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A History of Baseball

Baseball, widely known as “America’s Past Time,” occupies an unquestionable place in the American consciousness. An outgrowth of both English cricket and American ball and bat games, baseball holds an “uncanny” and “intuitive” adherence to American temperament and characters. Some scholars gesture to the baseball diamond as a source of the game’s powerful, almost mythical attraction. Perhaps the diamond’s four corners resonate deeply with the human subconscious because it correlates to the four cardinal points of the year, or perhaps its geometric shape echoes the disciplined philosophy of Jefferson or Madison. For some scholars, even the infield/outfield dichotomy acts as a metaphor for America’s lingering concern over the tensions between the frontier and wilderness. Or, perhaps the structure of the game expresses American notions of individualism, with its emphasis on independence, self-reliance, and equality (Tygiel 2000). Whatever its appeal, baseball inhabits an uneasy place between controversy and its historical capacity to inspire, unite, and enliven.

Baseball's Origins

While the exact origins of baseball are unknown, baseball most likely evolved gradually from several early games (both English and American) such as “rounders,” “town ball,” “base,” “old-cat,” “one-old cat,” or “barn ball” (Dreifort 2001). Though there are no official rules that have survived, it appears that in many of these games, a batter would hit a pitched ball and then run bases, which may range from one base to five, with little regard to spacing. The bases were typically made from stone, clothing, or stakes, and the ball might be made from wool socks that were unraveled and wound around a cork. There would be no umpire, and the pitcher was supposed to throw a ball so that it could be hit by the batsman. Teams were of various sizes, sometimes up to fifteen on each side, and there were no boundaries for foul territory (Radar 2002). Players would get “out” if they were “plunked” (often painfully) with a thrown ball. One “out” changed teams, and usually 100 runs won the game. These early folk games were very popular in England, the United States, and Canada, and soon several clubs formed, particularly in New York, Philadelphia, and Rochester.

The Formation of Baseball As a "Gentlemen's" Fraternity

It is generally accepted that the most important early organized club was formed by Alexander Joy Cartwright. Cartwright convinced a group of assorted “gentlemen” in New York who were playing a bat-and-ball game to form a baseball club called the New York Knickerbockers Base Ball Club after Cartwright’s employer, the Knickerbockers Engine Club (Rosenburg 1962). The club was not just a team, but an athletic and social fraternity which actively promoted Victorian notions of “gentlemen behavior,” such as improving the moral, social, and physical traits of its members (Dreifort 2001).

The Knickerbockers established a set of rules in 1845 that would be influential and lasting. For example, the club replaced “plugging” with the less painful “tagging.” In contrast to modern baseball, the umpire would sit behind a table by the third base line, sometimes dressed in tails and a black top, rarely interfering in the game. If an umpire was uncertain about a call, it was appropriate for him to seek the help of nearby spectators who were presumed to be unbiased “gentlemen.” The fielders did not wear gloves and the catcher wore no protective gear. Because the umpire called no strikes, the batter could wait patiently for a pitch that suited his liking (Goldstein 1989). In one of the most significant rule changes, the Knickerbockers not only redefined the playing field to include a home plate and three other bases, but they also established foul lines. These changes were important because they both organized the game and allowed spectators to be much nearer the action. In another important decision that helped popularized the game, a team won when they scored 21 “aces” or runs, provided that both teams had played an equal number of innings (a term borrowed from cricket). Unlike other clubs, such as the Massachusetts club which required 100 runs to win (often ending at night fall), and cricket games which lasted two days, this new time frame attracted more spectators (Tygiel 2000). The first recorded baseball game was played in 1846 when Cartwright’s Knickerbockers lost to the New York Base Ball Club (which was perhaps an intra-club) at the Elysian Fields (23-1).

