On baseball, America, and the Civil War.
Far more knowledgeable baseball historians than I have long debated the sport’s origins, and specifically the role that famous “inventor” Abner Doubleday did or did not play in creating our national pasttime (or even whether said national pasttime was in fact invented in a different nation, one from which we had recently declared independence no less!). It’s an interesting debate, one that touches on not only 19th century history, the development of mythological narratives in communities and nations, and how culture moves and changes across international borders, but also on the ongoing role that sports plays in our collective consciousness and imaginations. But to my mind, it’s also deeply meaningful that the invention of baseball has long been tied to Doubleday, a man otherwise most famous as a decorated Union officer during the Civil War.
Doubleday’s supposed and contested invention of the sport took place well before the war, in Cooperstown (NY) in 1839. But I would argue that many of our collective narratives of baseball’s earliest days are closely tied to the Civil War, to images of soldiers playing sandlot games during the downtime between battles and campaigns. In part remembering the war in that way offers a peaceful alternative to the war’s most dominant images, a way to imagine and contemplate Civil War soldiers that doesn’t focus solely on the conflict and violence and loss that so defined the war years. But on the other hand, the images of Civil War baseball games could be read as a direct (if of course bloodless) complement to the war’s battles—in which, similarly, “teams” that might well have been friendly or even related off of the diamond became bitter adversaries once they stepped onto that field, one from which only one side could emerge victorious (there are no ties in baseball, as the saying famously goes).
Both sides to baseball and the Civil War are captured in the best historical novel about that subject (and one of the best baseball novels period), Thomas Dyja’s Play for a Kingdom (1998). Dyja’s novel imagines a chance 1864 encounter between Union and Confederate soldiers engaged in the bloody battle of Spotsylvania, an encounter that turns into a series of baseball games contested alongside (and, gradually, intertwined with) the battle itself. Dyja nicely illustrates how the games serve not only as a distraction from the battle, but also and just as crucially as a parallel to it, one in which shifting relationships and allegiances, as well as the soldier’s individual personalities and perspectives, cannot ultimately lessen the harder and more absolute truths of war. Whatever its other starting points, baseball—like America—was created anew during the Civil War, and Dyja’s novel helps us contemplate those complex and vital points of origin.
Next baseball story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other baseball stories you’d highlight?