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A New Jersey auction house specializing in 19th-century baseball memorabilia has made a hell of a find, if you’ll pardon the language. It’s a document that seems to be an 1898 memo from the National League, titled “Special Instructions to Players,” warning them — in unbelievably scatological terms — that obscene language will be dealt with by suspensions ranging from one day to “all time.”
The letter describes an incident during “the championship season of 1897″ — what we’d call the regular season — in which a fan asked a visiting player who was pitching that day and was told “in a loud, brutal tone, ‘Oh, go fuck yourself.’” The document goes on to say that a committee formed that offseason to study the issue had “received a deluge of information that was so appalling as to be almost beyond belief.”
Then it offers some examples, which are blue enough to singe the hair off Earl Weaver’s ears. “I’ll make you suck my ass!” might be the most civil of the bunch.
Robert Lifson, president of Robert Edward Auctions, and several experts both he and this column have consulted say they believe the document is authentic, though that belief is not unanimous. And it’s possible that the letter could date from the 1890s but still be a hoax or a joke rather than a legitimate league memo.
The letter had belonged to the late Al Kermisch, a baseball historian in Baltimore who collected memorabilia from that city’s rough-and-tumble baseball dynasty of the 1890s, the Orioles. The bulk of Kermisch’s treasures had been sold off as part of an $8.7 million auction in April, but caretakers of his estate found a few more things and delivered them last week to Robert Edward Auctions.
Lifson began combing through the new lot, made up mostly of tickets, photos, that sort of thing. He came upon the letter, which starts slowly, dryly describing the 1897 encounter in which the fan — or crank, in the parlance of the era — was invited to perform the above-mentioned act of self-love. That invitation is where things kind of pick up.
“This was not anything that when I saw it, I thought, ‘Hey, this is worth a fortune,’ or anything like that,” Lifson says, estimating the document will sell for a few thousand dollars at most. “I started, you know, going to sleep reading it. And then my ears perked up. ‘What am I looking at? What is this?’ I really did think it was some kind of a joke.”
It looks like it. After another dry paragraph arguing that such coarse behavior is common and urgent action is needed, it’s Katy bar the door! The letter lists eight examples of oaths that would make Tommy Lasorda blush.
Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg of U.C.-Berkeley, who has written about the use of profanity in the HBO 1870s western “Deadwood,” cites this section as the best argument for the letter being a hoax. “It is inconceivable that the authors of such a document in this period would have quoted the player’s ‘Go fuck yourself’ verbatim,” he writes in an e-mail, “or repeated any of the other imprecations (not even the ‘damn’ of ‘didn’t give a damn,’ which would have been rendered as ‘d____’).”
Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large at the Oxford English Dictionary and the author of the excellent scholarly book “The F Word,” agrees that an official letter wouldn’t spell out those words. But, also writing by e-mail, after this column was first published, he argues that the letter is probably a joke from the period: “If it is a contemporaneous hoax — a send-up of management — it’s more likely that these words would be spelled out, and that the variety of examples offered would be so extreme. It’s funnier that way!”
Bill Savage, a senior lecturer in English at Northwestern who teaches baseball literature and is a member of SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research, says the letter “looks very 1890s” in terms of its punctuation and syntax.
“If it’s a hoax, I’d bet it’s an internal hoax,” he says, something “somebody in the [league] office or on one of the ball clubs produced to hand out to the boys as a little rib-tickler. Making fun of the bosses for this nonsense that they’re doing, in the language the bosses would have used.”
Trying to determine the letter’s authenticity, Lifson says he considered the paper the letter’s written on, the items accompanying it and the tenor of the times. “It’s hard to appreciate exactly how much of a hot-button issue this was,” he says. “This was a big, big deal at the time. There were people, including John Brush, the owner of the Cincinnati club, who felt that this issue was actually threatening the success of baseball as a professional sport.”
For an illustration of that, search for the word “Brush” at the Baseball Library’s timeline for 1898. The future owner of the dynastic New York Giants was fighting hard to corral what he saw as the boorish behavior of the players, not unlike NBA commissioner David Stern a century later.
Lifson also considered the source, the historian Kermisch. “Very scholarly researcher,” he says. “I never knew him, but he was a guy who wrote many articles. None of them are funny. And nothing he had was anything other than real historical photographs and documents and paper stuff that were from this era. There was nothing amusing about any of it.”
Lifson later consulted several baseball historians who also said they believe the letter is authentic. Before he did that, though, he showed it to co-workers at the auction house.
“Very quickly,” he says, “I realized that the other items that were in the collection, which were much more traditional and known to be valuable, no one cared about any of them. I’ve got a cabinet photo from 1895 of the Orioles that was with it that’s worth thousands and thousands of dollars. I could have torn it in two. No one would have cared because all they were doing was looking at this document and laughing. They can’t believe what they’re reading.”
Lifson wondered whether the house should even offer the obscene letter for auction, and if so, how it could be presented in the catalog, which is something that could be looked at by a collector’s kids. He asked famed baseball historian John Thorn — “He said, ‘Sure,’” Lifson says — and posted a blog item on the company Web site, which quickly became a mini-sensation among baseball history and linguistics wonks.
Sheidlower, the “F Word” author, corrected an assertion made in this column’s original version that the letter contained the earliest printed use of the word “cocksucker” as an insult and the phrase “go fuck yourself.”
“The Historical Dictionary of American Slang has an 1897 example of ‘go and fuck yourself,’” he writes — a citation this column missed. “And I have found evidence of nonliteral ‘cocksucker’ from the 1860s, in Civil War court martial records.”
Robert Edward Auctions decided to picture a detail of the letter in its catalog with a ticket to an 1898 Orioles-Washington Nationals game covering up most of the offending text. It’ll go on the block in April.
And whether it’s real or a hoax — pardon the language — some sonofabitch will buy it.
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NFL Week 14, Part 1 [PERMALINK]
The Thursday night game, winner in caps, with the picks of my kids included as usual.
CHICAGO (5-7) at Washington (5-7)
Here’s Washington’s week so far: A heartbreaking loss to Buffalo, a trip to Florida for a real heartbreaking day, Sean Taylor’s funeral, then two days of preparation and another game, this one against a team that, like Washington, can’t afford to lose any more if it wants to make the playoffs.
These are two of the five NFC teams tied at 5-7, one game behind the Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals, who are tied for the last wild-card spot. The playoff spot is ripe to be taken by any of these eight clubs that can get hot in the last four weeks, but it’s hard to picture any of them — the others are Philadelphia, Carolina and New Orleans — getting hot. Maybe New Orleans.
Ordinarily I’d say I like Washington’s blitzes against Rex Grossman, but I think this team’s just gone through too much lately. Teams that lose a key player tend to rally for one game, then sort of realize he’s gone and regress. Washington’s one game was last week against the Bills, and they lost at the gun after coach Joe Gibbs made the blunder of illegally calling two straight timeouts, the resulting penalty changing the winning field goal from a 51-yarder to a 36.
This week, reality could hit hard.
Previous column: Brett Favre, Sportsman of the Year?
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Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia
Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, U.S.
Eiffel Tower, Paris, France
Colosseum, Rome, Italy
Taj Mahal, Agra, India
Siena Cathedral, Siena, Italy
Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Arc de Triomphe, Paris, France
Lost City of Petra, Jordan
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