1850-1865: Growing Nationalism

During the 1850s and 1860s, the “New York Game,” as the Knickerbockers version of the sport became known, completely displaced all competing forms of baseball games, and on December 5, 1856, The New York Mercury labeled the game as “the national pastime” (Tygiel 2000). Henry Chadwick (considered the “Father of Baseball,” and the only sportswriter inducted into the hall of fame) created baseball’s scoring and statistics system that gave the game lasting legitimacy nationally and internationally. Furthermore, in light of growing national tension before the Civil War (1861-1865), baseball asserted itself as not just a game for either the North or South, but as a national game (Goldstein 1989). As the country yearned for unification, many baseball clubs avowed their patriotism by taking on names such as American, Eagle, Young America, Washington, and Liberty (Radar 2002). If the Civil War defined the United States as a nation, baseball emerged as its undisputed game of choice.

1865-1900: Professionalization and Commercialization

When the Knickerbockers formed the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) in 1858, they not only hoped to regulate inter-club competition and preserve the fraternal character of the game, they also wanted to prohibit players from taking payment for playing baseball. However, when landowners such as William H. Cannemeyer began making money in 1862 by renting maintained baseball fields to baseball clubs, players pressured the NABBP to allow players to be paid as well—both marking the birth of professional baseball and hinting at future tensions between players and owners (Radar 2002). The first openly professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, began touring the nation in 1869, deftly crushing all remaining amateur teams.

The move to build fences and charge admission, often called the “enclosure movement,” had far-reaching implications, primarily subordinating fraternal concerns to commercial considerations. In response of the perceived erosion of values, the NABBP fined players for swearing, disputing umpire decisions, and other forms of disorderly conduct. They also sought the patronage and influence of women as they thought women possessed special powers to domesticate man. but none of these measures ensured that baseball would be free from disorderly conduct, and by late 1860s, there were widespread charges of fixed games, gambling, drinking, and general disorder (Tygiel 2000).

In 1871, the NABBP split into The National Association of Professional Baseball and an amateur branch, which quickly disappeared. The National Association of Professional Baseball in 1875 morphed into the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs (Radar 2002). The National League, which still exists today, faced several problems, including player revolts over the reserve clause, which restricted players from moving from team to team.

The National League (NL) also faced competition from a new league, the American Association (AA) (1881-1891), which charged lower admission prices, played on Sunday, and allowed the sale of liquor. In 1883, the NL and AA agreed that the AA would adopt the NL’s reserve clause and that they would also meet in post-season championships in the first attempt at a “World Series.” Despite these challenges, attendance continued to grow during the late 1890s as larger ballparks were built and the quality of play increased. In 1901, after the AA disbanded, Ban Johnson created the American League. Disagreements between the American League and the National League resulted in the “Great Baseball War,” which was settled in the 1903 National Agreement. According to this agreement, both teams would meet for the first World Series (Tygiel 2000).

Early 1900s: Increased Popularity and the "Dead Ball" Era

Baseball’s popularity soared in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Spectators were delighted by what is largely considered a pitcher-dominated game from 1900-1919. Indeed, it was difficult to make runs not only with the new rules that instituted new foul ball strike-outs, but also because of what was called a “dead ball,” or a ball that was soft and discolored. Hitters would complain that pitchers would purposely make the ball dirty and harder to see with tobacco juice or that pitchers would spit on the ball to remove its natural spin (Radar 2002). Despite hitters’ complaints, baseball thrived with the creation of the World Series, the thrills of regular season play, and the construction of great ball parks such as Sportsman's Park (1902), Wrigley Field (1914), Fenway Park (1912), and Yankee Stadium (1923), as well as a galaxy of national heroes such as Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson (Dreifort 2001).

"Say it ain't so, Joe. . ."

While WWI left baseball clubs with few players, and while player dissatisfaction with both their pay and the reserve clause continued to grow, the biggest challenge to baseball was the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. Chicago White Sox star outfielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, in grand jury testimony, revealed that eight Chicago players had been promised a total of $100,000 to purposefully lose the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, (though they didn't receive much of what they were promised) (Tygiel 2000). While baseball’s reputation was severely damaged, one man would leave that all in the background: George Herman “Babe” Ruth.

