How the Civil War Changed Baseball Forever
By Ken Zurski
Conventional wisdom would suggest that the start of the Civil War in 1861 slowed down the progress of a game like baseball, a sport that was gaining popularity in the years before the conflict began.
And that is true, to a point.
Inevitably as men heeded the call to serve, there just weren’t as many players to take the field. But there were reserves to take their place, especially in the well populated state like New York, which holds the distinction of introducing the world to Base Ball (then written as two words).
While bat-and-ball type games were popping up throughout the country, in New York, an actual team called the Knickerbockers emerged in the 1840’s. While not trailblazers in creating the game, they can be considered pioneers when it comes to the sport. The Knickerbockers actually made and followed rules.
Other teams formed and crowds grew.
Then came the war.
Although pick-up games continued, the sport shifted to the battlefront instead. “Each regiment had its share of disease and desertion; each had it’s ball-players turned soldiers,” remembered George T Stevens, of the 77th Regiment, New York Volunteers.
Union soldiers would play a good “game of nines” to help pass the time.
Otto Boetticher was a Union prisoner at Salisbury, North Carolina. In 1861, at the age of 45, he enlisted in the 68th New York Volunteers and left his job as a commercial artist. The following year he was captured and ended up in Salisbury before a prisoner swap set him free a few months later. Before leaving, Boetticher did a drawing of a prisoner game of baseball.
Boetticher’s drawing, released in 1864, was hardly representative of prison camp descriptions at the time. “Despite the bleak realities of imprisonment,there is a sense of ease and contentment in the image, conveyed in part by pleasures of the game, the glowing sky and sunlight, and the well-ordered composition,” one assessment of the drawing goes.
Boettchler’s lighthearted look at prisoner life wasn’t his fault. The harsh reality of the POW camps would come later with the woeful Libby and Andersonville among others where the prisoner population grew by thousands and unsanitary and overcrowded conditions led to widespread starvation and sickness. Early on, however, the captured soldiers waited for their name to be called.
Why not play a spirited game of baseball?
Boetticher’s print may have been from a July 4th game, when prisoners were allowed to celebrate the nation’s holiday, as one prisoner described, with “music, sack and foot races and baseball.” But if weather permitted and “for those who like it and are able,” baseball was played everyday.
Some might think Boetticher’s depiction of prison life is more deception than reality. But prisoner recollections support the claim that despite the animosity between them, a game of baseball was good fun for both sides.
“I have never seen more smiles today on their oblong faces,” William Crosley a Union sergeant in Company C wrote describing Confederate captors watching a match at Salisbury. “For they have been the most doleful looking set of men I ever saw.”
Once the conflict was over, the game itself was in for an overhaul. Many of the older players who went off to war, were either injured, weary, or worse. That’s when younger players joined in. Skills improved, rules were implemented and the game became more about the playing and the winning rather than just a friendly “game of nines”
Base ball became Baseball – a legitimate competitive sport.
What’s That Bird? Father Marquette Mentioned Parrots and Bustards in Illinois.
By Ken Zurski
In 1674, while exploring the Illinois River for the first time, French Jesuit missionary Father Jacques Marquette wrote in his journal: “We have seen nothing like this river that we enter, as regards its fertility of soil, its prairies and woods; its cattle, elk, deer, wildcats, bustards, swans, ducks, parroquets, and even beaver.”
Certainly the reference to parroquets, or perroquets, (French for parrot) raises some eyebrows. But a species called the Carolina Parrot, now extinct, did inhabit portions of North America, as far north as the Great Lakes, as early as the 16th century.
More puzzling, however, is the mention of the bustard.
Even the Illinois State Museum in the state’s capitol of Springfield questions this unusual reference.
“What is a Bustard?” the Museum sign asks in an exhibit showcasing birds native to Illinois, then answers: “We’re not sure.”
Of course, the bustard is a real bird. In Europe and Central Asia it is more commonly known. In North America? It just doesn’t exist. But did it at one time? According to the Museum’s notes, several French explorers described bustards as being common game birds of Illinois and said they resembled “large ducks.”
