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.