The Origins of Baseball

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Podcast Transcript

In the 19th century, the first real American sport took off in popularity: baseball. 

It went from being a children’s game to one of the most popular and lucrative professional sports in the world. 

Yes, its origins have been shrouded in mystery, in no small part because of all the legends and myths surrounding it. 

Learn more about baseball, how it really came to be and grew into the global sport it is today, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

I’ve done several episodes now on the origin of popular sports. Most of them have had rather straightforward origin stories. 

In the case of baseball, however, its origin is not so straightforward. Not only was much of the early history never recorded, but it was also shrouded for decades in a legend that didn’t have any basis in historical fact.

I might as well start with the legend, which many of you, if you grew up in the United States or Canada, might be familiar with. 

The myth states that the game of baseball was invented by one man: Abner Doubleday of Cooperstown, New York. Doubleday supposedly invented the game in 1839 as a modification of an 18th-century game called “town ball.” 

In Doubleday’s version of baseball, there were four bases, a pitcher, a batter, and 11 players on each team. 

The first game supposedly took palace between the Otesego academy and Green’s Select school.

This version of the origins of baseball held such sway for so long that the Baseball Hall of Fame was established in Cooperstown, New York, in honor of Abner Doubleday. 

I was a huge, huge baseball fan growing up, and I learned the story of Abner Doubleday and never had any reason to question it. 

So, why do I now insist that it is a myth?

The origins of the story date back to the first years of the 20th century when baseball was becoming big business. There were historians who wrote about the history of baseball originating in British bat and ball games before being imported to the United States. 

Albert Spalding, then owner of the Chicago White Sox and founder of the Spalding sporting goods company, believed that baseball was an all-American activity and wanted to prove it.

In 1905 he organized the Mills Commission, headed by Abraham Mills, the former president of the National League, to determine the origins of baseball. The other members of the Mills Commission were two United States senators, another former league president, a team owner, and some former players. There were no historians. 

The entire Abner Doubleday story came from the testimony of a single individual, a mining engineer by the name of Abner Graves. He testified that as children, he saw Doubleday draw a diagram of the field and come up with the rules for the first game.

There was no other corroborating evidence or testimony. 

Abner Doubleday himself became a general in the civil war and died in 1893. At no point in his life did he ever claim to have invented baseball, nor did anyone ever give him attribution for having invented baseball. 

The story was simply designed to credit the invention of the sport to an American war hero. 

The location of the baseball hall of fame and the name of the stadium in Cooperstown, Doubleday Field, are still a legacy of the legend, which started in 1905. 

So, if Abner Doubleday had nothing to do with the invention of baseball, where did it come from?

The origins of baseball are very murky. There has been various bat and ball games played in Europe for centuries. They were always played by children, went by many different names, and had rules which changed by location. 

The problem is, other than sometimes noting the name of a game being played, almost nothing else was ever documented about these games. 

The immediate origins of baseball appear to have come from two English games: rounders and cricket. 

Late 18th and early 19th century America saw a host of different games which were documented. Town ball, cat ball, base and ball, round ball, rounders, and base ball. 

In 1833 the Olympic Ball Club of Philadelphia was founded, and in 1837 the Gotham Base Ball club was established in New York.

If you are wondering why I’m putting an awkward pause in base ball, it is because back then,, it was spelled as two words, not one. 

These early clubs were playing games only vaguely resembling modern baseball. 

The first thing we can point to that we can call something akin to modern baseball were the rules established in 1845 by the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York. The man behind the codification of the rules was Alexander Joy Cartwright.

The Knickerbocker Rules were almost certainly established several years before 1845. Even still, the rules do bare some resemblance to the game of today.

The bases were in the shape of a diamond, with home and second base 42 paces apart and first and third base 42 paces apart. 

The game was played to 21 “aces.” An ace is what we would call a run. The two teams took turns, similar to cricket. 

The ball had to be pitched like a horseshoe, not thrown. This is where the term “pitch” comes from for throwing a baseball. 

If you caught a ball, the batter was out. If a runner was tagged with a ball, they were out. 

The rules were certainly different, but if you saw people playing this game, you’d think they were playing baseball or at least slow-pitch softball.

The Knickerbockers published their rules in 1848, and another New York Club called the Eagles published their own rules in 1852. In 1854, the Knickerbockers, Eagles, and Gothams all agreed to a uniform set of rules they would use when playing each other. 

In 1857, sixteen teams from the New York area came together and modified a new set of rules, this time establishing nine innings and removing the cricket style of one inning for each side. They also created teams of nine players, established bases as being 90 feet apart, and allowed force-outs at any base. 

The game became very popular in New York. In 1858, an all-star team of Manhattan and New Jersey players played an all-star team from Brooklyn. 4,000 people were in attendance, and it was the first game ever where people paid money to attend. The Manhattan team won 22-18, ticket prices were 10 cents, and the proceeds were donated to charity.

Just before the outbreak of the Civil War, some teams began playing in enclosed fields and regularly charged admission. 

The civil war spread the game as soldiers from around the country would play together during downtime, and prisoners of war taught the game to soldiers in the south. It was the Knickerbocker rules which became the popular version of the game.

After the war, the game kept growing in popularity all over the country. While teams organized under the National Association of Base Ball Players were ostensibly amateurs, as money came in, players were paid under the table. 

