Can we even run this? 1898 Obscene Language Baseball Document – Not For Kids!

Published by Robert Lifson on Tagged General

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Items of historical significance can take many forms. We have always gone out of our way to stay away from items that we think are in poor taste or off-color. We also try our best to seize opportunities to document the history of the game and its relationship to American culture. 

Which brings us to a recent dilemma encountered by our office this past week.

We were minding our own business, writing up lots, when a delivery arrived with a few odds and ends from the estate of baseball historian Al Kermisch. Almost all of his collection of circa 1900 era Baltimore baseball related memorabilia had already been sold in the May 2007 REA auction. A few additional interesting odds and ends were found for us to look at for potential auction. Among the items was the 1898 document pictured above, entitled “Special Instructions To Players,” regarding the use of obscene language by players at the ballpark, to intimidate umpires and opposing players, and to verbally battle with unfriendly fans.

Reading this document started out very drab for a sentence or two, but then quickly got our attention as the language used became very unexpected for an official Major League baseball document, let alone one devoted to demanding players not use “any indecent or obscene word, sentence, or expression.” It turned “blue,” and, well, got “bluer.” This piece is ironic as it provides many examples of exactly the kind of “brutal language” that was being outlawed. In fact, it is so over the top that at first we thought it was some type of a joke. But as we examined the paper, found that this language did exist in the 1890s, considered that general rowdiness and the use of obscene language by players were big issues in baseball in this era, and noted that the accompanying items were all from the same era, we soon realized that that this was not a joke at all. This was actually a fascinating and historically significant baseball document, distributed to National League players, that captures an aspect of professional baseball from the rough-and-tumble single-League 1890s era that is not well documented. Granted, in terms of language, it is also the most offensive official Major League baseball document that we have ever seen. That makes it all the more amusing to us, but we also recognize that maybe this is a piece that isn’t for the entire family. Truck drivers, yes, sailors, yes, ballplayers in the 1890s, obviously yes. But probably not everyone.

So what should we do with it? Should we return it to the consignor? Then we would not be able to share it with those who would be amused by it and/or appreciate it as a significant historical item. Should we put it in the catalog for the spring auction? That is our inclination, because it’s such an interesting item, not because it’s particularly valuable. But we are still a little concerned that we might wind up offending some readers. To help us decide how to proceed, we sent a copy of the document to a few collectors and historians for their thoughts. All responded. One thing we noted was that all were amazed and amused by it. Several enthusiastically voted “yes” to auctioning. Renowned baseball historian John Thorn noted, “Apart from the schoolboy delight in reading this, it is a significant testament to the atmosphere in the single-league era, when professional baseball was losing ground to college football for many reasons, including the atmosphere at the park.” This expressed our thoughts as well. No one voted “no” but the one auctioneer friend we asked shared our reservations, noting “The language is a little rough.”

So, while we’re deciding exactly what to do with this item, we’re putting it here on the REA blog. We know that some collectors and historians will enjoy seeing this. If we get complaints, we can always take down it down. This item will appear in the REA spring catalog. We’re not sure how we’re going to picture it and we’re not sure how we’re going to describe it. But we are sure of one thing. It won’t be on the cover!

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