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.
I spent much of the last week visiting an old friend who now lives in New York state. Though I was only there for a few days, we managed to cram a lot into our limited time together. We spent a full day in Manhattan — my first time ever in New York City. Another day, we went on a five-mile hike up a mountain in the Hudson River Valley. I also insisted, so long as I was making the trip halfway across the country, that we had to visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The day we reserved for visiting the Hall of Fame came the day after our NYC day, and we didn’t get to bed until about 2:00 a.m. that night before. Cooperstown is about a three-hour drive from my friend’s home, and as late as we were out the previous night, there was no way we were going to be on the road by 6:00 am to be there in time for the 9:00 open time. Instead we pulled into town a bit after noon, and we stopped for sandwiches and coffee at a nice little café called Stagecoach Coffee (which I highly recommend, by the way, if you’re ever in Cooperstown).
We finished our lunch and arrived at the Hall of Fame around 1:00, leaving us about four hours to explore before closing time. There ended up being a couple of exhibits we didn’t get to see (pro tip: don’t go out the night before so you can get there earlier than we did), but we did see most of it, and I took an insane number of pictures in the process. For sanity’s sake, I’ll just post a few of the highlights here, but if you are somehow just morbidly curious, I’ve created a public album including all my photos here.
Every serious baseball fan has heard of Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Located in central New York, this town received its name from the family of American author James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans). Home to just under two thousand residents, Cooperstown is really little more than just a village that lies within the town of Otsego.
Cooperstown became the location for the Hall of Fame thanks to the myth of Abner Doubleday. Abner Doubleday was a Union general during the American Civil War who initiated the first shot of the war at Fort Sumter and later served in the Battle of Gettysburg. By many accounts, Doubleday was considered a war hero. In 1907, the Spalding Commission, headed by sporting goods titan A. G. Spalding, determined that it was Doubleday who invented the game of baseball in a cow pasture in Cooperstown in 1839. That cow pasture is now known as Abner Doubleday Field.
In the 1930s, Cooperstown native Stephen Carlton Clark approached the president of the National League, Ford C. Frick (who later became the Commissioner of Baseball), with the idea of establishing a Baseball Hall of Fame. As an art collector and affluent businessman, Clark’s motivation behind founding the Hall lay not only in his desire to celebrate and commemorate the sport, but also to boost the economy of his town, which suffered in the wake of the Great Depression. Frick approved of the idea, and in 1936, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Babe Ruth became the Hall’s first inductees. Stephen Clark donated funds towards the erection of a building, and the Hall of Fame’s official dedication took place on 12 June 1939.
Today, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum features more than 38,000 artifacts spread out over three floors. In the Plaque Gallery, nearly three hundred bronze plaques honor the achievements of the game’s Hall of Famers. The Hall’s motto is “Preserving History, Honoring Excellence, Connecting Generations.”
“The Doubleday Myth is Cooperstown’s Gain: Pastoral village has become the heart of baseball folklore.” National Baseball Hall of Fame. National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Web. Accessed 31 May 2013. http://baseballhall.org/museum/experience/history
“National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum.” Believe it or not, this is Cooperstown: The official website of Cooperstown/Otsego County, New York. Cooperstown/Otsego County Tourism. Web. Accessed 2 June 2013. http://www.thisiscooperstown.com/attractions/national-baseball-hall-fame-museum
“Stephen C. Clark, Art Patron, Dead: Noted Collector Was Singer Sewing Machine Heir–Set Up Baseball Hall of Fame.” New York Times 18 September 1960. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. The New York Times (1851-2002), p. 86.