Posts Tagged ‘Research’

Primary Sources in Historical Research

May 16, 2011

Buddy Bolden Image: A Primary Source

Buddy Bolden died in a Louisiana hospital for the criminally insane in 1931 at the age of 54, but by that time, the legendary first cornet in jazz history was probably still being charged with petty street crimes in New Orleans that he never committed. Back then, the New Orleans police didn’t need 100% accuracy in their identification of black criminals to find a man guilty. If a guy was black, had a name that was similar to a known criminal, and if he remotely resembled the known miscreant, the police were likely to pass on his offense to the record of  the established identity.

In addition to his musical genius and wide awake performances at the Funk Butt Hall on Rampart Street in New Orleans, Buddy Bolden had been guilty of some mental illness and alcohol addiction issues in his earlier life that had transformed him into a New Orleans street character, a man well-known enough into becoming the likely suspect in cases of public intoxication, domestic violence, or simple assault between drinking-buddy strangers.

A friend of mine, Donald M. Marquis of Goshen Indiana, moved to New Orleans in 1962 and spent the next sixteen years of his life in search of the real Buddy Bolden, the first great horn man of jazz. What he ran into for the longest while were dead ends – dead ends helped along by the posting of erroneous public information and the absence of primary source artifacts and people who actually knew Bolden. It didn’t get any easier with time. After all, Marquis began his research some 31 known years after the death of his subject. About all that still floated around in 1962 in easy-to-find plain sight were the bad police records and the secondary source testimony of children and grandchildren who had heard their elders talk of the man and his magnificent horn-playing down at the Funky Butt Hall. Those things – and a couple of grainy old photos, one of Buddy with his band and another solo shot of him holding his cornet – were all that remained available to the near-naked eye.

Then, one day deep in years later, Don Marquis found his way to a descendant of Buddy Bolden who had been holding to her own a treasure trove of accurate primary source data – data that included the first really good image of the man and further documentation of what actually had happened to him.

For those of you who may be interested, Don published his seminal findings in 1978 as “The Search for Buddy Bolden: First Man of Jazz” by Donald M. Marquis. A revised paperback version of the book is now available at There is also an independent film, or made-for-TV movie based largely on Marquis’ findings, coming out sometime later this year. I don’t know the title.

For our purposes, the experience of researcher-writer Donald M. Marquis serve to highlight some of the more serious issues facing the lone independent scholar. Unless you possess the time and ability to live as modestly as Marquis did for years and years, it is likely that your hard-to-wrap subject shall always elude you.

On the other hand, with the camaraderie of a small army of like-minded and dedicated people working with you, much is possible. Put that realization together with a clear understanding of primary and secondary sources – and we move far closer to getting the link established between connected facts in history,

This is the understanding and small wisdom that our SABR team takes with us into our impending study of “Houston Baseball, 1861-1961: The First One Hundred Years.” We are on our way together to the establishment of a much clearer factual picture on the history of baseball in our little area of the world.

To get a handle on primary and secondary source material distinctions, the following summary of same from Wikipedia spells them out about as well as they may be expressed. I will leave you with their words as our notes on the day:

Primary source is a term used in a number of disciplines to describe source material that is closest to the person, information, period, or idea being studied.

In the study of history as an academic discipline, a primary source (also called original source or evidence) is an artifact, a document, a recording, or other source of information that was created at the time under study. It serves as an original source of information about the topic. Similar definitions are used in library science, and other areas of scholarship. In journalism, a primary source can be a person with direct knowledge of a situation, or a document created by such a person.

Primary sources are distinguished from secondary sources, which cite, comment on, or build upon primary sources, though the distinction is not a sharp one. A secondary source may also be a primary source and may depend on how it is used. “Primary” and “secondary” are relative terms, with sources judged primary or secondary according to specific historical contexts and what is being studied.

The Early Houston Baseball Research Project

May 12, 2011

Was West End Park built on the same site as the 1888 Houston Base Ball Park? The Early Houston Baseball Research Project aims to find out.

SABR research team ready to take on the early 1861-1961 history of Houston baseball.

As Houston Baseball History prepares to turn the page into the future with the sale of the Astros by Drayton McLane, Jr. to local businessman James Crane, a smaller, less financially heeled, but equally dedicated group of researchers and writers prepares to turn equal attention and passion to a  project involving the ungathered, unanalyzed, unclassified, unclarified, and, to date, unpublished  pages of Houston’s first one hundred years of baseball history – the period from 1861 to 1961, from the formation of the first Houston Baseball Club in town, just weeks after Texas seceded from the Union prior to the Civil War through the last season of Houston’s fabled minor league club, the Houston Buffs.

