Origins of baseball
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The question of the origins of baseball has been the subject of debate and controversy for more than a century. Baseball and the other modern bat, ball and running games, cricket and rounders, were developed from earlier folk games in England. Early forms of baseball had a number of names, including "Base Ball", "Goal Ball", "Round Ball", "Fletch-catch", "stool ball", and, simply, "Base". In at least one version of the game, teams pitched to themselves, runners went around the bases in the opposite direction of today's game, and players could be put out by being hit with the ball. Just as now, a batter was called out after three strikes.
- 1 Folk games in England
- 2 Abner Doubleday myth
- 3 Alexander Cartwright
- 4 Beachville game of 1838
- 5 Before 1845
- 6 Elysian Fields
- 7 After 1845
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
- 10 External links
Folk games in England
A number of early folk games in England had characteristics that can be seen in modern baseball (as well as in cricket and rounders). Many of these early games involved a ball that was thrown at a target while an opposing player defended the target by attempting to hit the ball away. If the batter successfully hit the ball, he could attempt to score points by running between bases while fielders would attempt to catch or retrieve the ball and put the runner out in some way.
Since they were folk games, the early games had no official, documented rules, and they tended to change over time. To the extent that there were rules, they were generally simple and were not written down. There were many local variations, and varied names.
Many of the early games were not well documented, first, because they were generally peasant games (and perhaps children's games, as well); and second, because they were often discouraged, and sometimes even prohibited, either by the church or by the state, or both.
Aside from obvious differences in terminology, the games differed in the equipment used (ball, bat, club, target, etc., which were usually just whatever was available), the way in which the ball is thrown, the method of scoring, the method of making outs, the layout of the field and the number of players involved.
An old English game called "base", described by George Ewing at Valley Forge, was apparently not much like baseball. There was no bat and no ball involved. The game was more like a fancy game of "tag", although it did share the concept of places of safety (for example, bases) with modern baseball.
In an 1801 book entitled The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, Joseph Strutt claimed to have shown that baseball-like games can be traced back to the 14th century, and that baseball is a descendant of an English game called stoolball. The earliest known reference to stoolball is in a 1330 poem by William Pagula, who recommended to priests that the game be forbidden within churchyards.
In stoolball, a batter stood before a target, perhaps an upturned stool, while another player pitched a ball to the batter. If the batter hit the ball (with a bat or his/her hand) and it was caught by a fielder, the batter was out. If the pitched ball hit a stool leg, the batter was out. Traditionally it was played by milkmaids who used their milking stools as a "wicket", according to one belief while waiting for their husbands to return from working in the fields.
According to many sources, in 1700, Anglican bishop Thomas Wilson expressed his disapproval of "Morris-dancing, cudgel-playing, baseball and cricket" occurring on Sundays. However, David Block, in Baseball Before We Knew It (2005), reports that the original source has "stoolball" for "baseball". Block also reports the reference appears to date to 1672, rather than 1700, and that it was the English game of baseball that had arrived in the U.S. as part of "a sweeping tide of cultural migration" during the colonial period.
A 1744 publication in England by children's publisher John Newbery called A Little Pretty Pocket-Book includes a woodcut of stoolball and a rhyme entitled "Base-ball". This is the first known instance of the word baseball in print. Today the game is popular in United Kingdom among schoolgirls in the form of rounders.
In 1755, a book entitled "The Card", authored by John Kidgell, in Volume 1 (there are two volumes to the book) on page 9, mentions baseball: "the younger Part of the Family, perceiving Papa not inclined to enlarge upon the matter, retired to an interrupted Party at Base-Ball (an infant Game, which as it advances in its teens, improved into Fives ...). Kidgell's book contains the earliest surviving use of the term. "Base-ball" had appeared in 1744 in A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, but no copies of the first edition or other early editions have surfaced to date, only the 10th and later editions of Pocket-Book, from 1760 forward. Therefore, "The Card" by Kidgell dating to 1755 is the earliest surviving reference to baseball.
David Block discovered that the first recorded game of "Bass-Ball" took place in 1749 in Surrey, and featured the Prince of Wales as a player. The English lawyer William Bray recorded a game of baseball on Easter Monday 1755 in Guildford, Surrey; Bray's diary was verified authentic in September 2008.
By 1796 the rules of this English game were well enough established to earn a mention in the German Johann Gutsmuths' book on popular pastimes. In it he described "Englische Base-ball" as 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. The book also predates the rules laid out by the New York Knickerbockers by nearly fifty years.
