UNMAILABLE.

Robert Edward Auctions report on their blog that they were sent a delivery of “odds and ends from the estate of baseball historian Al Kermisch.” One of the items was an 1898 document titled “Special Instructions To Players,” deploring “the use of obscene language by players at the ballpark, to intimidate umpires and opposing players, and to verbally battle with unfriendly fans.” They say:

This piece is ironic as it provides many examples of exactly the kind of “brutal language” that was being outlawed. In fact, it is so over the top that at first we thought it was some type of a joke. But as we examined the paper, found that this language did exist in the 1890s, considered that general rowdiness and the use of obscene language by players were big issues in baseball in this era, and noted that the accompanying items were all from the same era, we soon realized that that this was not a joke at all. This was actually a fascinating and historically significant baseball document, distributed to National League players, that captures an aspect of professional baseball from the rough-and-tumble single-League 1890s era that is not well documented. Granted, in terms of language, it is also the most offensive official Major League baseball document that we have ever seen. That makes it all the more amusing to us, but we also recognize that maybe this is a piece that isn’t for the entire family. Truck drivers, yes, sailors, yes, ballplayers in the 1890s, obviously yes. But probably not everyone.

They solicit opinions as to whether they should include it in their spring catalog. Not having to worry about family values, I can take unalloyed pleasure in it, and recommend it to anyone with a taste for vile language. At the end of the document is the line “UNMAILABLE. Must be forwarded by Express”—presumably the National League could have been prosecuted for sending obscenities through the mails. (Via MetaFilter, where one commenter suggests that it is a printer’s joke from the 1890s, which is certainly possible but doesn’t detract from the humor.)

Comments

  1. Very interesting. I seem to remember a lot of people criticizing the HBO show “Deadwood” for being anachronistic in that the characters are constantly using gross obscenities that no one in the 1880s could possibly have uttered. But this document shows that just 10 years after the period depicted in that show, every obscenity uttered in “Deadwood” was certainly current American vernacular. In fact, this almost sounds like word for word Al Swearengen dialogue, so the writers must have an even better ear for the 19th century than I thought.

  2. I’m not in the least surprized.

  3. I’ve always assumed that the phrase “suck eggs” in Mark Twain is a euphemism. He hung with some rough crowds during his early days (by choice) and had to work very hard to become respectable. My guess that the real Huck Finn did worse things than smoke, drink, pilfer, and cuss, and that Twain knew all about it but couldn’t write it.
    The document seems a little hoaxish to me, but I guess it’s been checked out.

  4. Well, the paper and so on has been checked out; my suspicion is that it’s an 1898 hoax, not an actual National League document, but that obviously doesn’t affect the authenticity of the language.

  5. As one of the people who has criticized _Deadwood_ for anachronism, I want to clarify my point at least. I have never said “that no one in the 1880s could possibly have uttered” such terms; I think it’s possible that they did. What I have said is that there’s no _evidence_ for it, and David Milch’s frequent claims that he has researched this vocabulary in detail are not supported.
    This is a remarkable document, and I thank LH for calling it to our attention. Still, I wish it had had an example of _motherfucker_. Most of the examples in this are already backed up by contemporaneous or earlier evidence.

  6. I agree it’s an 1898 printer’s joke. An official League memo would have been on letterhead and signed by an identifiable person. The League would not have created an unmailable document by quoting the offending language. The paper size used is clearly selected to facilitate folding to vest-pocket size. As Miko lays out in the Metafilter thread, the issue of obscenity was in play at the time; someone took advantage of that to concoct this piece of satire.

  7. Richard Hershberger says:

    Nitpick: Deadwood takes place in the 1870s, not the 1880s. The first season is set in 1876. It ran three seasons, but I don’t know if we are to take this as the show depicting three years.

  8. michael farris says:

    My guess isn’t so much a printer’s joke but some kind of … forgotten niche publishing?
    I remember as a kid finding a similar document by the side of the road, though that one was considerably more obscene, a version of the ‘how to kill a texas eel’ story (easy to find in google). Again it was printed as if to be folded up in someone’s pocket for …. ????
    As for the obscenities in the document, c**t-lapping dog certainly stands out as one I … hadn’t encountered before (and will be sure to remember!)

  9. I can’t testify to the 1870s, but I’ve heard a fair number of plain-brown-wrapper sound recordings from the 1920′s and 30s, and it’s enough to convince me that hardcore obscenity is probably the slowest-changing aspect of English. If you consider Jelly Roll Morton’s “Winin’ Boy,” for example (recorded in 1938 for the LoC, but Morton attests that he sang this song in Storyville circa 1910), a double-entendre like “I can take it out and shake it like a staving chain” is meaningless to modern listeners, but “I fucked that bitch until her pussy stunk” wouldn’t sound out of place on a contemporary hardcore rap recording.
    If 1930s obscenity is indistinguishable from 2000s obscenity, I think you can reasonably extrapolate backward another 70 years and not expect significant differences.

  10. Richard Hershberger says:

    I ran this by the SABR 19th century email group. The facts surrounding the story are correct. The National League did have a meeting in Philadelphia in November of 1897, and they did set up a committee to deal with obscene language by players. Nothing much came of this committee.
    The sense of the group seems to be that this is unlikely to be an authentic official document. I might have been put out semi-officially by the committee or an individual club, but more likely it was a hoax, somewhat like a modern piece in The Onion. But in any case it almost certainly really is from 1898. For whatever it is worth, a agree with this sense, but while I know a bit about early baseball, my emphasis is earlier than this piece and I claim no special expertise in this.

  11. Yeah, I think that makes the best sense of it. It really doesn’t seem like an official League document.

  12. Alfred Doten says:

    I thought the criticism of “Deadwood” was of its use of “fucking” as an adverb or adjective, a usage supposedly not found until the First World War. This document doesn’t show that. There are plenty of examples of the use of these words in their literal sense from the 19th century–”My Secret Life”, for example. Of course they would be used as insults as well–in a literal way.
    I’ve heard some but not all of the Jelly Roll Morton recordings, which are probably an accurate documentation of off-color entertainment pre-WWI, and again these words are used only in their literal sense.
    Whether it’s real or a printer’s joke, there doesn’t seem to be any doubt about the date, so it’s interesting from the point of view of usage.

  13. Richard Hershberger says:

    My recollection is that there were several questionable usages in Deadwood, including “motherfucker” and “cocksucker”.

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