‘Baseball, From a Pharaoh to Hoboken, N.J.’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

PHOTO: THOMAS FUCHS

Say goodbye to the winter blues. On April 2 the sport of kings is set to resume: no, not horse racing but baseball, the oldest ball game on record.

At the dawn of civilization, our ancient ancestors learned how to write, build temples, sail the seas—and play ball. It will probably come as no surprise to baseball fans that the Egyptians placed the game (or their proto-variation of it) on a par with life and sex. According to Prof. Peter Piccione at Charleston College, the term “seker-hemat,” often translated as “batting the ball,” began as a fertility ritual performed in spring festivals. It’s believed that the ball represented the head of Osiris, god of the underworld.

Sacred wall paintings in Queen Hatshepsut’s temple near Luxor display some of the earliest references to the combined use of ball and stick. They show her stepson King Thutmose III (around 1479-1425 B.C.) ready to bat a ball at two priests. The inscription above Thutmose reads: “striking the ball for [the goddess] Hathor,” and the one above the priests: “It is the priest who catches it for him.”

The basic concept behind seker-hemat—a ball, a bat, a hitter, some catchers—endured even after its religious purpose was forgotten. Some 800 years ago, Asian-Turkish tribes may well have introduced a version to Romanian shepherds. Their game, “oina,” included not only batting but also hitting the players with the ball.

In medieval England, “stoolball,” where a stool was the pitcher’s target, soon became such a popular village sport that King Edward III (1312-1377) appears to have prohibited it on holidays because it was a distraction from useful archery practice. The Pilgrims at Plymouth did more than celebrate the first Thanksgiving in 1621: They also played the first game of American stoolball.

That game gradually gave way to cricket, in which two batsmen defend wickets of three wooden stumps, and rounders, which resembles softball, although the bat is short and held in one hand. When a soldier in George Washington’s army at Valley Forge recorded in his diary in April 1778 that he “playd at base” all afternoon, he may have meant rounders.

Most towns played their own versions— such as town ball, round ball and the “Massachusetts game”—and the differences led to arguments among teams. It wasn’t until a New York bank clerk named Alexander Cartwright created an official rule book based on “New York” rounders that baseball was born. In 1845 Cartwright formed the Knickerbocker club (named after the fire company where he volunteered) in the hope that a baseball league would follow. A year later, on June 19, 1846, at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, N.J., the Knickerbockers played the New York Nine in the first officially recorded baseball game.

By the end of the Civil War, New York-style baseball had become a national sport. One reason may have been its affinity with American political principles. Despite baseball’s ancient and noble heritage, it is a powerful expression of the democratic idea of e pluribus unum (out of many, one). When taking the field it’s a team effort, but when at bat it comes down to the individual. Even then, as Ernest L. Thayer’s poem “Casey at the Bat” memorably reminds us, any player who thinks he’s a king will, like mighty Casey, “in haughty grandeur there,” end up looking mighty foolish.

‘The Long, Long Fall of Monarchy’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

A portrait of Czar Nicholas II, published in a French newspaper in 1896. PHOTO: LEEMAGE/UIG/GETTY IMAGES

A hundred years ago, on March 14, 1917, just before midnight, the ministers of Czar Nicholas II informed him that the army was on the verge of mutiny. “What do you want me to do?” the Russian emperor reportedly asked. “Abdicate,” they replied. After a few minutes’ silence he agreed to go, thus bringing down the curtain on three centuries of Romanov rule. Continue reading…

‘A Brief History of Sledding’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

The sled symbolizes the all-American way of life—with its freedom, simplicity and comfort—that Kane lost when he gained his riches. It should be no surprise that another quintessential American classic, Frank Capra’s 1946 “It’s a Wonderful Life,” also has an iconic scene of children sledding on a wintry day. Continue reading…

‘The More-Bitter-Than-Sweet History of Sugar’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

‘If sack [wine] and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked,” says the rollicking Sir John Falstaff in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part 1.” That was a more innocent time. Nowadays, books such as Gary Taubes’s “The Case Against Sugar” have linked it to many of the world’s health crises, including diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure. Continue reading…

‘Pedaling Through the Bicycle’s 200 Years’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

A two-wheel device built by Baron Karl von Drais. PHOTO: DPA/ZUMA PRESS

Good things can have disastrous beginnings. The humble bicycle, which marks its 200th anniversary this year, owes its birth to the gigantic eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora in 1815. The debris launched into the atmosphere briefly cooled the globe and ruined harvests around the world.