The French book Les Jeux des Jeunes Garçons is the first known book to contain printed rules of a bat/base/running game. It was printed in Paris in 1810 and lays out the rules for "poison ball", in which there were two teams of eight to ten players, four bases (one called home), a pitcher, a batter, and flyball outs.
Another early print reference is Jane Austen's novel Northanger Abbey, originally written 1798-1799. In the first chapter the young English heroine Catherine Morland is described as preferring "cricket, base ball, riding on horseback and running about the country to books."
In 1828, William Clarke of London published the second edition of The Boy’s Own Book, which included rules of rounders, and contains the first printed description in English of a bat and ball base-running game played on a diamond. The following year, the book was published in Boston, Massachusetts. Similar rules were published in Boston in "The Book of Sports", written by Robin Carver in 1834, except the Boston version called the game "Base" or "Goal ball". The rules were identical to those of poison ball, but also added fair and foul balls and strike-outs.
Also, in 1828, an article published in a Hagerstown, Maryland, newspaper briefly describes a young girl who is drawn away from her daily chores to play a familiar game with her friends. In "A Village Sketch", author Miss Mitford wrote: "Then comes a sun-burnt gipsy of six, beginning to grow tall and thin and to find the cares of the world gathering about her; with a pitcher in one hand, a mop in the other, an old straw bonnet of ambiguous shape, half hiding her tangled hair; a tattered stuff petticoat once green, hanging below an equally tattered cotton frock, once purple; her longing eyes fixed on a game of baseball at the corner of the green till she reaches the cottage door, flings down the mop and pitcher and darts off to her companions quite regardless of the storm of scolding with which the mother follows her runaway steps."
The account by Fred Lillywhite (1829–66) of the first English cricket tour to Canada and the United States in 1859 refers to the "base-ball game [being] somewhat similar to the English and Irish game of 'rounders.'" A day's play was lost during a cricket match in New York due to snow, but a game of baseball was arranged about a mile away between "the players of that game and a portion of the English party" (The English Cricketers' Trip to Canada and the United States, 1860).
A unique British sport, known as British Baseball, is still played in parts of Wales and England. Although confined mainly to the cities of Cardiff, Newport and Liverpool, the sport boasts an annual international game between representative teams from the two countries.
In stoolball, which developed by the 11th century, one player throws the ball at a target while another player defends the target. "Stob-ball" and "stow-ball" were regional games similar to stoolball. In stob ball and stow ball the target was probably a tree stump, since both "stob" and "stow" mean stump in some dialects. ("Stow" could also refer to a type of frame used in mining). What the target originally was in stoolball is not certain. It could have been a stump, since “stool” in old Sussex dialect means stump.
According to one legend, milkmaids played stoolball while waiting for their husbands to return from the fields. Another theory is that stoolball developed as a game played after attending church services, in which case the target was probably a church stool.
Originally, the stool was defended with a bare hand. Later, a bat of some kind was used (in modern stoolball, a bat like a very heavy table tennis paddle is used).
There were several versions of stoolball. In the earliest versions, the object was primarily to defend the stool. Successfully defending the stool counted for one point, and the batter was out if the ball hit the stool. There was no running involved. Another version of stoolball involved running between two stools, and scoring was similar to the scoring in cricket. In perhaps yet another version there were several stools, and points were scored by running around them as in baseball.
Because of the different versions of stoolball, and because it was played not only in England, but also in colonial America, stoolball is considered by many to have been the basis of not only cricket, but both baseball and rounders as well.
Dog and cat
Another early folk game was "dog and cat" (or "cat and dog"), which probably originated in Scotland. In cat and dog a piece of wood called a cat is thrown at a hole in the ground while another player defends the hole with a stick (a dog). In some cases there were two holes and, after hitting the cat, the batter would run between them while fielders would try to put the runner out by putting the ball in the hole before the runner got to it. Dog and cat thus resembled cricket.
The history of cricket prior to 1650 is something of a mystery. Games believed to have been similar to cricket had developed by the 13th century. There was a game called "creag", and another game, "Handyn and Handoute" (Hands In and Hands Out), which was made illegal in 1477 by King Edward IV, who considered the game childish, and a distraction from compulsory archery practice.
References to a game actually called "cricket" appeared around 1550. It is believed that the word cricket is based either on the word cric, meaning a crooked stick possibly a shepherd's crook (early forms of cricket used a curved bat somewhat like a hockey stick), or on the Flemish word "krickstoel", which refers to a stool upon which one kneels in church.
