NEAL CONAN, host:
In remarks to a distinguished audience at New York's famous Delmonico's Restaurant, 112 years ago this month, Mark Twain described baseball as the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive, and push, and rush, the struggle of the raging, tearing, booming 19th century.
Twain's speech was part of a celebration of a world baseball tour that covered five continents and nearly 30,000 miles. Its stated purpose, endorsed by the President of the United States no less, was to introduce America's national game to the far reaches of the planet.
The tour included visits to New Zealand, Australia, Salon, Egypt, Italy, France, England, and Ireland, with unscheduled stops at debauchery, betrayal and ambition.
Mark Lamster tells the extraordinary story in a new book, SPALDING'S WORLD TOUR: THE EPIC ADVENTURE THAT TOOK BASEBALL AROUND THE WORLD AND MADE IT AMERICA'S GAME.
If you have questions about the tour or the long debate over the origins of baseball, give us a call, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK.
Mark Lamster joins us now. Thanks very much for being with us from our bureau in New York.
Mr. MARK LAMSTER (Author, SPALIDING'S WORLD TOUR.): Thank you very much for having me.
CONAN: And I guess we have to begin with Albert Spalding, a name everybody knows from the sporting goods empire which he founded, but most of us know considerably less about a man whom you compare to P.T. Barnum.
Mr. LAMSTER: Yeah, I think he's, Barnum is a good place to be in with him. I think maybe a mix of P.T. Barnum and Michael Jordan.
Spalding was sort of the great baseball player of the 19th century, and he parlayed that fame into the ownership of a giant sporting goods corporation, using his name to sell his product. Even more impressive than Jordan because he actually owned the company.
I'm sorry, go ahead.
CONAN: I was just going to say, and if you had any doubts about his importance as an entrepreneur or as someone to the game of baseball, just ask him. He would tell you.
Mr. LAMSTER: Exactly. And actually I kind of see him as a sort of, he is the great American story. And in fact, in kind of writing a book, the story of America at that period, in microcosm. This sort of small town boy who comes up of his own incredible ambition and skill and talent and intelligence, and is able, through his own, you know, ability, but also through hucksterism and a bit of his, you know, a bit of a fabulist, able to somehow parlay that into incredible fame, success, and then become an industrial giant really the world over.
And I think that's sort of like, that's the great American story.
CONAN: The Robber Baron, if you will, of the sporting goods industry.
Mr. LAMSTER: Exactly. And in, I think that's kind of the story of America in that period too. That sort of, a nation that was fresh and coming of age, coming into its own, through bluster and will and a little bit of deception here and there, it becomes the world power.
CONAN: What was he actually selling back in the 1880's when this story takes place? I mean, baseball gloves were hardly more than, you described them as hardly more than bicycle gloves these days.
Mr. LAMSTER: That's true. And he was selling those. He'd sell basically anything that you could sell, he'd sell you. Baseballs were the most, the primary thing that he sold, but basically every piece of equipment that you could need to play baseball or really any other sport. And he had his entire family actually, as he was beginning this business, working to create every conceivable, you know, product you could use.
In fact, his mother once was helping sew the letters on professional baseball teams' uniforms, and actually sewed the N on Indianapolis upside down for an entire team. But they quickly got that corrected.
CONAN: We're talking with Mark Lamster. He's the author of SPALDING'S WORLD TOUR: THE EPIC ADVENTURE THAT TOOK BASEBALL AROUND THE WORLD AND MADE IT AMERICA'S GAME.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR news.
And Albert Spalding, as you describe him, was obsessed with the definition of America and turning it into America's national pastime. Indeed, that's one of the main motivations, you say, as to why he took 20 of the best known ballplayers anywhere around the world.
Mr. LAMSTER: Very much so. I think that baseball was new at that time. Professional sports were new in America at that time. And in order to secure a comfortable middle class audience for his sport, in order to ensure its success, he wanted it to, to wrap it in the flag, essentially. And taking the tour around the world was this way, ironically, of showing Americans that this was their sport, by just showing it off in other places and reporting back that, look where we are with America's game.
So I think it --
CONAN: A little off-season publicity didn't hurt either.
Mr. LAMSTER: No, I mean, exactly. I think that was, anything to stay in the news, to keep those hot stoves burning in the off-season.
CONAN: There's some remarkable characters who were members of his team, and I guess we have to talk about Cap Anson, a member of baseball's Hall of Fame, probably the best player of his time. A man remembered mostly today as a racist.
Mr. LAMSTER: Yeah. He is a very curious, difficult figure, and a sort of a sad figure. He was sort of the great figure, player, of that game, the first man to have 3,000 hits.
But also a bigot. A very difficult personality. And his difficult personality ended up running him out of the game, and basically erased himself from history.
So only now are we seeing, the first biography was published this year about Anson, who's arguably the, after Spalding, the most instrumental figure in, or one of the few most instrumental figures in 19th century baseball.
CONAN: The other great captain of these two teams, the Chicago team, which Mr. Spalding owned, and he put together a team of what we would now call all-stars, he called them the all Americas.
This is a man named John Montgomery Ward, who was also, we don't think of baseball players in that era as being college educated, but he not only went to college but became a lawyer and was the head of the, what was then the baseball union, and was, at the same time he was playing on this tour, trying to destroy the National League.
Mr. LAMSTER: Yeah, he was quite a spectacular player. He was really the man about town in New York also. He was quite a playboy. He was, you know, the shortstop for the New York Giants, sort of like, would be the Derek Jeter of the 19th century, if you wanted to compare him to people. But also very intelligent and, at that time, the players and the owners of the National League were very much at odds over the reserve clause, which had this rule that basically conscripted all baseball players to the team in which they signed their first contract. And he considered this to be, turn baseball players into chattel.
And he was outraged by this, as were most players, and as the league owners became more and more draconian in their application of it, he ended up leading the players to start their own league, the Players League, which would have been this really unique collaboration between labor and capital in American labor history. And it lasted for one year, and it really came very close to succeeding and putting the National League out of business. But unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your prospective, failed, and those players returned to the National League pretty much en masse.
But for one glorious year, the players, major league players, had their own league. And it's always tempting to wonder what would have happened if it had succeeded. I think a lot of the problems in baseball, even the steroid issue, we can trace back to this incredible animosity we had between owners and players. And if there had been a situation place where these parties considered themselves more to be partners rather than in a relationship of animosity, so much trouble could have been avoided over the years.
CONAN: Mark Lamster tells the extraordinary tale of this circumnavigation of the globe in pursuit of baseball greatness, and among other things, it resulted in Albert Spalding deciding that he had to have an all-American explanation for the invention of the game, thus Abner Doubleday and Cooperstown. Well, there's a lot in his book, SPALDING'S WORLD TOUR: THE EPIC ADVENTURE THAT TOOK BASEBALL AROUND THE WORLD AND MADE IT AMERICA'S GAME.
Mark Lamster, thanks so much for coming in today.
Mr. LAMSTER: Thank you for having me.
CONAN: Mark Lamster with us from our bureau in New York.
By the way, regarding our earlier conversation, we scouted out some websites on exercise for you. Check us out, NPR.org. You can find links on the latest research plus recommendations on different kinds of exercise, including what's appropriate for your age and your health status.
I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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