By STEPHEN WINICK
The Library of Congress—home of the largest baseball-related collection in the world—hosted a two-day symposium on the sport, held Oct. 2-3, 2009. Hall of Fame player Ernie Banks; all-star pitcher, broadcaster and manager Larry Dierker; baseball language expert Paul Dickson; and Negro League pitcher Mamie “Peanut” Johnson were among the featured speakers at the symposium. Sponsored jointly by the Library’s American Folklife Center, the Library’s Humanities and Social Sciences Division and its Publishing Office, the event celebrated the nation’s pastime and marked the publication of “Baseball Americana: Treasures from the Library of Congress.”
All of the symposium’s sessions were videotaped and the recordings will be added to the Library’s permanent collections, where they will be preserved and made available to researchers and the public. A webcast of the symposium can be viewed at www.loc.gov/webcasts/.
The idea for a Library of Congress symposium about baseball had its roots in the Library’s unparalleled collections. The richness of the Library’s baseball collections led to the creation of a lavishly illustrated book, “Baseball Americana: Treasures from the Library of Congress,” published by the Library in association with HarperCollins in September 2009. (See page 224.)
In addition to the Library’s baseball-related prints, photographs, manuscripts and music featured in the book, the American Folklife Center (AFC) recently acquired a one-of-a-kind collection of oral-history interviews with former professional players and managers, conducted by Fay Vincent, former commissioner of Major League Baseball. This, too, was a cause for celebration.
The symposium examined baseball from a number of perspectives, particularly from the viewpoint of people who experience the game at home (via TV, radio and newspapers), in the stands (as spectators, vendors and musicians) and on the field (as players and coaches).
Speakers included former players; those who make their living through the game (including a stadium organist and a head groundskeeper); and experts on baseball cuisine, the language of baseball and baseball memorabilia.
The symposium began in the Coolidge Auditorim with a stirring rendition of the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” sung by Reverb, a Washington, D.C.-based a cappella group.
Folklife Center Director Peggy Bulger welcomed the crowd and spoke about baseball as a part of the nation’s folk culture.
In the tradition of the game, two-time National League all-star pitcher Larry Dierker threw out the first pitch. It was caught by Hayden Boshart, a young player in the Babe Ruth League, who kept the ball, which later was signed by Dierker.
Baseball and the Nation’s Library
Paul Dickson, who researched all of his baseball-themed books at the Library of Congress, delivered the keynote address titled “Baseball and the Nation’s Library.” His books include “The Dickson Baseball Dictionary,” “The Secret Language of Baseball” and “The Joy of Keeping Score.”
“Any baseball book that does not acknowledge the Library’s reference staff earns an automatic demerit,” he said.
Dickson is current working on a biography of Bill Veeck (1914-1986), who owned several baseball teams in the 1940s and 1950s, and who helped to integrate baseball by hiring African American players. In the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Dickson discovered that the “whites-only” status quo in Major League Baseball up until the 1940s was not just an “unwritten rule.” Dickson found Players’ Association manuals that revealed a formal vote taken to exclude black players not only from playing in the Major Leagues, but from playing against white players.
The Branch Rickey Papers and Jackie Robinson Papers, held in the Library’s Manuscript Division, helped Dickson in researching the integration of the sport.
“There’s nothing like reading some of the hate mail that came to Jackie Robinson to make you angry,” said Dickson. “But also, there’s a letter from four white Baptist ministers, saying ‘this should have happened a long time ago.’”
In the Recorded Sound Division, Dickson found 55-minute broadcasts by Veeck, which included anecdotes involving Casey Stengel and other baseball greats, and introduced him to Veeck’s unusual, Victorian manner of speech. In the Prints and Photographs Division, Dickson discovered images of Veeck. According to Dickson, the Library’s Look Magazine Collection alone contains 1,200 photographs of Veeck.
“The Library of Congress has more pictures of Bill Veeck by a factor of ten than any other U.S. institution,” he said.
The American Folklife Center’s Fay Vincent Oral History collection also has been helpful to Dickson in his research. “They’re not the little abbreviated ones you got in the book,” said Dickson of the interviews. “They’re the full three-hour interviews.”
Dickson concluded his remarks with general praise for the Library.
“This Library retains so much of our heritage. No matter what I’ve done in my life, it’s always the Library that comes through,” he said. “My bottom line is, for anybody who really wants to get to the heart and soul of baseball, which we’re told is the heart and soul of America, [the Library of Congress] is hallowed ground for writers, for researchers. It’s a phenomenal place that’s preserving audio, video, photos and paper, and we should thank our stars for it.”
