The brain trust in charge of America’s pastime has been consumed in recent years with improving what it calls baseball’s pace of play, implementing a wide-ranging initiative aimed at speeding up nine-inning contests, limiting interruptions in the action and shortening the overall length of games to something more palatable than the current three-plus hour average.
But for all the newly introduced tweaks, baseball historian Rob Bauer still longs for the 90-minute or so games of years ago; many, many years ago.
“I’m pretty sure that if I was playing or watching baseball in the 19th century, I would enjoy it more than I do now,” Bauer said with a smile from his office at Flathead Valley Community College last week.
The 42-year-old professor and author will delve into baseball’s early pace of play successes, the exciting athletes who once dominated the diamond and the sport’s sometimes-unseemly history at a free public presentation, “The Boys of Summer are Back: A Celebration of Baseball History” on Thursday, April 12 at 7 p.m. in the library at FVCC, where Bauer has been the history department chair for the last eight years. The evening will include a question-and-answer session, a presentation of historic images and a nine-round trivia contest. Refreshments will also be provided.
Once a prep baseball player in his native Lynnwood, Washington, Bauer completed his Ph.D at the University of Arkansas by writing an exhaustive 800-page dissertation on 19th-century baseball. Recognizing that the public appetite for 800-page history books was probably limited, Bauer has broken his research into a series of both fictionalized and non-fiction books on the largely unknown characters and circumstances that surrounded baseball’s birth as an organized sport. The first of those books was released in December and the third in the series, “Outside the Lines of Gilded Age Baseball: Gambling, Umpires and Racism in 1880s Baseball,” came out last month.
Bauer admits his books’ subjects aren’t well known but says that’s partly what drew him to the topic in the first place.
“I know, it’s pretty obscure,” he said. “But usually, when you read a baseball book, you get one of three things: you get a book on statistical analysis, or you get a biography of someone famous, or you get some special team that had a great season.”
“My books are none of those things.”
His books do feature some of the outstanding players of the era, like Hall of Famers Charlie Comiskey, Cap Anson and King Kelly, but they don’t obscure the shameful aspects of those early days, either. The 1880s saw baseball first become segregated – an effort Bauer said was led, at least in part, by Anson – and saw African Americans used exclusively as exotic team mascots. And those years also included a staggering amount of alcohol abuse in the sport. Bauer’s first book, “Outside the Lines of Gilded Age Baseball: Alcohol, Fitness and Cheating in 1880s Baseball,” recalls a team bringing a keg of beer to down during a doubleheader and players who would routinely compete while either drunk or hung over.
“One guy drank, I think, 13 beers before the night he pitched in the World Series,” Bauer said. “You can guess how that went.”
A fitness enthusiast himself, Bauer also explores the sometimes bizarre and wildly dangerous self-care regimens players subjected themselves to in order to stay healthy. He said one player tried using a branding iron to soothe a sore arm, and another jolted himself with enough electricity to knock him out of his chair while intending to heal an injury.
“People would carry batteries around with them,” he added.
Bauer’s research for the book was, and continues to be, extensive. He is a member of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), serving on that group’s 19th century research committee, and he read years’ worth of issues of the Sporting News and the Sporting Life, the two sports publications of record in the 1880s, while researching. He will be presenting to the Pacific Northwest chapter of SABR in June regarding some of the findings included in his books.
In addition to the two “Outside the Lines” books, Bauer has written a partly fictionalized historical novel, “My Australian Adventure.” The novel chronicles a young African American orphan named Clarence Duval who becomes a mascot for two professional baseball teams on a world tour. A pair of follow-up books featuring Duval, “The World Traveler” and “The Buffalo Soldier,” are slated for release later this year, in addition to the third non-fiction book, “Outside the Lines of Gilded Age Baseball: The Origins of the 1890s Players League.”
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