A Great Bustard can stand 2 to 3 feet in height and weigh up to 30 pounds making it one of the heaviest living animals able to fly. Its one distinctive feature, besides its size, is the gray whiskers that sprouts from its beak in the winter.
Father Marquette was more a man of the cloth than a scientist. His mission was to preach to the Illinois Indians or “savages” as he calls them. Along the way, however, he described the scenery and game in detail. The “bustard” comes up quite often in his journal. He even refers to hunting them, possibly eating them too. “Bustards and ducks pass continually,” he wrote.
Perhaps, as some suggest, Marquette was describing a common wild turkey. His recollections seem to imply they were airborne, which wild turkeys can do, despite the myth that they cannot fly (the “fattened” farm turkey – the one we use for Thanksgiving – does not fly).
The Illinois State Museum goes even further by speculating that the bird Marquette was referencing was not a bustard at all, but the Canada Goose which is similar in size and appearance to the Great Bustard.
But, as the Museum concedes, even that is “open to question.”.
Why The Legacy Of The Buffalo Is Recounted In Vastly Different Ways
By Ken Zurski
In Son of the Morning Star, Evan S. Connell’s brilliant but unconventional retelling of the life and death of George Armstrong Custer, a part of the author’s captivating account is the detailed descriptions of what it would have been like to live, explore and fight in the vast and mostly uncharted territory of the Western Plains.
A land that Custer among others were seeing for the first time.
Custer’s life, of course, ends in Montana at Little Bighorn. But in the context of his story, and examined in Connell’s book, is the role of the country’s most populated mammal at the time: the buffalo.
The human inhabitants had vastly differing opinions on the buffalo, both revered and reviled, but Connell wisely avoids a scurrilous debate. Instead, he gives a fascinating glimpse, based on good research and eyewitness accounts, on what it was like to see the massive herds up close and why they were ultimately decimated. The reasons were just as divided as cultures.
At first the descriptions were formidable. “Far and near the prairie was alive with Buffalo,” Francis Parkman, a writer, recalled after seeing the herds in 1846, “….the memory of which can quicken the pulse and stir the blood.”
Indeed Parkman was right about the prairie being “alive” with buffalo, but unfortunately there is no exact number of how many were in existence before the Calvary arrived. That’s because there was no way to survey the population at the time. Connell doesn’t speculate either, but based on recollections like Parkman’s, others have estimated from 30 million to perhaps as much as 75 million buffalo may have roamed the plains at some point, maybe even more.
“Like black spots dotting the distant swell,” Parkman continued, “now trampling by in ponderous columns filing in long lines, morning, noon, and night, to drink at the river – wading, plunging, and snorting in the water – climbing the muddy shores and staring with wild eyes at the passing canoes.”
The description of herd sizes is nearly incomprehensible. Col. Richard Irving Dodge reported that during a spring migration, buffalo would move north in a single column perhaps fifty miles wide. Dodge claims he was forced to climb Pawnee Rock (Kansas) to escape the migrating animals. When he looked across, the prairie was “covered with buffalo for ten miles in each direction.”
In 1806, Lewis and Clark, one of the earliest explorers to encounter the massive herds gave an ominous warning. “The moving multitude darkened the whole plains,” Clark relayed.
The sound of the migrating herd was just as impressive as the numbers. The bulky animals each weighed close to a ton each, so when they all galloped, the ground shook. “They made a roar like thunder,” wrote a first settler along the Arkansas River.
The large groupings, however, made it easier to strike them down. And when the killing started, it didn’t stop. In 1874, when Dodge returned to the prairie, he saw more hunters than buffalo. “Every approach of the herd to water was met with gunfire,” he recalled
Killing buffalo became a sport, even for foreigners. Connell reports that The London Times ran ad for a trip to Fort Collins and a chance to kill a buffalo for 50 guineas. Many gleefully went for the adventure, not the challenge. As Connell explains, English lords and ladies came to sit in covered wagons or railway carriages and fire at will. You couldn’t miss.
