Some Old-Time Baseball

Charlie Radbourne

Charlie Radbourn (standing)

This seemed like the perfect time of year to get around to Edward Achorn’s book about Charlie Radbourn and nineteenth century baseball.  I was not disappointed.  “Old Hoss” Radbourn won 59 (or sixty) games in 1884 for the Providence Grays of the National League, and while the game has changed a lot since then, it’s still an astonishing record.  Back in the day, there were no relievers and pitchers were expected to pitch complete games.  Overhand pitches were a new development, and the mound hadn’t been invented.  And there were no baseball gloves.

Achorn does a great job of conveying the grittiness of the young game, and incidentally, of a young America.  He must have put in a huge amount of research into everyday circumstances, even down to conversations.  It’s hard to believe, but for sheer fascination, simply reading about the lives, words, and antics of the players and their associates a hundred and more years ago vies with the story of the baseball itself.  Achorn is primarily following a season of the game; he’s not pushing a thesis or agenda, and so the everday incidents, like a fire in a hotel, a drunken brawl, or a labor dispute, fall into place with remarkable naturalness.  The list of sources includes dozens of different newspapers.  Some of them are characters in themselves.  The book is a testament to the legacy of American journalism and the priceless treasure preserved in our libraries.

How did they keep it together?

(This is the last installment in my Livy top five.)

By far the most enthralling aspect of Livy is the working of the republic itself and the never ending struggle between the people and the patricians, the rich and the poor.  Rome came close to civil war more than once in the period covered by his first ten books, down to 290 BC or so.  The contentions were clearly rooted in money and class.  Veterans were enslaved for debt, there were illegal appropriations of public land, famine followed outbreaks of plague.  When especially aggrieved, the people refused military service, and twice they abandoned the city.  Somehow they held it together.  Livy is straightforward about these causes of political strife, and Machiavelli devoted one of his discourses to arguing that Rome was powerful precisely because of it.

It’s easy to become invested in this account and the question of how free or how equal Rome became.  On one hand, over more than a hundred years there was a broad trend of increasing rights for the plebeians.  Shortly after the expulsion of King Tarquin the Proud, the people became so incensed over their debts that they left Rome in a body and encamped peacefully outside the city.  They returned only after the tribunes were created, officers to whom the people could appeal and whose personal safety was solemnly guaranteed.  Later it became legal for plebeians to marry patricians, and still later they won the right to be elected consuls and priests.

On the other hand, the issue of land distribution was, after two hundred years and ten books of history, not really settled, and the rare outbreaks of actual violence sometimes broke out are hard to interpret.  A consul named Cassius was put to death after bringing up land reform.  Livy implies that the people began to suspect him of aiming at kingship, and that the conviction was legal, but the story is vague.  Maelius supplied the people with grain, and then was suspected of gathering arms for an attempt on the state.  When he was accused by the Dictator, he fled.  As the Master of Horse rode him down, he cried to the people, “because I was your friend!”

Of the classical historians I’ve read, Livy presents the strongest temptations to sympathize and to draw topical conclusions.  It’s been a while since I read them, but Herodotus seems too broad and dramatic, Thucydides too narrow and gloomy to go where Livy takes us, which is somewhere very close to home.  Perhaps the dishonest way class warfare is nowadays invoked as a terrible bogey when people so much as talk about economic inequality and taxation accounts for why I found Livy’s frank treatment so interesting.

Decius Leads Enemy Armies Down to Hell

(This is the last but one of my Livy top five.)

In 340 BC the Romans were dealing with the revolt of their closest allies and neighbors, the Latins.  As Machiavelli emphasizes, these men had fought beside the Romans and knew their way of fighting as well as they did.  The night before the battle, both consuls had the same dream: The gods of the underworld wanted one army and one general, and they would take them from opposing sides.  The consuls agreed that whichever wing faltered first, the consul in command there would sacrifice himself.  So Publius Decius Mus, when his side began to give way, performed the devotio.  He put on purple, stood on a spear, said a simple prayer to the gods “new and native”, and rode into the enemy ranks, where he made such an impression that it was some time before he was brought down with ranged weapons.   Needless to say, the Romans won.

