Friday, July 9, 2010

There's No Place in America That's Not Part of a Major-League Ballfield

"There's no place in America that's not part of a major-league ballfield." I just read W.P. Kinsella's The Iowa Baseball Confederacy and I can't get the image out of my head. Gideon Clarke's father is explaining to him why baseball is the perfect game.
"There's no limit to how far a man might possibly hit a ball, and there's not limit to how far a fleet outfielder might run to receive it. The foul lines run on forever, forever diverging. There's no place in America that's not part of a major-league ballfield."
The realist in me wants to dissect the statement but I had to let go of the realist in order to enjoy the fantasy in the rest of the book, which I did. As I was making the twelve hour drive home from vacation I imagined a baseball soaring over the highway, hit by a slugger in a faraway ballpark. What a magical thought.

Watching a ball leave the park is magical in itself, even if it doesn't cross highways and state boarders after it crosses the wall. This was especially true in the early days of baseball when home runs were less common than they are today and outside the park home runs were almost unheard of. When Roger Connor of the New York Giants became the first batter to hit a ball over the fence of the Polo Grounds in 1886 his home run was just one of 21 for the entire team that season. It took seven years of batters trying to get one out of the park before Connor was successful against Boston Beaneater Old Hoss Radbourn. The New York Times reported that Radbourn threw Connor a solid ball and "he met it squarely and it soared upward with the speed of a carrier pigeon." The crowd cheered as they watched the ball fly over the fence, and Connor was "gazed upon in wonderment by Radbourn and the other members of the Boston team."

Connor is also credited with hitting the first grand slam home run, another feat which left the opposing team gazing in wonderment, no doubt. For 23 years after retiring Connor was the all-time home run leader. When Babe Ruth hit his 139th home run in 1921 he took over the career home run crown. At that time, however, no one was aware that the title had been passed from Connor to Ruth because statistics did not hold the allure that they do to baseball fans today.

In some respects the fans have changed. They are devouring statistics and anxiously following races. In some respects the game has changed. Outside the park home runs are more common than inside the park and no longer warrant a newspaper article. In many ways, however, we have remained the same. Baseball still captures our imagination and binds fans together, binds America together. "There's no place in America that's not part of a major-league ballfield." W.P. Kinsella wrote it in 1986, but William H. Rowe knew it in 1909 when he penned "With New York in 1884," a poem that appeared in Verse and Toast: Series 1. He writes of the 1884 Giants which included Roger Connor:

Buck took the bat and smashed it, The ball sailed like a bird;
It landed in a window At Third ave and Thirty-third.
Connor, Mighty Roger
He knocked it to Central Park.
Van Haltren and Mike Tiernan
Both hit a swimming shark
Away out near Coneys, That island dear and fair,
Coneys, sweet, sweet Coneys, Where your trouble sinks wid care;

There's no place in America that's not part of a major-league ballfield.

1 comment:

  1. The first game ever played in major league baseball was between the Cleveland Forest City and the Fort Wayne Kekiongas, on May 4, 1871.

    They played ball in Fort Wayne about a mile away from where, in the 1950s, Fred Zollner would later gather basketball team owners together to form what is today called the NBA. (His team, the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, later moved to Detroit and dropped the "Zollner" from their name. Zoller owned a foundry where pistons are manufactured for heavy equipment like railroad engines.)

    About two months into that first season, Bobby Matthews (who actually pitched for the Kekiongas) hit a ball out of the park. It hopped into an open freight car of a passing train where it presumably kept moving until the train reached its destination in upstate New York.

    The Kikiongas were enthusiastic and fairly good, but their financing was shaky, and they ended up getting sold halfway through the first season, and were moved to Brooklyn where they were initially known as the Superbas and later nicknamed the "Trolley Dodgers" by sports writers. They play in Los Angeles these days.

    Oh, and Coney Island? The one in Brooklyn is not an island at all. It's just shoreline.

    Coney just means rabbit, so I imagine there are a lot of islands called Coney Island, but the one in the Ohio River near Cincinnati really is an island, and it had a big amusement park until the 1960s, when most everything was relocated to a northern suburb of Cincinnati.

    That suburb was named King's Mills, and the new owners of the amusement park were the folks who owned the Queen's Dominion park, so they named the new park "King's Island". When I lived in Cincinnati in the late 1970s, they still used the bandstand at Old Coney for dances and concerts. I presume it's still there.

    But the amusement park in Brooklyn started calling itself Coney Island before the one in Cincinnati opened for business, so I don't know why the folks in Brooklyn called it an island.


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