Joe Guzzardi: ‘American March King’ John Philip Sousa Was a Baseball Ace, Too | Sports

(Video by US Marine Band)

In the mid-1800s, John Philip Sousa was one of America’s biggest baseball bugs, as fans were then known.

In his autobiography march along, Sousa, born 1854, described the joy baseball had given him since the Civil War. Abner Doubleday, the mythical inventor of the sport, was a Union wartime general who fought in the decisive Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.

Throughout the war, when soldiers on either side were not marching or engaged in combat, they played baseball to break the monotony of camp life. Commanders and army doctors promoted the sport, believing it would keep soldiers fit, healthy, and out of trouble.

While soldiers often took part in running, wrestling, boxing, and even cricket and soccer on occasion, baseball was the most popular of all competitive sports in both camps.

Historians note that baseball came of age during the Civil War and entered mainstream American culture during those years.

As a youth from Washington, DC, Sousa watched the game evolve from its early days through the Deadball era, when baseball’s first National Baseball Hall of Famers were: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Honus Wagner.

Beginning in 1857, the 21-run ending point was eliminated, and games ended after nine innings instead. Heralding modern baseball, other rule changes were introduced, including so-called strikes; In the past, strikes were just the result of missed swings.

Flat cricket-style bats were also prohibited, and a white line marked the boundary between fair and foul territory, eliminating the need for the umpire to guess where the ball had landed.

Sousa was more than a fan. During his years as a bandmaster, he often attended games pitting his band members against local nines. Eventually his band grew large enough that intra-squad games were played between the brass and the woodwinds.

Whenever an opportunity arose to promote the band to large audiences, Sousa, often dubbed “The American March King,” pitched an inning or two. His band members called him “Ace” and he played until the age of 62.

In the February 1909 issue of Baseball Magazine, Sousa wrote exuberantly in his essay entitled “The Greatest Game in the World” about playing against the American Guards at the 1900 Independence Day at the Paris World’s Fair.

“What,” he asked, “could not have been more appropriate (playing baseball) for two American organizations in a foreign country on the glorious Fourth?”

The All-American game Sousa loved was one of the first baseball games played in Europe.

In 1925, at the behest of Major League Baseball Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National League, Sousa wrote The National Game, which combined his two greatest passions, baseball and marches. The original performances included four baseball bat solos.

As rousing as The National Game march is, Sousa’s classic Stars and Stripes Forever is even more uplifting. Written in 1896 and approved by Congress as the nation’s official march in 1987, its lyrics have inspired generations of Americans to embrace patriotism:

“Red and white and starry blue
Is the shield and home of freedom.

“Other nations may think their flags are the best
And cheer them on with glowing enthusiasm

“But the flag of the north and the south and the west
Is the flag of flags, the flag of the nation of liberty.

“Hooray for the flag of the free!
May it forever wave as our standard,
The jewel of land and sea,
The banner of the right.”

— Joe Guzzardi is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America and now lives in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at [email protected]or follow him on Twitter: @joeguzzardi19. Click here to read the previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

Leave a Comment