A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Baseball has roots in rural towns

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., June 17, 18 or 19

Since Major League Baseball is in urban areas, and even minor leagues play in cities like Burlington, Peoria and Quad Cities, it would be understandable to think the National Pastime and cities are a natural fit. However, a new book shows how baseball’s origins and expanding popularity for decades were that of a game played in small country towns.

“The Farmer’s Game: Baseball in Rural America,” by David Vaught, a Texas A&M history professor, demonstrates that baseball thrived in all parts of the country, always because of its rural settings.

Many downstate Illinois communities fielded teams in formal and informal “townball” competition for years, roughly from the turn of the 20th century into the 1950s, when innovations ranging from air conditioning and television to households’ needs for multiple incomes and the decrease in the number of small farmers all combined to make minor-league baseball, much less adult town teams, less viable.

Major League Baseball for more than a century has benefited from rural talent. Besides Hall of Famers Dizzy Dean (Lucas, Ark.), Bob Feller (Van Meter, Iowa) and Gaylord Perry (Williamston, N.C.), other big leaguers came from rural Illinois. There were Harry Bay (Pontiac), Mark Clark (Bath) and Paul and Rick Reuschel (Golden), plus lesser-known ballplayers: Larry Burright and Hi West (both from Roseville), Hick Cady ((Bishop Hill), Bud Clancy (Odell), John Dudra (Assumption), Peaches Graham and Dewey McDougal (both Aledo), Mike Grzanich (Canton), Belden Hill and Em Lindbeck (both Kewanee), John Johnson (Pekin), Earl Sheely (Bushnell), Joe Sullivan (Mason City), Rip Williams (Carthage) and Parke Wilson (Keithsburg).

“Rural people identified with baseball because it was a game of skill, competitiveness and chance, just like on the farm,” Vaught says. “Skill, with regard to their ability to produce high-quality crops in large amounts; competitiveness, in terms of their insatiable appetite for achievement in a world of change and unpredictability; and chance, in that for all their skill and competitiveness, a spell of bad weather or a run of bad luck in the marketplace could bring failure, misery and frustration.”

Baseball has long been described by writers in abstract terms. It’s agrarian, nostalgic, pastoral and romantic, it’s said. The Sporting News in 1924 paid tribute to the importance of the rural factor in baseball, and sportswriter and author Roger Angell (“The Summer Game“) described the “country sweetness” of baseball.

“Baseball may have been – and may still be – a source of rural nostalgia for city people,” Vaught writes. “For country people, it served as the sport of choice, a powerful cultural agent.

“There is something important about the notion (true or not) that Americans think of baseball in rural terms, from Abner Doubleday and Cooperstown to Kevin Costner and ‘Field of Dreams’,” he continues. “Baseball and agrarianism, in that sense, are very much intertwined. Even in today's predominantly non-rural culture, rural culture continues to be expressed through baseball.”

People in small towns in rural areas simply enjoyed the excitement and camaraderie of ballgames, too, Vaught concedes, but baseball also “became an expression of the way farmers perceived day-to-day reality,” he says. “The widespread, sustained passion for baseball among farm people over the decades indicates that the game had a deeper, more complex cultural meaning.”

Furthermore, Vaught argues, there’s a real rural culture, one on display in baseball in other ways, such as a cooperative and trusting nature among strangers.

“Where else other than a ballpark does someone sitting in the middle of a row of 30 seats pass a $20 bill down through many different hands – black, white, brown, male, female, gay, straight – to a hot dog man with the complete expectation that they will get back not only the hot dog but every last penny of change?” he asks. “That innate trust and sense of cooperation is rooted in our agrarian heritage, dating back to the days before the market complicated farmers' lives.”

Vaught voices regret that baseball’s purer past is mostly gone.

“Rural baseball now exists primarily in memories and on vintage fields,” he says, “– not because the game has lost popularity, but because there are just barely enough farmers left to field a team. But for much of American history, however, baseball served as the farmers' game.”

Still, a couple of hours south of Chicago in the Gifford, Ill., area is the Eastern Illinois League, with teams such as the Buckley Dutch Masters and the Paxton Swedes playing Sunday afternoon doubleheaders, where admission is $5 per car, hot dogs sell for $1, and beer is $10 for a six-pack, and farm folks while away the game talking about corn and weather and the Chicago Board of Trade.

And, in little leagues, Legion ball and elsewhere, there are summer leagues…

Baseball – and, in some ways, townball – lives.

[PICTURED: 1977 baseball card with Golden, Ill., farmboys-made-good -- although their autographs are correct despite the IDs being reversed.]

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