Interview with Peter Morris

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by Protoball Functionary, April 2013

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Protoball: What personal trail led you to your role as one of early base ball’s best and most prolific authors?

Peter Morris: A fascination with the early history of baseball and a feeling that there were topics that deserved a book-length treatment but had not yet received one. In one way or another, every book I’ve written has been one that I first wished someone else had written. Only when I realized that nobody had done so and nobody was likely to do so, did I decide to write each of them.

Protoball: Academic writing on base ball in its early context (Guttman, Reiss, Rader, etc.) flourished less than a generation ago, and then pretty much stopped. Where did it come from, and why did it end?

Peter Morris: That’s a great question. I think two major factors are that the academics who became most prominent in the field: (1) were way too devoted to modernization theory, an extremely narrow vantage point that left little theoretical room for subsequent researchers, and (2) produced work that often wasn’t very good, at least when it came to baseball, but formed a little closed work in which they all praised one another’s work whether good or bad. Guttman has a tremendous range of knowledge of so many sports from so many eras, but his work on baseball is superficial at best. In addition, when they were doing their work, there was a lot of basic spadework that had not yet been done. Now that so much more research has been done, we need a new generation of scholars with the courage to throw out much of what they did and start afresh. I’m looking forward to reading David Vaught’s new book [The Farmers' Game: Baseball in Rural America (Johns Hopkins, 2013)], but haven’t had the chance to do so yet.

Protoball: Your book A Game of Inches, now available in an indexed, 625-page single-volume edition, instantly became the first place to go for facts about early base ball events and for many, many base ball “firsts.” What led you to undertake such a difficult task . . . and did you know what you were getting into when you launched into it?

Peter Morris: A Game of Inches really came out of the contributions I made to Paul Dickson’s Baseball Dictionary. I’ve always been fascinated by baseball’s rich language, so it was a lot of fun for me to try to track down the origins of many specific phrases. But in the process, it often became evident that a term only came into use when the thing itself did. Soon the project took on a life of its own.

Protoball: You undertook to maintain a website in conjunction with A Game of Inches, which was a way to keep the work current with new finds. What do you see as the lessons of that online experience?

Peter Morris: For me, online stuff was mostly headaches, so I’ve retreated.

Protoball: Do you have a favorite author, or work, that seems to be underappreciated among current researchers?

Peter Morris: It seems to me that Bill Ryczek is undervalued within the baseball research community as a whole, though I think specialists appreciate his work. One book that is unfairly neglected by nineteenth-century specialists is Stephen Fox’s Big Leagues: Professional Baseball, Football, and Basketball in National Memory (U Nebraska, 1998).

Protoball: One of our favorite books is your “Baseball Fever,” which details the rise of the modern game in Michigan. Based on your research experience with that project, do you think it is feasible and advisable that similar books might be written about most other states?

Peter Morris: I would certainly hope so, but such a project entails a lot of work and has few financial rewards, so I have my doubts that anyone else will undertake something that ambitious.

Protoball: Did your experience in editing the Pioneer Project books (Baseball Pioneers, McFarland) change the way you think of the base ball club of the 1850s and 1860s, and how the game spread in that era?

Peter Morris: Very much so. For example, I’d always believed that college students played a greater role than is generally recognized, but the pioneer project really underscored that for me. It may take some time for all of the new information to be digested, but I believe that this project has accomplished a lot of the basic spadework that had not yet been done when the first wave of academic books came out. My hope is that both academics and non-academics will take the opportunity to look at the era in new ways.

Protoball: Are you actively involved in base ball research now? Do you see any future projects coming along?

Peter Morris: Very much so. I have a new book out from McFarland that tells the story of my searches for “missing” nineteenth-century major leaguers called Cracking Baseball’s Cold Cases. I’m also in the midst of a major project on how baseball became the national pastime. The challenge is going to be finding an appropriate publisher.