About ten members of SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research, Larry Dierker Chapter, are taking on “The Early Houston Baseball History Project: The Early Years, 1861-1961” in both the hope and expectation of clarifying certain mysteries and points about the history of baseball in this area. Our first meeting of the team is set for Saturday, May 21st,  at 10:00 AM in the downtown Central Houston Public Library. That’s one week from this coming Saturday at the time of this column writing date of Thursday, May 12th – or nine days from today when we set sail.

Most of the major cogent answers we seek are contained somewhere in the files and public records housed at the library. These simply have not been attacked previously with enough qualified research power until now.

We shall also have the backing of the Houston Library Research Staff. In our meeting plan discussions with Ms. Hiawatha Henry of the professional library staff, Ms. Henry noted with this puckish challenge: “If it’s about Houston, we most likely have all the answers your SABR team is looking for right here in some form. Unless you’re looking for the Lost City of Atlantis, we will be here to help your staff accomplish its goals.”

There are no guarantees in life, but I feel good about our chances of pulling together a sound body of work that has been needed for some time in one central comprehensive publication. Our goal is to research, collate our data, write our work, and go into publication with our findings by 2013. All of us on the team are volunteers with no financial investment in the profits of this endeavor. Any profitability that results from the publication of our work will be used to support our local SABR chapter and its other preservationists activities in the Houston area.

In general, we shall be examining any records that help us trace the growth of baseball from its earliest amateur roots in the mid 19th century through the formation of Houston’s first professional club in 1888 and on into the well-chronicled history of the club known in minor league circles as the Houston Buffs consistently from 1907 through 1961, the year before the coming of major league baseball to this area. We will also try learn all we are able about the growth and development of school, amateur, semiprofessional, and black baseball in the Houston area back in the unfortunate days of segregation, We already have some significant, albeit sketchy information about the black baseball clubs that played here in the early to mid 20th century s the Monarch, Black Buffs, and Eagles.

Some major questions cry out for resolution: (1) What was exact location of J.H. Evans’ Store on Market Square? It was in a room on the second floor above Evans’ business that the first Houston Base Ball Club was formed on April 16, 1861. (2) Was the site of the Houston Base Ball Park, where, so far, we think that Houston played its first professional game in downtown Houston on March 6, 1888 located in the same place that the later-titled  West End Park was built in 1907? Or was it constructed on a distinctly separate location?

We need to know the answers to both those questions so that all sites of historical importance to history can be duly noted with commemorative plaques and recognition in print.

Printing words does not make them true.

The earliest lesson hammered at me years ago about research from my mentors is still the most important guide I use. Most of you probably know what it is. If you ever wrote a term paper, and you did, someone hit you with it too. It’s this big one: In research, always use primary sources of information, whenever possible, and always document your resources of support for any conclusion you may reach. 

Well, that’s all well and good – until you wade into historical social research and quickly find that most of your primary resources, your recorded eye witnesses to history, are now dead and definitively unavailable for further comment. Then you quickly find that historians did not usually sit around and record what people in the pre-high tech days of the 19th and early 20th century had to say for later examination by historians of the future.

In effect, newspaper stories and public records, plus the individual diaries and privately recorded correspondence of historic figures become about as close to primary sources as we shall find. The first problem here is that newspaper reporters may write us the only history of record we can find, but that was not their original intent. Newspaper people don’t write for history. They write to sell newspapers with what they hope will be interesting enough to sell that day’s copy.

Newspapers don’t write for history, but they are often the only history we can find.

Sometimes, as in the case of the Houston Post’s non-by lined coverage of Houston’s first 1888 professional game, the writer simply assumes that all his contemporary readers know the location of the “Houston Base Ball Park.” As a result, the whole first game gets reported without a single reference to the park’s location. The writer simply assumes that listing the game site address would  be unnecessary information. He’s not writing for history.

If you have anything you wish to contribute to the effort, please let us hear from you. As project director and editor-in-chief, I’m confident we can find a good balance between carrying out a known work plan that also leaves the door open to new information and new avenues of research. I can be reached with a comment on this column that includes your e-mail address – or you may simply write me directly at

Houston knew baseball before the Civil War – not because of it.

