Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Praiseworthy Enterprise

All travelers speak of the physical deterioration of American men and women from the average old world standard.  All agree that the want of muscular exercise, or the prevalence of particular obnoxious kinds are the predisposing causes of this deterioration...

Within a decade - partly owing to the example set by the general introduction of the Turner's societies and an appreciation of our national defect by teachers and writers for youth - a reform has set in, in the shape of gymnastic clubs, base ball clubs, and other organizations devoted to the cultivation of the physical man.  These associations are highly praiseworthy, and are generally conducted with decorum.  Few, except the best of our citizens, whether minors or adults, would seek satisfaction in innocent and beneficial recreation.  Hence we find the much more numerous class of both who might lower the respectability of such diversions...and turn to the race-course, the gambling house, the grog-shop or the brothel.  
-Missouri Republican, August 30, 1863

I don't know if I've ever heard of the possibility that baseball spread and grew in popularity because of some kind of progressive reform pushing physical exercise.  There was a reform movement in the 1870s, supporting shorter work weeks, that played a role in the growth of the number of amateur baseball clubs but I'm talking more about the origins of the game and how it spread in the 1850s and 1860s.  With the growth of the urban population and the physically negative effects of an urban life, it seems possible that there could have been some kind of movement encouraging physical exercise during this period and baseball was in a position to take advantage of that.  I don't really know if that's true but it's an interesting thought.

1 comment:

Richard Hershberger said...

Look up "muscular Christianity". Baseball didn't spread due to this ideology: it was already played everywhere. But the notion of baseball, as well as other sports, as a respectable organized adult activity was new. The New York game caught this wave and rode it, but to a lesser extent so did other forms of baseball, especially in Cincinnati and eastern Massachusetts. This leaves the question of why the NY game displaced these other forms, but that is a separate issue. More generally, there was in the 1850s a sudden and dramatic increase in organized adult sporting activity of all sorts due to the ideology of muscular Christianity. Your newspaper excerpt is a typical statement of this ideology.