Tag Archives: National League late 1800s

it don’t exactly curve

 

 

… toward the end of his life, … [Walt] Whitman saw that baseball was beginning to reflect some unsettling cultural changes. … the game … seemed to be conforming to anti­democratic tendencies in the culture. One particular rule change symptomatic of the overall drift of the sport particularly bothered Whitman. [Horace] Traubel records Whitman’s concern in May 1889; Thomas Harned, a devoted friend, had come to see Walt after attending a baseball game, and Whitman jumped at the chance to talk about the state of the sport:

Tell me, Tom-I want to ask you a question: in base-ball is it the rule that the fellow who pitches the ball aims to pitch it in such a way the batter cannot hit it? Gives it a twist-what not-so it slides off, or won’t be struck fairly?

Harned affirmed that this indeed was the case, and Whitman’s response indicates that he still followed the game even if he was now too debilitated to attend: “Eh? That’s the modern rule then, is it? I thought something of the kind-I read the papers about it-it seemed to indicate that there” [Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, 5:145].

The rule that concerned Whitman has to do with the way the ball could be pitched. The original Knickerbocker rule forbade the throwing of the ball; instead, the ball had to be pitched underhand, smoothly, so that the batter could hit it. This rule had been refined over the years, first requiring that the hand not be raised above the hip, then requiring only that the hand pass below the hip as the ball was pitched, then only below the waist, then the shoulder (allowing for sidearm pitching). Originally, then, the pitcher’s function was simply to put the ball in play by allowing the batter to hit it; one player usually pitched all the games. But as the skills of the players became more refined, the pitcher’s role became more strategic. In 1884 the National League removed all restrictions on a pitcher’s delivery, and by 1887 batters could no longer call for high or low pitches. The curveball, which occasionally had been accomplished underhand-style in the 1870s, now became a requisite skill. Whitman, however, was not impressed with this new skill and saw the rule change as endemic of the deception and lack of openness he saw creeping everywhere into America; we can hear echoes of the anger and despair of Democratic Vistas in his response to Harned, “denounc[ing] the custom roundly,” as Traubel tells us:

The wolf, the snake, the cur, the sneak all seem entered into the mod­ern sportsman-though I ought not to say that, for a snake is a snake because he is born so, and man the snake for other reasons, it may be said.” And again he went over the catalogue-“! should call it everything that is damnable.”

Harned is described as “amused” at Whitman’s response, but Whitman seems in earnest. He has obviously had the matter on his mind for some time and has engaged in some lively debate about it: “I have made it a point to put the same question to several fellows lately. There certainly seems no doubt but that your version is right, for that is the version everyone gives me” (With Walt Whitman in Camden 5:145).

— Ed Folsom, Walt Whitman’s Native Representations (Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 46-47

 

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I was playing sandlot softball and baseball into my mid-50s. My hitting seemed to get better as I got older. I recall one pitcher though, Edward ______ — much younger than me, of course — on a playground in Queens whom I couldn’t hit. A fat pitch would come in slow, looked so tempting, I would swing, and the ball would break DOWN under my bat. Mightily swing and a miss. “I can never seem to hit you,” I said to Edward once. He laughed. “it’s always lights out for you?” he said.

 

posted by Roger W. Smith

  November 2021