What started as an informal game played among gentlemen has quickly become one of the United States of America’s best loved past times. While for many the origins of modern day baseball are the stuff of legends the reality is that in only a few, short, decades a few pioneers managed to develop, promote, and maintain a well loved and admired sport. In this paper I will be briefly outlining the early beginnings of the sport of Baseball and introducing several people who helped to publicize and create modern day baseball.
The game of baseball can be traced back into the 17000s when amateur players participated in a large variety of versions of the sport. While there are a few myths and legends regarding the origin of modern day baseball the closest ancestor to the game we know and love today began sometime in the spring of 1842. During that spring a group of gentlemen played an antique version of baseball every weekend afternoon in Manhattan. These New Yorkers were all professionals in some form, physicians, merchants, brokers, and businessmen.
In those days they played the sport for enjoyment and for health with only their friends and neighbors as an audience. On September 23rd, 1845 a group of 28 men decided to form an official Base Ball club. The club was named the New York Knickerbocker Base Ball club which was the name of the volunteer fire department many of the players (including one of the leading members Alexander Joy Cartwright) belonged to.
Shortly after establishing the club Cartwright and Daniel Lucius ‘Doc’ Adams, a New Hampshire physician and fellow player, decided to get together and draw up a set of rules. They hoped to improve the game and keep it a gentleman’s sport by establishing consistent rules to be followed during all games. These rules included the use of a diamond shaped infield, 3 bases (42 paces apart) foul lines, and the rule that pitchers would throw underhand. Another rule established was that players must be tagged and thrown out rather than thrown ‘at’.
Once the rules were established the ball club began to play in Hoboken New Jersey every weekend. Playing in New Jersey meant that they would have more room than a cramped New York street for their game. They rented a field for the game along with dressing rooms and every weekend afternoon they would enjoy a game of baseball played on a field overlooking a river called the Elysian Fields.
In 1846 on June 19th the first official game was held between the New York Kinckerboxer club and the New York Baseball club. The Knickerbockers lost that game 23-1 but a pattern was established for playing games. Clubs would have their secretaries arrange games by using formal letters and, in attempt to make the game easier, baseballs were made heavier so they could be thrown farther.
Ten years later, with baseball continuing to grow popular, On December 5th 1856 the New York Mercury became the first publication to refer to baseball as ‘the nations past time’. With the sport becoming popular in the north east the National Association of Baseball Players was created in 1857 by joining 15 clubs. Doc Adams became president of this new association and their main purpose was to preserve and promote the game of baseball.
By 1858 special trains ran three days a week to carry baseball enthusiasts to watch baseball games and for the first time onlookers were charged to watch the sport. Approximately 4,000 people paid $0.50 each to watch the New York All Stars beat their Brooklyn counterparts. While the sport was becoming well known on its own a journalist by the name of Henry Chadwick helped get baseball into the mainstream. He managed to convince the New York Times to include baseball scores in the paper making a separate column and he became the nation’s first baseball editor.
As an added bonus to this new press the first ‘baseball star’ gained the publics love in 1859. The star, a pitcher named James Creighton, joined the Brooklyn Niagras and stunned crowds with his newly developed ‘speedball’. This was a revolutionary way of pitching and caught the attention of another, popular, team the Excelsior’s. In a deal that has never been completely exposed James Creighton was given a spot on the Excelsior’s team where he played with them until 1862 where on October 14th, shortly after hitting a home run, he collapsed from a ruptured spleen and died four days later.
By this point the game had spread from New York to Oregon and California and was starting to gain hold in the south. The beginning of the Civil War brought a temporary halt on the spread of baseball to the south but it did not last long. Soldiers found that the sport was portable and could be played anywhere. The game of baseball was played in prison camps, battlefields, and even behind the White House.
When the war came to an end the soldiers took the game of baseball back home with them where it continued to spread. Though initially baseball was meant to be the sport of gentlemen it was now being played by the working class as well. Shortly before the beginning of the Civil War, in 1860 a team was established called the Atlantics and it was comprised entirely of working class men. During a game on August 20th with the Excelsior’s the crowd they drew (also of working class men) jeered the Excelsior’s so loudly (in favor of their fellow working class men) that the Excelsior’s left the field. As if that wasn’t bad enough the gentlemanly sport of baseball suffered its first major scandal.
In the year 1865 a great scandal almost ruined the Mutuals, a baseball club formed by the corrupt Tammany Hall boss William Marcy Tweed. During a game three members of the team tried to ‘heave’ the game at the insistence of certain members of the gambling community. The members of this conspiracy, the catcher, third baseman, and short stop, were each paid $100 in order to cause the team to lose the game. When found out the three were quickly banned from the game of baseball.
