The Rich (and Partisan) History of Baseball on the Web


pbumpI was maybe 10 when my father handed me a bible, a tome that encapsulated the fundamental tenets of our religion. It was called The Yankee Hater’s Handbook. A masterpiece of framing, it armed me with any number of responses to claims of the greatness of the team, the excellence of Mssrs. DiMaggio and Maris, the basic mental capacity of Mr. Berra. At that time, though, in the mid-1980s, hating the Yankees was like someone today hating the Knicks. They’re so terrible – why bother?

Yankee-hating is seeing a resurgence, thanks to the sudden ability of Alex Rodriguez to get hits in October and their building the most homer-friendly ballpark in the majors. The Handbook, that religious document, is now out of print (due, no doubt, to the nefarious machinations of Clan Steinbrenner), so those seeking to bone up on the various historic reasons the Phillies are worth rooting for have to turn to our old friend, the Web.

The beautiful thing about baseball is how astonishingly rich its history is. (Consider this: in its entire history, the NFL has played fewer games than have been played in baseball’s past five years – in the Majors alone.) People have been playing professional baseball for over a century, all the while documenting the games and the players in every new media format available. Much of that documentation is a quick link-click away.

Let’s start at the most jaw-dropping website in professional sports: I’ll explain what’s available there with a quick anecdote (as, it seems, is my wont). Shortly after my Dad laid the Handbook on me, we took a trip to Detroit to see my childhood favorites, the Tigers play, and beat, the Yanks. Our family made much of the fact that, while regular players had photos that appeared on the scoreboard when they batted, Rob Richie, newly drafted, had only the Tigers’ logo where his photo should be – implying that Mr. Richie bore more resemblance to Shere Khan than Genghis. In a family of corny jokes, this one became long-running. So, with only this information in hand (Rob Richie’s early appearance, the Tigers winning), I was earlier this year able to scrabble through the pages at Baseball-Reference and find the boxscore for the game itself – August 19, 1989. (Mr. Richie went 1-for-4, with 2 RBI.)

Photo from the New York Public Library on Flickr.

Baseball-Reference has box scores, standings, player data for nearly every game in the history of professional baseball. Want to know what the standings were on the day you were born? No sweat. They’ve got it.

Statistics are one thing. Photos are another. Yesterday, the New York Public Library posted on its blog a series of photos from classic New York and Philadelphia teams (all pulled, notably, from the Flickr Commons). The photos are fantastic – crucial, valuable bits of American history. (I’m particularly taken with this staged photo of someone sliding into second – you can get a sense for how long they held this action-packed pose by noting the blurred man in the background.)

The historical import of such images is reinforced by the Library of Congress’ baseball card collection. Fatima Cigarettes gave us the 1913 Phils and 1913 Yankees. That year, per Baseball-Reference, the Phillies came in 2nd in the NL; the Yanks, pre-Ruth, 7th in the AL. (The Philadelphia A’s, meanwhile, won the AL pennant, and the World Series.) Baseball cards still exist, of course, but target the collector market rather than kids, a transition made clear when, in the mid ’90s, Topps stopped including gum with the cards since the gum left stains. (Little known fact: Topps started as a candy company, using the cards to build gum sales.)

A few decades into the professionalized sport, radio became mainstream. The image is universal: pre-teen boys huddled around a console radio, pounding a fist into a glove, growing agitated over the travails of their favorite team. Sadly, much of this is lost to time, though some of the more memorable calls – like Bobby Thompson’s shot-heard-round-the-world – live on. Major League Baseball (MLB, which tightly controls its own history) has a collection it calls “Baseball’s Best.”

Then came motion pictures and television. Some of the best footage comes from movie news clips – the first time video of games was presented in the now-familiar highlight-reel format. This video details the last time the Yankees and Phillies met in the World Series: a 1950 Yankees sweep. A dark time. There are any number of similar segments on YouTube – but much of the more modern footage is still only available through the MLB, leaving some fans to resort to other ways of getting their game footage fix.

The Web is dripping with baseball history, including fan sites, like Historic, and professional organizations like SABR, the Society of American Baseball Researchers. It reinforces the web history truism – the more interesting a subject is to a broad range of people, the more complete its history will become.

Of course, the history of the game of baseball continues to be written. Last night, for example, was the first World Series game ever played at the new Yankee Stadium. And like all of the best stories in history, it had a happy ending.

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