The History of Baseball
Deeply embedded in the folklore of American sports is the story of baseball’s supposed invention by a young West Point cadet, Abner Doubleday, in the summer of 1839 at the village of Cooperstown, New York. Because of the numerous types of baseball, or rather games similar to it, the origin of the game has been disputed for decades by sports historians all over the world. In 1839, in Cooperstown, New York, Doubleday supposedly started the great game of baseball. Doubleday, also a famous Union general in the Civil War, was said to be the inventor of baseball by Abner Graves, an elderly miner from New York. In response to the question of where baseball first originated, major league owners summoned a committee in 1907. Abner Graves stepped before the committee and gave his testimony. In Graves’ account of the first game, the Otsego Academy and Cooperstown’s Green’s Select School played against one another in 1839. Committeeman Albert G. Spalding, the founder of Spalding’s Sporting Goods, favored Graves’ declaration and convinced the other committeemen that Graves’ account was true. As a result, in 1939, the committee and the State of New York named Cooperstown and Abner Doubleday as the birthplace and inventor of baseball, respectively. Today, many baseball historians still doubt the testimony of Abner Graves. Historians say the story came from the creative memory of one very old man and was spread by a superpatriotic sporting goods manufacturer, determined to prove that baseball was a wholly American invention. According to Doubleday’s diary, he was not playing baseball in Cooperstown, but attending school at West Point on that day in 1839. Also, historians have found that nowhere in Doubleday’s diary has he ever claimed to have had anything to do with baseball, and may never have even seen a game. This leads many to the conclusion that Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball, but it is still a disputed and provocative issue.
Sports historians have presented impressive evidence showing that American baseball, far from being an independent invention, evolved out of various ball-and-stick games that had been played in many areas of the world since the beginnings of recorded history. But in early America, precursors of baseball included informal games of English origin such as paddleball, trap ball, rounders, and town ball. The latter was a popular game in colonial New England and was played by adults and children with a bat and ball on an open field. Printed references to base ball in America date back to the eighteenth century. Among these accounts is one of Albigence Waldo, a surgeon with Washington’s troops at Valley Forge who poetically told of soldiers batting balls and running bases in their free time. Similarly in 1834 Robin Carver’s Book of Sports related that an American version of rounders called base or goal ball was rivaling cricket in popularity among Americans. Indeed, cricket played a role in the evolution of organized baseball. From this British game came umpires and innings, and early baseball writers like Henry Chadwick used cricket terminology such as batsman, playing for the side, and excellent field in describing early baseball games. Likewise, the pioneer baseball innovator Harry Wright, a cricket professional turned baseball manager, drew heavily on his cricket background in promoting baseball as a professional team sport in the United States.
By the 1840s various forms of baseball vied for acceptance, including the popular Massachusetts and New York versions of the game. The Massachusetts game utilized an irregular four-sided field of play, with the four bases located at fixed, asymmetrical distances from each other and the striker’s, or batter’s position away from the home base. Scouts, or fielders, put men out by fielding a batted ball on the fly or on the first bounce, or by hitting a runner with a thrown ball. But this lively version of the game was overshadowed in the late 1840s by the New York game, a popular version of which was devised by the members of the New York Knickerbocker Club.
Organized in 1845 by a band of aspiring gentlemen and baseball enthusiasts, the Knickerbocker version was devised by one of their members, Alexander J. Cartwright. Cartwright prescribed a diamond-shaped infield with bases at ninety feet apart, a standard which has stood the test of time. The pitching distance was set at forty-five feet from the home base, and a pitcher was required to pitch a ball in a stiff-armed, underhanded fashion. The three-strikes-are-out rule was adopted, and a batter could also be put out by a fielder catching a batted ball in the air, or on the first bounce, or by throwing a fielded ball to the first baseman before the runner arrived. Other innovations included the nine-man team and three outs ending a team’s batting in their half of an inning. Thus Cartwright’s version of baseball became the basis of the game as presently played. Over the years, other innovations were added, including the nine-inning standard for games, changes in the pitching distance, and so on. On June 19, 1846, in Hoboken, New Jersey, the first organized baseball game was played by the New York Nine and the New York Knickerbockers. The Knickerbockers were defeated by the Nine by a score of twenty-three to one.