The Toronto Cricket Club was established in that city by 1827 and the St George's Cricket Club was formed in 1838 in New York City. Teams from the two clubs faced off in the first international cricket game in 1844 which Toronto won by 23 runs.
Cat, One Old Cat
A game popular in colonial America was "one hole catapult", which used a catapult like the one used in trap-ball.
The game of "cat" (or "cat-ball") had many variations but usually there was a pitcher, a catcher, a batter and fielders, but there were no sides (and often no bases to run). A feature of some versions of cat that would later become a feature of baseball was that a batter would be out if he swung and missed three times.
Another game that was popular in early America was "one ol' cat", the name of which was possibly originally a contraction of one hole catapult. In one ol' cat, when a batter is put out, the catcher goes to bat, the pitcher catches, a fielder becomes the pitcher, and other fielders move up in rotation. One ol' cat was often played when there weren't enough players to choose up sides and play townball. Sometimes running to a base and back was involved. "Two ol' cat" was the same game as one ol' cat, except that there were two batters.
In Trap ball, played in England since the 14th century, a ball was thrown in the air, to be hit by a batsman and fielded. In some variants a member of the fielding team threw the ball in the air, in others, the batsman caused the ball to be tossed in the air by a simple lever mechanism; versions of this, called Bat and trap and Knurr and spell, are still played in some English pubs.
Four (Your) Old Cat, Town Ball, Round Ball, and Massachusetts Base Ball
A diagram posted in the baseball collection on the New York Public Library's Digital Gallery website identifies a game played, "Eight Boys with a ball & four bats playing Four (Your) Old Cat" (Image ID: 56105) (Ed. note: In the diagram there is a type-over that makes the first letter of the name of the game hard to distinguish. The caption provided by the NYPL interprets the note as saying YOUR Old Cat, but I believe the game is actually FOUR Old Cat). This game was apparently played on a square of 40 feet on each side, but the diagram does not make clear the rules or how to play the game.
The same sheet of paper shows a diagram of a square - 60 feet per side with the base side having in its middle the "Home Goal", "Catcher", and "Striker", and with the corners marked as "1st Goal", "2nd Goal", "3rd Goal", and "4th Goal" as you travel counter-clockwise around the square. The note accompanying this diagram says, "Thirty or more players (15 or more on each side) with a bat and ball playing Town Ball, some times called Round Ball, and subsequently the so-called Massachusetts game of Base Ball".
Abner Doubleday myth
The myth that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in 1839 was once widely promoted and widely believed. There is no evidence for this claim except for the testimony of one man decades later, and there is persuasive counter-evidence. Doubleday himself never made such a claim; he left many letters and papers, but they contain no description of baseball or any suggestion that he considered himself prominent in the game's history. His New York Times obituary makes no mention of baseball, nor does a 1911 Encyclopedia article about Doubleday. Contrary to popular belief, Doubleday was never inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, although a large oil portrait of him was on display at the Hall of Fame building for many years.
Doubleday's invention of baseball was the finding of a panel appointed by Albert Spalding, a former star pitcher and club executive, who had become the leading American sporting goods entrepreneur and sports publisher. Debate on baseball's origins had raged for decades, heating up in the first years of the 20th century, due in part to a 1903 essay baseball historian Henry Chadwick wrote in Spalding's Official Baseball Guide stating that baseball gradually evolved from English game of "rounders". To end argument, speculation, and innuendo, Spalding organized the Mills Commission in 1905. The members were baseball figures, not historians: Spalding's friend Abraham G. Mills, a former National League president; two United States Senators, former NL president Morgan Bulkeley and former Washington club president Arthur Gorman; former NL president and lifelong secretary-treasurer Nick Young; two other star players turned sporting goods entrepreneurs (George Wright and Alfred Reach); and AAU president James E. Sullivan.
The final report, published on December 30, 1907, included three sections: a summary of the panel’s findings written by Mills, a letter by John Montgomery Ward supporting the panel, and a dissenting opinion by Henry Chadwick. The research methods were, at best, dubious. Mills was a close friend of Doubleday, and upon his death in 1893, Mills orchestrated Doubleday's memorial service in New York City and burial. Several other members had personal reasons to declare baseball as an "American" game, such as Spalding's strong American imperialism views. The Commission found an appealing story: baseball was invented in a quaint rural town without foreigners or industry, by a young man who later graduated from West Point and served heroically in the Mexican-American War, Civil War, and U.S. wars against Indians.
