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Stew Book Review: 'But Didn't We Have Fun?'

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But Didn't We Have Fun?: An Informal History of Baseball's Pioneer Era, 1843-1870
By Peter Morris

"But Didn't We Have Fun?" combines terrific archival history with indifferent presentation. It's a nice airplane read for someone interested in baseball's roots, but nothing more than that. It's a shame, because the material is rich and the author is well-suited to tell the story. Peter Morris is one of the preeminent baseball historians in the country — he was an inaugural laureate of the Society for American Baseball Research's Henry Chadwick Award, along with Bill James, Pete Palmer, and SABR founder Bob Davids.

But his book is saddled with a bizarre thesis: 19th-century baseball players founded and shaped the modern game, he argues, for no other reason than that they wanted to have fun. "Fun" provides the book's entire structure, and it's right there in the title, but it's hard to understand quite why he thought that was the most penetrating insight to illuminate the old game. Baseball is a game. Of course it's fun.

I came to the book as a lay reader, not at all versed in baseball's prehistory (except for that old Conan O'Brien clip about 1864 baseball), so while I didn't know anything about the historians who may have argued that old baseball players didn't have fun, I learned a great deal about the old game. Money has been a tension in baseball from its beginnings. Many people know that the first baseball club was probably the New York Knickerbockers, whose official rules became adopted by clubs across the country in the 1850's. (Among other things, the Knickerbocker rules specified that players had to be either "members" or "gentlemen.") Morris makes great use of the recollections of the players of that era, from diaries, memoirs, and newspaper stories. The first baseball clubs were, quite literally, gentlemen's clubs that decided to play pickup games every now and then. Many of the players had as much interest in banquets afterward as the basepaths.

Being gentlemen, of course, they had their own private income sources, so they privately footed the bill for all costs, including equipment and travel, and all games were free, because the games were played in parks that didn't have fences or walls, so anyone could just walk up and watch. This meant that baseball could be a rather expensive hobby, and one only available to a private man of means. Many clubs asked their older members to help subsidize the games that the younger men played. Eventually, some clubs prized winning highly enough to be willing to import a non-member to play for the club, which was the start of professional baseball. At the start, baseball was a boy's game played by rich men. That was unsustainable — as was the expectation that clubs would continue to foot all their own costs, especially once they had to start paying for players. Gradually, enclosed ballparks were built so that teams could charge spectators admission and cover their costs.

In the wake of the increased professionalism of the larger teams, amateur baseball began to appear as a near-parody or burlesque of the more expensive game. Bad players formed teams that reveled in their own ineptitude, as if they were playing games where both teams were the Washington Generals. But this helped underline the difference between the clubs where the players were paid athletes and they teams that couldn't afford to. Many at the time protested; the Eckford Club of Brooklyn gave up the game in the 1860's, when seemed that baseball had become more about the money and less about the fun.

Morris has a solid grasp of all the history, and the book is beautifully illustrated by photographs and diagrams, many of which are taken from the collection of Tom Shieber, curator of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. The trouble is the meandering presentation. He begins compelling stories but never finishes them — like the untimely death at age 21 of Jim Creighton, baseball's first professional, or the fate of a St. Louis Empires game during the Civil War in which the Home Guard arrested players and fans alike for possible sedition. It's a collection of good stories that could be told better. This book is a good primer to the era, and for someone not interested in reading one of the more monumental tomes about prehistoric baseball, it is a fine place to start. But it could be better.

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