Babe Ruth and the End of the "Dead Ball" Era

Baseball recovered from the shame of the 1919 World Series in part due to the introduction of the cork-centered ball which allowed for more home runs. This new ball ushered in one of America’s legendary hitters, Babe Ruth, who remains a national hero and a symbol of pride. In addition, increased media coverage such as radio broadcasts and the creation of night baseball games led to unprecedented attention to baseball, from Hollywood films to baseball cards. Reflecting the growing obsession with baseball, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum opened in Cooperstown, New York, in 1939 (Tygiel 2000), and the International Baseball Federation was established in 1938 (IBAF).

WWII and Diversification

Many baseball players left to serve in WWII which, in some ways, shook up the typical baseball roster. For example, some club owners started drafting players from Latin American countries and, in 1943, Philip Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Clubs, founded the All American Girls Professional Baseball League (Radar 2002). Significantly, in 1947 Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson, one of the first people to break the color barrier in the twentieth century. After the war, baseball continued to grow, especially when greats such as Bob Feller, and Joe DiMaggio returned to the baseball field from the field of war (Tygiel 200).

1950-1990: Expansion and Growing Unrest

In the 1950s, several professional teams moved west, such as the Boston Braves (to Atlanta), Brooklyn Dodgers (to Los Angeles), and the New York Giants (to San Francisco), further expanding baseball markets. During the 1960s, the National and American Leagues expanded to twelve teams per league and, in 1969, they split each league into East and West divisions. In addition to westward expansion, television’s increasing broadcast of games and the designated hitter rule in 1973 continued to bolster baseball’s popularity.

There was unrest among players, however, and in the 1972 season, the players went on strike. Though the U. S. Supreme Court upheld the reserve clause, its ruling paved the way for free agency later in the 1970s. Regardless of the larger degree of free agency, baseball players staged another strike in 1981 and again in 1994. To the deep disappointment of fans, the 1994 World Series was canceled for the first time in 92 years.

1990-Today: Steroid Use and Revival

During the 1998 season, Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs competed to beat the single-season record of 61 home runs set by Yankees legend Roger Maris. This competition, coupled with a phenomenal season for the New York Yankees, generated huge media coverage and fan interest for baseball. This renewed excitement was short lived, however, when former Major League star Jose Conseco published a book admitting that not only did he use steroids during his career, but that other players such as McGwire used steroids as well. Consequently, Major League Baseball and the Major League Players Association announced a stricter steroid policy and, in December 2007, former Senator George Mitchell published a report that identified as many as 90 players, many of whom were the sport’s top stars, as users of steroids. The Mitchell Report argued that performance-enhancing drugs had pervaded baseball during the late 1980s and threatened the integrity of the game.

While steroid use threw a dark shadow on baseball and perhaps indirectly led to baseball being kicked out of the 2012 Olympics, the game seems to be showing its historical resilience and adaptability. Countries such as Japan, Cuba, and other Caribbean nations boast strong performances, and 2007 saw the creation of the first Middle Eastern professional baseball team. Even with its controversies, baseball holds a special appeal, perhaps because it combines so many elements of childhood, from running around to hitting stuff with sticks. Indeed, for many, baseball, as Terence Man says in A Field of Dreams, is still imbued with magic, memory, and hope.

-- Posted October 13, 2008. Updated June 4, 2010.

References

Dreifort, John E. ed. 2001. Baseball History from Outside the Lines. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Goldstein, Warren. 1989. Playing for Keeps: A History of Early Baseball. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

International Baseball Federation.

Radar, Benjamin G. 2002. Baseball: A History of American’s Game. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Rosenburg, John M. 1962. The Story of Baseball: Illustrated with Photographs. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.

Tygiel, Jules. 2000. Past Time: Baseball as History. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.