Wineka column: Baseball is an important part of our culture

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 17, 2012

SALISBURY — It’s easy to go overboard with the sentimentality attached to baseball.
Listen to James Earl Jones’ soliloquy on our national pastime in the movie, “Field of Dreams,” and it makes you want to find five guys for an afternoon of pepper.
David Chase, who has made baseball his life, laughs when he repeats the legend that, on his death bed, President Abraham Lincoln whispered, “Please tell Abner Doubleday to keep the game of baseball alive.”
Baseball purists would love if the story were true, but, of course, it’s highly unlikely. And don’t get Chase started on the fallacy behind Doubleday’s inventing the game.
But why was Chase here this past weekend as a guest lecturer at the 15th annual Salisbury Confederate Prison Symposium?
Thanks to a widely known and often reproduced 1862 lithograph by Otto Boetticher, a prisoner himself, we know that baseball was played by Union soldiers at the Salisbury prison.
Boetticher drew a joyful, bucolic scene, no doubt reflecting the early days of the war when both sides assumed the fighting would end sooner, rather than later.
It surely was long before being sent to Salisbury as a prisoner could become a death sentence because of disease, overcrowding and starvation.
Chase said the lithograph holds some inconsistencies, but the Union prisoners seem to be playing “The New York Game,” as often depicted in Currier & Ives paintings.
The New York Knickerbockers are generally credited with writing down the first rules of baseball, or “base-ball,” as it was called in its infancy.
Chase says the earliest references to the game date back to 1835, when it was played dramatically different. Fielders could throw the ball at runners to record outs, for example, though you weren’t “out,” you were “dead.”
In 1905, baseball appointed the A.G. Mills Commission to determine the game’s origin, and the commission concluded baseball was invented in 1839 in Cooperstown, N.Y., by Doubleday.
The finding overlooks that Doubleday would have been a plebe at West Point at the time, Chase said. It also doesn’t account for Cooperstown’s prohibition against kids playing in the street, he added.
Mills himself played baseball before and during the Civil War and was briefly president of the National League in the 1880s. It is thought that his seven-man commission, which spent three years on its task, was formed more than anything else to dispel the notion that baseball evolved from the English games of cricket or rounders.
There is evidence that Lincoln, as president, watched from the White House as baseball was being played by Union soldiers on “the white lot,” which is today’s Ellipse in Washington.
When Union soldiers were faced with a lot of down time after setting up their camps, it’s likely they played baseball.
The game was introduced to Southerners at places such as the Salisbury Confederate Prison. And after the war, Northern occupying forces in the South probably taught the game to their reluctant hosts.
But why is it notable that baseball was played here at the prison? Chase thinks it’s another strong example of how the game became part of American life and history.
According to his research, Salisbury had its first professional baseball team in 1905, and for much of the 20th century (through 1968), Salisbury and other Southern towns its size were home for minor league teams.
In his mind, Chase said, minor league baseball is the true American pastime. Not long after World War II, the country had 560 minor league teams. (Today it’s down to 160.)
“That was your entertainment,” says Chase, long involved with minor league clubs. “That’s what you did on a summer’s night.”
When immigrants came to the United States, part of becoming American was learning how to play baseball. It’s how many Italian, Asian and Latin newcomers became assimilated.
Major and minor league baseball were both ahead of the country in integration. When minor league teams in the South refused to integrate, the major league parents moved their teams out of those cities, sometimes in the middle of a season.
Memphis lost its Double-A baseball team during the city’s hard-line segregation days. A fully integrated team returned in 1968, less than a week after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.
Chase grew up in New York State, went to broadcasting school and came south hoping to be the radio announcer for a Savannah, Ga., minor league team. Instead, when the radio contract fell through, he became one of the team’s assistant general managers.
It launched a 35-year career in the sport. He also ran teams in Memphis, Anderson, S.C., and Durham.
In addition, he worked 18 years for Baseball America magazine, eventually becoming its president.
Today he lives in the Memphis area and serves as commissioner of the Prospect League, a summer collegiate wooden bat league.
Chase helped to create Major League Baseball’s annual Civil Rights Game, the first of which was played in Memphis.
It became a success and helpful to the community, Chase noted, when he tied all the game’s proceeds to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.
Chase also has been working toward the establishment of a national museum to celebrate minor league baseball’s role in American history.
Chase recognizes the restorative power of baseball, thanks to its long connection with American life.
He said it was evident after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. On the first day baseball was played in New York after the attacks, Chase recalled, players of both teams — white, black, Asian, Latin — stood on the top steps of their dugouts and sang the country’s national anthem with the rest of the sellout crowd.
That day, President George W. Bush threw out the game’s first pitch. He wasn’t hiding in a bunker.
“The healing process began with baseball,” Chase said.
Sorry, but I keep coming back to James Earl Jones.
“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball,” Jones’ character said in “Field of Dreams.” “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.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost. com.