Sound like something that might have been written in 2021? Wrong -- Those words were printed in 1867. Major League Baseball didn't even exist yet, and one of the biggest newspapers in the world was already claiming that the sport was in danger of dying out. Kind of makes you think that today's "problems" with baseball aren't so bad after all, doesn't it?

References

Cecil Whig (Elkton, MD). February 12, 1859. Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY). April 1, 1870. Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY). April 19, 1870. Pittsfield Sun (Pittsfield, MA). September 29, 1870. New York Times. June 7, 1867. Western Reserve Chronicle (Warren, OH). May 12, 1858. Evansville Daily Journal (Evansville, IN). April 24, 1868.