Monday, May 11, 2009

Fist-Pumping and Gentlemanly Etiquette

The baseball world was abuzz last weekend about a crucial baseball issue-- not the banned-substance-related suspension of one of baseball's best hitters, not the concern over the financial crisis and its effects on small-market teams, but of course the vile and corrupt act of fist-pumping celebrations by relief pitchers.

Sunday afternoon, Oriole Aubrey Huff uncorked a three-run shot to right field in Camden Yards off of notorious fist-pumper Joba Chamberlain, then reacted with an over-the-top Tiger Woods-style display at both first place and home plate. Obviously, such an egregious affront to the decency of the game could not go unreported;, in fact, devoted an entire article to the affair. The whole thing falls within the confines of showing up a hitter and the unwritten rules of baseball that grizzled baseball lifers with the creased leathery skin that comes from a lifetime exposure to sun, tobacco juice, and amphetamines dictate that pitchers should retaliate the next the batter comes up by hitting him in the ribs with a fastball to show him what it's like.

Chamberlain's antics naturally led to
retaliation by Orioles attempting to
close the AL East fists gap

Of course, Joba Chamberlain is not the only pitcher who tends to over-do mound celebrations to the consternation of people who demand that baseball players adopt the stoicism of terra-cotta warriors or R&B bass players. Francisco Rodriguez is probably the pitching world's most notorious celebrator, for example, honking off the As by garishly "double-pumping his arms toward the ground and then thrusting them toward the sky" last year and prompting a column from ESPN's Bob Klapisch about the degree to which K-Rod's sky-pointing will effect the Mets and, one presumes, the whole of Western civilization. K-Rod, of course, has joined the National League's elite fist-pumpers, none more ridiculous than Astros closer Jose Valverde, whose bug-eyed screaming and gesticulations give him the appearance of a paunchy, jheri-curled hungry hungry hippo.

Jose Valverde's accidental ingestion of muppet hormones requires him
to keep his mouth open during all forms of locomotion

Rodriguez's celebration falls into a different genus. His sky-pointing histrionics more closely resemble an eighteenth century tent-revival patron writhing in the unexpected convulsions of divine inspiration.

George Whitefield, the eighteenth century's greatest cross-eyed Methodist, is
depicted almost exclusively in the midst of a raised arm exhortation, occasionally
switching it to mesmerize a crowd with a Lon Chaney impression

Of course, all of this talk about the unwritten rules of baseball naturally leads to a question of the written rules of baseball. And according to Henry Chadwick's Haney's Base Ball Book, published in 1867, players should exercise a gentlemanly and sporting ethic in regards to their baseballmanship:

The principal rule of action of our model base ball player is, to comport himself like a gentleman on all occasions, but especially on match days, and in doing so he abstains from profanity and its twin and vile brother obscenity, leaving these vices to be alone cultivated by graduates of our penitentiaries.
Of course, by 1886, Mike "King" Kelly had moved to Boston as a result of clashes with Albert Spaulding, the teetolating owner of the Chicago White Stockings who had enough of Kelly's Palmer House boozing. This move allowed him to comport himself like an eccentric minor European aristocrat that had come out on the wrong end of an incestuous marriage designed to secure the baroncy of a backwater Holy Roman imperial province or suffered from a tragic falconry accident. According to his Wikipedia page, "he was rarely seen without his pet monkey on his shoulder and his Japanese valet at his side and he opened a saloon with some drinking buddies. When Cap Anson was quoted in the papers that he preferred his new young team to the old veterans Chicago had sold, Kelly got his theater friends to make up the entire Boston team as old men for a game against the White Stockings."

King Kelly served as inspiration
for Thayer's
Casey at the Bat, and
gave readings changing it to "Kelly
at the Bar" where we can imagine
him restraining patrons from
killing the barkeep, attempting to
get his inebriated buddies home, and
ending with mighty Kelly passing
out and waking up in the back of
Mudville's horse-drawn paddy-wagon.


The fact of the matter is that golden-age chivalry never existed in baseball or any other sport, and getting upset over enthusiastic fist-pumping should be the least of the worries of today's multi-millionaire big-leaguers. In the late nineteenth century, British soccer players, for example, had to deal with the indignity of playing a rougher version of the beautiful game without recompense from injury from a wayward cleat or elbow or back alley pugilist gang upset about the effect of last week's game on their legitimate book-making operation along with dealing with Preston North End's Nick Ross, who, as historian Keith Hoppen describes, was "famed for his discoloured teeth-- 'almost green near the gums'-- through which he unnervingly hissed as he played."

