VOICES FROM THE STANDS
In our February issue, we asked readers to send us their thoughts on baseball and its connection to the Civil War. Here is a sampling of what we received.
All men have a hidden desire to compete and win. Baseball is a sport played for the fun of it, and the final score is soon forgotten. War is fought on an extremely serious level, and the outcome is etched in our souls forever.
Victor M. Wein
You pick up a bat and your back yard becomes the site of the final game of the World Series. It’s the bottom of the ninth, the game is tied, and you are the batter, the pitcher, and the announcer all at once. You throw the ball in the air, swing, and drive it past the spot of dirt that is second base. You round that spot with your arms held high and celebrate the possibility of knowing such joy.
Now, you’re at Gettysburg. You stand on Seminary Ridge and look out across those fields and wonder, “Would I have climbed the fence along the Emmitsburg Road and kept going?” Those who did were average people, and perhaps you, too, could have risen to such heroic heights. You walk toward the copse of trees and quietly celebrate the possibility of that kind of commitment.
Austin E. Gisriel
I see the hitter at the plate, all alone, facing nine opponents. Yet he remains part of a team. In the Civil War, the Rebs and the Yanks stood in lines, firing away at the other side. Each was a part of a team–a company, regiment, or brigade–but they faced the enemy as individuals, each with his own doubts and fears.
Poughkeepsie, New York
In baseball and in war, two distinct teams compete on a field with a set of rules that are fairly static, but open to interpretation. Strategies are employed to win that often evolve during the course of the conflict. The two teams could be from opposite ends of town, the country, or even the world. But, cultural, ethnic, and racial differences aside, they react the same way: from both we learn about ourselves.
Soldiers on both sides, at least those who survived the war, stood in later years and cheered baseball’s early legends and told their sons about the game. Baseball was played near battlefields grown still by the passage of time, and baseball, like those veterans, will always be remembered.
After the Civil War, the veterans returned to Hendricks County, Indiana, just west of Indianapolis, taking with them a new game they called townball. My great-grandfather, Jesse Thompson, had had five sons born before he left for the war. Upon his return, a sixth son was born–my grandfather, William. These six boys became the nucleus of Danville’s team, the Browns. In 1884, a scout from Detroit visited the area to see one of these boys, Cyrus, play ball. The scout, however, became enamored with the ability of Cyrus’s brother, Sam, who was only playing that day because the team agreed to pay him $2.50, the same amount he would have made building a roof.
The scout enlisted Sam as a player for Evansville in the Western League, and his professional career began. The next year he was playing in Indianapolis, and by July 1885, he was a member of the Detroit Wolverines. That was just the start. By the time he ended his career as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1898, he had amassed hitting records that took decades to break. Sam Thompson, who died in 1922, was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.
Don A. Thompson
The Battle of Gettysburg was like a game in the World Series. In order to win the championship, the undefeated Rebels once again had to defeat the Yankees. The Rebels were confident, even though the Yankees had home-field advantage this time. The game ended in a tie, but the Yankees viewed it as a victory, and the Rebels could no longer be considered unbeatable. But it is not who wins or loses that matters. It is how the game–or the war–is played, and the Rebels played very well against all odds.
Penn Yan, New York
Born in the decades before the Civil War, baseball spread like wildfire during the war. Union boys in the Midwest learned it from the boys of the East, and Yankees from the North taught it to their Confederate captors. Enthusiasm for the game reached all regions, all classes. What had once been the province of city merchants and professionals, the gentlemen of the day, became a game for the people. The Civil War democratized American society, including baseball, our national pastime.
Tom William Odom
Lake Worth, Florida
Not so much a metaphor of shared experience, the connection between baseball and the Civil War seems more deeply rooted in a return to that which once was. The need to get on with things may be eclipsed by a yearning to reconnect with patterns of life that disappeared on a thousand battlefields. Baseball may have enabled former soldiers to regain a portion of their lost innocence. They would agree that the game of baseball, with its simple message of competition, fair play, and male bonding, is as much a quest for innocence as it is a celebration of the strength of America–South and North–and a lasting epitaph to the courageous energy of that era.
Metuchen, New Jersey
In baseball, you don’t have to hate your opponent while the action plays out, and after the contest is over, the camaraderie becomes part of the game. Though death was often the outcome in battle, there was little hatred involved; they were just trying to win. Abner Doubleday would probably have been happier throwing a baseball than lobbing a cannonball from Fort Sumter, but he no doubt noted the similarities.
Roy E. Triebel
Wantagh, New York
Americans are passionate about both the Civil War and baseball because there are not any two things that are more American. The mythical feats of the great generals and players stimulate the passions and imaginations of both the historian and the fan. Robert E. Lee’s boldness in dividing his army at Chancellorsville and Babe Ruth’s in calling his shot in the 1932 World Series are the stories of legend. While their triumphs are out of reach of the normal man, we can all envision ourselves as bit players.
David F. Nolan
Richmond Hill, Georgia
Baseball played a vital role for the soldiers in camp, relieving them of the horrors of war. After the war they took the game home and created a baseball boom, truly nationalizing the game. But the real story is the game itself. Were it not so much fun to play and watch, baseball would have gone the way of its parents, rounders and cricket, and become just a footnote in American history.
Both the war and the game evoke feelings of pride and serve as a testament to the indomitable spirit of man. Americans rally to protect battlefields such as Gettysburg and Antietam to remember forever the heroic deeds of a bygone era. The same sense of maintaining continuity with the past surrounds the desire of many to preserve the pristine nature of the nation’s ballparks. So long as the country relishes its past, there will always be someone willing to learn about the great war or relive the epic Game Seven.
Keith M. Finley
Baseball and the Civil War share a common core. In the war, both sides felt that blacks were incapable of independence without support of their white “fathers.” In 1863 Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. Some of them became soldiers, but they were led by white officers. Later, in baseball, blacks were prevented from playing the game with whites until 1947, when Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, enlisted Jackie Robinson for his team. It is now 51 years later, and the game’s leadership remains white. Blacks still hold no real power.