Spring Fever '98 

The birth of a sport and a pastime

Excerpted from A Clever Base-Ballist: The Life and Times of John M. Ward


Baseball spread across America like the smell of fresh-baked bread. By 1856, the most serious New York metropolitan teams played 53-game seasons lasting from March to November. There were perhaps 50 teams in Manhattan, as well as another 60 youth clubs.

By 1859, there were 130 teams in New Jersey, including 78 in Newark and Jersey City alone. In 1858, 1500 people paid a hefty 50 cents each (a good part of a laborer's day's wages) to watch a game between New York and Brooklyn played on a Long Island race track.

Policemen formed teams. Firemen formed teams. Bartenders formed teams. Dairymen formed teams. Schoolteachers formed teams. Physicians formed teams.

There were teams in Syracuse and Albany and Buffalo and Philadelphia and Washington D.C. and Detroit and San Francisco and Los Angeles and Minnesota and Maine and the Oregon Territory and New Orleans. New England proper was playing a variation of baseball-the "Massachusetts" game-that allowed among other differences, "soaking," that is, putting a runner out by hitting him with a thrown ball. The Massachusetts game's proponents struggled valiantly, but their version withered away.

The Civil War generally spread the baseball's gospel and temporarily stunted the game's growth. The U.S. Sanitary Commission sanctioned the game, seeing it as a morale booster. Idle soldiers of both armies as well as their prisoners of war played the game whenever possible.

After the war ended, the game's glowing embers blew into high flame.

Up through the end of the century-by which time the preposterous popularity of the game settled into merely steady and more rational growth-people jumped on the game like people do the Internet today. Baseball was the country's computer network. You could love it, hate it or not give a damn about it, but you could barely get through a normal day without hearing about it.

Allopaths played homeopaths; fat men (Jumbos) played lean men (Shadows); bachelors played benedicts; maidens played "matrons"; Yale University and other colleges played professional teams; the New York Herald played the New York World; New York bartenders played Providence bartenders; New York post office clerks played Park National Bank clerks; lawyers played doctors in Mexico City; actors played lawyers; syrup brokers played sugar brokers; the KKK played "nine carpetbaggers" in Fayetteville, Tenn.; baseball players played cricket against cricket players and cricket players played baseball against baseball players; telegraph operators played railroad accountants; railroads played other railroads; people played games in lakes with fielders in knee-deep water and the pitcher and batter standing waist deep; people played on ice skates and roller skates and bicycles and horses and snowshoes; Chinese teams played each other; in California, Digger Indians played each other; the Dolly Vardens- "artistically dressed ladies of color"-played each other in "red and white calico dresses of remarkable shortness"; Negroes played each other; in Macon, Georgia, white prisoners were put in a special room to watch ball games in adjoining fields.

When people got married, the headlines sometimes read that the couple had "doubled up"-like oxen or unlucky baserunners; in 1883, in Fort Wayne, two teams played a game under lights; two thousand Philadelphians watched a game played indoors in 1888; fifteen hundred people watched an 1883 game between blondes and brunettes; women played women all the time, thereby allowing sportswriters to write things like, "With the exception of a mouse, there is probably nothing more dangerous than a base-ball flying through the air directly at some unprotected girl."

By 1888 people were playing "old-timer's" games, under the rules of 1868. In what may be the weirdest game of the century, two teams "made up entirely of maimed men" played each other: the Snorkeys (each with one arm) vs. the Hoppers (each with one leg). The New York Times could not withhold its admiration for these men, pointing out that all the members of both nines, "excepting Fay, Connors, Cahan and Bogan," were married, with children.

People were constantly trying to improve the game: one man posited that, instead of runs, the winner should be determined by the total number of bases reached by each team. Another futile campaign-this one by the century's most famous baseball writer, Henry Chadwick-posited that, since players in those days tended to stay close to their respective bags, the presence of a shortstop made the field uneven. Chadwick suggested a second shortstop, between first and second base. Bats flattened on one side were popular for years.

In 1885, W. Williams wrote to the weekly Sporting Life with a list of his inventions, each of which, he insisted, would "transform" the game. One was a paper bat, which, Williams said was "more durable, of greater diameter of batting surface, of less weight, more elasticity and more friction on the surface and less affected by water" than any other bat manufactured in the country. His second idea was an electric scoreboard; his third, fourth and fifth ideas were electric signal systems that would alert the umpire, without the slightest inaccuracy, whether a ball was in the strike zone, whether a pitcher stepped out of his box, or whether the runner or the ball reached the base first.

Newspapers began running scores and game reports and, after they were invented by Chadwick, box scores. There were weekly sporting papers: the Spirit of the Times; the New York Clipper; Sporting Life; The Sporting News; the American Chronicle of Sports and Pastimes, as well as annual baseball guides and instruction books. There were baseball board games and baseball trading cards.