In 1869, the National Association agreed to allow openly professional teams. The first professional team formed soon after this rule change was the Cincinnati Red Stockings, or as they are known today, the Cincinnati Reds.  They were a national touring team who played local clubs. 

Because they paid for talent, no one beat them for over a year. 

In 1871, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was established with 23 teams, including several teams, which still exist today. The Chicago White Stockings, the Philadelphia (now Oakland) Athletics, The Cincinnati Reds, and the Boston Red Stockings. 

Oddly enough, the Boston and Chicago teams are not the teams by those names today. The Chicago White Stockings became the Chicago Cubs. 

The Boston Red Stockings became the Boston Braves, which were then the Milwaukee Braves and are now the Atlanta Braves. 

The Atlanta Braves are the longest continuously existing baseball club as Chicago Cubs didn’t play for a season after the Chicago Fire, and the Cincinnati Reds dissolved for a year in 1870. 

The National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was short-lived and was replaced in 1876 by the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs. This is the same National League that exists today, and it is the oldest professional sports league in the world. 

The next thirty years saw a host of professional teams and leagues come and go. The only other league which was able to compete with the National League was the American League which was established in 1901. 

The American League was well-funded and started a bidding war for talent with the National League and other minor leagues who joined to form the National Association. 

In 1902, the leagues came together to hammer out a deal that mostly honored the reserve clause in the contracts of the other leagues, which prevented players from becoming free agents. The National Association teams were also set up in a formal minor league system with different levels. 

They also agreed to a championship series the next year between the American and National League champions which was dubbed the World Series. 

Baseball grew rapidly and became a big business over the next two decades. However, things fell apart rapidly after the 1919 World Series when members of the Chicago White Sox were convicted of purposely throwing the series for gamblers. 

The game had become tainted, so the leagues hired an impartial person to oversee the rules. They hired a federal judge by the name of Kenesaw Mountain Landis. 

Landis controlled baseball with almost dictatorial control for 24 years. 

Baseball, up to this point, had enforced an informal color barrier preventing black players from playing. There had been a few black players in the very first days of professional baseball, but other than that, they had been kept out.

Landis was an opponent of integration and made sure that no black players were allowed in the major leagues during his tenure.  

This led to the creation of the Negro Leagues in 1920.

There was no single Negro League. It was a collection of leagues and teams with black baseball players who played over a thirty-year period. The number of games and teams was always in flux, and accurate statistics weren’t kept.

However, the Negro Leagues saw some of the greatest players ever to play the game, including Satchel Page, Josh Gibson, Rube Foster, and many others. 

The Negro Leagues will be the subject of its own episode in the future. 

It wasn’t until the death of Kenesaw Mountain Landis in 1944 that the Brooklyn Dodgers were able to sign Jackie Robinson in 1946, finally, breaking the color barrier in baseball. 

Kids had played baseball informally for years. In 1939, the Little League was established in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. In 1947, the first Little League World Series was played, a tradition that continues to this day. 

The game spread beyond the United States in the first half of the 20th century, becoming popular in Cuba, Canada, and other Latin American countries. 

Baseball had been played in Japan before the second world war. There were club teams in the 1930s, mirroring the clubs in New York in the 1850s. 

In 1950, the Nippon Professional Baseball league was established. Baseball in Japan is basically the same as baseball in other countries, but a completely different culture developed around the sport, both in terms of how it is played and its fans. 

The Japanese championship is known as the Japan Series, which is played between the winners of the Central and Pacific Leagues. 

For decades, Japanese baseball remained its own thing, with strong cultural norms keeping the very best players in Japan, even though they were more than good enough in Major League Baseball. The Japanese Home Run king, Sadaharu Oh, hit 868 home runs, over 100 more than Hank Aaron. 

This taboo was broken in 1995 when Hideo Nomo signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

Professional quality baseball players began coming from all over the world, including the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Panama, Venezuela, Mexico, South Korea, the Netherlands (by way of Aruba and Curacao), Taiwan, and even the cricket bastion of Australia. 

In 2006 the World Baseball Classic was established, which was to be the baseball version of the World Cup. You might be wondering why they just didn’t call it the world cup, which would have far better name recognition. That is because there was a thing called the baseball world cup from 1938 until 2011, even though no one in the world knew about it. 

This might shock people, but the very first winner of the baseball world cup in 1938 was…..Great Britain.  The really shocking thing isn’t that they won but that they had a British team, instead of four different national teams. 

The 2023 World Baseball Classic ended just as I was preparing this episode. Japan beat the United States 3 to 2 to win their third championship. 

Baseball remains a very big business. Given 162 games played by each major league team each season, Major League Baseball is the second largest professional league in the world in terms of revenue, behind only the National Football League. 

The game has come a long way from being called America’s national pastime. From its humble roots of hitting a ball with a stick in a field, it has developed into a truly international game.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

While it is something I try to avoid at all costs, occasionally, I do make a mistake. When that happens, I have to make a correction.

I made a pretty dumb mistake in the last episode. Anchorage is not the capital of Alaska. The capital is Juneau. 

I am well aware of this. I’ve been to both Anchorage and Juneau, and I’ve even stood across the street from the Alaskan statehouse. 

It was one of those things when someone pointed it out, I had to slap my forehead. 

Now that being said, Anchorage probably makes a ton more sense as a capital city than Juneau does, but that is neither here nor there, and I offer my apologies to all Alaskans. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show,