SPALDING'S WORLD TOUR
The Epic Adventure
That Took Baseball
Around the Globe --
And Made It America's Game
By Mark Lamster
Public Affairs -- 341pp -- $26
The Good An entertaining chronicle of an 1888 effort to spread baseball across the globe.
The Bad Sports impresario Spalding is a fascinating character, and sometimes he gets too little space.
The Bottom Line Abounding with vivid set pieces, this is an engaging business and sports history.
In 1888 a rambunctious band of American pro baseball players led by Albert G. Spalding, sports impresario extraordinaire, embarked on a six-month barnstorming tour of the world. Spalding conceived of this expedition not merely as a way of promoting baseball abroad but also of demonstrating the superiority of the American way. As the "American game par excellence," in Spalding's view, baseball was the very embodiment of "American Courage, Confidence, Combativeness; American Dash, Discipline, Determination" -- and so on through the alphabet to "Vim, Vigor and Virility."
The ensuing events are nicely chronicled in Mark Lamster's entertaining Spalding's World Tour: The Epic Adventure That Took Baseball Around the Globe -- And Made It America's Game. Thanks to the recent World Baseball Classic, which showcased national teams from 16 countries, this narrative drawn from Major League Baseball's formative years is as timely as this morning's box scores, though superpatriot Spalding no doubt would have been appalled that America's team finished behind Japan, Cuba, South Korea, and the Dominican Republic.
Born in Illinois in 1850, Spalding is a largely forgotten figure who nonetheless played a leading role in professionalizing what was in his boyhood nominally still an amateur sport. A superb pitcher who in his best year compiled an astounding 55 wins against just 5 losses, Spalding excelled first as the playing manager and later as the owner of the Chicago White Stockings. He was instrumental in forming the National League and built an eponymous company founded with a borrowed $800 into a hugely profitable sporting-goods empire that survives to this day, albeit in diminished form.
Although Spalding was a man of genuine accomplishments, he was prone to compulsive exaggeration and fabrication. There was no fact so simple or straightforward that "baseball's Barnum" would not try to twist to promotional advantage, contends Lamster: "All of Albert Spalding's successes -- and they were legion -- were built on deceptions, some of them small, others spectacularly elaborate." He skips over some of these transgressions too lightly in his eagerness to move his story forward and devotes far too little space to Spalding's business machinations. All in all, though, Spalding is so compelling a character that he is sorely missed whenever he's not front and center.
Spalding had to dig deep into his promoter's bag of tricks to pull off his World Tour. His Chicago players were given no real choice, but the impresario struggled to field a team of All-Stars willing to join the White Stockings on what he falsely billed at first as a relatively quick voyage to Australia. In those days, most players worked during the off-season to make ends meet, and the $50-a-week Spalding was offering "would not have been cigar money," as one player put it. It was only after the expedition had safely landed Down Under that Spalding pretended to let the players talk him into heading east to Asia instead of going home.
Lamster knows his baseball and proves it in his accounts of games played on makeshift diamonds in all kinds of weather before crowds ranging in attitude from hostility (in Naples spectators stormed the field after one of their number was knocked cold by a foul ball) to befuddled admiration (Melbourne and Glasgow were especially welcoming). But Spalding's World Tour is as much travelogue as sports history and is all the better for it. Although at times the Americans went through the motions on the playing field, as travelers they proved to be consistently engaged, making up in curiosity what they lacked in sophistication as they toured Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, Ceylon, Egypt, Italy, France, England, Scotland, and Ireland.
This book abounds with precise, vivid set pieces that evoke a vanished world of luxury liners and eight-course banquets, a world unspoiled by the advent of mass tourism. Lamster's account of a grand luau at the palace of the pudgy, baseball-loving King Kalakaua of Hawaii is particularly well-rendered. The Americans arrived fearing cannibals but left entranced by the king's hula dancers.
In the author's estimation, the voluminous and generally favorable publicity afforded Spalding's world tour in the U.S. did more to solidify baseball's popularity at home than it did to inspire foreigners to take up the game. In part, this was because Spalding's players were so brilliantly skilled that "they left the dispiriting impression that the game was so difficult that any attempt to challenge American superiority, honed over generations, would be forever hopeless." Oh, how times have changed.
By Anthony Bianco