There grew up a huge sporting goods industry. The avid fan or player could buy any of seven types of scorebooks from the Spalding Company alone, ranging in price from ten cents to $3. Bats (15 cents-60 cents) came in polished and unpolished models, plain or oiled, trademarked or plain, in ash, cherry, basswood, willow or ash-and-willow models, for boys or for men.

Uniforms went for anywhere from $7 to $20 in an astonishing variety of models. There were many different models of catchers' gloves and, after 1875 or so, catchers' masks, and web belts and stockings and shoes and spikes and caps. Spalding alone offered eleven different grades of balls: all the way from the "Official League Ball" for $15 a dozen, down through the King of the Diamond, the Grand Duke, the Eureka, the Rattler, the Boss, to the lowly Nickel ball.

People had great fun naming their teams, just like musicians have fun naming their bands: there were Live Oaks, Joyfuls, Mutuals, Athletic, Browns, Standards, Alerts, Ironside, Domestic, Defiance, Dauntless, Acmes, Resolutes, Actives, Monumental, Experts, Quicksteps, Crickets, Flyaway, Redemptor, High Boys, Young America (which was a slogan of the Democratic party), Asteroid, Mentor, Forester, Dreadnoughts, Romance (of Rome, N.Y.), Nameless, Lifeguard, Amateurs, Misfits, the Nine Orphans, Black Nines, Ebony Nines, Colored Mutuals and Buckeyes.

There were, in 1883, over one hundred different teams named the Oscar Wildes.

Missoula-based writer Bryan Di Salvatore has written for The New Yorker, Outside and many other national magazines. Known to some as Cine-Man, Di Salvatore's first book, A Clever Base-Ballist, is due out February 1999.

Canoeing a grand canyon, a trip down the Green River


I grew up in the southern Arizona desert and the combination of free-flowing water and Southwestern landscapes-occuring so rarely together- has always called to me.

In 1996, just before I moved to Missoula, my father and I took a 120-mile canoe trip down the lower Green River in eastern Utah. In my parents' Mad River fiberglass canoe, we paddled from the town of Green River to the confluence of the Colorado and Green deep in Canyonlands National Park.

The lower Green cuts through some of the remotest and most pristine desert country left in the U.S., offering one of the longest backcountry wilderness canoe opportunities in the Lower 48.

In six days on the river, we saw only a handful of people. And the canyons of Utah present an intimacy that the postcard vistas of the Grand Canyon (I dare say) can't match. Since that trip, I have longed to return to that aquatic anomoly in the desert.

A year ago, over the phone, I bought sight unseen a battered 16-foot rental canoe from an outfitter in Moab. Then I set about persuading my friend Karen Barton into fitting such an excursion into her hectic schedule.

The simple act of paddling with another person, slicing through water effortlessly and almost silently for an extended trip, can create an endurable bond. And so, last month-with our respective universities holding their spring breaks-Karen and I rendezvoused in Moab to canoe that ribbon of green running through the unocuppied canyons of Utah.

Day One:

The morning is cloudless and warm. A fine day to start a week of paddling. A group of four kayakers are putting in at the same time as us. They are talkative and friendly, but Karen and I don't say much.

We both just want to be gone.

Crystal Geyser is the remnant of an oil-test well drilled in the mid-1930's. It erupts about every 14 hours and does so while we're loading, shooting a column of odoriferous water high into the air. I'm too restless to pay much attention.

This first day, the river winds through flat, sagebrush desert. The corridor is choked with pesky exotic tamarisk, a stout green leafy bush lining the river like an imported jungle. We spend the day intermittently paddling, drifting and talking.

I spot a dead cow lying half submerged. Karen wants to get close to it until the stench of decay overtakes us.

We camp above Ruby Ranch, the last chunk of private land on the river. We hike the nearest hill, truly one big rock which overlooks an old mining site, and watch the sunset. A Great Blue heron stands tall and stock still on a sandbar, looking as elegant as a champagne glass.

Day Two:

It's cold, and we linger in the warmth of multiple layers of clothes and sleeping bags. For reasons not at all clear this morning, I insisted on bringing the dry bags containing our clothes into our cramped tent the night before. When Karen wakes up, she starts where she left off the night before with a barrage of wise cracks about our crammed sleeping quarters and my analness.

While she fixes breakfast, I take down the tent and break one of the three tent poles in the process. With just two poles, the tent has a lopsided stance like a house that's been rocked from its foundation, but it's still functional. I tell Karen she'll have to sleep outside from now on because there isn't room enough now for both of us and the dry bags.

On the river, still on different wave lengths, we paddle out of synch. We enter Labyrinth Canyon, which will continue for the next 62 miles, and come upon a gaggle of Canada geese. A handful honk and squawk as we approach and then take flight. They land several hundred yards down river only to repeat this escape process three more times as we approach. Finally the geese figure out that flying toward us will actually get rid of us.

