Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Known Unknowns

John W. O'Connell...and J.D. Fitzgibbon...say the game was brought here by men who had played baseball in the East, but that the first game ever played here took place in what was then Northwest St. Louis and on the ground now occupied by Carr Square Park.
-The National Game

I can't tell you how many times I've read the above sentence but last night, as I looked at it again, it held new meaning for me.

With the discovery of new primary source material from the Missouri Republican, I've begun to re-evaluate some of the things I believe about the origins of the game in St. Louis and how the game developed in the city from 1859 to 1865.  I've found evidence that conflicts with some of the more important secondary sources and evidence that conflicts with some of the conclusions I've reach after years of research.  I think it's important for me to remember that there are a lot of things that I don't know with any degree of certainty about baseball in St. Louis in the antebellum and Civil War eras.  All I can do is gather all the evidence that I can, weigh that evidence and try to reach logical conclusions.

One of the things that I believed, up until the last week or so, was that the first baseball game was played by the Cyclone Club at Lafayette Park sometime during the summer of 1859.  The weight of the evidence that I had seen supported that idea.  Now, after looking through the Republican, I can say that there is evidence to suggest that the first game wasn't played at Lafayette Park.  O'Connell and Fitzgibbons, two pioneer era players, stated to Al Spink that the first game was played at Carr Park and that testimony is very important.  Why did I dismiss it?

Carr Park was the playing grounds of the Morning Star Club, who we believe were playing town ball at the park as early as 1857.  Richard Perry, a member of the Morning Stars, stated in 1887 that his club was the first to play baseball in St. Louis.  Interestingly, the earliest reference I have to a St. Louis baseball club comes from the St. Louis Daily Bulletin of June 6, 1860, and mentions the organization of the Morning Stars.  The Protoball Chronology has a reference to an unnamed club in September of 1859, that is neither the Cyclones nor the Morning Stars.  I have some problems with the sourcing of that reference but it comes from Craig Waff and therefore should be taken seriously.

My point is that if we just relied on the primary source material, we'd have to argue that either the Morning Stars or Waff's unnamed club was the first baseball team in St. Louis, rather than the Cyclones.  I've yet to find a reference to the Cyclone Club prior to August 1860 and believe me when I tell you that I've looked.  That doesn't mean that the evidence to support my conclusions doesn't exist or that I've exhausted every source but it does mean that I don't have a lot of evidence to support my conclusions other than some secondary sources and logic.  And now I'm finding primary source evidence that is poking holes in my logic.

Another thing: I believe that town ball was played in St. Louis in the 1840s, at the latest.  I have absolutely no primary source evidence of that.  The earliest town ball reference I have for St. Louis comes from 1860.  There are insinuations in the contemporary press and exertions in the secondary sources that support or imply that town ball was played much earlier.  Also, I have plenty of evidence to support the idea that town ball was played in the region as early as the 1820s, so it's not a great leap to believe that it was played in St. Louis at the same time.  But I can't prove it.

And there, as they say, is the rub.  There's a lot of stuff that I believe about the origins and development of the game in St. Louis that I can't prove.  I can argue for a certain conclusion and show you all the evidence that I have that leads me to reach such a conclusion but argument is not proof.  I can argue that O'Connell and Fitzgibbons, when they said baseball was first played at Carr Park, were talking about town ball and the Morning Star Club but I can't prove that.  Somebody else can look at their statement and conclude that they were talking about the New York game.  That argument would be just as valid as mine.  

What I have to accept is the fact that this is a process.  I can sit down right now and write a three volume history of 19th century baseball in St. Louis but the first volume would be out of date by the time I finished writing it.  The research is ongoing and continuing to bear fruit.  It doesn't matter to me that new evidence changes what I believe because my goal is to find the truth.  I will change my beliefs and conclusions to fit the facts that I discover, regardless of whether or not those changes conflict with previously held beliefs and conclusions.  My commitment is to the truth rather than to my own ego or to any historical school of thought.

Our understanding of what was happening in St. Louis during the pioneer era is much, much greater than it was just two years ago.  I've discovered all kinds of primary source evidence over the last few years that have really shed light on the subject and have enabled us to work with facts rather than supposition.  If I was writing the St. Louis chapter of the Base Ball Pioneer book today, it would be a bit different than the one I submitted two years ago.  And I think it would be different again if I was writing it two years from now.  The research is ongoing and my shifting of the evidence never stops.

In the end, I have to continuously remember what I know and what I know I don't know.  I have to remember that there is fact and there is supposition.  At the moment fact and truth are destroying some of my suppositions and assumptions.  And that is a good thing.  Does it mean that I have to go back and rewrite a bunch of stuff that I thought I was finished with?  Yes, it does.  But that's okay because I'm just trying to get the thing right.        


Cliff Blau said...

I admire your willingness to change your mind as the facts require. I guess that means you'll never make it in politics, though.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

Thanks, Cliff. I do appreciate that. And, no, I would not make a good politician. I'm a bit too straightforward in my dealings with people for that. I personally don't think that's a character flaw but if you asked some of the people I work with, they may tell you different.