The 12-year-old boy was understandably shy. Recently moved from a quiet farm to Rockford, Ill. (pop. 7,000), he was frightened by the bustle of this teeming metropolis. As he later recalled, he "was almost afraid to go out of doors, lest I should meet and be spoken to by someone not a member of my family." Aching to join the other boys in the comparatively new game of base ball, he used to watch from a spot beyond centerfield. One day, an act of "special Providence" changed his life. A ball was hit mightily in his direction; it "came for me straight as an arrow. Impulsively I sprang to my feet, reached out for it with my right hand, held it a moment and then threw it home on an air line to the catcher." After that, he was chosen among the first to play every day. That was in 1862, and Albert Goodwill Spalding never relinquished his devotion to the game through a career of unceasing success as player, manager, owner, league official, worldwide ambassador and—not least—purveyor of baseball and other sporting goods for large profits. The firm he founded with $800 in 1876 still bears his name, and generations of Americans have referred to the small, pink rubber ball of their childhood games as a Spaldeen.
Peter Levine, professor of history at Michigan State University, has rectified the relative neglect with which Spalding's achievements have been treated. And because of Levine's expertise and special interest, his book is far more than an ordinary biography. A.G. Spalding and the Rise of Baseball: The Promise of American Sport ( Oxford University Press, $16.95) offers a wise and perceptive look at the America in which Spalding and his game flourished, and it elucidates why baseball became truly the national pastime. It is one more piece of evidence of the fresh appreciation by historians and social scientists of sport's role in society, and it is one of the best. The book bulges with nuggets of baseball lore that will fascinate the pure fan, for Levine has apparently read everything written on the subject; and as he reads, the pure fan will serendipitously acquire insight into one of the most significant eras in American history. In the late 19th century and the early 20th, the U.S. was transformed from a largely rural society into a highly industrialized one. Spalding was among the first to see how this transformation could benefit the sport he loved, and how baseball could contribute to his country's transformation. And like many a so-called robber baron of that time, he never overlooked how he could benefit from it personally.
Spalding was already so good a pitcher as a teenager that the businessmen of Rockford who owned the local team persuaded the high school principal to excuse Spalding from classes on game days. This may be the earliest case of business boosterism vs. education in American sport, and the lesson it implied about the value of sporting success in other areas was not lost on young A.G.
As a professional he became baseball's first recorded 200-game winner at a time when teams officially carried only one pitcher on their roster and he was expected to pitch nine innings every game. With the Boston Red Stockings of the National Association from 1871 to '75, his record was 20-10, 37-8, 41-15, 52-18, 57-5. The following year, his last as a full-time pitcher, he won 47 and lost 13 for the Chicago White Stockings. Newspaper accounts of the time praised his "rapid" delivery, "frequent change of pace" and "cool" manner.
Spalding began moving toward the managerial and business side of the sport when he left the Red Stockings for Chicago. He was soon running the White Stockings and was their principal stockholder in the years he established them as the most successful franchise in the sport.
And somehow he found the time to promote the $800 investment in a sporting goods store into a nationwide enterprise capitalized at $4 million only 16 years later—in 1892 dollars. Levine also records Spalding's failings conscientiously—including his easy acceptance of the exclusion of black players from baseball. Spalding, says Levine, "was not a professional reformer, social critic or moralist...he was above all a flamboyant entrepreneur...who recognized that it was good business to promote sport in terms of its social promise...[but] his approach to the game set the tone for the development of professional sport in the twentieth century."