Harry Katz, former head curator in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division and one of the editors of “Baseball Americana,” spoke about some of the Library’s baseball-related collections in various formats and divisions. Visual materials in the Prints and Photographs Division include lithographs, advertisements, tobacco labels, photographs, artworks and baseball cards.
Music Division collections include rare sheet music. The covers of early 20th-century sheet music featured images of women such as Myrtle Row playing on predominantly male teams, and men such as Smoky Joe Wood putting on wigs and playing on women’s teams.
According to Katz, the advent of chromolithograph printing was responsible for “elevating the game to a fine art level, and making [that art] available to people at a low cost.”
In conjunction with the symposium, a website was developed to highlight the Library’s online and physical collections related to baseball at www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/baseball/. The site also includes information on how to research the subject at the Library of Congress.
Baseball at Home
The symposium’s first panel focused on the many ways people enjoy baseball at home, from watching it on TV to following favorite players and their statistics in newspapers to playing baseball, softball and stickball in parks and on city streets.
Folklorist Russell Frank began the session by talking about “folk baseball”—adaptations of baseball played by American children, including streetball, wallball and stickball.
“Folk baseball bears the same relationship to organized baseball that other forms of folk culture bear to pop and elite culture,” said Frank. With homemade versions of bats, balls and uniforms, they are variations on the official game. They may even include their own verbal folklore.
“Ghosties,” he explained, is the term for imaginary pinch-runners who fill out a team with too few players, while “Car, car, C-A-R” is a common chant warning streetball players of an approaching vehicle.
Baseball in the Stands
A second panel focused on how fans enjoy baseball in the stands. Culinary historian Bruce Kraig spoke about that most iconic of baseball foods—the hot dog.
According to Kraig, sausages have been a “street food” since the days of the Roman Empire. The first American hot dogs were descended from German sausages. The modern all-beef hot dog was a Jewish innovation, created to meet the religion’s strict dietary laws. The term “hot dog” emerged in the late 19th century, but it wasn’t until the early 20th century that sausages were associated with sporting events.
In 1906, cartoonist Thomas Aloysius “TAD” Dorgan drew a cartoon of hot dogs at a bicycle race. German-born team owner Chris von der Ahe (1851-1913) reportedly bought the St. Louis Browns as a venue for selling beer and sausages, and thus popularized the hot dog at St. Louis ball games.
Kraig outlined the factors that made hot dogs an appropriate food for American baseball fans. They are meat, thereby satisfying American carnivores. They are self-contained, and thus convenient for eating without the need for a plate or table. They are economical, and therefore accessible to all fans, not just the wealthy.
“It’s a democratic food,” he concluded. “Meat is graded by class, and only the rich could afford the best cuts. But here at the ballpark, we’re all eating the same thing.”
Paul Dickson spoke about other activities that take place on the sidelines. Specifically, he spoke about the history of baseball scorekeeping as well as the importance of signs and signals in baseball, having published books on these topics.
Dickson explained that annotations on scorecards were a hieroglyphic language that developed in the days before game tapes and film. Those annotations were important to those in the field of baseball writing, announcing and broadcasting. A good journalist could take a scorecard and recreate the whole game in a play-by-play commentary. With a stack of scorecards from the year, a baseball announcer or radio broadcaster could offer colorful commentary about what each player had done in the third inning of a game two months earlier. Journalists would transmit their scorecard information by telegraph to a newspaper office, where their colleagues could write the game summary. In the days before phones and laptops, this was the timeliest way to report on baseball.
Scorekeeping also allowed those on the sidelines to become involved in the game.
“It’s your game when you start doing that scorekeeping,” said Dickson. “It’s part of the thrill. You’re in control of the game.”
Dickson also spoke about the signs and signals that play a role in the game. In a highly competitive ballgame, there could be more than 1,000 bodily gestures shared among the manager, coaches and players (especially the catcher). Some signs convey instructions and other useful information, while others are merely decoys, intended to deceive sign-stealers. Sign-stealing, the art of intercepting and acting upon the opposing team’s signs, has had an important place in the history of baseball.
“It’s part of a world of which the fans are only vaguely aware,” he said. “There are many ballets going on out there, many of them carried on through signs.”
Baseball on the Field
Susan Reyburn, a contributing editor on “Baseball Americana,” convened a panel about the many aspects of life on the field, from the equipment used there to the field itself. Panelists included Jack Hillerich, chairman of the Board of Hillerich & Bradsby, the company that makes the world-famous “Louisville Slugger” baseball bat, and Murray Cook, a veteran baseball groundskeeper and one of the most respected names in the world of sports-field management.