The Mills Commission concluded that Doubleday had invented baseball in Cooperstown, New York in 1839; that Doubleday had invented the word "baseball", designed the diamond, indicated fielders' positions, and written the rules. No written records in the decade between 1839 and 1849 have ever been found to corroborate these claims, nor could Doubleday be interviewed (he died in 1893). The principal source for the story was one letter from elderly Abner Graves, who was a five-year-old resident of Cooperstown in 1839. Graves never mentioned a diamond, positions or the writing of rules. Graves' reliability as a witness was challenged because he spent his final days in an asylum for the criminally insane. Doubleday was not in Cooperstown in 1839 and may never have visited the town. He was enrolled at West Point at the time, and there is no record of any leave time. Mills, a lifelong friend of Doubleday, never heard him mention baseball.
As of 2014[update], Doubleday has not been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Versions of baseball rules and descriptions of similar games have been found in publications that significantly predate his alleged invention in 1839. Despite this, the ballpark only a few blocks down from the Hall of Fame still bears the name "Doubleday Field".
The first published rules of baseball in the United States were written in 1845 for a New York City "base ball" club called the Knickerbockers. The author, Alexander Cartwright, is one person commonly known as "the father of baseball". One important rule, the 13th, stipulated that the player need not be physically hit by the ball to be put out; this permitted the subsequent use of a farther-travelling hard ball. Evolution from the so-called "Knickerbocker Rules" to the current rules is fairly well documented.
On June 3, 1953, Congress officially credited Cartwright with inventing the modern game of baseball. He was already a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, having been inducted in 1938 for various other contributions to baseball. However, the role of Cartwright himself in the game's invention has been disputed. His authorship may have been exaggerated in a modern attempt to identify a single inventor of the game, although Cartwright may have a better claim to the title than any other single American.
It is clear that Cartwright, a New York bookseller who later caught gold fever, umpired the first-ever recorded U.S. baseball game with codified rules in Hoboken, New Jersey on June 19, 1846. He also founded the older of the two teams that played that day, the New York Knickerbockers. The game ended, and the other team (The New York Nines) won, 23–1. Cartwright also introduced the game in most of the cities where he stopped on his trek west to California to find gold.
Another point undisputed by historians is that the modern professional major leagues, that began in the 1870s, developed directly from amateur urban clubs of the 1840s and 1850s, not from the pastures of small towns such as Cooperstown.
Beachville game of 1838
Prior to Cartwright's rules of 1845, the first recorded game of modern baseball was played in Beachville, Ontario. A firsthand account and the rules of the game were recorded by Dr. Adam E. Ford in an 1886 issue of 'The Sporting Life' magazine in Denver, Colorado. Although subject to intense scrutiny, the letter has matched up with other historical records in Beachville. In that letter, Ford refers to 'old grayhairs' at the time, who had played this game as children, suggesting that the origins of baseball in Canada into the 18th century.
The Beachville game is highly controversial in the United States as it conflicts with the baseball culture developed both in Cooperstown and across the country. Similar reactions took place following questioning of the Doubleday myth. It is unclear if the game in the United States was influenced by this earlier form of modern baseball or if it developed separately.
Evolution of the game that became modern baseball is unknown before 1845. The Knickerbocker Rules describe a game that they had been playing for some time. But how long is uncertain and so is how that game had developed. Shane Foster was the first to come up with suspicions of how the origin came into effect.
There were once two camps. One, mostly English, asserted that baseball evolved from a game of English origin (probably rounders); the other, almost entirely American, said that baseball was an American invention (perhaps derived from the game of one-ol'-cat). Apparently they saw their positions as mutually exclusive. Some of their points seem more national loyalty than evidence: Americans tended to reject any suggestion that baseball evolved from an English game, while some English observers concluded that baseball was little more than their rounders without the round.
Cricket and rounders
That baseball is based on English and Irish games such as cat, cricket, and rounders is difficult to dispute. On the other hand, baseball has many elements that are uniquely American. The earliest published author to muse on the origin of baseball, John Montgomery Ward, was suspicious of the often-parroted claim that rounders is the direct ancestor of baseball, as both were formalized in the same time period. He concluded, with some amount of patriotism, that baseball evolved separately from town-ball (i.e. rounders), out of children's "safe haven" ball games.
Certainly baseball is related to cricket and rounders, but exactly how, or how closely, has not been established. The only certain thing is that modern cricket is much older than modern baseball.