In fact, much as baseball transitioned from the healthful sporting jaunt that Chadwick describes to a professional outfit where the Chicago Cubs temporarily stood a chance of winning championships, British professional sports made similar transitions. At this time, these leagues both in the U.S. and Britain were essentially inventing the concept of modern professional sports. In Pay up and play the game: professional sports in Britain 1875-1914, Wray Vamplew describes how British sports transitioned into professional leagues by piggy-backing more traditional pastimes of drinking and gambling. Professional sports in Britain, of course, had an added layer of social complexity because of the difference between amateur sporting pursuits of gentlemen who trained by thrashing their footmen and invading Southeast Asia versus the working class professionals. Cricket got through these concerns by essentially finding crooked ways to pay so-called amateurs, such as all-time great W.G. Grace, who Vamplew calls the "greatest shamateur of all" for pocketing thousands for playing in cricket matches, far beyond his expenses and the locum for his medical practice.

Nick Ross, left, disguising his rotten, malodorous gums before
unleashing them upon the unwitting opposition. W.G. Grace used his
questionably-attained cricket gains in order to bolster his beard

Professionalization in Britain did lead to a curb in some excesses in the almost heroically dirty game of horse-racing. As Vamplew points out, according to Alfred Watson, by the 1890s the press and Jockey Club had gotten racing to the point where "a few rogues are still to the fore, sometimes in prominent places, and not a few others have elastic consciences, together with excessively liberal ideas about what is permissible, but I do believe there is far less rascality on the turf than there used to be."


Another factor in the rise of sports spectatorship was the simultaneous rise of the unruly mob, frustrated by a team's inadequate play or incompetent officiating. If Casey at the Bat truly represented the times, there is a decent chance that the crowd would have taken to the streets of Mudville, throwing up the barricades, looting the tanneries, starting fights by threateningly circling their fists around their faces, and senselessly punching horses. In Britain at the time, sporting events turned to riots fairly quickly, occasionally escalating out of control. Vamplew describes a tied match between Celtic and Rangers in 1909 that did not go into extra time:

Rioters tore out the goalposts, ripped up the nets, and smashed down fencing. Bonfires were made out of the broken barricading, and the uprooted goalposts were used as battering rams against the turnstiles and payboxes, which were also then set on fire. The arrival of the fire brigade signalled further trouble and the firemen were attacked and their hoses slashed.

Poorly struck, sir, says a displeased crowd

Of course, the nineteenth century was a perfect century for those who enjoy an unruly mob. For example, in Norman McCord's classic account of the Anti-Corn Law League, he describes one unfortunate anti-corn law agitator who was welcomed in Suffolk by being soaked with a fire hose, drowned out by a brass band as he attempted to give his speech, suffering an overthrown speaking platform, and getting tossed over an inn banister. Another anti-corn law leaguer reported that a spokesman had his speech interrupted by "a gang of unfledged ruffians in caps and gowns who, after exhausting their obscene and blasphemous vocabulary, exhibited themselves in the characteristics of prize fighters with the rest of the audience."

Donald Richter published a book entitled Riotous Victorians mainly to chronicle the violent public social unrest of the nineteenth century. One particularly violent outburst involved the followers of an Ulster lecturer named William Murphy whose bombastic anti-Catholicism drew continuing attacks from Irish Catholics in Britain who were somehow incensed by his claims that "your wives and daughters are exposed to debauch in the confessional, and are betrayed and kidnapped into convent prisons, and there keep the dupes or slaves of priestly lust." On one occasion, his followers managed to prevail in a riot, and Richter notes that "the Irish had been driven away and the orangemen greeted their man with wild cheers, three groans for popery, and the national anthem." Murphy himself did not escape a different riot that he had provoked in 1871, and died from those wounds.


Modern baseball largely enjoys docile crowds unlikely to purchase souvenir torches or pitchforks. One can imagine the 2002 All-Star game being played in 1902 resulting in at least one racing sausage fatality while Bud Selig held off crowds with his small gang of toughs and an umbrella. Nevertheless, crowds are fickle and no one can be sure what can provoke them to violence.

Baseball watchdogs keep a lookout for instigators of baseball-related crowd

With all of the problems of low pay, potential riots, and intimidation via poor dental hygiene largely dispatched from baseball, players should be able to absorb a fist-pump or two without feeling the need to go headhunting. And if they cannot, they should be exposed to the three Ms of the nineteenth century spirit of the game: monkeys, moustaches, and moonshine.

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