In the early days of baseball more than 125 years ago, fun at the ballyard was a sure bet – quite literally. Players, fans and perhaps even umpires gambled on every aspect of the game and that’s usually how most players made any money, says a Texas A&M University professor who has written a book about the relationship between baseball and American culture.
David Vaught, head of the history department at Texas A&M and a baseball historian, has authored The Farmer’s Game: Baseball In Rural America (Johns Hopkins University Press) and the just-published book reveals how baseball’s origins, despite current-day thinking, were that of a game played in small country towns, not large metropolitan areas. Rivalries quickly developed between neighboring teams, and most games – almost always played on Sundays because that was the only day the farmers were free from their chores – featured heavy gambling on both sides.
“It was very often a winner-take-all event where players would bet on their team to win, and the fans would bet on just about anything they could,” Vaught says of his research.
“Fans would bet on how many hits or runs a team might score, how many pitches might be thrown, how many innings the game might last, and on and on. Since the players were not really paid a regular salary, the only way they could make any money was by betting, and every game featured plenty of it. There was rarely a game played that did not involve some type of gambling,” he notes, unlike today when gambling on baseball can get a player or manager barred from the game for life.
Gambling, Vaught writes, “was as much a part of baseball as pitching, hitting and running.”
Vaught says today’s fans might have a hard time even recognizing baseball as it was played back then.
There were few rules and for years, the batter could stand and hit the ball in any direction he wished, even behind him. No balls and strikes were called, and the game itself was usually called “Town Ball,” not baseball.
Equipment was all hand-made and balls consisted of whatever could be molded into a round shape. Tree limbs or saw lumber were used for bats.
“It really wasn’t until the 1880s or so that the game evolved into something resembling modern-day baseball,” Vaught adds.
The game thrived in various regions of the country, always because of its rural settings. In California, baseball was played during the Gold Rush days at the mining camps. In Minnesota and other states, the railroad was instrumental in the game’s development because the train would stop every 8-10 miles between towns so farmers would have a way to transport crops, and the farmers from area towns would face off against each other in a ballgame while dealing their farm goods.
The game especially thrived in Texas, where cotton farmers would meet on Sundays in a pasture and play before dozens, if not hundreds, of local town folk. Teams such as the La Grange Boll Weevils, the Saxons of Brenham, the Round Top Scrubs, the Carmine Stars and numerous others were comprised of cotton farmers out to have a good time and make a few dollars while doing so.
Players and fans consisted primarily of German and Czech immigrants who had come to Texas many years earlier and they quickly became attracted to the game, as Vaught explains, because “picking cotton and playing baseball required fine hand-to-eye coordination and persistence, and Texas Germans excelled at both.”
Two players who truly personified the idea of baseball being a rural game were Hall of Fame pitchers Bob Feller and Gaylord Perry. Both grew up on farms – Feller in tiny Van Meter, Iowa and Perry in Williamston, N.C. – and both approached the game with a “country” hardball attitude and fierce sense of competition.
“They were great examples of how baseball players developed in rural America,” Vaught says. “Feller said often that growing up on a farm gave him the perfect skills and work ethic to be a good baseball player.
“Rural people identified with baseball because it was a game of skill, competitiveness and chance, just like their day-to-day reality on the farm: 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.”
Rural culture expresses itself in baseball in other ways, such as an innate trust and sense of cooperation, Vaught adds. “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? It happens every day at a baseball game.”
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