“Enterprising Yankees turned a profit collecting bones,” Connell wrote, explaining that it was the hide and bones and not the meat they were interested in. “Porous bones were shipped east to be ground as fertilizer; solid bones could be whittled into decorative trinkets – buttons, letter openers, pendants.”
Many settlers not knowing what else to do with a wayward buffalo grazing on their land, just shot it and left it for the wolves to feed. “The high plains stank with rotten meat” Dodge wrote.
“In just three years after the gun-toting Yankees arrived,” Connell soberly relates, “eight million buffalo were shot.”
By the beginning of the 20th century, they were nearly all gone.
The Native Americans killed buffalo too, but it was for survival, not sport. Nearly every part of the animal was used for food, medicine, clothing or tools. Even the tail made a good fly swatter. According to the Indians, the buffalo was the wisest and most powerful creature, in the physical sense, to walk the earth. Yet the Indians still played a part in the animal’s near extinction. Large fires were set by tribes in part to fell cottonwood trees and feed the bark to their horses. The massive infernos, some set one hundred miles wide, were necessary to clear land for new grass. Although no one is quite sure, thousands of buffalo and other animals surely perished in the process.
In contrast, Connell includes claims by early pioneers that the Indians were just as wasteful as the “white man” in killing the buffalo, leaving the dead carcasses where they lay, and extracting only the tongues to exchange for whiskey. These reports contradict that of agents stationed at reservations after government agreements were reached. James McLaughlin who was at Standing Rock in South Dakota helped organize mass buffalo killings, but only to stave off starvation, he claims.
Regardless, the difference in attitudes is what may have inflamed tensions between the “palefaces” and the natives.
Dodge claims the buffalo were shot because they were “the dullest creature of which I have any knowledge.” Dull meaning stupid in this sense. They would not run, Dodge purports. “Many would graze complacently while the rest of the herd was gunned down.” Dodge says his men would have to shout and wave their hats to drive the rest of the herd off.
So according to Dodge – and Connell’s book supports this – the buffalo were removed for meager profits and to get them out of the way of railways and advancing troops. This incensed the Indians, especially the Lakota, who in spite of their reliance on the buffalo, had more respect for the embattled “tatanka,” in a spiritual sense.
After all, in comparisons, they named their revered leaders and holy men after the beasts.
Custer knew one.
His name was Sitting Bull.
George Perec: The Author Who Left Out The Letter ‘E’
By Ken Zurski
Beginning with the first line of the first chapter, “Incurably insomniac Anton Vowl turns on a light,” and in every sentence thereafter, nearly 300 pages in all, there are no words with the letter “e” in the French novel, A Void.
Not just words that start with the letter “e,” mind you, but any word with the letter “e” in it.
Therefore, while words with an “e” are consciously left out, in the context of the text, they don’t actually exist.
…A rumour, that’s my initial thought as I switch off my radio, a rumour or possibly a hoax.
Propaganda, I murmur anxiously—as though, just by saying so, I might allay my doubts—typical politicians’ propaganda. But public opinion gradually absorbs it as a fact.
A Void was the brainchild of author George Perec, who wrote La disparition (disappearance) in 1969, and was later translated to English in 1994.
Why a writer would take on such an unusual challenge defies explanation. A good author should add to his repertoire of tools, not subtract them, right? So leaving out a vowel, especially the most popular one, just doesn’t make any sense.
To clarify, according to the book “From Cryptographical Mathematics,” the letter “e” is the most commonly used letter in the English language and nearly 13-percent of all words contain it, at least once.
For example, the first sentence of this very article has nearly 40 words in it; sixteen words containing at least one “e,” for a total of 22. So excluding it, even in French, which uses the same English letters, seemed to be an insurmountable task. (The French or Latin alphabet is similar to English and vowels are the same, expect written with accents like ê. So the prose is somewhat disjointed, especially in translation.)
