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Walt Whitman: Beat Reporter

Whitman was one of us, a baseball fan.

Like many high school students, I memorized and read something from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” in front of my class. Also, like many, I resented it. That was until I read this line that I got over my resentment.

“Upon the race-course, or enjoying picnics or jigs, or a good game of base-ball.”

“WALT WHITMAN LIKES BASEBALL!” was the last thing I ever figured I would scream during homework. This short passage lit the fire of my interest in baseball history in many ways.

I later found an interesting editorial from July 23, 1846, Brooklyn Eagle many years later. A statement with such power that Ken Burns used it as his baseball documentary’s opening narration.

“In our sun-down perambulations of late, through the outer parts of Brooklyn, we have observed several parties of youngsters playing ‘base,’ a certain game of ball…. Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms…. The game of ball is glorious.”

Many historians have said understanding the History of America is impossible without understanding the work of Walt Whitman, who is often called a parent of America, a parent who loved baseball.

AND DID SO BEFORE THE CIVIL WAR!

Even after the Civil War, Walt Whitman wrote to Peter Doyle on 9/21/1868:

“There was a very exciting game of Base Ball Played here to day, between the Nationals, & the Olympics, both of this city, i went out to see them & enjoyed it very much when the game ended the score stood Nationals 21, Olympics 15 old Base Ball Players say it was one of the best games they ever saw.”

In the 1870s, Whitman lost his enthusiasm for baseball as leagues began to form. Later in life, when Al Spalding would help bring baseball on a world tour, baseball recaptured his interest. After Spading’s team returned for their world tour in 1889, Whitman commented to his friend Horace Traubel:

“Did you see the baseball boys are home from their tour around the world? How I’d like to meet them — talk with them: maybe ask them some questions.”

1889 was the year before Cy Young made his professional debut to put this in perspective. Walt Whitman was one of us. A baseball fan. In Whitman’s later years, baseball was Whitman’s sole hope to assure the whole American experiment. This explains his excitement with Spalding’s World Baseball Tour. Baseball, for Whitman, would spread democracy and bring the world together. A heavy burden for a young game. Yet baseball did spread throughout the globe. Baseball leagues formed in Europe. Central America has become a pipeline of talent to American baseball. In Asia, baseball’s emergence in many countries coincides with the growth of democracy in the country. Walt Whitman’s prophetic belief that America’s manifest destiny was baseball is worth taking a look at.

There is also one account of Whitman writing as a beat reporter. On June 18, 1858, the Brooklyn Daily Times included our Good Gray Poet’s report on the contest between the Atlantic and Putman Clubs.

“They were also particularly unfortunate in having three of their men injured in the course of the game. Mr. Masten, their catcher, being disabled from occupying his position on the fifth innings, was compelled to take the first base and his place taken by Mr. Burr, who in his turn was disabled on the seventh innings and his place supplied by Mr. McKinstry, the fielder, Mr. Burr taking the third base. Mr. Jackson was injured on the eighth innings so much as to be compelled to discontinue playing, and Mr. Ketcham was substituted in his stead, so that at one time no less than three men on the Putnam side were so seriously injured as to be unable to run their bases. Notwithstanding these accidents, however, the score is highly creditable to the Putnams (always excepting the fourth innings), and we doubt if any other club can show a better one in a contest with such opponents. The Atlantics, as usual, played splendidly and maintained their reputation as the Champion Club. Messrs. M. O’Brien, P. O’Brien, Boerum, Pierce, and Oliver of that club cannot easily be surpassed in their respective positions.”

The Pierce mentioned is Dickey Pearce, one of the most famous ballplayers in early baseball.

America’s parent was a beat writer in 1858, enjoyed the game since 1846, and talked to his friends about it until his death. People forgot the importance of baseball and its prominence in American History. People should also remember Walt Whitman’s view of baseball as the extension of the American experiment. An argument is there that baseball has brought more immigrants together in a “transcendental Union” than American democracy.

At the minimum, Whitman does what he always has; giving us a reason to think HOW to think about America.

Whitman Photo by George Collins Cox, restored by Adam Cuerden/Wikimedia Commons, Other Photos from Public Domain | Adapted by Drew Wheeler (@drewisokay on Twitter)

Mat Kovach

Despite being an Indians fan in the late 70's I grew to love baseball. I started throwing spitballs when I was 10 and have been fascinated with competitive shenanigans in baseball ever since.

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