Saturday, June 14, 2008

Lion Of The Valley

I've been reading Lion of the Valley, Jame Neal Primm's great history of St. Louis, recently. Without a doubt the best general history of the city out there, I finally found a nice hardback copy at a decent price and have been enjoying the book immensely. If you're interested in the history of St. Louis (and if you're reading this blog, there's a good chance that you are), I highly recommend Primm's book.

One of the reason's that I'm reading about the general history of St. Louis is, of course, to be better able to put the history of 19th century St. Louis baseball in context. It's important to not only put the game in St. Louis in the context of 19th century baseball in general but to also place it in the context of place in which it was played. The people who were involved in the game in St. Louis did not spring forth, like Athena, fully formed from the head of Zeus but rather were a product of the time and place in which they lived. To better understand these people, it's important to understand the history of the city in which they lived.

There are several things about the history of St. Louis that have struck me as being important to the development of baseball in the city. The first is the relative youth of the city. St. Louis wasn't founded until 1763, less then a century before baseball was being played there. It didn't become part of the United States until 1804 and wouldn't be incorporated as a town until 1809. Prior to that the people of St. Louis had never experienced democratic government. It was a young frontier town and in 1860 there were still many people living from the generation that had experienced that colonial life under the French and Spanish. To put this in perspective, New York was founded in 1624, Boston in 1630, and Philadelphia in 1682.

I think that the relative youth of the city had an impact on the way the game developed there. A more maturely developed urban area would have more readily adapted to the national baseball trends. In St. Louis, these trends where for the most part ignored to the extent that by the 1865-1870 period St. Louis baseball is hopelessly behind the national trends. It took a strong leader and visionary like Asa Smith to begin to drag St. Louis baseball into the national mainstream and he succeeded only to a certain extent. It's arguable that St. Louis never truly caught up with national trends until the mid 1880's, under the influence of Ted Sullivan and Charles Comiskey, and never became a trendsetter until the 1920's. While its geographical location played a large part in this, I believe that the relative immaturity of the city played an important part.

One of the results of the youth of the city, and one that directly impacted who played the game in St. Louis, was a highly stratified class structure. The people who had founded the city, who had worked with the French, Spanish, and Americans in governing the city, who controlled the fur trade, who owned most of the land were, obviously, the upper class. They lived almost a separate existence than the one lived by the craftsmen, the dockworkers, and the farmers of the outlying villages. What's interesting is that for such a small city, this upper class was fairly large, especially when one remembers that prior to the 1830's the population of St. Louis was never more than a few thousand.

Obviously, the people who founded the city and ran the city had organized the economic and social organizations of St. Louis to their advantage and the only way for an "outsider" to enter that structure was by marriage. If you're a regular reader of this blog, you've may have noticed that when writing about a baseball club member from the 1860's I've often mentioned that so and so was a member of the prominent Chouteau family. The Chouteau's and the Lucas', who have also been mentioned a great deal here at TGOG, were the two most prominent families in St. Louis in the 18th and 19th century. They owned everything and they ran everything and these families, by 1860, were rather large due to intermarriage. And the descendants of Augustus Chouteau and J.B.C. Lucas were playing baseball in 1860 with the Cyclone Club and, especially, the Union Club. In 1875, these men would organize the Brown Stockings.

I should make the caveat that this is a generalization and that there were other prominent families in St. Louis other than the Chouteau's and Lucas' but the "pervasive feature" of the dominant families of the city was their connection or relationship to the Chouteau's and Lucas'. Also, baseball was played in St. Louis by others besides the scions of the city elite. But it seems to be something peculiar to St. Louis that these upper class young men played such a prominent role in the development of the early game.

One more thing that grabbed my attention while reading Lion of the Valley had to do with the Creole traditions regarding Sabbath observance. According to Primm, "The weekly ball after Mass; the singing of profane songs; the horse racing, billiards, and card playing for money; the gaiety and excitement of Sundays and Feast days were parts of a pattern that served the community well...(helping) to bond the community...The Creoles were reported to believe that their Sunday fun contained a 'true and undefiled religion' which pleased their creator as themselves. They distrusted the gloomy and stiff Sunday worshipper as one who was planning to cheat his neighbor the rest of the week." I read this and immediately thought of Sunday baseball.

While I don't think I've really touched on it and it's something I should definitely write about, Sunday baseball was something that developed early on in St. Louis. It quickly became a tradition that was enjoyed and valued by the people of the city and one that would lead to a great deal of conflict in the future. While not completely unique to St. Louis, one can easily see how the tradition of Sunday baseball grew out of the St. Louis Creole traditions.

While Primm doesn't touch much on baseball and the cultural impact it's had on St. Louis, I find it fascinating how much of his book is relevant to the history of the game in St. Louis. Who played the game, how the game was played, when the game was played, where the game was played-all of these things were impacted by the history and development of the city of St. Louis. The game did not, and does not, exist in a vacuum. It is a product of the environment in which it's played. In Lion of the Valley, Primm does a extraordinary job of describing that environment.

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