We know today that sometimes things go “viral” on the internet. Maybe they are funny videos. Maybe it’s a particularly interesting story or a shocking photo. However, memes and “viral” phenomena are not new things. They’ve always happened. And, to prove that, researchers at Northeastern have compiled a database of things that were going viral back in the 19th century, when newspapers and magazines were the main news sources. This nicely lines up with the time where baseball became a national sport, so I decided to take a look. While time and tide (and the fact that there was a whole Civil War and Reconstruction going on) means that it’s likely the database isn’t complete and doesn’t have nearly as much baseball as you might think, I definitely found some fascinating things.
You can see some of what I found below the jump:
The first truly viral baseball story was an explanation of what baseball was… likely written by Henry Chadwick. It first appears in the Northeastern Viral Texts database as being printed in the Cleveland Daily Leader on October 18 in 1865, although it appears to be a at-best-paraphrased copy from a “Brooklyn Eagle Philosopher“. As I said earlier, it was almost certainly Henry Chadwick- baseball’s first sportswriter, statistician and overall salesman. He created the box score as we know it, as well as the statistics of batting averages and RBIs. The Eagle was his stomping grounds, so it seems natural he would be behind this. Here’s what this article said:
Yes, “keep your eye on the ball” does, indeed, seem to be that old. This article was reprinted at least six more times over the next 10 years, primarily in cities outside of baseball’s Northeastern cradle. This suggests to me that in some ways it became an explainer to people in the South and on “the frontier” what exactly those crazy Northerners were doing. It’s not hard to imagine how stories like this- as well as interactions between soldiers during the Civil War- helped baseball become a truly national sport.
Of course, it didn’t take long for some to rain on the parade. On October 1st of 1866, this story entitled “The Base-Ball Epidemic” appeared in Philadelphia’s Evening Telegraph:
- “All of the leading players have had their fingers broken, and some have every finger broken twice. The loss of a tooth or an eye is received with such slight interest that we might suppose that the member had offended, and been ‘plucked out.'”
- Baseball clubs have stupid names like Invincibles, Olympic, Excelsior and Eureka and before you know it there will be teams called “Washington Washington” or “Eureka Eureka”.
- And, in a argument that was likely neither the first and most definitely not the last, the writer said that baseball was being way too overexposed and unless if those who played it cut back it would be run into the ground and forgotten, much like how the cricket crazy of the 1850s was forgotten.
Basically, this is a “Baseball is Going To Be Dying” article. It was reprinted in West Virginia and Ohio and likely other places as well.
Our next viral find involves Shakespearean Baseball. This is more like what we know as something that is “viral” today, and it first appeared in the September 17, 1867 issue of the Daily Ohio Statesmen in Columbus:
That same Ohio paper also provides our next viral find. In the September 28, 1867 edition, they summarized a Western New York paper’s opinions like so:
This was reprinted at least five more times, proving that back then, much like now, one sure way to go viral is to insult another sport (in this case croquet) and to write about women playing sports (sadly, the writer back then who was encouraging women to play baseball is arguably more progressive than some writers today). That writer was also probably more progressive than the father in this snippet from a 1870 Fayetteville Observer, reprinted at least seven other times:
Finally, let’s look at the worst type of viral thing: the paid viral. Is an advertisement viral? After all, it is pretty forced…. but, anyway, the most reprinted baseball thing in the database is an advertisement… and here it is, first showing up September 23, 1869 in the Mower County Transcript and appearing over 27 times after that across the country:
Ah, Capitalism. Some things never change.
I would like to thank the Smithsonian Magazine for bringing the ViralTexts site to my attention.