Here’s a holy-cow revelation. Baseball—what Walt Whitman called “our game, the American game;” what historian Jacques Barzun recommended as the ideal window to “know the heart and mind of America”—may be just another U.S. import.
More shocking: There are assertions out there that baseball was invented on the other side of the Iron Curtain, in lands that the old Commie-baiter Joe McCarthy judged to be as un-American as you can get.
The New York Times recently published a story that cited Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s claim that baseball had its roots in the Russian heartland. (Not surprisingly, current Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin—always eager to disparage Western primacy—has seconded Stalin on the matter.)
That’s not all. In 1990, a Romanian sports official suggested to me—more diplomatically, but just as confidently—that baseball very well could have originated in a small Transylvanian village more than 200 years ago.
Naturally, such a revelation smacks of heresy to the hot-dog, apple-pie faithful. (And, to some extent, sounds a bit like self-serving boasts by foreign elements.) But this is what you get when you rummage around in the dustbin of history—a debate of baseball evolution (with characteristics developed over time and great distances) as opposed to baseball’s New World creationism (fully formed in its current structure right here in the U.S. of A.)
Let us first acknowledge that scholars, while long ago dismissing as myth that Civil War general Abner Doubleday invented the game in rural Cooperstown, N.Y., nevertheless recognize Elysian Fields in Hoboken, N.J., as the sport’s mid-1800s birthplace. Baseball archaeologists do accept that the sport likely was influenced by the English games of rounders and cricket. But shaped by a Russian stick-and-ball game called lapta? Or Romania’s oina?
The Times cited a 2003 Moscow newspaper article in which the vice-president of the Russian Lapta Federation, Sergei Fokin, theorized that “Russian immigrants or Jews from Odessa [now part of Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire] brought lapta to America, and baseball evolved from there.”
Folkin argued that “lapta is a much older game, and there are so many similar concepts: tagging runners out, hitting and catching fly balls, for example.”
But what about the lapta “pitcher,” a member of the batting team who kneels by the batter and serves up a lazy underhand toss?
As for Romania’s oina—pronounced OYN-yah—I was on assignment in Bucharest in the spring of 1990 just as the country officially revived baseball, which had been banned for a half-century because Communist despot Nicolae Ceausescu considered it a capitalist sport. When the hated Ceausescu was executed amid the Eastern bloc upheaval shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a fellow named Cristian Costescu was appointed national baseball chief, based on his previous job running the oina federation.
Oina, he contended, “was exactly like baseball” in its original form in the southern Romanian village of Alba Iulia and was brought to the United States by two immigrants in the early 1800s. Costescu said those immigrants became soldiers in the U.S. Army and taught their game to fellow troops—who happened to be commanded by none other than Abner Doubleday.
The Doubleday reference, as noted above, could be a disqualifying factor in Costescu’s oina-baseball timeline. (Oina, by the way, employs the same “pitcher” role as lapta, which makes it closer to T-ball than baseball.) Furthermore, the Russians’ lapta-to-baseball story loses a bit of credibility for anyone who witnessed the 1990 baseball game between the U.S. and USSR during the now-defunct Goodwill Games in Seattle.
At the time, because baseball was about to become an Olympic medal sport for the first time at the ’92 Barcelona Games, nations such as Romania and the about-to-collapse Soviet Union were eager to hone their diamond bona fides. Yet all indications were that they were starting from scratch.
The Soviets had recruited an American businessman named Rick Spooner, who was based in Moscow, to work with the natives. “About two years ago,” Spooner told me then, “a batter got hit in the back with a fastball, turned around and said to me, ‘Richard, what does that mean?’ I said, ‘Boris, that means you go to first base.’”
A cycling coach, Vladimir Bogatyrev, who never had seen baseball until he toured Cuba with his cycling team, was hired to manage the national team. Three baseball diamonds hurriedly were built in the USSR but, when the Soviets got to the Goodwill Games in Seattle in the summer of ’90, they mostly were mimicking American players’ habits of chewing tobacco and spitting, slapping high fives and tipping their caps—with rudimentary evidence of mastering pitching, hitting and fielding skills. They lost that game to the Yanks, 17-0.
“Chew tobacco?” Soviet catcher Vadim Kulakov said. When he smiled, his teeth showed the answer. “Red Man,” he said.
First baseman Ilya Onokov proudly related that, like so many Major Leaguers he had studied, he had a nickname, which he reported in clear but accented English. “WACK-yoom CLAY-nar,” he said. The vacuum cleaner.
Through five Olympic cycles, neither the Soviet Union/Russian team nor the Romanians ever qualified for the Games. But, now that baseball has been reinstated for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, after being dropped from 2012 and 2016, there surely will be renewed efforts to ramp up baseball commitments in those countries.
Possibly, we again will hear their cases for having birthed the sport.
In 1990 Costescu, the Romanian official, showed me some articles he had published on the history of oina, one of which asked, “Baseball=oina?” Just so he would not be accused of outright plagiarism, Costescu offered, tactfully: “We are not saying Romanians invented baseball. We are saying this: We would not like someone else to tell us that oina was invented by others.”
That’s a deal. (But we Yanks reserve the right to keep calling it the “World” Series, whether the lone non-U.S. team from Toronto makes it or not.)