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“The Baseball Idea”

March 11, 2008

By way of our correspondent, Lara Mann, comes this find:

This must be a pretty wild picture. From The Milwaukee Sentinel, July 30, 1892.

A Cleveland, O., engraver, under the auspices of the baseball league, has just published a picture representing the Indians playing baseball when Columbus discovered America. And the Indian spectators are so absorbingly interested in the game that the sudden appearance of Columbus and his Spanish companions from another world does not evidently divert their attention from the game until finished, although the Indians don’t know but that they were from the moon or the celestial regions.

Much has been said of the species of insanity that reveals itself in the mind of the baseball devotee of to-day during the progress of a game or pending the report of one, but it wasn’t supposed the noble red man was affected by a similar weakness. During the Minneapolis convention, when President-making for the greatest Republic on earth was supposed to interest the average mind, the baseball fanatic, when the most exciting scene of the convention was on, would come into the Times’ telegraph room and breathlessly inquire for the latest news from the plains of Bitter creek, where the club from Podunk Center was contesting a game of ball with the amateur nine from Litchfield Corners.

It looks, too, from casual study of this reminiscent picture from the special artist of Mr. Christopher Columbus, that the Indians, in 1492, had the same rules and code of procedure that the American league has adopted just 400 years later, for 1892. It has been supposed that the great American game of baseball was progressive, like everything else, but probably the Indians had it then reduced down to perfection so that progress was impossible. Some of the literary cranks, who hate baseball on account of its monopolizing so much space in the newspapers, have told us it was a barbarous game; and perhaps they knew all the time that it originated and was perfected by the barbarians of North America, since it is native-born. No naturalization papers have been necessary, and outside of any legal procedure, it would seem that under the refining influences of civilization it has surprisingly preserved its native purity.

What interests me is that the picture was patronized by the Baseball League, depicting Indians as the originators of baseball. I assume that they were trying to show that baseball is wholly America’s sport because nothing can be more indigenous to America than Indigenous Americans. The whole thing’s kind of back handed though: in once instance we invented baseball, but in another we didn’t care that a whole mess of people were arriving on our shores. I don’t know where else they were thinking baseball came from, but the tone of the article makes this proposition sound like the latest, wildest scientific theory: that Indians could have invented baseball. And of course the article ends with the disclaimer that if Indians did in fact invent baseball, then it must have been “barbarous” and “reduced down to perfection,” a phrase I find to be both hilarious and two-faced: “reduced” as in “boiled down to, purified” or “reduced” as in “simplified, dumbed-down?” Not quite the unambiguous journalistic style people seem to shoot for these days.

[ed. The description of this etching reminds us a lot of this one in which Alaskan natives are depicted playing baseball in the dead of winter, while wearing seal skin parkas and mittens, naturally. But we’ve yet to track down the etching described in the article above. Anyone?]

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