- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 1, 2009

BASEBALL AMERICANA: TREASURES FROM THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
By Harry Katz, Frank Ceresi, Phil Mitchel, Wilson McBee and Susan Reyburn
Forward by George F. Will
Harper Collins, $29.99, 240 pages
REVIEWED BY JAMES C. ROBERTS

Ten years ago, when Washington-area coach Victor Price was selected as Little League baseball’s “volunteer of the year,” he said in his acceptance remarks that “Baseball’s a game, but it’s more than that. It’s part of our heritage.”

“Baseball Americana: Treasures From the Library of Congress” is a powerful confirmation of Mr. Price’s contention.

This is a stunning book — lovingly illustrated with images and documents from the library’s matchless collection. The Library of Congress is the world’s largest repository of printed materials on baseball and the authors and former and present curators of the collection have culled the best of this vast reservoir to document the long history of our national pastime.

As Librarian of Congress James H. Billington writes in the preface to the book, “America and baseball grew up together, a democratic sport for a democratic nation. Transcending class and gender, no other sport is so embedded in our history and consciousness.”

The oldest baseball-related document in the LOC collection is the 1786 diary of James Rhee Smith, a student of the College of New Jersey (present-day Princeton) in which he writes, “22nd Wednesday. A fine day. Play baste ball in the campus but am beaten for I miss both catching and striking the ball.”

The next year, 1787, the year the Constitution was ratified, the first book that mentions baseball was published in America. Titled “A Pretty Pocket Book,” it was a reprint of a children’s book published in England and it contains an illustrated poem titled “Base-Ball” that shows three boys playing the game and describes a batter hitting the ball, running the bases and coming “home with joy.”

The book proves conclusively that baseball grew out of the many ball and stick games brought to America by the English — not out of the mind of Abner Doubleday, who according to the myth (thoroughly discredited by the book) invented the game in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1839. This in no way lessens the American nature of the pastime, as “Baseball Americana” demonstrates, tracing the evolution of the game through variations such as the “Massachusetts game”: (An 1834 lithograph is featured, showing boys playing a bat-and-ball game on Boston Common) and the “New York game.”

As the authors indicate, it was in New York City that the game we know today originated. In 1845, Alexander Cartwright, a New York City bank teller and a member of the New York Knickerbockers, drew up the rules of a game much like the modern version, and that year the first game according to those rules was played at the Elysian Fields park in Hoboken, N.J. (An 1859 print depicts a game played that year on that site.)

By the 1850s, the game had spread all the way to the West Coast, and during the Civil War, Union trips introduced it throughout much of the South, a development illustrated by an Otto Boettich lithography of Union soldiers playing baseball in 1863 in a Confederate prison camp in Salisbury, N.C.

By 1866, a Currier and Ives print is already referring to baseball as “the American national game,” an affirmation of the game’s exploding popularity. By the end of the 19th century, the game was played just about everywhere and by just about everybody in America. Black teams were formed in the late 1860s, and women’s teams were playing by the 1890s.

Baseball was played on Indian reservations, by factory workers and by 1869 by professional teams with salaried players. During World War II, the game was played in Japanese-American internment camps and young American servicemen played the game from New Guinea to Germany. All of this is illustrated by magnificent photographs, many of them previously unpublished.

In addition to the photos, “Baseball Americana” features a dazzling array of lithographs, prints, book and magazine covers, commercial advertisements, movie stills, cartoons, sheet music covers, paintings and baseball cards, including the first baseball card dated 1865, and the earliest known set published by the Allen and Ginter company in 1887.

Among the highlights are panoramic photos of the first black world series, played in 1924, an eccentric advertisement for flypaper that features flies as baseball players on a diamond, panoramic aerial prints of American cities centering on the baseball fields and an 1860 cartoon by Currier and Ives featuring President-elect Abraham Lincoln and supporters and political foes depicted as baseball players.

All in all, page after page, “Baseball Americana” is a sumptuous pictorial feast for baseball fans and anyone interested in American history.

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