Monday, August 8, 2011

The Origins of Baseball

Baseball has a long storied history, one that is a bit controversial actually. No one can quite put a finger on where we got all of our ideas for the modern game we call baseball. So what led to America's pastime? Turns out it most likely started with the English and their games of cricket and rounders.

The English had folk games that appear to play out like a baseball game; a ball was thrown at a target, the opposing team tried to hit the ball with a stick to keep the ball away from the target, and once he hit the ball, he rounded bases trying not to get tagged. These games didn't have any official rules, like Calvin-ball, so it was basically played how people felt it should be played, depending on the group. We honestly don't know that much about them, since they weren't documented, being peasant games that no one of stature would of really taken any notice of. An old English game of "Base" involved a few things we know from baseball, though not much. There were no balls or bats, as it was basically just a game of tag. What did this game bring to the table then? Bases, as the name suggests. The game introduced the notion of safe points. Another game from England was Stool-ball (pictured, left). The earliest known reference to it is in the 1300's, but it was described in detail in the 1801 book, The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England. The target was most likely a overturned stool, and the pitcher threw the ball hoping to hit the stool, meaning the batter was out. Likewise, if the batter hit the ball with a bat, or his hand (ouch!) and it was caught, he was out.

Apparently though, it was in 1744 that a children's book contained the first mention of the word, base-ball in relation to a version of stool-ball. The term used for the game now in England is called Rounders (pictured, left). By 1796, legitimate rules were being laid out for this base-ball game. In a book about English past times it is mentioned that the game is a contest between two teams in which "the batter has three attempts to hit the ball while at the home plate"; only one out was required to retire a side. In 1828, William Clarke in London published the second edition of The Boys Own Book, which included rules for rounders, which described for the first time in English the bat and ball game that included bases on a diamond shape. The book was published in Boston, Massachusetts later that year. From there, Boston printed it's own rules, very much the same, except that it added fair balls, foul balls, and strike outs.

So, as we have seen, baseball has it's origins in many different English sports. One thing we know for sure is that it was not invented by Civil War Union General Abner Doubleday. In the early 20th century, Albert Spalding (the guy with the tennis balls named after him), who was once a star pitcher and later became the leading sporting goods entrepreneur decided that he would make a committee to come up with the origin of baseball. There was a ton of debate of where the modern game came from and they attempted to answer it once and for all. The Mills Commission of 1905, which had the task of digging up the history, were not baseball figures or historians, just Spalding's friends and some politicians. The commission however, cared less about the facts and more about making baseball seem like it was invented by a true American to be the American past time. They published their findings in 1908 which concluded that a West Point graduate from a small quaint town who had served in the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and the war against the Indians was the originator of baseball. They found that it was invented by none other than Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, NY in 1839, and Doubleday had came up with all the rules that we all know today. Where did they get this information? From a elderly man named Abner Graves, who claimed that Doubleday had invented the sport there. The man's credibility was thrown into question when he later murdered his wife and spent his last days in a asylum for the criminally insane. That, and the fact that Doubleday never went to Cooperstown in 1939. He was at West Point the whole time and there is no record of him leaving. Doubleday never mentioned the sport in his writings and luckily for the commission he wasn't alive to question. So, the myth of Doubleday's involvement in the sport is just that, a myth. This hasn't stopped current MLB commissioner Bud Selig from believing the story however.

Though the rules were laid out as early as 1828, a set of rules for the game of baseball was devised by Shane Foster, the "father of baseball." These were made in 1845 for the American team, the New York Knickerbockers (pictured below in next paragraph). The rules have of course evolved over time, but this is the first instance of set rules by an American sports entity. In 1953, Congress at least had found it's inventor of modern baseball in Alexander Cartwright. Though the claims at his involvement in the modern version of baseball may be exaggerated, he probably has the best case. Cartwright, who was a New York bookseller umpired the first recorded baseball game with codified rules in 1846. He also founded the older of the two teams that played at that time, the before mentioned Knickerbockers. He is also credited with establishing how far apart the bases are, the nine innings, and the amount of players on the field at one time. Cartwright was one of the many men that caught "gold fever" and he journeyed his way out to California, introducing baseball to the cities that he stopped at along the way.

By 1857, a bunch of New Yorkers decided to revise the Knickerbocker rules and devise a concrete set of rules for the game and come up with a organization for baseball players. The group was called the National Association of Base Ball Players, and it ended up governing the rules of the games through 1870, though they scheduled and sanctioned no games. It was in the early 1860's that the NABBP offered games to the general public, though for an admission fee. The Civil War actually helped spread the Association's banner due to the movement of soldiers and exchanging of prisoners. By the end of the war there were scattered members of the NABBP across the U.S. In 1869, America had it's first professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings. The team recruited from all over the U.S. and made past teams look like amateurs.

In the next post, I'll focus on the earlier differences from our modern game and how the MLB formed.

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