Hillerich recounted anecdotes about the Louisville Slugger and the many players who have used customized versions of the bat over the years. Yogi Berra, for example, always held the bat with the label brand in the wrong place. This resulted in his hitting the ball on the flat of the grain, breaking more bats than other hitters. To resolve Berra’s problem, the company began making Berra’s bats with the label brand on the opposite side. Hillerich also revealed that many Major League players changed the specifications of their custom bats throughout the year, slightly adjusting their length and weight. Because of this, the company began supplying players with only about a dozen bats at a time. He also revealed that until recently almost all Major League bats were made of ash wood. It was Barry Bonds who began ordering maple bats. His success led more than half of today’s Major League players to opt for the maple bat.
Cook explained ballfield basics, from standard elements (height of the pitcher’s mound, distances between bases) to variables such as the shape of the grass cut-outs, the types of grass, the degree of moisture in the ground and the method of mowing the grass. Each of these elements may affect how the game is played.
He acknowledged that it is possible to manipulate those variable features to create a home-field advantage, but suggested that such manipulations were rare. He showed slides of various stadiums and recounted stories about their construction.
One of the most interesting anecdotes involved the baseball field at the Athens Olympics in 2004. The area upon which the stadium was built had been bombed frequently during World War II. Six undetonated bombs were exposed and removed during the construction of the ballpark. The construction of the site for the 2008 Beijing Olympics left Cook impressed by the Chinese construction companies that were able to build the stadium efficiently and quickly, using less technology and more manpower than would have been used in the west.
“I’d say, ‘you’re never going to build this today,’ and at the end of the day, it’d be there,” he marveled.
Throughout the symposium, a number of oral-history interviews were conducted by staff of the American Folklife Center.
Award-winning baseball broadcaster Claire Smith was interviewed first. As a woman in a predominantly male field and as an African American in a predominantly white field, Smith is a pioneer in the field of sports broadcasting and an inspiration to countless fans and budding journalists. She traced her love of both African American sports heroes and media to her mother’s upbringing in Jamaica. Her mother followed African American culture avidly on the radio, she explained, as did many Jamaicans at the time.
“The pot of gold at the end of their rainbow often landed at the feet of the icons of black America,” she said.
Smith grew up following her favorite teams (especially the Brooklyn Dodgers) on the radio and when it came time to choose a career, her father encouraged her to pursue the field of baseball. Her first Major League story about fans’ reactions to Pete Rose breaking Stan Musial’s National League hitting record appeared on the front page of the Philadelphia Bulletin in August 1981. She was among the first female sportswriters to enter Major League clubhouses, which caused some alarm and resentment among players.
In 1984, she was physically ejected from a Major League clubhouse by angry players. That incident caused Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth to intervene by opening Major League clubhouses to female writers by executive fiat. Smith recalled that many players communicated their support to her.
Smith also spoke about the generation of black ballplayers who played in the Negro Leagues, before the integration of Major League Baseball. The lesson she learned from them was not to be bitter about any of the barriers she faced.
“They love this country. They lived through apartheid, and they’re not bitter,” she observed.
Ed Alstrom, the weekend organist for the New York Yankees since 2004, was interviewed next. The well-known New York musician, who is equally comfortable playing classical organ, church music or cabaret, has performed with Bette Midler, Lou Rawls and Odetta. Using a Hammond B-3 organ that the Library rented for the occasion, Alstrom re-enacted his Yankee Stadium audition. His predecessor, the great organist Eddie Layton, made him play, in rapid succession, the opening bars of “New York, New York,” “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” “Happy Birthday,” “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “O Canada.”
“That was pretty much the entire audition,” he remembered. “The whole thing took about five minutes!”
He explained that the job of a stadium organist is more than those few tunes. There are dozens of tunes or riffs that an organist must be ready to play at appropriate moments during the game, from the cavalry charge to the Mexican hat dance. Each signals a particular reaction from the fans, such as “Charge!” and contributes to the ballgame’s festive atmosphere. Alstrom also plays a specific riff while the batter is out of the batter’s box between pitches, but he must immediately stop playing once the hitter is in position. To accomplish this, he has to know his team’s batting style.
“Some guys, like Derek Jeter, are forever futzing with the Velcro,” he said. “Melky Cabrera steps out of the box and gets right back in so you can’t go into a long riff. You’ve got to gauge it on the players and you’ve got to watch and make sure,” he explained.
Alstrom spoke about the trend toward recorded music. Fans like to do special dances at Yankee Stadium to Rednex’s 1994 dance-pop recording of “Cotton-Eyed Joe” and The Village People’s 1978 classic “YMCA.”
“The fans love it,” he said. “For my part, I’d like to be playing more,” Alstrom said, “but I understand that [recorded music] is a necessary part of the game right now. They’re trying to draw in a younger audience and the organ, understandably, but sadly to me, sounds old-fashioned to new ears.”