But this is exactly the kind of discourse Perec reveled in.
Perec was born to Polish Jew immigrants, both victims of the war– his father died a soldier and his mother likely perished at Auschwitz. He started writing at the University of Paris and joined a fringe literary group named Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle or “Oulipo,” for short.
The name means “literature potential,” but certainly not potential in the practical sense. “[We] seek new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy,” the group described. To achieve this, constraints (in writing) were encouraged, which was far more challenging. The group also included mathematicians since problem-solving was part of the writer’s methodology and often involved works that delved in complicated mathematical patterns. Suddenly Perec had a mission, as did the group, to experiment and twist the conventional rules of fiction.
A Void, therefore, is a lipogram, meaning a single letter is left out.
The protagonist of Perec’s story is a detective named Anton Vowl (Voyl in French) who must confront a missing void, possibly his own, in a world of impending doom. “I must admit right away that its origin was totally haphazard,” Perec writes in the book’s postscript, perhaps tongue in cheek. “I had no inkling at all, as an acorn contains an oak, that anything would come out of it.”
Some literary critics, however, have established a deeper implication. After all, Perec was a Holocaust orphan. Perhaps the loss of his mêre (mother), pêre (father) and familie, one modern day writer surmised, are words he cannot repeat. All have the letter “e” in them. The missing “e,” therefore, is his personal void.
“The absence of a sign is always the sign of an absence, and the absence of the E in A Void announces a broader, cannily coded discourse on loss, catastrophe, and mourning,” author Warren Motte speculates in an article about Perec written in 2104.
Perec’s later work would be equally complicated and puzzling. He even wrote a novel where ê was the only vowel used.
Many feel his greatest literary contribution is a 700-page book titled Life a User’s Manual, another exercise of intricacies. “The sequence of chapters in the novel is determined by a figure from chess known as the “Knight’s Tour,” in which a knight visits every square of the chessboard once and only once,” Motte writes.
And If that wasn’t interesting enough, there is the constraint: ‘Perec used an algorithm, “orthogonal Latin bi-square order 10,’ to elaborate pre-established lists of the 42 different elements (objects, characters, situations, literary allusions and quotations, and so forth), that would figure in each of the ninety-nine chapters of Life.”
In 1982, at the age of 45, Perec, a chain smoker, died of lung cancer.
Even sick, Perec continued to work at a feverish pace. “There was not a day gone by that he didn’t write,” a friend ascribed. Shortly before his death, Perec sent a letter to his publisher. It was reported to be a list of works he wanted to complete.
Sadly, we will never know what else he had in mind.
Baseball’s ‘Eating Champion’ Story is a Little Hard to Swallow, But…
Frank “Ping” Bodie, an Italian-American major league baseball player, once said that he could out eat anyone especially when it came to his favorite dish, pasta. So on April 3 1919, in Florida during a spring training break, Bodie and an ostrich (yes, an ostrich) went head-to-head in an all out, no holds barred, eating contest.
Or did they? That’s left for history to decide.
But it makes for a great story.
As a ballplayer and an outfielder, Bodie was a serviceable player, but a bit of an instigator. He was always up for a good argument and couldn’t help talking up his own merits. ”I could whale the old apple and smack the old onion,” he said about his batting prowess. While playing for a lowly Philadelphia A’s ball club, Bodie claimed there were only two things in the city worth seeing, himself, of course, and the Liberty Bell.
I can “hemstitch the spheroid,” he boasted, apparently talking about the ball.
Despite being a a bit of a braggart, the player’s loved Bodie’s positive attitude. But his expressive candor clashed with managers and he was traded to several teams before ending up with the New York Yankees where his road mate was the irrepressible Babe Ruth. When a reporter asked Bodie what it was like to room with baseball’s larger-than-life boozer, Bodie had the perfect answer. “I room with his suitcase,” he said.