The waters were further muddied when, in April 1867, Candy Cummings, a pitcher for the Excelsior’s, developed a new pitch. While the rules prohibited a snap of the wrist Cummings had found a way to slightly snap his wrist in an undetected method creating a ‘curve ball’. He used this trick when playing the Harvard team at Cambridge yard much to the annoyance of the Harvard team. They quickly denounced the ‘curve ball’ as a trick and attempted to get it outlawed.
In the year 1869 baseball took another major leap when the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first professional team with the financing of Harvey Wright. Wright was the son of a professional cricket player and he quickly saw the income potential of the popular sport. He openly paid each member a salary (something that was previously unheard of) and the highest paid player of all was his younger brother, George, who brought in an astounding $1400 per season. While the team was based in Cincinnati all the players except for one were New Yorkers and while initially the team did make a small profit in the end they disbanded after losing to the Atlantics 8 to 7.
On March 17th 1871 the association changed its name to the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players in an attempt to maintain the sports gentlemanly appeal. The association was made up of the Boston Red Stockings, Chicago White Stockings, Philadelphia Athletics, New York Mutuals, Washington Olympics, Fort Wayne Kekiongas, Cleveland Forest Cities, Rockford Forest Cities, and Troy Haymakers. Each team was expected to play five games each season with the pennant going to the team with the most wins. The Red Stockings soon dominated the association by buying the most popular stars.
During this time the players, often desperate for money because of the depression, went from team to team depending on who offered the most money and benefits. In order to compete with the more gentlemanly league William A. Hubert of the Chicago White Socks got five of the leagues best players and in 1876 established the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs. The eight charter members of this club were Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Harford, New York, Philadelphia, and Louisville. While this move was made in attempt to avoid the anger of the Association of Professional Baseball for the purchase of the five most popular stars Hubert claimed he established his League for the good of the game.
He even went so far as to establish tighter rules for his players in order to win public support. The baseball players were not allowed to drink or gamble plus ticket prices were set at $0.50 per person. Hubert also established the clause in the contract that players would only play for one team at a time with their services ‘reserved’ until the team no longer needed them. This shifted the power from the players to the owners as the players were no longer able to search for the best deal between seasons. Any player who attempted to fight this rule were blacklisted and fired.
In 1872 a great strike broke out causing disruption to the game of baseball as owners in major cities affected worried about their safety. During this summer the Louisville Grays faced a scandal as seven games were lost in a row. The case was investigated and while the four players involved claimed they threw the games because they were not being paid investigators said they had been paid off by gamblers in order to throw the game. While the players denied this (one even gave a tear filled plea of innocents) they were still tried and found guilty in the court of public opinion.
Ten years following the scandal yet another Association was formed by the big city owners of the League. This new association was called the American Base Ball Association and the games cost only $0.25 per person and beer was sold in the stadium. Albert Goodwill Spalding, a baseball enthusiast, took over the Chicago White Stockings after the death of its owner. He was the creator of the ‘official’ baseball as well as much protective gear including the mitt. While his inventions are used in the game today at the time they were frowned upon as sissified and no true player wanted to wear them for fear of seeming weak.
The game of baseball was evolving and the public was being exposed to new celebrities and stars. Two such stars were Adrian Constantine Anson and Michael J. “King” Kelly. Kelly was sold to Boston for $10,000 which was the richest deal in baseball. He received $2,000 per season and another $3,000 for the use of his pictures. In addition to this handsome fee he made money between the seasons telling baseball stories complete with demonstrations.
By this point baseball was popular to Americans of all races but it was still a predominately white sport. No clubs would admit black players or teams into membership and while a certain team comprised of Latin Americans attempted to play both white and black teams there was no mixing of the race. When a rumor was started that popular black player would be signed to his team Adrian Anson publicly refused to play on the same team with any black person.
While this was happening an educated man and husband of an actress, John Montgomery Ward, began to challenge and denounce the reserve clause in 1885. Spalding and other owners refused to change policies and even went so far as to make an absolute salary of $2500 dollars and make players responsible for paying rent on their uniforms. Outraged the Players League was formed but that proved one too many leagues for the game of baseball. With a lack of ticket sales the league was forced to disband and the players sought spots with the more established leagues. To show he was fair Spalding even allowed Ward to be placed with a team instead of blacklisting him.
By the late 1890s baseball was common and popular. Novelty teams traveled around playing for audiences. Families created teams, men played in dresses, and as the game changed so did the audience. By the 1900s baseball was no longer the exclusive sport of gentlemen. The players were more rowdy and often working class as were the crowds. It was not unheard of for umpires and other officials to carry weapons for protection and a few were killed. By the turn of the century baseball was firmly established in the American culture but the game was still changing.