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Play Ball!

May 2024
3min read

In baseball's earliest years, players beaned baserunners and often had to flout town laws prohibiting the game

The game of baseball was not always the well-ordered sport we know today, played on elegantly manicured fields bordered by crisp white lines. As historians have debunked the widely held myth that Abner Doubleday of Cooperstown, New York, invented the sport out of whole cloth in 1839, they have discovered its deeper American origins. In 1787, the same year the Constitution was written, a Worcester, Massachusetts, publisher printed A Little Pretty Pocket Book, the American edition of an English book for children, which included a poem and illustration dedicated to “base-ball.”

Six years ago, historian John Thorn and former major league pitcher Jim Bouton poked around the Pittsfield, Massachusetts, courthouse archives and discovered a 1791 measure that set out to stop a rash of broken windows by prohibiting anyone from playing “baseball” within 80 yards of the building. Both Worcester and Cooperstown, future home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, banned children from playing the game.

Yet despite such resistance, baseball took off in New England, New York, and the Middle Atlantic states. Members of social clubs and workers in factories—organizations that did not exist in the hinterland—typically formed the first teams. Gentlemen, or men of some means, established the first baseball clubs, because they had the time and resources to practice the sport, travel to ball fields, and furnish equipment and uniforms.

As the 19th century progressed, a large and prosperous middle class emerged in the United States. Workers increasingly had periods of leisure time and now often looked for a game of baseball. In the cities, political or commercial patrons sometimes supported larger clubs. The New York Mutuals, a working-class team in lower Manhattan, represented “Boss” Tweed’s Tammany Hall, the city’s Democratic political machine of the 1860s and early 1870s.

Early organized American baseball took two forms. New Englanders knew the game as “town ball” or the “Massachusetts game,” which featured base paths laid out in a square instead of a diamond, and a rule allowing fielding players to put out the batter or “striker” by “soaking” him (hitting him with a thrown ball before he reached base). Town ball flourished along the eastern seaboard. A group of young men in Philadelphia, who formed the Olympic Ball Club to play town ball in 1833, may have been the first organized baseball-related team in America. In 1838 they created and published rules aptly called their “constitution.”      

The Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York, organized in the 1840s by a group of upper-middle-class Manhattan gentlemen, took town ball and developed their own rules. In 1845 Knickerbocker Alexander Joy Cartwright, Jr., a bank teller and part-time volunteer fireman, suggested that the team play scheduled games against local clubs. To govern these games, on September 23, 1845, the Knickerbockers instituted what came to be known as the “New York rules.”

By the 1850s the Knickerbockers, their cross-town rivals the Gothams, and such other clubs as the Mutuals, Eckfords, Unions, and Brooklyn Atlantics played regularly before crowds that often had traveled some distance. New York’s burgeoning newspaper industry championed the sport, promoting big games and glamorizing newfound stars. Transplanted Englishman and cricket booster Henry Chadwick, the country’s first sportswriter, loved baseball and devised numerous innovations, including box scores and game accounts. Known even during his own lifetime as the “father of baseball,” he tirelessly promoted the sport and through his singular advocacy helped solidify it as America’s most popular game.

In 1857 the Knickerbockers and 15 other clubs formed the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) to “promote additional interest in baseball playing” and to “regulate various matters necessary to its good government and continued respectability.” Adopting the Knickerbockers’ original rules, the NABBP also specified that nine men would play on each side, bases would be set 90 feet apart, and an umpire would have the power to call strikes. Players were required to catch balls barehanded, not with their caps. (Baseball gloves would not become standard until the 1880s.) In addition, no players could be paid to play, although the trend toward luring talent to join teams in return for cushy local jobs was already under way.

One year after the NABBP formed, thousands of fans paid 50 cents at Long Island’s Fashion Race Course to watch the “New York All Stars” win a two-out-of-three-game series against their Brooklyn counterparts. The series’ success, along with the city’s influential press and the improvements brought about by the NABBP rules, helped make the “New York rules” the national standard, superseding the “Massachusetts game” and laying the foundation for the modern sport.

The Civil War greatly accelerated baseball’s popularity. Soldiers from the Northeast, already familiar with the game, cured boredom in camp by playing ball. Officers encouraged such games to foster camaraderie and improve morale. Regiments challenged one another, and friendly rivalries developed during breaks in combat.

After the war, Army servicemen and veterans spread baseball across the country. It proved an effective salve for a nation battered by years of war and shocked by the assassination of its president. Some remembered that Lincoln had enjoyed playing ball as a young legislator in Springfield, Illinois, during the 1840s. The president and his young son Tad may have viewed one of the games on a lot adjacent to the White House.

The postwar era marked baseball’s first golden age. The sport had a democratizing and unifying effect then: laborers could beat gentlemen, mechanics could best attorneys, Southerners could defeat Northerners, and Baptists could battle Methodists with no hard feelings. For a while, blacks could challenge whites; men of color played on integrated teams from the lowest to the highest levels until the 1880s, when the major leagues imposed a ban that held until 1947.


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