Finally, and I need to say this here, we start our research project with a piece of information from the HPL newspaper files that first framed “100 years” as the minimal period of time that baseball has been important in Houston. Obviously, if the first Houston Base Ball Club was formed in April 1861, and in the wake of secession, that local interest in the game most likely existed much earlier. I think it did, but we need evidence to back up that conclusion. The fact that Houston was started in 1836 by a couple of real estate speculators from New York suggest that early recruitment efforts attracted some northeastern state settlers who already knew about base ball prior to their arrival on the sunny downtown banks of Buffalo Bayou. We simply need to see further corroborating proof, if it can be found worthy of elevation from the theory category to factual confirmation.

The discovery of the 1861 first founding date in Houston already blows away one of the most popular generalizations about how baseball spread in popularity to the Old South. That theory was the one that had baseball spreading to Confederate soldiers in POW camps from their Union soldier teachers – and from Confederate soldiers spreading knowledge of the game to other in their home communities once the Civil War ended.

I’m not suggesting that none of that POW education didn’t happen with some Houston Confederates. I’m just saying that we now have objective proof that Houston knew the game even before the start of the war. And that serves as my best example of the attitude we all take into this project from the start.

At best, history is the connection of documentable facts in a meaningful way about what actually happened. No assumptions need apply. And no treatment of written opinions shall be held up as facts. We are dedicated to giving this work our best, most objective effort for the sake of bringing the truth to as much light as we can find about the early history of baseball in Houston.

Thanks for your time and indulgence. Class dismissed.

Mythology in Baseball History

January 19, 2011

Rube Foster: Did he really teach the fadeaway pitch to Christy Mathewson?

Speaking of subjects that are way too big for any singular blog column, “mythology in baseball history” probably sits at the mountaintop of those that fit the thesis that such topics even exist. That being said, we shall give it a humble try, anyway.

Why does the subject even matter? Easy. We may as well be asking: What does the game’s attraction feed upon? It isn’t the mere tonnage of stats generated by the game, or the base line scores of all past World Series games. None of these detailed facts even matter unless … unless they spring from or generate some new myth, or some sensational fact that eventually shall evolve into a myth that almost all fans know or help distort further and higher onto some new accepted level of factual assimilation.

Perception is reality, right? Well, it isn’t really, if you break down reality on the basis of discernible and measurable facts, but it sure puts a lot of individually constructed realities on collision courses with each other, which is often. We humans are much more comfortable with the fly-by-our-eyes assumption that how we see things is the way they are – and many are prepared to fight in defense of that idea. Now, given that little hot tonic of human tendency, myths are often the “the straw that stirs the drink” of argument.

One of the lesser known myths in baseball history concerns Rube Foster, the great old Negro League pitcher and later founder of the 1920 Negro National League. Legend has it that New York Giants manager John McGraw once hired Rube Foster to teach the fadeaway, or screwball, pitch to a young hurler named Christy Mathewson. That would be a great fact to nail down, but it cannot. As with almost all myths, the original source of this idea cannot be discernibly identified – nor has extensive research turned up anything in writing from that era to confirm it ever happened. The Foster-Mathewson Connection will continue to hang there on the myth rack of baseball history and, every now and then, someone will write about it as though it actually happened as a proven fact – thus, pumping up the perception’s credibility as pure reality.

Got that?

My guess is that “Ruth’s Called Shot” at Wrigley Field in the 1932 World Series is probably the biggest revered facts-challengeable myth in baseball history, right behind the Red Sox’ infamous “Curse of the Bambino,” which offers no hope for logical proof or disproof beyond the acceptance or rejection of logical thinking itself.

Did Babe Ruth really predict when and where he would hit a home run as he stood in the batter’s box at Wrigley Field that famous day? Just about the time we seemed on our way to putting this one to bed as a practical joke that even Ruth had prolonged for the fun of it a few years ago, a man comes up with a grainy home movie that he claims his grandfather took of Babe Ruth during that time at bat against Charlie Root. The movie clip clearly shows Babe Ruth raising his arm and pointing somewhere in the direction of center field.

Now the called-shot beast will never die.

Happy baseball fact-finding, folks. And try to remember something that even baseball research scholars seem to too often forget: When you see something in print, that fact alone doesn’t make the information true – nor does it make the author of this material either an authority or a primary source. These are the basic facts that serve as the foundational platform for all investigative reading, but they don’t scream out loud for themselves unless you bury them deep in your own researcher bones.

Research 101: WATCH YOUR ASSumptions!

February 21, 2010

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.”