This post originally appeared July 11, 2017 on the Library of Congress’ Performing Arts Division blog, In the Muse.
The following is a guest post written by Katherine Walden, one of 37 college students who spent the last two months working at the Library as part of the 2017 Junior Fellows Summer Intern Program. Walden is a PhD Candidate in American Studies and Sport Studies at the University of Iowa, where she is also completing a Masters Degree in Library and Information Science with a focus on Digital Humanities and Archives. Her research explores race/ethnicity and gender in American baseball, as well as baseball’s relationship with American popular culture. She received a Bachelor of Music Degree from Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music, where her senior thesis was on Minor League Baseball and “music cities.” Her internship in the Music Division involves updating the Bibliography of Published Baseball Music and Songs in the Collections of the Music Division at the Library of Congress. Her work in the internship has ranged from updating the bibliography format to identifying additional baseball-related titles in the Music Division’s holdings through exploring cataloged materials and copyright registration files.
In the 1992 baseball film Field of Dreams, James Earl Jones’ character Terrance Mann delivers an iconic monologue:
“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”
Scholar and author Gerald Early also underscored the significance of baseball in American culture and history:
“I think there are only three things that America will be known for 2,000 years from now when they study this civilization: The Constitution, jazz music, and baseball. They’re the three most beautifully designed things this culture has ever produced.”
Because baseball is so deeply rooted in American culture, the sport often functions as a significant historical marker and unifying force in times of national crisis.
Most recently, Congressional staffers and baseball fans turned out at Nationals Park for the annual Congressional Baseball Game, a tradition that dates back to 1909 and has taken place annually since 1956. Raising funds for a number of D.C.-area charities, this event has been a place where, according to the event website, “members of the United States Congress from each party solidify friendships off the floor and on the field.” This year’s Congressional Game took on heightened significance after the Republican team’s practice was interrupted by gunfire that injured Representative Steve Scalise, members of the Capitol Hill Police, and others. The game went on as scheduled and after their 11-2 victory, the Democrat team gave the trophy to the Republican team, to be kept in Scalise’s office for the duration of his recovery.
The spirit of bipartisan unity encouraged by the Congressional Game echoes earlier baseball games with added historical meaning: President George W. Bush’s ceremonial first pitch at Yankee Stadium during the 2001 World Series just weeks after the September 11th terrorist attacks; the mantra of “Boston Strong” reverberating in Fenway Park in 2013 after the Boston Marathon Bombing.
Baseball as catharsis in the wake of national trauma is hardly a recent phenomenon. Take, for example, the Washington Nationals‘ “Great Western Tour” of 1867, one of the earliest official tours that took a dominant East Coast baseball team to parts of the country that were still developing professional baseball markets. Not only was this one of the earliest documented tours by a baseball team—it also was yet another moment when baseball served as national unifier in the face of partisan tension.
1867 was an eventful year in American politics—the Civil War’s aftermath and uptick in racial violence were the impetus for legislative and legal measures designed to reintegrate Confederate States as part of the larger national body and provide some version of emancipated rights. But, competing political and ideological agendas complicated efforts to unite the country after the War.
In a fraught political climate, with national unity hanging by a thread, baseball began to emerge as “the national pastime.” Having taken root in the New York and East Coast gentlemen’s clubs before the War, troop movement during the War, alongside post-War media and popular culture, identified baseball as a cultural entity that could effectively proselytize for the cause of national unity.
On one hand, Washington’s Western Tour was a financial opportunity—as Albert Spalding, Henry Chadwick, and other baseball entrepreneurs would realize soon after, taking professional talent on the road was an opportunity to build brand recognition and fan engagement, while also scouting potential talent on other rosters. Though Washington outscored the Cincinnati Red Stockings 141-22 in two decisive victories, the team recruited key Cincinnati players for their 1868 season. On July 11, 1867 the Washington Nats launched a twenty-day, ten-stop “grand western tour” covered by baseball journalist Henry Chadwick. In the heat of that summer, the Nat’s bats were on fire as they went on to win nine out of ten matchups, outscoring their opponents 735 to 146.
But as historian Ryan Swanson has argued, baseball’s emergence as a unifying force during the Reconstruction was also a concerted effort to market a predominantly Northern and Midwestern game to other regions of the country. The 1867 trip may have been called a “Grand Western Tour,” but it strategically brought the Washington team to Southern cities like Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis in an attempt to make Washington baseball (and by extension the federal government) palatable to former Confederate or Confederate-leaning states.
Washington’s players, like those on most pre-professional teams, did not earn a living wage solely from baseball. Nats pitcher Will Williams attended Georgetown’s law school, while catcher Frank Norton, center fielder Harry Berthrong and outfielder Seymour Studley worked at the Treasury Department. First baseman George Fletcher and right fielder Harry McLean clerked in the Third Auditor’s Office, while second baseman Henry Parker found a home off the baseball diamond in the Internal Revenue Office. Georgetown College student George H. Fox manned third base, and in the event of injuries or illnesses, Fourth Auditor’s Office clerk Ed Smith was ready as a substitute. Only shortstop and captain George Wright, one of baseball’s earliest stars, came onto the team with baseball as his main occupation.
While the federal offices represented by the 1867 Washington team were largely non-partisan, the group’s political neutrality made it an effective ambassador for the middle-ground Reconstruction efforts advocated by Presidents Lincoln and Johnson. The significant press generated by the tour included local news reports as well as an entire chapter in Chadwick’s The Game of Base Ball.
Many historic baseball events have been immortalized in song, and the Nationals Grand Western Tour was no exception. Composed in 1867 by Washingtonian “Mrs. Bodell,” the “Home Run Polka” was published 150 years ago this July. “Dedicated to the National Base Ball Club of Washington, D.C.,” the song is Washington baseball’s first song and one of the earliest songs dedicated to a specific team. The cover illustration depicts a loose interpretation of the Massachusetts Game rules for laying out the grounds: a square field and stakes for bases.
No polkas have yet been written about this year’s Congressional Game, but the larger legacy of Washington’s 1867 tour highlights the significant and complex role baseball has played in promoting a spirit of bipartisan unity. Forty years before Republicans and Democrats took to the baseball diamond to formally inaugurate the Congressional Game, Washington staffers from a range of offices pursued baseball alongside careers in public service. With this year’s Congressional Game in the books, its heightened significance underscores baseball’s long history of political intersections.