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What might have been

Posted On: August 4th, 2008 | Posted by: Dean


As I flew out to Utah and drove back to Chicago this week, I found myself revisiting an anecdote from a book I’d read in junior high called Ball Four — a tell-all book about professional baseball written by one-time Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton. I don’t recommend the book to my readers (I’ve pretty much filed my reading of it under the heading “misspent youth”) but at least one insightful concept from it remains with me: the idea of “games almost tied”.

During the 1969 baseball season chronicled in the book, Bouton was a relief pitcher for the Seattle Pilots. As he watched his team frequently struggle to come from behind in later innings, almost tie the game, but ultimately fall short, he observed that no baseball statistic existed to track the number of such valiant but unsuccessful comeback efforts. To meet this need, he coined the term “games almost tied”, which if adopted, would presumably go next to the win and loss columns in baseball standings. The poignancy of his idea struck me powerfully at the time and still does. What has this got to do with genealogy and family history, you ask? I’ll try to explain.

When we look at pedigree charts or family group sheets, marriage licenses or death certificates, what we’re seeing is basically “history as written by the winners” (to paraphrase Alex Haley, among others). These outlines of our ancestors’ lives of necessity omit mention of the relationships that were almost formalized, but not quite — of the families and children that might have been. Just as baseball standings would be enriched by considering the number of “games almost tied”, so (I’m tempted to conclude) family history research might take on an additional poignancy and relevance were we to occasionally throw light on some of the “almosts” that our ancestors navigated through.

Of course, there are good reasons that we tend to be hesitant to discuss old boyfriends/girlfriends, broken-off relationships and the like — and instead leave them to become inspiration for countless country music ballads and folk tunes. But even though they don’t fit in established slots on genealogical forms, I for one would be grateful if I had some insights into my ancestors’ near misses, whether in relationships, careers, geographic location, etc.. What about you?

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