The late sports historian Harold Seymour - who was a batboy for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the early 1920s - coined the term “House of Baseball” to describe the multiple levels of the sport. Professional baseball occupied the top floor, with minor league and semipro ball hovering just underneath. (Color Blind is about the oddball world of semipro baseball during the Depression). All kinds of school, club, town and industrial activity took place down below.
Some surprisingly high quality baseball used to be played on the lower floors of that house. Consider the 1913 team photo of United Gas Improvement, a company team from Philadelphia. They not only looked like serious ballplayers (can’t find a beer belly in the bunch), they played that way. That team photo likely was taken August 2, 1913; the same day a game photo was snapped at Ebbetts Field, storied home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. According to Pipeline & Gas Journal - never a publication to be trifled with as far as its sports coverage goes - some 4,000 people came to the park that day to watch United Gas Improvement battle mighty Brooklyn Union Gas Company. The visitors rolled to a 9-3 win.
One of the most unexpected occupants of the House of Baseball was John Philip Sousa, legendary director of the Marine Corps Band. “The March King” formed his own Sousa Band after retiring from the military in 1892. They reportedly scheduled more than 15,000 concerts and logged more than a million road miles during a 40-year performance run. The band had its own ball team. During almost every tour stop they’d rustle up a game with a local team or another band. On July 4, 1900 the Sousa Band participated in the first baseball game ever played in Paris.
In fact, the Sousa Band played so much baseball that for awhile they had two teams: one for the brass section and one for the woodwinds. A former trombonist with the band wrote an instrumental called “Three Strike Two-Step” in 1902 and dedicated it to the Sousa baseball team. A team photo appeared on the cover of the sheet music. John Philip himself, in uniform and sporting a scruffy bead, sits stone-faced in the middle of the front row.
Sousa was a rabid fan. In 1909 he penned an article for Baseball Magazine titled “The Greatest Game in the World” and in 1925 wrote “The National Game” march at the request of Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. As director of the band, Sousa had the luxury of playing any position he wanted. Befitting a maestro, he wanted to pitch - and did so regularly until age 50. In his book The Incredible Band of John Philip Sousa, author Paul E. Bierley notes that the musicians “never saw him laugh as hard as the day tuba player Jack Richardson split the seat of his trousers while fielding a ball at first base.” Good thing Richardson didn’t fart at the same time. Coach Sousa might not have been able to handle it.
His last appearance on the mound came in a charity game in 1916. He was then 60 years old. The Sousa Band got shelled 29-15 by Pryor’s Band. If Sousa ever was going to write “The Over the Hill March”, that would have been the day. He apparently chose to go have a beer instead.
I agree with Mr. Sousa that baseball is “the greatest game”. Interestingly, he may had a better feel for baseball than he did for music. Here’s what Sousa had to say about the invention of the phonograph: “These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country.”
Think that comment sounds way off base? Listen to Sousa’s opinion of jazz. “Tonal hooch,” he groused, “the substitute for real music, beloved of apes, morons, half-wits, cake-eaters, professional pacifists, gold-diggers and other loiterers along the highway of life.”
Click this link to hear a snippet of Sousa’s “The National Game” and 19 other of his marches: Sousa
PLEASE NOTE: Sousa marches are NOT recommended if you’re making a mix tape for your next house party.
[all photos courtesy of the Library of Congress]