One result was a shortage of feed for horses in Germany, where they were slaughtered in large numbers. In desperation over the loss of the animals, Baron Karl von Drais, a German aristocrat, began experimenting with the idea of human propulsion. Two years later he devised the first two-wheeled vehicle.

The baron’s device was a sort of steerable hobbyhorse on wheels that a rider pushed along with his feet. Drais called it a running machine, but the French soon renamed it the velocipede, from the Latin words for “swift” and “foot.”

Velocipedes become an international phenomenon, like roller blades two centuries later, but fell out of fashion just as quickly. It wasn’t until 1870, when James Starley invented the Penny Farthing, with its one giant wheel and another much smaller one, that people began to see the potential in bicycles. Still, as Mark Twain discovered every time that he encountered a pebble or rut, the Penny Farthing was only for the very fit or the foolhardy. He fell off so often that he quipped, “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live.” Continue reading…

“Juries, From the Ancient Athenians to ‘12 Angry Men’” by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

A scene from the 1957 version of ‘12 Angry Men’: From left, John Fiedler, Lee J. Cobb, Henry Fonda, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns and George Voskovec. PHOTO: EVERETT COLLECTION

On jury duty this month, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the meaning of the 1957 film “12 Angry Men.” Law schools still use the 60-year-old courtroom drama about a biased and easily swayed jury as a teaching tool. The question remains: Does the movie prove or disprove Mark Twain’s characterization of trial by jury as “the most ingenious and infallible agency for defeating justice that human wisdom could contrive”?

Jurors are all too human, something the ancient Greeks tried to mitigate by allowing some jury panels to have 1,000 or more citizens at a time. To prevent malicious plots and ensure a broad mix of people, every juror received half a drachma a day—enough to feed a poor man and his family. But such precautions failed to save Socrates from his enemies in 399 B.C. An Athenian jury, egged on by an anti-Socrates faction, convicted him of “impiety” and “moral corruption of the young” by a majority of 280-221. Continue reading…

‘A History of Dubious Hangover Cures’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

On Dec. 31, 1947, a celebrant at a New York nightclub overindulged. PHOTO: BETTMANN ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

New Year’s Eve partygoers know three things: Somewhere fireworks are going off, somewhere a better party is going on, and somewhere there’s another serving of alcohol. After that, there’s the inevitable crashing headache in the morning. Dorothy Parker, one of the great tipplers of the 20th century, had it right: “A hangover is the wrath of grapes.”

The aforesaid grapes appear to have been in a nonstop rage from at least 7000 B.C., when the Chinese were crushing them in a recipe that included fermented rice and honey. Since then, the world’s greatest minds, sober and not, have been searching for a hangover cure, or at the very least a negotiated truce. Continue reading…

‘Beyond Frosty: A History of Famous Snowmen’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Americans have their raucous Frosty; the British, their beloved children’s book about a flying snowman; and Disney, its goofy Olaf from “Frozen.”

Like Wonder Bread and Miracle Whip, these friendly mass-market snowmen only vaguely resemble their many more subtle predecessors. It’s lovely to bring winter cheer to children, of course, but snowmen have often served more serious aims.

Some of the world’s most famous people have built notable snowmen—from Prince Albert, who built a 12-foot snowman for his wife, Queen Victoria, to Michelangelo, who made one for the Medicis. In 1494, the artist’s patron was Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici, known as Piero the Unfortunate. This Medici prince was a pale imitation of his famous father—weak where Lorenzo was strong, spoiled where he was generous. Having invited his father’s former protégé to live and work at the palace, Piero gave Michelangelo only one commission: to build a snowman in the courtyard. Continue reading…

‘The Art of Partying, From Socrates to Capote’ – The Wall Street Journal

Frank Sinatra and his wife, actress Mia Farrow, as they arrive at Truman Capote's Black and White Ball.

Frank Sinatra and his wife, actress Mia Farrow, as they arrive at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball.

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the most famous (or infamous) Hollywood-arts-money-politics-celebrity mash-up of the 20th century. What made Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball at New York’s Plaza Hotel in 1966 so special was the way he managed to bring together power players from every section of American society, from McGeorge Bundy (who had recently left the post of White House national security adviser) to Frank Sinatra. Some say that the ball inaugurated the era of the celebrity A-list. Continue reading…

‘Much Ado About Stuffing: A History’ – The Wall Street Journal

For a festival that celebrates amity, thankfulness and American values, Thanksgiving generates a lot of arguments, perhaps none more contentious than the issue of stuffing.

The disputes begin with the name, because some people refer to stuffing as “dressing.” Also, some insist that stuffing is only stuffing if it’s from inside the bird, while others can only abide cooking it separately and serving it as a side dish. Continue reading…