By Vivian Bleecker
The League That Lasted
Neil W. Macdonald
McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers
With the Mariner’s baseball season cut short, like a sizzling line drive snagged in the hot box at third, true baseball fans are left longing for the cheers and jeers of a pennant race stealing into the late innings of October. The best the northwest can offer this year is a diamond of different proportions, a chance to relive one of the most competitive seasons in baseball history in local writer Neil Macdonald’s book, The League That Lasted, an honest and richly detailed account of the 1876 inaugural season of the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs. And Macdonald doesn’t keep the competition just to baseball, carefully and artistically portraying the true fight against corruption, mismanagement, and malice present in the National Association in its early years.
Weaving the business stratagem and baseball philosophy of William Hulbert, the league’s founder, with play-by-play accounts of games and the skilled (and sometimes dirty) play of baseball’s earliest heroes, Macdonald creates a euphoric and ambitious history of how the game was played, both on and off the field, in and out of season. His writing style sports an athletic fluency and strength as dominant and graceful as the athletes he writes about and his paragraphs are peppered with alliterative and figurative jargon of the sport and business of baseball that beguiles readers, enticing and wooing them to read on.
The early chapters of The League That Lasted present the prevailing moral and spiritual ambitions of Hulbert, who strategically joined forces with the likes of Albert Goodwill Spalding and Harry “Mr. Clean” Wright in transforming the National Association into the National League. Each of these men, but particularly Hulbert, believed in the integrity of the game, a passion that beleaguered most team owners, coaches, and players in the '70s. Despite the difficulties, both personal and monetary, Hulbert continued to pursue his dream of an American pastime free from drinking, gambling, corruption, and malice play.
Macdonald writes, “In 1875 anyone above the intellect of an idiot could see that the national pastime was half a spike’s length from going into past time. The New York Times described the typical baseball player as a ‘worthless, dissipated gladiator; not much above the professional pugilist in morality and respectability (who spent his off-seasons) in those quiet retreats connected with bars, and rat pits.’
While researching how the National League struggled through its early years, Macdonald said he was struck by the underlying reality that it survived not so much because of anything Hulbert or his co-conspirators did, but because of the game itself. In his book Macdonald also reveals that little has changed in some aspects of the game, such as pitching.
The dominance of William “Candy” Cummings’ curveball and the speed and finesse of Spalding, Tommy Bonds and Grin Bradley (1.23 era; 16 shutouts) can be compared to the likes of today’s Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, and Mike Mussina. And one of the Big Four who played with Chicago in its first season was speedster Ross Barnes whose statistics and stature (145 pounds) resemble today’s (262) hit leader, Ichiro Suzuki of Seattle. Barnes was the National League batting champion with a .429 average, getting 138 hits in 66 games for an average of 2.09 hits per game.
One of the most insightful notations Macdonald shares is that in comparison to today’s hurlers, there is little difference in batting – in both situations, the batter has a fraction of a second to learn the speed, location, and type of pitch and about two-tenths of a second to swing the bat.
“The old idea of keeping your eye on the ball isn’t exactly as accurate (or easy) as it sounds,” Macdonald writes. “When the eye has picked up the ball after it has left the pitcher’s hand, about one quarter of a second is left for the batter to swing. The eyes follow the ball for a few hundredths of a second at a time as the brain, that marvelous three and one-half pound piece of worm meat that makes us human, does a miraculous thing.”
There are some subtle differences in the game, however. In addition to improvements made to equipment and field conditions, a typical nine-inning baseball game today requires several dozen baseballs to complete. In 1876, the same ball was used for the entire game, despite being dented and dimpled by contact. “The ball was only proclaimed ‘lost’ after a hunt and seek session that lasted at least five minutes.” By the end of a game in 1876, a pitcher could do some marvelous things with a dented baseball, playing havoc with hitters up and down the lineup.
Nevertheless, Macdonald’s book makes baseball fans thankful for Hulbert’s pragmatic philosophy and belief in the integrity of the game, getting professional baseball on the “long, slow evolution toward respectability.”
The key constant throughout all its turmoil, however, was that the game itself was “appealing enough for fathers to continue playing catch with their sons, both small and big boys to gather in vacant lots and open fields to play pickup games and for spectators to continue to come out to the ballpark. Without that appeal, baseball would have gone the way of the dodo.”
The League That Lasted is a testament to the very foundation that has made American’s favorite pastime a lasting legacy.