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Book Review: "Spalding's World Tour"

Albert G. Spalding, the founder of this company more than 100 years ago, was also a major league baseball player, an executive, and a self-titled impresario who, 117 winters ago, arranged a grand "World Tour" of baseball players, which was supposed to bring what was rapidly becoming the USA's national game around the world, to introduce it to Asia, Australia and Europe.

Most of you probably know the name "Spalding" only from the sporting goods company that manufactures all kinds of balls and other sporting equipment. Incidentally, the company website incorrectly identifies Spalding as a "Boston Red Stockings pitcher" when the company was founded in 1876. Spalding did pitch for Boston in the old National Association from 1871-1875, but in 1876 he joined the new NL with the Chicago franchise, the one we now follow as the Cubs, and remained there for decades. Spalding was a native of Byron, near Rockford, and the book begins with a narrative of his life growing up there.

You have to understand the context of the times to understand how incredible this tour was. Today, we think nothing of hopping on a plane and traveling to Europe or Asia; hordes of Japanese tourists descend on the USA at all times of the year, and the world really has become a small place.

In the winter of 1888, tourism as we now know it was a very new thing. Most people did not have the means nor the desire to see foreign places; those who immigrated from, say, Europe to America, did so because they wanted to LEAVE those places and never return. In fact, my dad once told me this story... in the early 1950's, when he and a friend wanted to travel to Europe, his grandfather (my great-grandfather) worried about him, wondered why he wanted to go there, thought it was a dangerous place... because that was his experience.

But Spalding saw an opportunity, and so he took his own team -- then called the Chicago White Stockings, but that is the same franchise we now know as our own Cubs, and an All-Star team of players from other National League teams (called the All-Americas), and set out to tour the world in October 1888.

Now, the Chicago National League Ball Club (as the team is still known corporately) was then a powerhouse in baseball. It had won five NL pennants from 1880-1886, was headed by Hall of Famer Adrian "Cap" Anson, and with Spalding (who had pitched for and managed the club in the 1870's), were seen as the premier franchise in the game (as you no doubt know, it is the only MLB franchise to operate continuously in the same city since 1876).

They set out to tour the US, heading west to San Francisco, playing games along the way, then sailed to Hawaii, Australia, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the Arabian peninsula, Egypt, Italy, France, England and Ireland, before returning to New York six months later, to a heroes' welcome:

Shortly before seven o'clock on the evening of April 8, 1889, a jubilant gang of men stepped from the lobby of New York's posh Fifth Avenue Hotel and began a brisk walk uptown. Dressed in black tie and strapping to a man, they drew glances from all whom they passed, but cloaked by their good cheer and camaraderie they seemed oblivious to the attention. Leading the way, with his thick brush mustache neatly combed into place, was Albert Goodwill Spalding, at thirty-eight years of age already an American icon and master of the sporting-goods empire that still bears his name. Gathered around him were nineteen of America's greatest baseball stars. Together, they were on their way to Delmonico's, the city's most exclusive restaurant, just three short blocks up the Avenue.

Two days earlier Spalding and his men had returned from an epic journey on which they had fully circumnavigated the globe. Their mission, endorsed by President Grover Cleveland, had been to bring baseball-- America's national game-- to the farthest reaches of the earth. In their six months abroad these hardball proselytizers had covered five continents and nearly thirty thousand miles. Now, finally, the intrepid group had made it back home, and on this night they would celebrate their adventure at a gala testimonial dinner, the first of many, to be attended by the cream of New York society.

The book is both a fun read (you'll be amused at some of the pranks that the players pulled along the way -- some things never change!) and an important one, talking about the brewing player-owner labor war that eventually resulted in the short-lived 1890 Players' League, headed by John Montgomery Ward, who was sort of the Tony LaRussa of his day, a player, manager, executive and attorney.

I'd highly recommend this book if only because sometimes we forget that professional baseball has indeed been around for 130 years, and it was a big deal even back then, and some stories, like this one, deserve to be remembered. The fact that it's well-researched and written is a bonus.