Yesterday, I took part in the Library of Congress’s online webinar entitled “Batter Up! Baseball at the Library of Congress.” Hosted by Peter Armenti of the LoC, the webinar covered the early years of the game, sharing a variety of slides from the LoC’s collection.
Bat and ball games have been around in a variety of forms for a long, long time. What I didn’t realize was that versions of bat and ball games went back as far as ancient Egypt (though, the concept of hitting a ball with some form of club is honestly very elementary, so I don’t know why this surprised me).
The webinar debunks the Abner Doubleday myth, which claimed Doubleday invented the game in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York, pointing out that early incarnations of baseball existed well ahead of the time of Doubleday’s supposed founding of the game. For example, a game known as “Base Ball” was referred to in The Pretty Little Pocket Book in 1787, though the images of the game in said book look nothing like today’s pastime.
Base Ball gets referenced in a number of sources after that, including this 1823 article:
Industrialization and urbanization in the nineteenth century contributed to the rapid growth of the game. Other sports, including horse racing and boxing, were popular at the time, but the appeal for these did not match the appeal of baseball. Over time, the separation between work and play grew more pronounced in America, and baseball became a popular form of leisure in the off hours of industrial workers. Over time, the rules of the game evolved, and in the mid-nineteenth century, the New York Knickerbockers were founded, leading to a greater standardization of baseball rules.
The webinar goes into the development and codification of rules, including the establishment the 90-foot distance between bases, nine players per side, the elimination of “soaking,” and so on. There were two versions of the game at first, the Massachusetts and the New York games, but in the end, the New York version of baseball won out.
In the meantime, baseball spread rapidly, including a club in San Francisco in the mid-1800s that became California’s first (known) ball club. The outbreak of the Civil War also contributed to the spread of baseball’s popularity.
Baseball was also being played within the black population in the late-nineteenth century, and women also participated in the game as well. The webinar did not go into a lot of detail regarding these, but it did at least touch on them.
In 1868, it became allowed (publicly) for players to get played (some players had been receiving under-the-table compensation prior to this). In September of that year, the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first all-professional ball team, bringing an end to the amateur baseball era. The National Association of Professional Base Ball Players then became established in 1871, then today’s NL was established in 1876.
The Doubleday myth, as we know now, was the brainchild of Albert Spalding and the Mills Commission at the turn of the century. Spalding despised the idea that baseball evolved from the English game of rounders, as was argued by Henry Chadwick, and thus he set out to prove its American origins. Spalding released the commission’s findings of baseball’s origins in 1905. The results were deemed official by the end of 1907, then published in Spalding’s Base Ball Guide in 1908.
The webinar picks apart the arguments of the Mills Commission, pointing out that it is not possible that Doubleday could have invented baseball. Doubleday’s own lack of mentioning the game aside, the events outlined by the commission regarding baseball’s findings did not match up with the events of Doubleday’s life.
The webinar concluded with a brief question-and-answer session. The bit about ancient Egypt aside, I can’t say I learned much new from the session, which naturally is going to happen when you attend a webinar about something you like to study anyhow. However, it’s always nice to get a refresher on things, and the Library of Congress did a great job with this.
When one thinks of the American Civil War, a number of key themes come to mind: North vs. South; the Union and the Confederacy; slavery; race; Gettysburg; Appomattox; and so on… One rarely thinks of baseball, and yet the game provided entertainment and escape during this tumultuous period in our nation’s history.
Contrary to what the Abner Doubleday myth would have us believe, baseball was already well-established by the time the “War Between the States” broke out, and it is believed that President Abraham Lincoln may have been one of the game’s first fans. At the very least, many historians agree that Lincoln most likely watched, and possibly even played, the sport. There is no doubt, however, that the game was already making its way into the national consciousness. The political cartoon below show Lincoln with the other three Presidential candidates, John Bell, Stephen A. Douglas, and John C. Breckinridge, in the fall of 1860. The men are depicted as ballplayers, and Lincoln, of course, has his foot on home plate, representing victory. He smugly tells his opponents, “Gentlemen, if any of you should ever take a hand in another match at this game, remember that you must have ‘a good bat’ and strike a ‘fair ball’ to make a ‘clean score’ & a ‘home run.’”
Baseball was a pastime shared by both North and South, and officers on both sides touted the sport as a distraction from the horrors of war, as well as a means through which soldiers could exercise. Interestingly, the outbreak of war encouraged the growth of the sport, as large concentrations of young men gathered together in encampments often found themselves in need of a way to pass the time. To solve the problem of boredom, men from New York took to teaching their fellow soldiers, who came from areas throughout the country, the rules and play of baseball. What was once advocated as a “gentleman’s game” now spread amongst men from a wide variety of backgrounds.
One of the most famous games that took place during the war was between the 165th New York Infantry and the New York Regiment All-Star nine. Played in 1862, approximately forty thousand soldiers showed up to watch the matchup in Hilton Head, South Carolina. That’s a crowd that surpasses attendance at most Major League Baseball games today! As the war raged on and nationalism grew stronger, baseball became increasingly viewed as patriotic. Competitions were sometimes viewed as representative of the conflict between North and South.
Playing ball in the middle of the war wasn’t always fun and worry-free, of course. Some soldiers learned to play the game in one of the many Civil War prisons. The teams of active regiments experienced constant changes in their rosters, as men were killed on the battlefield. Sometimes, the ballgames themselves were interrupted, such as one George Putnam wrote home about:
“Suddenly there was a scattering of fire, which three outfielders caught the brunt; the centerfield was hit and was captured, left and right field managed to get back to our lines. The attack…was repelled without serious difficulty, but we had lost not only our centerfield, but…the only baseball in Alexandria, Texas.”
When the war ended and soldiers returned home, many of them shared the game they had learned with their communities. A game that was once mostly confined to the New York area exploded throughout the country. Baseball became a force that helped to heal the rift in the country as many fans began to refer to it as “the national pastime.” Many new leagues formed throughout the nation. Referred to as the “Textile Leagues,” they resembled the minor league system of today. As baseball’s popularity became widespread, the foundation was laid for the establishment of organized and professional play.
Aubrecht, Michael. “Baseball and the Blue and Gray.” Baseball Almanac. Baseball-Almanac, July 2004. Web. Accessed 17 May 2013. http://www.baseball-almanac.com/articles/aubrecht2004b.shtml
Bluett, Terry. “Baseball and the Civil War.” Pennsylvania Civil War Trails. PA Tourism Office. Web. Accessed 18 May 2013. http://www.pacivilwartrails.com/stories/tales/baseball-and-the-civil-war
“Cartoon Corner: The National Game, Three Outs and One Run.” Abraham Lincoln’s Classroom. The Lincoln Institute, 2003-2013. Web. Accessed 18 May 2013. http://www.abrahamlincolnsclassroom.org/Cartoon_Corner/index3.asp?ID=97&TypeID=1
Kirsch, George B. Baseball in Blue and Gray: The National Pastime During the Civil War. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton U P, 2003.
Rothschild, Richard. “Lincoln was game for baseball.” Chicago Tribune. ChicagoTribune.com, 11 February 2003. Web. Accessed 18 May 2013. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2003-02-11/sports/0302110160_1_16th-president-historian-jules-tygiel-abner-doubleday