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by John Wilson

A Game of Brawl

Plus: The Sixties, Revisited, continued.

I promised recently that when the baseball season is over—when the last out has been recorded in the World Series—I will give you some recommendations for reading during the Hot Stove League. And I will do that. But with the Series set to begin this Wednesday, pitting the Rockies against the Red Sox at Fenway Park, I want to give you an appetizer. University of Nebraska Press, whose list includes many fine baseball titles, has published a book that would make a perfect bedside companion during the Series, Bill Felber's A Game of Brawl: The Orioles, the Beaneaters, and the Battle for the 1897 Pennant.

More on this book in a moment. First I want to briefly pick up the ongoing discussion with historian Paul Harvey about the Sixties. You can read Harvey's latest post on the Religion in American History blog, which I've been warmly recommending. I appreciate Harvey's willingness to carry on a genuine conversation—all the more so because, despite good will on both sides, we seem to be largely talking at cross–purposes. That's often the way conversation proceeds, and that's why it often bogs down before getting anywhere. Perhaps if we persist, we can at least clarify where we actually disagree.

Harvey concedes that in influential sources such as the Oxford History of the United States, and in popular accounts of the kind that showed up this past summer, we are continuing to get a very defective picture of the Sixties and in particular of the role of religion in the decade. So we agree on that. For some reason in his several responses he has entirely ignored my point about the way that "chroniclers from the right—conservative Christians in particular—are wont to cast that decade as a time of dramatic national apostasy, a turning away from God, the bitter harvest of which we are now reaping." These chroniclers from the right are for the most part not academics, but they too have played an important role in disseminating and reinforcing misconceptions about the Sixties. I assume that Harvey would agree.

I welcome the emerging scholarship that is beginning to challenge misconceptions about the Sixties and the role of religion in that period. Let a thousand flowers bloom. And let us do the collaborative work of assessing this scholarship. (I'm looking forward, for instance, to Harvey's take on Lisa McGirr's Suburban Warriors.) What we need more of, in fact, is conversation that brings together insights from many different specialized studies of the kind that Harvey mentions, and that others have mentioned on the Religion in American History site (see for example this post by John Turner).

Now back to A Game of Brawl. This is a book that works at several levels. It's an account of a single season, 1897, leading up to a climactic September match–up between the Baltimore Orioles—champions of the National League for the past three years in this pre–World Series era—and the Boston Beaneaters. Bill Felber uses this season to shed light on a crisis that faced baseball in the 1890s, as the sport was increasingly marred by violence, profanity, and cheating ("cutting" bases when the one umpire's attention was turned elsewhere, holding the belt of a player who planned to tag up and score from third, and so on). The Orioles, alas, were as notorious for their dirty play as they were admired for the splendid skills that made John McGraw, Wee Willie Keeler, and their teammates household names. In comparison, the Beaneaters were positively genteel.

Felber touches on many other themes as well: the failed efforts of players to gain more financial equity, how changes in rules affected the game, the state of umpiring in early baseball, and so on. He also takes up the sad story of Louis Sockalexis, the immensely talented Indian phenom whose rise and fall came in the span of this single season.

Like many amateur baseball historians, Felber—executive editor of the Manhattan Mercury in Kansas—is painstaking to a fault. He tracks down every detail and seeks to verify every anecdote he passes on. But even if you don't absorb all the minutia, you'll come away with a vivid picture of "baseball as she was played" (to adapt Baltimore manager Ned Hanlon's phrase) more than a century ago. Much has changed in professional baseball since then; much remains the same. If this bit of time–travel doesn't enhance your enjoyment of the 2007 Series, I'll be very much surprised.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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