Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor
A. G. Spalding and the Rise of Baseball: The Promise of American Sport.
By Peter Levine, New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 184 Pages. $16.95.
Reviewed by Dennis E. Berge, Chairman of the History Department at San Diego State University.
Social historians and students of popular culture have done much in recent years to establish the importance of leisure-time activities as a legitimate field of study. The entertainment industry, which may once have been treated as a compartmentalized or irrelevant segment of American society, has been increasingly recognized as an important facet of that society, while organized sports, arguably a part of the entertainment industry, have gained recognition as a reflector of American culture and as a field of enterprise. It is in this vein that Peter Levine has written his biography of Albert G. Spalding, a baseball pioneer and an early believer of the social significance of what Spalding called “America’s national game.”
San Diegans have reason for easy recognition of Spalding’s name, for he spent the last fifteen years of his life as part of Katherine Tingley’s Point Loma theosophist community. During this period he was active in San Diego civic affairs. Under pressure from friends he also ran a reluctant but almost successful race for the United States Senate in 1910. It was as a sports figure, however, that Spalding achieved his greatest fame. Born in 1850 near Rockford, Illinois, he grew up during the years in which organized baseball achieved its initial popularity, both as a pastime and as a spectator sport. Spalding proved to be a talented player. He began pitching for the Rockford Forest City’s [sic) when he was but fifteen years old, and was so successful he was soon hired to play for the Boston Red Stockings at a salary of $1,500 a season.
Spalding was thus involved in the transformation of baseball from a game of gentlemen athletes into a business and a professional sport, After a successful playing career in Boston and with the Chicago White Stockings, he became manager of the latter, ending his playing days when he was only twenty-seven years old. He then advanced to president and part owner of the White Stockings and became a prime mover in baseball’s National League, the “bulwark of professionalism” that shaped the ever-growing business of baseball. In the meantime, he gained a fortune from another source. A sporting goods store he founded in 1874 with his brother Walter grew rapidly through efficient management into a multi-million dollar operation for the manufacture and distribution of practically every type of sporting equipment imaginable. Hence, the name “A.G. Spalding and Brothers” (Spalding also brought a brother-in-law into the company) became synonymous with sporting goods, By the end of the century, when he withdrew from full involvement in both business and sports, Spalding had become famous, wealthy, and powerful-the model of American success.
Levine’s treatment of Spalding’s career is workmanlike and thorough, and he is convincing in his portrayal of Spalding as a successful entrepreneur – a frequently ruthless turn-of-the-century capitalist who took advantage of every opportunity in pursuing his own version of the American dream. Levine is also the first biographer to deal seriously with Spalding’s life after baseball, when he came with his newly-acquired second wife to live in genteel comfort among the theosophists of Point Loma. According to Levine, Spalding was never a true believer in theosophist doctrines, as was his wife, but he found the cultured pleasantries of the Tingley community an agreeable environment in which to spend these years. It was as if the times of struggle and achievement had earned him his period of repose, although he emerged occasionally to join John Spreckels, E.W. Scripps, and other local men of substance to work on matters of local moderate reform. His death in 1915 prompted a fierce battle over his estate between members of his family and Katherine Tingley, which Tingley eventually lost. Levine does not mention that struggle, which is perhaps fitting, for conflict was not what Spalding had sought at Point Loma.