Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Rebecca Gratz & Baseball

I have enjoyed linking Rebecca Gratz to such disparate subjects as the Barbary Pirates, Charles Dickens and even St. Nicholas. I never dreamed, however, there was a (somewhat more tenuous) connection with the national pastime until baseball historian John Thorn brought to my attention an article from the American Sunday School Magazine issue of January 1830:

"Early on a Sabbath [Sunday] afternoon during the summer, the matron of the [Philadelphia Orphan Asylum] was pained to find a company of eighteen men (rope-makers) at a game of ball, in an enclosure near the building, and in view of the children. Knowing the power of such an example, she went to them -- requested them to desist a moment, till they should hear what she had to say." In essence, she told them that although she was a humble sinner herself, she must point out that their play was against God's law of keeping the Sabbath and a bad example for the children. She then asked them to come into the asylum where the children sang hymns and recited scripture for their visitors. Her language, the article states, was so civil to the visitors and so simple and affectionate to the children that many of the men, no longer interested in renewing their game, went home and returned to the asylum for services on the following Sunday.

This is the American Sunday School Society version of what happened. Thorn thinks it more likely that the men picked up their equipment and took the ferry to Camden where they could play in peace. As to the game the men were playing, 1829 is part of baseball's prehistoric era, so we cannot be sure, but the fact that there were nine men on each team strongly suggests an early version of the sport. In the illustration of the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum around 1830 shown above, you can see a ball in the air over the playground -- many of the children would have been interested in watching the rope-makers' game.

The connection with Rebecca Gratz? In 1815 she had attended an early meeting of the Philadelphia Orphan Society, became a member and was soon the secretary and one of the 24 manageresses of the new orphan asylum, positions she would hold for the rest of her active life. Besides fulfilling her duties as secretary and as manageress -- which included the disposition of children when they were old enough to leave the asylum -- she devoted untold hours at the asylum nursing the sick during epidemics and standing in when the matron was ill or absent.

Beyond that connection is a more specific one: Rebecca Gratz repeatedly told those who asked her advice about running an orphanage that having a good matron was perhaps the most essential thing, and she was most appreciative of the matron, Mrs. Hall, who appears in the story above. And indeed Mrs. Hall seems to have handled the situation with grace where she could have easily antagonized the working-class men. But knowing Rebecca's concern for the emotions and intellectual development of children (see Happy Birthday, Hebrew School), I think that the description of Mrs. Hall's language as "simple and affectionate" is key. For Rebecca a matron who kept a clean and orderly home (as Mrs. Hall did) was not enough; she would also have had to care about and understand children to rise so high in Rebecca's regard.

The baseball story also reveals one of the preoccupations of the nineteenth century: Sabbatarianism, the movement to limit all activity on Sunday's to only godly things. For adults this meant no games, no dancing, no gambling, no buying and selling, no theatre or secular concerts, etc. Children were forbidden to play with toys or participate in games or indulge in any other boisterous play. On a national level, the Sabbatarians sought to outlaw mail deliveries, store hours and public transportation on Sundays (and ultimately succeeded).

Robert Ralston, a Philadelphia merchant, a major benefactor of the Orphan Asylum and the husband of its foundress Sarah Ralston, was a leader of the Sabbatarian movement in the United States. Under these circumstances Mrs. Hall, the matron, must have grasped the importance that her charges adhere to Sabbatarian ways. Hence, the rush to the baseball field to stop the play from distracting the children.

Sabbatarianism was one of many elements in what is called the Second Great Awakening, the Evangelical upsurge which began in the 1790's and would continue into the early 20th century.
In its relation to American Jews, Evangelicalism was at its most appalling, and it is no wonder that many of those who have written about Rebecca Gratz have sometimes depicted her as a champion of her people, defending them from the Evangelical dragon.

As always, history proves more complex than we would think. For one thing, not all Evangelicals were intent on converting Jews. Rebecca worked amicably for years with Sarah Ralston and other women (in both the Female Association and the Orphan Society) who were Evangelicals. She also was in agreement with them on some issues: most famously, on the need for religious education for children.

(You can read the full article from the January 1830 American Sunday School Magazine on Google Books. The woodcut is from John Thorn's copy of History of the Orphan Asylum, in Philadelphia, with an account of the fire in which twenty-three orphans were burned (1831), which he kindly allowed me to use. If your interest in baseball's "prehistoric era" has been piqued by this post, you will be delighted to know that Thorn's new book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game, will be published in March 2011 by Simon & Schuster.)

1 comment:

  1. Admirably done as always, Susan, and thanks for the tip of the (skull)cap.

    John Thorn


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