Sports More Obscene Baseball News
posted by December 6 at 10:36 AMon
The story about the recently discovered baseball memo from 1898, warning players in the National League to lay off the fucking filthy language (which I slogged about the other day) has hit the online MSM, with a story in today’s Salon. Salon writer King Kaufman is a bit more skeptical about the provenance of the memo than either the auctioneers or I am. A linguistics prof at Berkeley insists that this couldn’t be legit, since no one would use such language in the formal setting of an office or business memo. And it would put the earliest printed uses of the terms “go fuck yourself” and “cocksucker”(though it was still hyphenated then) back by many years.
My response: it might indeed be a hoax, but if it is one, it would be from the 1898 period nonetheless. The punctuation and the quirks of the non-obscene language strikes me as authentically of that era. Some secretary who sat in on the meetings among owners might’ve cooked it up as a joke.
But it also could be legit. The memo ends “[UNMAILABLE: Must be forwarded by Express](bold caps sic).” This strikes me as a period detail that wouldn’t occur to most people today. If the League had mailed this, it would have been a federal offense: sending obscene materials through the mails. But they could send it by private courier (then known as “Express” services) and hand-deliver it to its audience, keeping it in-house.
What this suggests to me is that the owners wanted to shock the players into cleaning up their act by not using the euphemisms or printing tricks (d--- for "damn") that censorship rules of the day required. The National League had 12 teams that year (Cleveland, Louisville, Washington and Baltimore would soon be jettisoned, creating the familiar 8-team league of the pre-expansion 20th Century). If every player and coach on each team was given this memo, that would be only 400 or so copies to be distributed. The issue of obscene language at the ballpark was huge then, as baseball was perceived as a low-class game, unfit for women and children or respectable society. (The parallel today is the NBA's rules of conduct for its players, requiring suits and ties when traveling, for instance, to prevent players from seeming "ghetto.")
Finally, who would gain by a contemporary hoax? Counterfeit baseball stuff that makes big money are game-used equipment, autographs, and so on. Internal baseball memos are of little interest to anyone but historians--only recently has the collecting craze expanded to this kind of document. Someone could've hoped to make a few hundred bucks on it (before the current media attention--now it will be more) but it's hardly the bait for serious counterfeiting.
Still, it's possible. Short of convening a team from CSI: Cooperstown, I don't know how to prove that it's either legit or a hoax. If another copy of the memo is found in some file at the Hall of Fame, or in some other collector's possession, that would be some evidence that it existed and was distributed back then.