Bodie was born Francesco Stephano (anglicized to Frank Stephen) Pezzello, but most people knew him by his more baseball player sounding nickname, Ping. He claimed “Ping” was from a cousin although many wished to believe it was after the sound of the ball hitting his bat. Bodie was the name of a bustling California silver mining town that his father and uncle lived for a time.
Bodie’s reputation as a big-time eater preceded him.
While in Jacksonville, Florida for spring training, the co-owner of the Yankees, Col T.L “Cap” Huston, heard about an ostrich at the local zoo named Percy who had an insatiable appetite. Huston told Bodie and the challenge was on. Whether it actually happened as reported however is up for debate. The accounts are so wildly embellished that the truth is muddled.
But who was questioning?
Fearing backlash from animal lovers (even those who loved ostrich’s, it seemed), the match was held at a secret location. Bodie reportedly won the contest, but only after Percy, who barely finished an eleventh plate, staggered off and died. Ostrich’s eat a lot, but Percy’s untimely demise was attributed to inadvertently swallowing the timekeeper’s watch. He expired with “sides swelled and bloodshot eyes.” one writer related.
For anyone who believed it that, the rest of the story was easy to digest. Bodie finished a twelfth plate of pasta and claimed the self-appointed title of “spaghetti eating champion of the world.”.
The next day, Bodie was in the newspaper for serving up a double play ball in the eighth inning and helping rival Brooklyn Dodgers secure a “slaughter” of the Yankees, 11-2.
There was no mention of the dead bird.
A Thomas Edison Protégé Might Be The Unsung Pioneer of Moving Pictures
By Ken Zurski
In 1879, at the age of 19, William Kennedy Dickson found himself in a burgeoning America with the promise of a good future for an aspiring entrepreneur who had just finished his education at England’s prestigious Cambridge University.
Dickson, who had a background in electrical invention, immediately sought work with an American scientist who was hiring a team of minds to do experiments on electricity at his lab in Menlo Park, California.
Go see Edison, Dickson was told.
So he did.
Just being a fine chemist and intellectual wasn’t enough for the demanding Edison. He fired several qualified men because they “didn’t get results.” But Edison liked Dickson right away and put him in charge of his metallurgy laboratory.
Dickson also had a knack for photography, and Edison needed someone to document his work in pictures. So in addition to his experiments in the lab, Dickson became a creative force behind the camera too. A mission that would eventually lead him to head Edison’s efforts in finding a way to make pictures move.
But the phonograph came first. With it, Edison had a business and a product to sell. Entertainment, however, was not Edison’s strong suit. Most of his products were focused on labor and used primarily for industry, like the diction phonograph. But leisure time was becoming important to Americans, and Edison saw a need to transition from production tools to consumer goods. The wax recording was a good example.
Alexander Graham Bell’s team came up with the original idea for the Graphophone, based on Edison’s previous phonograph design. It used wax over the cylinder and listening tubes for hearing. Bell’s group approached Edison for a partnership, but Edison refused. Instead he took their idea and perfected it, making a better and cleaner sounding phonograph, using the wax technology.
Before the turn of the century, the phonograph would be mass produced along with similar machines, including Bell’s. But even before the playback machines were ready for the market, Edison was sensing another profitable venture in the entertainment industry.
In 1888, he drew a sketch of a device he called the Kinetoscope, “an instrument which does for the eye, what the phonograph does for the ear.” This machine, he said, would “reproduce things in motion.” But added, “be cheap, practical and convenient.”
The man Edison chose to command this new venture was his chemist and photographer William Dickson.
It didn’t take long for Dickson and the team to come up with something functional. Applying the phonograph’s cylinder design and photographic celluloid Dickson was already using in his picture-making, within five months, a prototype emerged which showed considerable promise. Edison and Dickson tinkered with technology already established, like the telegraph, and applied it to their experiments. Dickson also used a Tachhyscope for inspiration. It used a series of pictures rotated and illuminated by a light and projected on a screen. Dickson hooked it up to the phonograph and produced what is in essence the first talking picture. He showed it to Edison. In the film, Dickson raises his hat and says “Good morning Mr. Edison, glad to see you back. I hope you are satisfied with the Kinetograph.” Dickson then counts to ten on his fingers; the sound perfectly synced to the image.
