Friday, June 24, 2011

Hey, Louie, What Are You? ~ The Evolution of Baseball and An Unidentified Fossil

Any murky history that challenges precise deciphering frustrates us, defying our instinct to identify, define, and categorize.  We want to pinpoint origin.  If we cannot, we make it up.

The big green furry mascot named Louie with the bulbous nose, backward ball cap, and pink top knot joined in the “sumo wrestling” contest between two young women in costumes that rendered them barely able to keep their balance.  From behind me came the most memorable line of the evening, delivered in jest, “Hey, Louie, what are you?”

A cool late spring evening in a small stadium with a startlingly green field spread out like an open fan, a game between the home team Bowie Baysox and visiting Reading Phillies, Double A baseball, the minor leagues.  There and then, with the field before me, I willingly placed heart over mind and embraced the illusion of baseball as a game rooted in timeless, bucolic, American fun and innocence.  Illusion.

The roots of the game of baseball are an enormous tangle where nothing is as it seems.  Of baseball, I ask the question, more seriously than my friend in the ballpark, “Hey, Louie, what are you?”

Forget Abner Doubleday, forget Cooperstown – all of that is a manufactured myth, pure fabrication, part of a late 19th century and early 20th century effort to claim the game for the United States and deny any ties to any earlier games from England.  Baseball historian John Thorn recently asserted in Baseball in the Garden of Eden:  The Secret History of the Early Game (2011),
[I]n no field of American endeavor is invention more rampant than in baseball, whose whole history is a lie from beginning to end, from its creation myth to its rosy models of commerce, community, and fair play.  The game’s epic feats and revered figures, its pieties about racial harmony and bleacher democracy, its artful blurring of sport and business – all of it is bunk, tossed up with a wink and a nudge.  Yet we love both the game and the flimflam because they are both so . . . American.  Baseball has been blessed in equal measure by Lincoln and by Barnum.  (p. ix)
(Thorn has done grand research; I just wish the book offered more moments of concise statement and summary amid the stream of quotations from old and often obscure resources.)

Despite that entrenched lie about the game’s origins, to any dispassionate observer, the myriad versions of games involving sticks, balls, and bases (or just balls and bases) that Americans, often children, played from the early colonial period through the first third of the 19th century bear family resemblance in key ways to the game that we now know as baseball.  There is a continuum stretching back through much of the history of the country and on to England.  The 1840s New York codified version of the game has survived; the old games of town ball, round ball, four old cat (and its variants played with fewer combatants), and the English game of rounders, all of which contributed to baseball, mostly went extinct.

An evolutionary continuum, even with its moments of significant change, doesn’t offer “heroes and sacred places.”  Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, pondering the attraction of baseball creation myths for Americans despite the more wonderful and thought-provoking historical truth, likened it to the place of evolution in the popular culture.
Scientists often lament that so few people understand Darwin and the principles of biological evolution.  But the problem goes deeper.  Too few people are comfortable with evolutionary modes of explanation in any form.  I do not know why we tend to think so fuzzily in this area, but one reason must reside in our social and psychic attraction to creation myths in preference to evolutionary stories – for creation myths, . . . , identify heroes and sacred places, while evolutionary stories provide no palpable, particular object as a symbol for reverence, worship, or patriotism.  (The Creation Myths of Cooperstown, in Bully for Brontosaurus:  Reflections in Natural History, 1991, p. 57)
In linking evolution and baseball through the creation stories, Gould was not stretching the point.  A remarkable piece of evidence (not cited by Gould) comes from the 1886 newspaper article on the game’s origins by Will Rankin who, according to Andrew J. Schiff, was one of early baseball’s best journalists (The Father of Baseball:  A Biography of Henry Chadwick, 2008, p. 192).  Rankin entering into the simmering debate over baseball’s English versus American origins explicitly rejected evolution in favor of creationism.   In his widely printed piece, Rankin opined that the game emerged whole cloth (presumably from some creator’s mind).  “The game of baseball seems to have sprung up, just as any game has.”  Indeed, he observed,
It can no more be claimed that the game of baseball had its origins in rounders or town-ball than billiards were the issue of pool, or the latter came from bagatelle.  It is like Mr. Darwin’s theory of the origin of man – it lacks the necessary connecting links to carry out the idea.  (As quoted in David Block’s Baseball Before We Knew It:  A Search for the Roots of the Game, 2006, p. 4-5)
Perhaps it’s partly because a creation story is easier to birth and control.

Speaking of origins, several months ago, I found this fossil camouflaged among the pebbles gathered by a stream that cut through an upper Cretaceous formation.

Fragment of a fossil tooth, of that I have little doubt.  Given what is usually found here, a marine creature most likely.  But, from what animal?  I considered that question on my own for some time, then turned to the printed page and the web, and began to show it to folks, including a practicing paleontologist or two.

I’m still uncertain as to the animal of origin, though the most frequent response has been that it is likely from a Mosasaur, a large marine lizard, one of the grand predators of the late Cretaceous waters.  A denizen among the large beasts of the period – up to 33 feet or 10 meters from nose to tip of tail.

The history of any single fossil is a complex mesh of events and forces.  For some fossils, identifying the original animal from the end product, much less untangling the taphonomic and post-taphonomic knots, may be beyond our capacity.  (I’ve posted on taphonomy previously.)  At some point, a fossil has suffered enough abuse from exposure to the elements that it loses most traces of its genus- or species-specific identity.  Distinguishable from a rock, but perhaps just barely.

I wont make up this fossil's origin story.  Sometimes when I notice it on my desk in its small display case, I ask, with genuine interest, “Hey, Louie, what are you?”

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