The next to be interviewed was Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, one of three female players who played professionally in the otherwise all-male Negro Leagues. A starting pitcher for the Indianapolis Clowns, Johnson had first tried to get a job on a women’s team. Although open officially to all races, she soon found out that the women’s teams were in fact all-white. She recalled going with a friend to try out, only to be completely ignored.
“You wanted to say something, but you’re being ignored in such a manner that you don’t think you’d better,” she remembered. “It’s like going in a grocery store, and nobody wants to wait on you, so you don’t ask for anything.”
For her part, Johnson is happy she never got that job. “I’d be just another lady who played baseball,” she said, “but now I’m the only lady that ever pitched in the black major leagues, and I’m the only lady that ever played major league baseball as a pitcher. So I’m very proud that they ignored me.”
Johnson recounted other memorable moments from her career, including getting advice from Satchel Paige, Henry Aaron and other greats of the Major Leagues. She also discussed the realities of life in segregated America.
“I learned about segregation, and a lot about ignorance, because that’s what [segregation] is. I met a lot of really ignorant people who could be very hurtful. But that didn’t bother me one way or another, because I was there to do a job.”
Larry Dierker was the next to recount the highlights of an eventful baseball career. The two-time All-Star pitcher had a long career in broadcasting before managing the Houston Astros for five years. Dierker was famous for pitching his first Major League game for the Houston Colt .45s (later the Astros) on his 18th birthday. Since they were playing the Giants, a team that was then in contention for the National League pennant, it was unusual for Houston to allow a rookie to start.
“They brought out a birthday cake with 18 candles, and I had to blow that out before the game, so they were playing it for all the publicity they could get,” he said. “Here’s a team that’s forty games out, in last place, and they’re thinking, ‘We’ve got an 18-year-old kid! We might get ten thousand people in here if we pitch him!’”
As expected, given the team’s standing at the time, Dierker lost the game, but he did himself proud, striking out Willie Mays in his first inning.
Dierker also discussed his time spent managing the Houston Astros, for which he earned an award as National League Manager of the Year in 1998. After the Astros moved to a new ballpark in 2000, the pitchers had a hard time adapting to the new environment.
“We had a nightmare season,” Dierker remembered. “Throughout August and September, it was ‘Do you think you’re going to get fired today? When do you think you’re going to get fired?’ After I was dismissed after the 2001 season, for losing in the first round of the playoffs, it hurt my feelings, because we had won the division four out of five years. But after about two weeks, I kind of went, ‘Hmmm, this feels pretty good!’”
Distinguished guest Ernie Banks was interviewed by the Folklife Center’s David Taylor, who subsequently presented him with the Library’s Living Legend award on behalf of Librarian of Congress James H. Billington.
The former Chicago Cub was a two-time National League Most Valuable Player, an 11-time All-Star, a member of the exclusive Five Hundred Home Run club and a Baseball Hall of Fame inductee.
Banks charmed the audience immediately. In his response to their applause, he said, “As the cow said to the farmer one day, thank you for your warm hands.”
Banks discussed key moments in his career such as his first game with the Kansas City Monarchs (a team in the Negro Leagues) and his first Major League game with the Chicago Cubs.
“We got beat, 16 to 3,” he remembered.
He discussed various aspects of the game such as hitting and fielding, and commented on current players.
He also explained his own philosophy of baseball.
“Baseball ameliorates the classic polarization between the self-motivated individual and the collective ideology. When you’re at bat in baseball, you have to be a self-motivated individual. Nobody can help you hit the ball when you’re in the batter’s box. You’re one against nine people in the field. Then when you go in the field, you’re nine against one. Many countries in the world don’t realize that you can be self-motivated and still be part of a team. That’s what baseball has meant to me, and I’ve really enjoyed it.”
Another important part of Banks’ philosophy is, “you don’t have to win to win.” Many of the joys that baseball brought him—friendships, ability to educate his children—did not depend on how many games he won. A particularly rewarding experience was addressing at-risk boys on the west side of Chicago, accompanied by fellow Hall-of-Famer Stan Musial. After their presentation, one of the boys commented that he had never seen a black man and a white man working together for a common goal. Banks considered that a “win” to for himself and Musial.
The symposium concluded with all of the speakers returning to the stage to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” the original version presented to the Library for copyright in 1908. It was a fitting finale for a day of baseball presentations.
The symposium was organized by a committee of Library of Congress staff members including Theadocia Austen, Todd Harvey, Ann Hoog, Michael Taft, David Taylor and Stephen Winick of the American Folklife Center; Ralph Eubanks, Susan Reyburn and Peggy Wagner of the Publishing Office; and David Kelley of the Humanities and Social Sciences Division.
Stephen Winick is a writer-editor in the American Folklife Center.