Research 101: WATCH YOUR ASSumptions!

19th Century Base Ball? Don't Assume that either Third Baseman John Civitello or Hurler Robert Blair of the Houston Babies are Really That Old!

People have asked me why I spend so much free time researching Houston history, especially Houston baseball history. My answer is simple: I love Houston. I love baseball. I love research. And I have an unquenchable fire in my belly for separating what’s true from what we assume is true.

Rule Number One in Social Research 101 is “Never Assume.” And what does that mean? It means just about everything. It means: (1) Never assume that secondary sources of information are good enough if you can get to the primary sources these secondary sources examined to form their own conclusions. (2) Never assume that what we don’t know, we can’t find out. (3) Never assume that we shall ever discover all possible sources of information on a given subject. The work goes on forever. We just have to close the gate every now and then and report “what we know, so far.”

Here’s the major problem by comparison to a court of law on current criminal allegations. In a court of law, the court will examine the direct evidence, the direct witnesses, and maybe even hear directly from the people who are being charged with a criminal act. In historical research, we are examining events that took place years and sometimes lifetimes ago. All the living human sources of primary testimony are most likely dead. That leaves us with witness writings, and mainly newspaper accounts, as testimony of what happened long ago as our primary sources of the facts about the past – and these are always affected by the infusion of personal opinion and what the writer from long ago thought was important to share with us about the facts of a situation – and these are also affected by his or her agenda for writing in the first place.

Here’s what you learn quickly, if your research efforts are serious – and let’s use baseball research about Houston as an example. We’ll simply name it for what it is. Rule Number Two in Social Research is “Newspapers write to sell newspapers. They don’t write for the sake of preserving facts for history.” The best example from my local baseball research is over the question of certainty about the location of the first Houston baseball field of our 1888 first professional Houston team. A nameless writer for the Houston Post covered the first exhibition game played at “Houston Base Ball Park,” but he (gender assumption) never recorded in his story where it was located. As a news writer writing news for those times, he was free to assume that his readers already had that information from their personal experience. The assumption carried forward, at least, in all the game stories I’ve found to date. No one actually writes down the address or specific location of the park. Peripheral research “suggests” that the first park was located on the same site that became West End Park in 1907, but that’s only an assumption. It’s not proof certain.

So what? So what if we don’t ever know where the first ballpark was located?

If you have to ask those questions, you’re part of the problem, not part of the solution. All I can offer is going to sound like some kind of Jughead research professor talking, but that’s OK with me. As far as I’m concerned, the answers are this simple: The more we know about who, when, where, what, and how people came together in the past to do anything of note, the more we know about the birth of ideas and decisions that continue to shape our lives through today.

On April 16, 1861, a man named F.A. Rice led a group of Houstonians in a meeting room above J.H. Evans’s Store on Market Square to form the first Houston Base Ball Club. Because of Texas’s very recent secession from the Union, further recruitment of players for organized play was effectively delayed until after the Civil War, but the fact of this group’s actions verifies the formal existence of baseball in Houston to that date of some 149 years ago. Baseball was born in Houston prior to the Civil War, and not as a result of the great conflict, as previously assumed. That fact is big. Any story of Houston baseball history begins with it.

Research Number Three in Social Research: “If you forget anything, see Rule One.”

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2 Responses to “Research 101: WATCH YOUR ASSumptions!”

  1. Ken Dupuy Says:

    I thought that baseball had originated during the Civil War! Thanks for clearing that up.
    Ken

  2. Ted Leach Says:

    Though I have no credentials to judge this, it’s clear that your work is meticulously researched. Plus you tell a good story. It’s setting a high standard for me as I think about some baseball writing. Keep up what you’re doing!

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