Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Rage, Rage

I don't even know where to start with this or if I should even bother.  But...

Today, at Grantland (and, honestly, here's the first problem: I actually check Grantland everyday; all I really want is a Bill Simmons mailbag or a short piece from Jonah Keri and you have to wade through a lot of other stuff to find that), they put up a short film about the Honus Wagner card.  Now, I have some interest in 19th century baseball cards and know a bit about the history of the Wagner card, so I figured the short would be an interesting thing to watch.

I got one minute and eight seconds into it when I turned it off.  At one minute and eight seconds into the film, they introduce Keith Olbermann as a "Baseball Historian."  Now, I'm not a big fan of Olbermann's but I have nothing against the man.  I've gotten too old to get worked up over celebrities or what a tv talking head says.  It's just business.  It's just entertainment.  It has no real impact on my existence.  But as a baseball researcher and historian who has devoted a good chunk of his life exploring the world of 19th century baseball and the origins and evolution of the early game, I was actually stunned to see Olbermann described as a baseball historian and presented as an expert on the early game.

But, in and of itself, it's not a big deal.  You want to present Olbermann as a baseball historian and expert that's your business.  I immediately know what that means as far as the credibility of any historical claims that you'll present in your film.  It tells me what kind of film I'm watching and that it's not the kind of film I want to waste my time on.  So I turned it off.  Or, rather, I went to close the browser tab.

As I was going to close the tab, I heard Olbermann, speaking about baseball in the decade prior to 1909, say this: " had only been as popular as indoor soccer..."  My jaw dropped as I closed the tab and I said, out loud, "What the fuck did he just say?"  I had to go into my history, find the film again and re-open it.  I had to make sure that I heard what I thought I heard.

Sure enough, this expert on baseball history compared the popularity of the game in the late 19th and early 20th century to the modern popularity of indoor soccer.  And I have nothing against indoor soccer.  I like soccer in general and have been to professional indoor soccer games.  It's a good game.  But the idea that baseball, around 1900, was some kind of niche sport with a limited popularity is ridiculous.  It's stupid.  Making a statement like that only shows that you have no understanding of the history of the game.  Do I even need to say that baseball, at that time, was insanely popular?  That it was a national, modern sport played in the country's largest cities before huge crowds?  The New York game, in the early 1850s, was a niche sport with limited popularity.  The game, by the turn of the century, was a huge business with national appeal.  Olbermann's statement is wrong and shows, at best, a superficial understanding of the nature of late 19th century baseball.

Is it too much to ask that someone identified as a baseball historian, making statements about the 19th century game, actually be a baseball historian who knows something about 19th century baseball?  Do we need pseudo-celebrities being presented as experts in a field they know little or nothing about?  Do we need Doris Kearns Goodwin on MLB's official committee investigating the origins of the game?  Do we need George Will on that committee?  Do we have to have Keith Olbermann on ESPN making erroneous statements about 19th century baseball?

I'm a nobody.  I'm just a guy with a website.  I'm not on TV.  I'm not famous.  I'm just a guy.  Sure, I've had some of my work published in a few books.  Maybe my knowledge of the early game is respected by a few others who also know something about the subject.  Maybe.  But is it too much to ask that, when the subject of 19th century baseball comes up, we consult people who know something about the subject?  And I'm not talking about myself.  I could give you a list of twenty respected baseball historians with published works on the subject who could have been consulted for this little short on Wagner.  Call John Thorn.  Call Peter Morris.  Call any number of people who know something about the subject.  Do your homework.

In the end, this isn't a big deal except for the fact that there is so much erroneous information floating around about the 19th century game in books, articles and online and I've spent a lot of time fighting back against the ignorance and myths that surrounds the early game.  My goal is to get the story correct and present, to whatever small audience I can gather, the truth about 19th century baseball.  Olbermann, Grantland and ESPN just made that task a little harder.  It should go without saying that they reach a substantially larger audience than I do and the error they are perpetrating (however innocently) has probably already been seen by more people than have ever visited this website in it's five or six year existence.

There have been numerous times when I have made the decision to shut down the website and focus on other projects.  But I've never done it.  I always keep plugging away, presenting new information and, from time to time, finding myself with something new and interesting to say about 19th century baseball.  How do you quit in the face of such willful ignorance?  How can I quit when the extraordinary work done by fantastic, knowledgeable and hard-working historians such as David Block and Larry McCray and William Ryczek and David Nemec and Ed Achorn and William Goldstein and Melvin Adleman and George Kirsch and Morris and Thorn and countless others has yet to seep into the public consciousness?  I can't.  There's still work to do.

I guess that makes me the Worst Person In The World.         


Aaron said...

You are mischaracterizing what Olbermann said. Your ellipsises leave out major context.

He did not say that baseball was only as popular as indoor soccer. He was using indoor soccer to compare the growth that sport had seen at the turn of the century to a modern day example.

The full quote: "Baseball was exploding in popularity in ways that we can't conceive of. It's as if ten years ago, baseball had only been as popular as indoor soccer and had reached today's heights in that span of time."

You can disagree with his analogy, but that's not what you argued in your post.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

I appreciate the comment but I don't think I mischaracherized what he was saying. Even taking the full quote, which I admit I was too lazy to grab, the statement is not correct. The great explosion of baseball's popularity did not happen in 1909 or in the decade prior to that. It happened in the late 1850s and in the second half of the 1860s. By the end of the 1860s, baseball had become a completely modern sport that was national in scope, played in the largest cities in the nation, with huge crowds while generating large amounts of revenue. The analogy is faulty because of the time frame he introduces. It holds up only if you're talking about baseball prior to the mid 1850s.

And I think that's one of the things I argued in my post. No knowledgeable baseball historian would have made the comparison. It's a bad analogy made by someone who is presented as a baseball historian and a creditable source on the subject. Olbermann, who I always enjoyed on Sports Center, simply isn't a creditable source. He doesn't know what he's talking about with regards to this particular subject. Maybe I'm wrong and he's doing the research and writing a book on turn of the century baseball. I don't know. But I can't find any books or journal articles written by Olbermann on the subject. The fault really lies with the filmmaker who should have been interviewing John Thorn or somebody like that.

In the end, it really doesn't matter and I was just ranting for the fun of it. A post like this is not the norm for my site and it was fun to let loose a bit. The thing just kind of hit me where I live and I had an extreme visceral response to seeing Olbermann presented as a "Baseball Historian" and then making what I thought was a ludicrous statement. I had pretty much forgotten about the whole thing when I saw your comment but I wanted to respond to what you wrote because I appreciate you dropping by and taking the time to leave a comment. Hope you come back.