Saturday, December 5, 2009

Some Journalistic Infighting (or William Spink Lays The Smack Down)

The rage of a mad bull at witnessing a red rag flaunted in his face is not a marker to the effect which the name of "Chadwick" has on a Philadelphian. The Times is at present afflicted with the services of a gentleman who hails from the city of systematic swindling, and has brought with him as a journalist all those qualities which have made Philadelphia newspapers famous for their dullness. Because the Globe-Democrat has seen fit to refer to the fact that Chadwick's prophecies have come true, this would-be authority froths at the mouth. Chadwick has demonstrated the fact that he is able to take care of himself. This is not written for his benefit, but for the benefit of the Philadelphia journalist who is at present giving St. Louisans an insight into the manner in which Quaker City newspapers have gained a reputation for "enterprise." On May 23 this journalist manufactured a special telegram from New York, stating among other things that "in the early part of the game Mathews, the pitcher of the Mutuals, was struck by a ball and so badly injured that he had to retire, the score at that time standing 2 to 1 in favor of St. Louis." It is needless to say that no such accident occurred and that the special telegram never saw the inside of a telegraph office. Another bogus dispatch, dated Philadelphia, appears in the Times of yesterday. It was supposed that Pearce would play short and Mack second in the Athletic game, and the telegram referred to contains that information. Unfortunately for journalism on the Philadelphia plan, Pearce played second and Mack short in that game; hence the bogus telegram manufacturer was for a second time given away. When, by evincing similar enterprize, the Dispatch hanged a man at Fort Smith, who is at present alive and kicking, and the Republican resurrects "specials" from New York papers a week old, and both were exposed by the Globe-Democrat, it was thought that the "racket" was played out; but it remained for the Philadelphia base ball reporter of the Times to bring up the rear even in "journalism" of this stripe. Here he will be left, never again to be resurrected in these columns.
-St. Louis Globe-Democrat, June 1, 1876

Wow. That was a bit harsh but also rather amusing. My favorite part is when Spink put quotes around "journalism." The point, however, for all of us is that there were people in the 19th century who were making up their game accounts. That's a very serious and very frightening charge from a historian's point of view. Information can be difficult to come by and you have to scratch and dig and fight to find the stuff you're looking for (and many times without success). The idea that there is information out there in the contemporary sources that was knowingly falsified gives one pause. We know that people have biases and that they make mistakes and, as historians, we look for that and we can account for that. But we are not expecting the contemporary sources to lie to us. We know that they can be wrong but we have to be able to trust our sources. We have to be able to expect a good faith effort on the part of 19th century journalists in reporting the truth as they see it. I may be a bit naive about this but I find this kind of thing rather unethical and I enjoyed reading Spink laying the hammer down.


Richard Hershberger said...

Of course we don't have the other side of the story. I have seen similar accusations passed back and forth.

I haven't worked that era for some time, but as I recall the Philadelphia Times had comparatively extensive baseball coverage. I don't remember ever having the feeling it was particularly prone to making stuff up.

For amusing opinionating, see Richter's assessment of Chadwick in the early years of The Sporting Life.

I think what we should take away from this is a sense of caution about the vagaries of journalism of the period. I am not willing to make judgments about individual reporters without some careful analysis first.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

Absolutely fair and valid points. This is the first time I've run into these kind of charges and it took me aback. I understand making errors because I do it all the time and have a rather fair understanding of human nature. But the idea that people may have been fabricating game accounts is shocking to me largely because we're using the contemporary reports as the basis and foundation of the history of the 19th century game. If we can't depend on them then we're SOL as far as recreating the data and history is concerned.

But as you say, we just need to exercise some caution and make careful judgments. I trust your judgement of the Phil media and the entire situation was most likely overblown. Spink was prone (within the journalistic community) to throwing stones, starting fights and quickly responding to slights. It's one of the reasons he's so entertaining to read.