Mostly a Northern and Midwestern phenomenon, baseball fever ran highest in the New York City area, where in the 1850s, games were being played on every available green plot within a ten-mile circuit of the city. Spearheading the baseball boom were formally organized clubs with officers, clubhouses and playing grounds. Among the many clubs, the Knickerbockers sought to rule the game by posing as arbiters of play, rules, and decorum. Since no leagues or playing schedules existed, formal games in the 1850s were arranged by correspondence between club secretaries. By the end of the 1850s, victories and the prospect of gate receipts were becoming more important factors. As more clubs embraced these goals, greater emphasis was placed on obtaining good players at whatever affronts to amateur standards.
The popularity of amateur baseball clubs that played between 1845 – 1865, led to the introduction of the first professional baseball club, the Cincinnati Red Stockings. They are called the first professional baseball team because they were the first team to pay their players. In 1869, they traveled the country playing baseball and had a total payroll of less than 9,400 dollars. While traveling across the country, the Red Stockings made a phenomenal feat, earning eighty-four consecutive wins. This record is still held today. In the year of their streak, the Cincinnati Red Stockings hit with an average of over .400, and produced baseball’s first left-handed pitcher, Bobby Mitchell. The Red Stockings’ success against the amateur teams provided incentive to create America’s first professional baseball league, the National Association of Baseball Players in 1858. It was formed by representatives of twenty-five clubs for the purpose of codifying rules and establishing guidelines for organized clubs and team competition. The Association quickly established itself as the new arbiter of the game. Among its early rulings were the establishment of a pitcher’s box and the standardization of the nine-inning game. The Association also approved the practice of charging paid admissions at games and that year saw 1,500 spectators pay 50 cents each to watch a game played between Brooklyn and New York all-star teams. Although the Association established no league or formal playing schedules, its authority was accepted and it lasted until 1871, when it was replaced by a lame organization called the National Association of Amateur Base Ball Players.
American baseball’s popularity was at high tide when the Civil War broke out, and the South was excluded from major league baseball competition for many years. And yet the war also popularized the game in all sections of the country, as soldiers in both armies played the game in camps and in prison compounds.
William Ambrose Hubert (president of the Chicago club) and Al Spalding (a pitcher from Boston) believed that reforms were needed to protect baseball from the corruption and instability that surrounded the National Association. At a meeting in Louisville in 1876, Hubert, Spalding, and representatives of the St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Louisville baseball clubs designed a set of guidelines for the new league, named The National League of Professional Baseball Clubs. The National League contained 8 character clubs, however, between 1876 and 1900, only Chicago and Boston fielded a team each year.
During the first two decades of existence, The National League withstood threats of competition from newer professional leagues. In the 1890’s, The National League’s dominance weakened after growing to 12 teams, an unmanageable number for that period.
Although Baseball remained the countries favorite sport, it was gaining a reputation for rowdiness and dirty play that didn’t match the era. This prompted Byron Banford Ban Johnson and Charles Albert Comiskey to found a league based on strong leadership and good virtue. In the American League, games were not played on Sundays and women were encouraged to attend ball games. Johnson and Comiskey set a goal to establish a new image for the game. Recognizing that its power had declined partially by managing too many teams, The National League sold four teams to the new league in 1900.
Following this transaction, National League officials still scoffed at this new league when it began play in 1901. However after luring many premiere National League Players with higher salaries and running a kinder, gentler league, American League attendance exceeded National League attendance by 600,000 fans in 1902. Early in 1903, the National League granted the American League status as a Major League. With this, came a consistent scheduling system, player contract regulations, and playing guidelines that the two leagues would share. Another product of this agreement was the World Series, which pitted the American league champion against the National League champion in a nine game series (later shortened to seven) that would determine the World Champion of Baseball.
In 1903, 16 franchises competed for the first World Series Championship. Though some of these teams have moved to new locations or changed their names, the modern era of baseball began in 1903.