Edison was impressed, but didn’t like the idea of a picture projected on the wall. He thought it was impractical. Further experiments, he directed, should be on movies for coin-slots, similar to the phonograph. Dickson clearly disappointed by Edison’s reaction, kept the projection idea in mind while setting his team to work on the next design: a box with a viewing slot.
By 1897, the phonograph business was booming and everyone wanted in. Columbia gained control of American Gramophone and promptly sued Edison for patent rights. The suit was dropped after Columbia discovered their machines also relied on Edison’s earlier technology. A bidding war began over pricing. Most phonograph models were around $30, but Edison built a cheaper model called the “Gem” for only ten bucks. Kinetoscopes were selling too, but it was a much different process. Edison could see the technology side of both of his entertainment machines, but not the art. He left that up to others, like Dickson, who made the films. Staged scenes of prize fights and vaudeville performers were the most popular.
Things were changing for Dickson, however. He grew tired of making the same movies and sought work elsewhere. He left Edison in 1895 and joined Woodville Latham owner of the Kinetoscope Exhibition Company who was already experimenting with light-focused over-sized images projected on a screen.
Dickson soon found out he wasn’t the only one interested in the projection idea. Many others had researched it over the years, including Eadweard Muybridge, who projected drawings of animals in motion. At one point, Muybridge brought his Zoopraxiscope to Edison hoping to solve the problem of putting actual photographs on the cylinder, like the phonograph did with sound. Edison was interested only in the prospect of the invention, not the actual product. Again Edison thought he could improve on an original design. The problem was projection, something Edison had little interest in at the time.
But thanks to Muybridge and Dickson, the projection idea did not fade away. In fact it flourished under those who believed it was the future of moving pictures. By the time a projection system was ready for public use, Dickson’s new employer Latham had been been bought out by another company headed by C. Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat. Both inventors and investors, Jenkins and Armat needed someone who could produce the machines and supply films. They asked Edison to join in. The projector, called the Vitascope would soon be changed to the Projectoscope, Edison’s improved design. When the first motion picture was shown to a New York theater audience in 1896, Edison would get credit for it. Dickson and other early pioneers of the projection system were left in the dark. Especially Dickson ,who would remain mostly anonymous.
But that would change.
Perhaps slighted by Edison’s unwillingness to share public credit with him, Dickson wrote a book titled “History of the Kinetoscope, Kinethograph, Kinetoscope & Kinetophonograph.” In it, Dickson gives himself credit for the work in Edison’s lab and claims “co-patentee” honors with Edison on the Kinetoscope design. Edsion objected, especially the part about Dickson being the co-inventor. “Mr. Dickson will get full credit for the work he has done without trying to ram it down people’s throats,” Edison angrily rebutted.
Through the years, historians have debated Dickson’s role in moving pictures. Some claim Dickson was a product of Edison’s meticulously controlled experiments and first rate facilities. Anyone with Dickson’s background would have made the best of it, they argue. Others believe Edison was ruthless and loved fame more than acknowledgment. He absolutely refused to share success with others.
Regardless of the discourse, Dickson eventually returned to London where he died in 1935 at the age of 75.
But all is not lost.
Today, Dickson is known exclusively for inventing one machine called the Mutoscope.
Slighted by Edison on the projection design, and receiving no attribution for his role in creating it, Dickson made another variation of the Kinetoscope using a simple “flip-book” design run by a crank rather than electricity. The Mutoscope soon found an appreciative audience. It began to appear in amusement parlors in the U.S. and pleasure piers throughout Europe. It served mostly one purpose: satisfying men’s desires to view busty ladies in various stages of undress.
“What the Butler Saw” is what they called the Mutoscope in England.
In America, it became more widely known as a “peep show.”
Dickson gets credit for that.
(A good portion of the retelling of this story comes from Edison: A life of Invention by Paul Israel).
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