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The History of Base Ball

Who invented base ball? When and where did it happen? Let's look back to the 1700s...

Americans have enjoyed base ball (as it was spelled in the 1800s) for hundreds of years. From strikes to balls and outs to fouls, generations of Americans have witnessed the game’s evolution. The game’s conception, as it is recognized today, is sketchy at best. However, many credit Abner Doubleday with its invention. The story goes like this: in the summer of 1839, Doubleday gathered with a group of young men from Otsego Academy in a cow pasture in Cooperstown, New York. There, base ball was born. Nevertheless, there are two historical difficulties with this story. First, in 1839, Doubleday was a cadet at West Point, not a student at Cooperstown. Second, although Doubleday kept a detailed journal throughout his adult life, he never mentioned base ball.

Another story of base ball’s beginnings pre-dates the Doubleday account by 14 years. In 1825, in a section of Rochester called Mumford’s Meadow, a local newspaper editor named Thurlow Weed organized a group of young men to play base ball. Weed’s friends included Addison Gardner, who became a state judge, and Frederick Backus, who became a successful physician and politician (whose house is now located in the Historic Village). Nonetheless, this story is also flawed: these would-be founders were probably playing one of the countless versions of town ball, not base ball.

Evolution vs. Creation:
So who did invent base ball, and when and where did it happen? Most serious scholars of the game agree that base ball was not invented but evolved from other existing games, most notably cricket and rounders. For example, Robert Williams Henderson wrote in his book Bat, Ball, and Bishop that base ball could be traced to an English game called stool ball, a forerunner to cricket. Stool ball was played in the 14th century and had a striker, who used a stick to hit a ball. The goal was to defend the stools, later called bases.

George Ewing, a Revolutionary War soldier, wrote in a letter home about playing a game of “base” at Valley Forge in 1778. Still, later, a game played on a diamond-shaped field with a stick and a ball was described in a book published in France in 1810. However, it was not until 1843 that all the components that would evolve into modern-day baseball would start to come together.

In 1843, a group of gentlemen, fond of town ball, gathered to play games in New York City. In spring 1845, Alexander Joy Cartwright, a young engineer, proposed a structured organization. Later that year, the Knickerbockers Base Ball Club was formed, and on September 23, Cartwright’s rules of base ball adopted rules that closely resemble those of today’s game. This New York game soon replaced the Massachusetts game of town ball and all other variations of base ball in the United States.

On June 19, 1846, the New York Nine Club and the Knickerbockers Club played the first recorded base ball game using the Knickerbockers’ rules of play. The two teams played at Elysian Fields, and the New York Nine defeated the Knickerbockers, 23-1. Three years later, on June 3, 1849, the Knickerbockers returned with another first by sporting the first base ball uniforms: matching white shirts, full-length blue trousers, and straw hats.

In May 1857, 16 teams gathered to adopt a new set of regulations built on Cartwright’s rules but with some significant changes. Games now lasted nine innings, instead of however long it took a team to achieve 21 aces (runs), and the fly game was adopted, replacing the bounder rule, which stated that a ball caught on the first bounce still counted as an out. By the end of 1857, the National Association of Base Ball Players had expanded to 26 clubs.

America’s Game:
On January 31, 1857, a columnist for the Spirit of the Times gave base ball the moniker it carries to this day when he called it the “the national pastime.” It seemed as though base ball had seen the arrival of its golden age. As we know today, this was still only the beginning.

In spite of, and in some cases due, to the Civil War, the 1860s saw a series of base ball firsts. The first issue of Beadle’s Dime Base Ball Player, an annual base ball guide, reached the newsstands, selling more than 50,000 copies. For the first time, strikes could be called on a batter, and extra innings were permitted in the case of a tie at the end of nine innings. Perhaps most significantly, pitching was about to see its first major change in style and philosophy. Previously, pitchers had been chosen for their ability to throw a ball that could be hit. In 1860, an 18-year-old changed all that.

Newspapers of the time called James Creighton “the pitcher par excellence” and said, “his forte was great speed and thorough command of the ball.” He was the first to experiment with different pitches and speeds to make a ball harder to hit. That year, Creighton and his team, the Excelsiors Base Ball Club, started on the first road trip ever taken by a base ball club, travelling to more than a dozen cities along the East Coast, including Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, and Rochester.

Pitchers continued to develop new ways to grip and pitch the ball. In 1864, William “Candy” Cummings threw the first curve ball. Base ball writers were beside themselves with praise, but skeptics called the pitch an optical illusion.

At the end of the Civil War, interest in sports, particularly base ball, rebounded. Soldiers had played the game in great numbers between the fighting, even in prisoner of war camps. The National Association recouped early losses of member clubs due to the war, and membership reached 91 clubs. On August 3, 1865, the first “grand match for the championship of the United States” was held with 15,000 fans in attendance. In December 1866, more than 200 clubs attended the annual convention of the National Association of Base Ball Players, marking the peak of the association’s membership.

Professionalism takes over:
By the latter half of the 1860s, players were being paid to play base ball, in spite of the National Association’s prohibition. Teams found creative ways to pay their best players. Players were hired into no-show jobs with local businesses or governments. Others were hired as base ball park custodians or groundskeepers, duties they never performed but that provided a cover for their pay for play wages.

On May 4, 1869, the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first openly professional base ball team in the United States. The Red Stockings played their first game against the Great Westerns, an amateur club. The Red Stockings crushed the Westerns, 45-9, kicking off a year-long unbeaten streak. Cincinnati fans never forgave their team for a single loss, and team captain Harry Wright convinced several of his best players to follow him to Boston. In 1871, the Boston Red Stockings were born. George Wright, Harry’s younger brother who had played for the Cincinnati team, moved to Boston and became the highest-paid player in base ball with an annual salary of $1,400. That year, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was formed in New York City, the first major league in base ball history. By 1875, several professional teams had been established, including the Chicago White Stockings, the St. Louis Unions, and the Philadelphia Pearls. That December, a secret meeting of owners was held to discuss forming a new league. As a result, William A. Hulbert and Charles A. Fowle announced the formation of the National League of Base Ball Clubs on January 23, 1876.

The National League was governed by five directors who represented the owners of the professional base ball clubs. No longer would the sport be ruled by the players — the owners had taken control. The reserve clause was implemented, which prohibited players from leaving a team to play for a rival team for better pay. Salary caps were instituted, and standard admission prices were agreed upon. Over the course of one season, owners began the transformation of base ball as a sport to base ball as big business.

Although there continued to be hundreds of amateur base ball clubs in the United States, the die was cast for professional base ball at the national level. By charging admission, selling advertising at base ball parks, through product endorsements, and by selling refreshments to the spectators, base ball team owners could make a handsome profit, a fact that continues to shape the game today.