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May 20, 2010

Prospectus Q&A

Dorothy Seymour Mills

by David Laurila

Dorothy Seymour Mills is a giant among baseball researchers and historians. Mills and her late husband, Harold Seymour, were among the inaugural class of recipients of the Society for American Baseball Research’s Henry Chadwick Award, which honors the game’s great researchers, historians, statisticians, analysts, and archivists. She collaborated on three groundbreaking books with her late husband: Baseball: The Early Years [1960], Baseball: The Golden Age [1971], and Baseball: The People’s Game [1990]. Her most recent book is Chasing Baseball. Mills, now 82 years young, talked about her life as a baseball researcher during SABR’s annual Seymour Medal Conference, held recently in Cleveland. The award, which honors the best book of baseball history or biography published the previous year, is named after her and Harold Seymour.

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David Laurila: What is your history as a baseball researcher?

Dorothy Seymour Mills: As an English major absorbed in writing and editing, I never thought I’d become interested in history, but in college I was influenced by very good history professors, notably Harold Seymour. I became interested in baseball only when I discovered that he was working on a dissertation about early baseball history. I’d never considered that baseball had a history, but when I discovered how intriguing and colorful the research material was, I was hooked.

The early clubs of the New York area in the 1840s seemed highly social. The beautifully written letters of Harry Wright, for example, revealed a jolly and colorful club, telling about dinner at Madam Fijux’s, or about a boating trip to celebrate a win, complete with cheers. I’m more interested in social history than I am in statistics and scores and this sort of baseball history attracts me.

The sort that Harold Seymour preferred was the development of the professionals, which we covered in the first of our two books for Oxford University Press. He was a great fan, having seen many professionals play. He was thrilled to meet some of his heroes when he was a batboy for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the late '20s.

For me, the most interesting part was not the majors and their business deals, their difficulties in running a club, their trade wars and their problems with players, but the people who played ball just for fun, like the fellows who in the 1860s got up very early in the morning to play before work. That’s why I pushed for writing the third book, Baseball: The People’s Game. We had collected so much fascinating material on how people played amateur ball in prisons, colleges, businesses, and the military, for example, that I suggested we use this material for the third book instead of continuing on with the story of the professionals. A long explanatory letter we prepared convinced our Oxford editor to cancel the contract for the third book on the pros and issue one for the story of the early amateurs.

Writing about the amateurs interrupted the chronology, of course, but it was worth doing because nobody had tried to write a book like this before, and the book won several prizes.

DL: What are some of the things that interested you most about baseball?

DSM: I was deeply interested in the development of baseball in prisons. I felt badly for the young men who were incarcerated in youth institutions who wanted so much to play baseball and had to beg for equipment. And I was surprised to learn that during wars soldiers played ball every chance they could get, in between contacts with the enemy. I also liked discovering how industrial ball grew, from first being banned to finally being sponsored. My mother had worked in Cleveland in the textile industry and she saw a lot of baseball playing on the employees’ lunch hour in the '20s. My father also worked in Cleveland industry and viewed many amateur games out at Brookside Park. These games attracted large, enthusiastic crowds in the '20s and '30s.

The aspect of baseball that really thrilled me was discovering that women were playing ball back in the 1870s, in long dresses, in the Seven Sisters colleges. I thought, “How amazing!” So I decided to take bus trips to some of these colleges, because we didn’t have a car and I didn’t drive anyway. During my research I discovered diaries, yearbooks, newspapers, and magazines—all sorts of proof that women were playing baseball very early. I saw to it that we developed five chapters on early women‘s baseball playing. My notes also enabled me to prepare short studies of excellent individual women players like Alta Weiss, who lived in a small town near Cleveland. She was so successful that there was a movement afoot, half serious, by the Cleveland newspapers, to draft her for the Indians, who weren’t doing well at the time.

I very much enjoyed the research on women. In my new book, Chasing Baseball, I included seven chapters that are effectively a continuation of the section in Baseball: The People’s Game, about what has been happening to women since the time of their very earliest play. Since the majors withdrew support for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League of the 1940s, women have built their own teams and leagues and played amateur ball on a growing scale, with tournaments against teams abroad. It’s an impressive achievement.

DL: Did you research the Negro leagues?

DSM: I did, but most of the material I collected fell outside the limits of the era we had imposed on the third Oxford book. We needed to cut it off with the 1930s—the manuscript was already very long. The material I found and organized about blacks is still in our notes at Cornell University’s archives. In addition, I did a great deal of research on baseball abroad, especially on Japanese ball, The Netherlands, and other places that became prominent much later. We couldn’t use any of that, either. I had even begun learning Japanese in anticipation of a research trip to Japan.

You note, I’m sure, that I speak of the research as my own, since I soon found that Seymour didn’t care much for research, while I found it intellectually stimulating, a real treasure hunt, with one discovery leading to another. I took over most of it, asking him to read dull economics tomes and articles as well as some of the player biographies. As for the writing, I found Seymour’s greatly influenced by what was then “dissertation style,” and as a specialist in English I edited his work heavily. Moreover, I discovered that his organization skills were minimal. I began writing what I called outlines of the material for each chapter, so that he would know what to say in each one. These so-called outlines were really first drafts, written not in outline style but in narrative fashion, and Seymour depended on them greatly. After we traded each chapter back and forth, I gave each one a final edit.

DL: How closely has baseball mirrored society over the past 100-plus years?

DSM: Organized baseball has been as slow to change as the rest of society, especially in its long discrimination against blacks and women. Only in wartime did the majors support a women’s league, because most of the male players were abroad fighting for us, and so the pro men’s teams weren’t very good. After the war the women were essentially told they weren’t needed any more, and support was withdrawn. Women continued to play, but not so prominently until recently. As for the black men, organized baseball had to wait for forward-looking owners like Branch Rickey to begin integration. Superstars came first; journeymen players took between 5-10 years to be accepted. Their teammates often treated them coldly at first.

 So yes, the game has reflected society, but of course women are still having difficulty playing. It’s hard for them to get accepted into community teams, or college and school teams. It takes a lot of courage and determination for women to try entering teams at any level, and if they get in, many drop out because of the way they are treated by coaches or teammates. Women umpires, too, get frozen out by their colleagues. With the blacks finally getting into the majors and minors, there is hope that women will eventually get in, too. Our society opens up to minorities very slowly. In business and the professions, women report that their work has to be not just as good as that of their male counterparts but better. The same goes for women trying to enter baseball at any level; they have to be better than most of the men or boys on their teams. Right now, most of those hooking on with male teams are star pitchers. So, using the experience of male black players, it should take between 5-10 years for “journeymen” girls and women to become accepted on the teams that boys and men dominate. I look forward to seeing it happen!  

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