When Did American Baseball Begin?
Abner Doubleday, later a general in the United States Army, was supposed to have laid out the first baseball field in Cooperstown, a village in Otsego County, New York State, in the summer of 1839, and there conducted the first game of baseball ever played. So strong was the belief in this story that in 1920 the playing field was established as a permanent memorial with the title Doubleday Field. Doubts were later cast upon the story, and attempts made to prove that the game had evolved from the English children’s game known as rounders.
The name “baseball” to describe some popular English game was traced back to Jane Austen, who in Northanger Abbey (written about 1798) remarks of her heroine: “It was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had by nature nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, baseball, riding on horseback and running around the country at the age of 14, to books”. Then, in their attempt to tie up baseball with rounders, researchers came across The Boy’s Own Book, published in London in 1828, and so popular that it ran into many editions. The book was about boys’ sports and listed all the rules.
The second edition includes a chapter entitled “Rounders” with a note that the game was called “feeder” in London and “baseball” in the southern countries. As the game is described in The Boy’s Own Book it bears a strong family likeness to modern American Baseball. It was played on a diamond with a base at each corner, the goal or fourth base being the same as the plate beside which the batter stood. A batter might run whenever he hit the ball across or over the diamond. If he struck at it and missed it three times, he was out. Many English immigrants to America in colonial times were from the southern countries, and it seems probable that they took both the name and game with them.
The earliest mention of baseball in the U.S was a 1791 Pittsfield, Massachusetts, ordinance banning the playing of baseball within 80 yards (73 m) of the town meeting house. The late Civil War hero “never knew that he had invented baseball”. But 15 years after his death, he was anointed as the father of the game”, writes baseball historian John Thorn. The myth about Doubleday inventing the game of baseball actually came from a Colorado mining engineer. Another early reference reports that base ball was regularly played on Saturdays in 1823 on the outskirts of New York City in an area that today is Greenwich Village.
The first team to play baseball under modern rules was long believed to be the New York Knickerbockers. The club was founded on September 23, 1845, as a social club for the upper middle classes of New York City, and was strictly amateur until it disbanded. The club’s by-laws committee, which included William R. Wheaton and William H. Tucker, formulated the Knickerbocker Rules, which in large part dealt with organizational matters but which also laid out rules for playing the game.
One of the significant rules prohibited soaking or plugging the runner; under older rules, a fielder could put a runner out by hitting the runner with the thrown ball, similarly to the common schoolyard game of kickball. The Knickerbocker Rules required fielders to tag or force the runner, as is done today, and avoided a lot of the arguments and fistfights that resulted from the earlier practice. A recently discovered newspaper interview with Wheaton indicates that the rules he and Tucker wrote for the Knickerbockers in most respects duplicated the rules he had written for the Gotham Club in 1837; the Knickerbockers were founded as a breakaway group of former Gothams.
Writing the rules did not help the Knickerbockers in the first known competitive game between two clubs under the new rules, played at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey on June 19, 1846. The “New York nine” (almost certainly the parent Gotham Club) humbled the Knickerbockers by a score of 23 to 1. Nevertheless, the Knickerbocker Rules were rapidly adopted by teams in the New York area and their version of baseball became known as the “New York Game” (as opposed to the “Massachusetts Game”, played by clubs in the Boston area). As late as 1855, the New York press was still devoting more space to coverage of cricket than to baseball.
In 1857, sixteen New York area clubs, including the Knickerbockers, formed the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP). The NABBP was the first organization to govern the sport and to establish a championship. The 1857 convention also established three key features of the game: 90 feet between the bases, 9-man teams, and 9-inning games (under the Knickerbocker Rules, games were played to 21 runs). Aided by the Civil War, membership grew to almost 100 clubs by 1865 and to over 400 by 1867, including clubs from as far away as California.
During the Civil War, soldiers from different parts of the United States played baseball together, leading to a more unified national version of the sport. Beginning in 1869, the NABBP permitted professional play, addressing a growing practice that had not been permitted under its rules to that point. The first and most prominent professional club of the NABBP era was the Cincinnati Red Stockings in Ohio, which lasted only two years. Businessman Ivers Whitney Adams then courted manager Harry Wright and founded the “Boston Red Stockings” and the Boston Base Ball Club on January 20, 1871.
In 1858, in the Corona neighborhood of Queens (now part of New York City), at the Fashion Race Course, the first games of baseball to charge admission took place. The games, which took place between the all stars of Brooklyn, including players from the Atlantic, Excelsior, Putnam and Eckford clubs, and the All Stars of New York (Manhattan), including players from the New York Knickerbockers, Gothams, Eagles and Empire, are commonly believed to the first all star baseball games.