Mark Twain declared that “base-ball is the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century!”
But that isn’t necessarily a positive thing, as Craig Hotchkiss, the Education Program Director of the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, explained during an intriguing lecture earlier this month at the , on the history of baseball and the unique role it played in Twain’s life.
Twain’s love of baseball was no secret. Hotchkiss explained that Twain was one of several owners of Hartford’s short-lived minor league baseball club, the Senators, during its single season in 1887. He loved the game, although he also detested it, for baseball back then was a microcosmic image of the socioeconomic issues of the 19th century, including horribly racist and (in Twain’s view) detesting capitalistic behavior.
Hotchkiss went through a brief history of baseball, passing around a prototype of the first mitt and leather baseball. It was surprising to learn that baseball was played bare-handed for a number of years until Douglas Allison of Hartford designed a glove, which was no more than thinly padded leather. Balls like the fine, brown leather one that was examined by the audience—this one not stained with tobacco, Hotchkiss noted—were once hurled at opponents to eliminate them from the game.
Like early boxing matches, there were no rounds, and little structure. Early baseball was significantly more violent, too, thanks to the lack of equipment. Catchers wore no face mask and often incurred eye and face injuries. Baselines were nonexistent, meaning the player could run wide circles around the other team, or hide behind a tree. Fingers were broken from fly balls and frozen ropes, and shins were carved up by jagged cleats sliding home.
But as the popularity of baseball spread, the game became more structured. Hotchkiss pointed out that New Yorkers loved the game, but as they were often working, the game had to be limited in time, and the importance of winning began to take precedence. And as the game became more popular, it became a business.
It should be no surprise that Twain loved to attend the huge games that took place in Hartford and New York. Always rabid for public attention, the satirist would show up to these games clad in his signature white suit and cheer with the rest of the crowd.
One time, he even brought an umbrella, which was promptly stolen. An ad appeared in the Hartford Courant shortly after a game, reading:
“Two-hundred and five dollar reward—At the great base ball match on Tuesday, while I was engaged in hurrahing, a small boy walked off with an English-made brown silk umbrella belonging to me, and forgot to bring it back. I will pay $5 for the return of that umbrella in good condition to my home on Farmington Avenue. I do not want the boy (in an active state) but will pay two hundred dollars for his remains. SAMUEL L. CLEMENS.”
“I think he was kidding,” said Hotchkiss.
Memorably, Twain wrote about baseball in his 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, wherein the book Twain’s protagonist teaches the medieval knights and castle folk to play, and in a way, “civilizing Arthurian England,” according to Hotchkiss.
But as Twain grew older, he became increasingly anti-imperialist, especially after the Spanish-American war. Blacks, Jews, the Irish and Native Americans were all treated with contempt and depicted as beasts in popular media, despite many individual showcases of dominating athleticism, souring Twain’s view on the game and American in general. Hotchkiss snapped to a slide with Twains vitriolic script aimed at President Roosevelt, calling him the “Tom Sawyer of the political world of the 20th century, always showing off…in his frenzied imagination the Great Republic is a vast Barnum circus with him for a clown and the whole world for audience; he would go to Halifax for half a chance to show off and he would go to hell for a whole one.” Twain also authored the anti-imperialistic essay, “To the Person Sitting in the Darkness,” and vented an equally disenfranchised opinion of America in his poem, “The War Prayer.”
“He lost friends” with these new views said Hotchkiss.
“Late in life, Twain was disillusioned about many things in American culture, so I suspect that he’d be disillusioned about what major league baseball has become today,” Hotchkiss said in an email to Patch. “On the other hand, the game that kids still play was always close to his heart."
For further reading, Hotchkiss recommended the novel If I Never Get Back by the baseball lover and historian Darryl Brock. The novel features Twain as a main character when Brocks’ protagonist is whirled back in time to 1869, during the early baseball explosion in New England.