343 BC: Things Get Serious

It’s hard to keep one’s bearings in the unrelenting string of alarms, battles, campaigns, etc. that make up Rome’s military history, but fortunately Livy tells us exactly when Rome went from being one belligerent city-state among many to an empire in the making: 343 BC, when the First Samnite War started:

From now on the wars described will be of greater importance.  Our enemies were more powerful, and campaigns lasted longer and were mounted in more remote areas.

I’m over-dramatizing this, but only a little.  Of course there are indications of Rome’s gathering strength prior to this war, and it lasted for many inconclusive years, but it seems to me that Livy has a good case for the importance of the decision in 343 and he presents it in style.  The more I think about this, the more convinced I am that Livy has not only historic vision but consideration for his readers.

From the expulsion of the Tarquins in 509 to the aftermath of the Gallic invasion of 390 the Romans seem to have engaged in fighting only their nearest neighbors, namely certain of the Etruscans, the Volsci, Aequi, Sabines, and even the Latins, who were more closely tied to them by treaty and presumably kinship.  In these campaigns it was normal to encounter the enemy a day after leaving Rome.  Dictators resigned mere days after being named.  For widely different dates Livy gives a figure of ten legions as the utmost of Rome’s strength, and while this could mean different things at different times (a very rough estimate would be 5,000 men), it seems to suggest that Roman power was not growing by orders of magnitude.  On the other hand, shortly before the Gallic disaster, Roman soldiers did begin to be paid.  This was devised during the prolonged siege of Veii, a rich city, but again not far from Rome.  They traded up and down the coast of Italy and had contact with Greeks to the south, but a diplomatic mission to Athens in 451 was a very big deal.

Compared with what the Romans had done before 343, the campaigns against the Samnites were certainly more distant and prolonged.  The Samnites lived in the mountains above the bay of Naples and were friendly with the Romans until an attack sent the rich Capuans of the lowland running for help to Rome.  As the war dragged on, others seem to have realized the danger they were in, and Rome faced a coalition of Samnites, Etruscans, and others like the Umbrians who had scarcely figured in the story before.  Rome also changed the way things were done.  Consuls remained in the field for longer than their usual terms and reduced so many cities that they had to make the soldiers sell their spoils so as not to be encumbered.   The famous Appian Way was constructed during these wars.

Livy remarks that we who read about the wars should not tire of them if those who fought them did not.  I don’t think that’s a great rule to follow, but it shows sympathy.  He also indulges in a long recreated speech about the beginning of the war that had me looking both back to Thucydides and forward to Machiavelli.

(Penultimate installment: Class struggle or black magic?  I can’t decide…)

“That Mob”

Livy does not scruple to call the early settlers of Rome “homeless and destitute”.  More than that, he says (in Penguin’s Selincourt translation) “That mob was the first real addition to the City’s strength, first step to her future greatness.”  When I think about it, it’s of a piece with the story of Romulus and Remus being exposed, nursed by a wolf, and raised by shepherds to share in their rustic adventures.

I wonder if Livy is seeking a deliberate balance between this and the story of the aristocratic Aeneas.  In his telling, the Trojan prince Aeneas settled in Latium, his son founded Alba Longa, and after many generations were born the twins who, having discovered their identity, founded Rome a few miles away.  This twofold legend of Rome’s foundation needs some explanation.  On top of that, Livy records the importance of the Etruscans (via the Tarquins who ruled Rome) and Sabines in the earliest times.

In any case it seems clear that Livy loves Rome (“no country has ever been greater or purer than ours”) and all of its people.  I’ll try to bear this in mind when thinking about his account of the struggles of the plebeians and patricians.

(This is the second of my Livy top five. Stay tuned.)