Rounded canyon walls of Navajo Sandstone rise up around us like sand dunes frozen into stone. They are more yellow than red and modest compared to what we will see later. I bring the canoe up close to the cool rock surface.

Karen, already awed like a little kid by the scenery, asks, "Will the canyons get three times as high as this?"

Day Three:

Wind whistles through a side canyon called Hey Joe. I look back to watch the placid surface of the river turn into windswept ripples hundreds of yards upstream. The wind and then the ripples overtake us in minutes.

I look upstream again and see rain causing the water to boil. We've been moving along the western edge of the river, but the shoreline is so thick in tamarisk that we can't find a place to pull out. We decide to make for the other side where an old mining road lies just above the river. We pull hard.

Halfway across the rain reaches us and a flash of lightning seems to surround us. We pull harder. I imagine the canoe rising above of the surface from our strong stokes.

The rain stops as soon as we stumble our way up to the road. We walk for a mile looking for an appropriate campsite. The rain will return. We don't find one, but we do come across an intact Bighorn sheep carcass picked clean. When the sun comes out we decide to make for a campsite I vaguely remember a couple miles downstream.

We find the spot just before raindrops start smacking us again. I cook dinner in the rain as Karen attempts to make our dysfunctional tent rain proof by lining the bottom and sides with garbage bags. She sticks her head out and asks jokingly how I can think of food at time like this.

"My stomach comes before all else," I respond.

Inside the tent we huddle in the center, rain pounding our enclosure as the wind swirls and screams in nearby slot canyons. Karen cuts the tension with another barrage of smart-ass comments over our predicament. We pass the time eating, talking and giving each other back rubs to ease the aches from three days of paddling the river.

Day Four:

This is the halfway point of the trip in terms of days, but we're only little more than a third the distance. We spend the day paddling hard to catch up.

We take a break to climb a ridge at Bowknot Bend. The river sweeps back and around in a loop flowing seven miles around this bend, but advancing only a half-mile as the crow flies. Atop the 800-foot high saddle, we look down to where the canoe is tied. On the other side, we can see a section of river it will take us two hours to reach by water, but we could climb down to in 15 minutes.

Although we're seeing more people than my dad and I, we still feel like we have the river to ourselves. On the water again, the canyon walls rise as high as 1,300 feet above us. Rosy rocks the size of apartment buildings loom overhead. Later, we enter Canyonlands National Park.

We see one, maybe two, other groups a day. And when we do, we avoid all contact, choosing instead to protect our solitude at the expense of social niceties.

Day Five:

I wake early and stumble out of the tent. The ground is speckled with a hard frost. I stand, look around, curse the cold and crawl back into the relative warmth of my sleeping bag. Karen, sleeping in six layers of clothing, a knit hat and a cocoon bag, mumbles in her sleep. I drift in and out of consciousness thinking up secrets to tell her she's been revealing.

The day turns out warm-almost hot-and we fall immediately and effortlessly into the synchronized paddling rhythm we've been striving for. We pull out at Fort Bottom, named for an Indian lookout on a pinnacle above. We hike up to it, stopping along the way at an old cabin said to have been used by Butch Cassidy.

Day Six:

Late in the afternoon, we take a break from paddling. The water swirls and boils with small dimples around us. The relaxed current has picked up a notch or two as we near the confluence. Our paddling slows. It's not just fatigue.

We both know the end is near, and we're not quite ready for it.

Another mile or so we'll be at the confluence, having done close to 30 miles today and 116 over the last six. We'll drift into the confluence like a race car driver taking a victory lap. Half a mile or so down the Colorado we'll camp. We'll fix a dinner of black beans and rice, get drunk on a bottle of Zinfandel and a flask of Maker's Mark and sit around a fire talking like two old friends who haven't seen each other in years even though we've been inseparable all week.

Tomorrow we'll be picked up by a jet boat for a three-hour ride back to Moab, where we'll spend our time in a motel room because we feel too awkward being around humanity again. The day after that we'll get into our respective pickups and drive off in opposite directions.

Right now, drifting on the river in a chilly dusk-tinted light, none of that matters. In the long shadows that come early to these canyons, it's that moment of the day where time feels like it's taking a breath and things will never change.

Eventually, I dip my paddle into the metallic water. Karen follows suit. We say nothing. The only sound: our paddles breaking the surface and coming back out. I watch Karen watch the arc of water that drips from her paddle every time she lifts it from the river.

We fall into rhythm, pushing to the end.

Taking a break from paddling, the canoe filled with gear, Karen (shown here) and Tim had the river to themselves.

The view from Fort Bottom, 40 miles from the confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers in Canyonlands National Park.

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