If I were to ask you to name the most popular sport in the US most of you would answer football, and statistically, you would be correct. According to a recent poll published by Yahoo sports, football is the sport most watched on tv in the US followed by baseball. There are many reasons for this, which I won’t get into as they are outside the scope of this blog. But, if I were to ask you which sport is the essence of America, is woven inextricably into the fabric of American lore, is part of our soul, chances are you would say baseball. Who doesn’t remember, as a young boy or girl, that first game of “catch” with their father or attending their first baseball game. I, for one, have better recall of a World Series game I attended with my father in 1955 than I do of things I did yesterday. So, at this time of the year with the World Series in progress, I feel it is appropriate to blog about our “National Pastime,” baseball. The focus of this blog will be on the origins of the sport.
Until recently, the widely held belief was that baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, NY in 1839. This myth appears to have originated in 1905. Apparently, at the time there was some controversy as to whether the sport, which had become known as the “American Pastime” had originated in the US or had been descended from an English game called “rounders.” Influential baseball people, such as Abraham Mills, the President of the National League, and Albert Spalding, the President of the Chicago Cubs, formed a commission to research and study the matter. Mills and Spalding had a great stake in the Commission deciding that the game had originated in the US, and they packed the Commission with persons who agreed with them. Predictably, the Commission determined that baseball had, in fact, originated in the US and was not related to or descended from the English game of “rounders” or any other game. Furthermore, the Commission promulgated the myth that Abner Doubleday had invented the game. Supposedly, in 1839 he had a “eureka” moment. In a flash, he laid out the diamond and set forth the rules. The first game was said to have been played in Cooperstown, NY in 1839. This story held sway for many years despite considerable evidence to the contrary.
Abner Doubleday was born on June 26, 1819 in Ballston Spa, NY. He was a career US Army officer who had fought in the Civil War. There is no record that he ever claimed to have invented baseball. Furthermore, neither his private letters, his diaries nor even his obituary so much as mentioned the game. He was not even in Cooperstown in 1839. He was stationed at West Point. Although I can see how the Mills Commission could want to claim that baseball was invented in America by an American, it is unclear how it came up with the name Abner Doubleday. It could be that the Commission relied on a certain witness, one Abner Graves, whose credibility was, to put it mildly, questionable. Another theory is that Abner Doubleday was confused with another Doubleday who was living in Cooperstown at the time. In any event, at the time the myth was accepted as truth.
Now, thanks to continuing research, we know better. It is clear that baseball evolved over hundreds of years from other bat and ball games, rather than from a “eureka” moment. For example, a French manuscript from 1344 depicts French clerics playing a game with similarities to baseball. In addition, for many years the English played various games called “rounders,” “tut-ball,”and “stoolball,” which exhibit similarities to baseball. Some sports historians believe “cricket” may also have descended from those games, although there is contrary evidence that suggests it may been imported from Flanders. In any event, by the 1830s many varieties of bat and ball games were being played in America.
Most sports historians credit Alexander Cartwright with promulgating the first rules of the game in 1845. Cartwright was born on April 17, 1820 in NYC. In the 1840’s He was a volunteer fireman with the Knickerbocker Fire Engine Company in NYC. At that time, they were playing an informal bat and ball game called “town ball.” With the help of others, he codified some 14 rules of the game. For example, he stipulated that the field be laid out in a diamond shape; there were nine fielders and three outs per inning. He has long been recognized as the “father of baseball” and was officially designated as such by Congress in 1953. He was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame in 1938, 46 years after his death. Furthermore, it is believed that the first officially recorded game was played on June 19, 1846 at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, NJ. Some of the early rules were weeded out over time, to wit:
1. One of the ways to record an “out” was for a fielder to throw at and hit a runner with the batted ball.
2. The ball was required to be pitched underhanded.
3. A batted ball caught on a bounce was an “out.”
4. Fielders did not wear gloves.
5. Foul balls were not counted as strikes.
Baseball’s “modern era” began in 1901 when the American League was formed to join the National League, which been established in 1876. Most baseball records are counted from 1901. The oldest professional team was the Cincinnati Red Stockings, which was formed in 1869 and went undefeated that year playing against semi-pro and amateur teams.
At first, there were no prohibitions against blacks playing. In fact two brothers, Moses and Welday Walker did play in 1884. But, by the 1890’s due to a “gentlemen’s agreement” among the owners, blacks were effectively barred. This ban continued until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1946 with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Modern day baseball has some flaws, which need to be tweaked. The pace is too slow, the games are too long, and many believe the game is not as exciting as other sports. It has been usurped as the #1 sport in America by football. On the other hand, it has many plusses:
1. Baseball is the only sport with an official song, which is sung at every game. “Take me out to the Ballgame” was written in 1908 by Jack Norworth and Albert Van Tilzer, who, ironically, had never attended a game prior to writing the song. It was not sung at a ball game until 1934. The version we all sing is merely the chorus. (Incidentally, crackerjacks may own its very survival to the song. Have you ever eaten them other than at a ball game?)
2. It is highly statistical, which enables fans to compare the abilities of current players with those who played 50 or 100 years ago with some reliability.
3. Its records have more meaning and familiarity than those of other sports. Most fans know who has the lifetime hits record, Pete Rose, who had the highest lifetime batting average, Ty Cobb, who hit the most home runs, Barry Bonds, and who has won the most World Series, the Yankees. Conversely how many fans know who holds the NFL rushing record, who has won the most Super Bowls, or who led the NBA in scoring last year. Does anyone even care?
4. Baseball is the only sport without a time clock, so the trailing team always has a chance to come back. At some point in a football or basketball game it becomes obvious that the clock will run out on the losing team. But, in baseball the losing team will always get its “last licks.” You have not won until the last out has been recorded. Just ask the 1986 Boston Red Sox.
5. Baseball connotes nostalgia. We associate it with our youth. After all, the movie, “Field of Dreams” was not about football.