Games played with bat-and-ball together may all be distant cousins; the same goes for base-and-ball games. Bat, base, and ball games for two teams that alternate in and out, such as baseball, cricket, and rounders, are likely to be close cousins. They all involve throwing a ball to a batsman who attempts to "bat" it away and run safely to a base, while the opponent tries to put the batter-runner out when liable ("liable to be put out" is the baseball term for unsafe).
In 1845, the Knickerbocker Club of New York City began using Elysian Fields in Hoboken to play baseball due to the lack of soft grounds on Manhattan. In 1846, the Knickerbockers played the New York Nine on these grounds in the first organized game between two clubs. A plaque and baseball diamond street pavings at 11th and Washington Streets commemorate the event. By the 1850s, several Manhattan-based members of the National Association of Base Ball Players were using the grounds as their home field.
In 1865 the grounds hosted a championship match between the Mutual Club of New York and the Atlantic Club of Brooklyn that was attended by an estimated 20,000 fans and captured in the Currier & Ives lithograph "The American National Game of Base Ball".
With the construction of two significant baseball parks enclosed by fences in Brooklyn, enabling promoters there to charge admission to games; the prominence of Elysian Fields began to diminish. In 1868 the leading Manhattan club, Mutual, shifted its home games to the Union Grounds in Brooklyn. In 1880, the founders of the New York Metropolitans and New York Giants finally succeeded in siting a ballpark in Manhattan that became known as the Polo Grounds.
In 1851, the game of baseball was already well-established enough that a newspaper report of a game played by a group of teamsters on Christmas Day referred to the game as, "a good old-fashioned game of base ball."
In 1857, sixteen clubs from modern New York City sent delegates to a convention that standardized the rules, essentially by agreeing to revise the Knickerbocker rules. In 1858, twenty-five including one from New Jersey founded a going concern but the National Association of Base Ball Players is conventionally dated from 1857. It governed through 1870 but it scheduled and sanctioned no games.
In 1858, clubs from the association played a cross-town, all-star series pitting Brooklyn clubs against clubs from New York and Hoboken. On July 20, 1858, an estimated crowd of about 4,000 spectators watched New York and Hoboken defeat Brooklyn by a score of 22-18. The New York team included players from the Union, Empire, Eagle, Knickerbocker and Gotham clubs. The Brooklyn team included players from the clubs Excelsior, Eckford, Atlantic and Putnam. In a return match held August 17, 1858, and played at the Fashion Course in the Corona neighborhood of Queens, a slightly smaller crowd cheered Brooklyn to a win over New York and Hoboken by a score of 29-8. New York won a third game in the series, also played at the Fashion Course, on September 10, 1858. It appears that admission fees were charged, as "surplus funds" from the games were to be donated to charity.
By 1862 some NABBP member clubs offered games to the general public in enclosed ballparks with admission fees.
During and after the American Civil War, the movements of soldiers and exchanges of prisoners helped spread the game. As of the December 1865 meeting, the year the war ended, there were isolated Association members in Fort Leavenworth, St. Louis, Louisville, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, along with about 90 members north and east of Washington, D.C..
In 1869 the first openly professional baseball team formed. Earlier players were nominally amateurs. The Cincinnati Red Stockings recruited nationally and effectively toured nationally, and no one beat them until June 1870.
Already in the 19th century, the "old game" was invoked for special exhibitions such as reunions and anniversaries — and for making moral points. Today hundreds of clubs in the U.S. play "vintage base ball" according to the 1845, 1858, or later rules (up to about 1887), usually in vintage uniforms. Some of them have supporting casts that recreate period dress and manner, especially those associated with living history museums.
The origins of baseball were summarized in a documentary produced by Major League Baseball in 2009 titled Base Ball Discovered.
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- This list of panelists and the organization and publication dates follow "The Mills Commission" in "The Origins of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum" by that institution. The Hall and Museum owes its Cooperstown location and its 1839 birth date, at least, to the Mills Commission finding.
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- Block, David. Cleveland, OH: Society for American Baseball Research. 2001. (checked August 5, 2006).
- BBC article on the Pittsfield, Mass. by-law
- Chronology of early references to baseball and related games
- Good, short video on Google about town ball and some modern-day reenactors keeping history alive in Cooperstown, NY
- Evolution of 19th Century Baseball Rules
- Welsh Baseball Union
- Baseball's UK heritage confirmed
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- Civil War Vets Help Popularize Game of Baseball