Americans have strong loyalties and emotions when it comes to the game of baseball. It is a sport that is cherished across the generations. Players of all ages can participate, from t-ball up to the major leagues. Fans are intensely involved in losses, wins, records, and personalities. They thrive on the dramatic moments when one pitch or hit can mean the difference between victory and defeat. Great moments—from awesome plays to disastrous errors—are etched in memories. So how did this classic American game, affectionately considered America’s pastime, get started?
Believe it or not, baseball’s closest ancestors are two English games that may date to about 400 years ago—rounders and cricket. Rounders is somewhat like softball, where the bowler (pitcher) throws underhand, and the offense tries to hit the ball and run around four bases. Cricket involves one team bowling and defending while the other team bats and tries to score runs by hitting the ball and running back and forth between two sets of wickets (three upright stakes placed closely together). These games—using balls, bats, and bases—laid the foundation for baseball.
The first printed reference to “base ball” in the United States was in Robin Carver’s Book of Sports published in 1834. The author mentions a game similar to rounders and identifies the sport as “goal ball” or “base ball.” An American form of rounders, called the “Massachusetts game,” also appeared in the early 1800s. These were informal, recreational games, sometimes called “town ball.”
One of the earliest amateur clubs that influenced the formation of modern baseball was the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. Alexander Joy Cartwright may be the best known member of this club, which played town ball in the early 1840s in New York City. Their team was named after the Knickerbocker firehouse, of which Cartwright was a volunteer member.
At the time, the game was a club sport, and the rules changed from place to place and game to game. Playing fields varied in size and quality, and the design of the infield did not contribute to exciting competition. In response, the Knickerbockers formed a committee to improve and standardize the game. By September 1845, the “Knickerbocker Rules” established a list of 20 guidelines. They largely determined the nature of baseball as we know it today.
The Knickerbocker Rules designated a “baseball square.” The committee proposed rules that specified, for example, that the distance between bases be 42 paces (about 90 feet), that a ball outside the range of first or third base be foul, and that three outs retire a team at bat. The rules also decreed that a player had to be tagged or forced out. Hitting him with the ball, which used to be permitted, was no longer an out.
The Knickerbockers offered to play any team under the new rules. A challenge came from a group of players called the New York Nine. The game was played at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey, on June 19, 1846. The Knickerbockers lost the four-inning contest 23–1. At the time, the first team to reach 21 “aces” (runs) was the winner. While there are records of earlier baseball games, the game between the Knickerbockers and the Nines was well documented with a scorecard. Historically, it has been considered the first official game to be played.
Baseball’s popularity increased throughout the 1850s and 1860s, and the game spread around the country. By the time of the Civil War (1861–1865), soldiers with time on their hands organized games among themselves or made teams that played against other regiments or local clubs.
Soon after the war ended, professional baseball, in which athletes were paid for playing, began to take shape. In 1869, the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first professional baseball club. In 1871, the first league was established: the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. It was replaced by the National League in 1876—the same National League that exists today.
Other leagues came and went, but in 1901, the American League was formed. In 1903, the National and American leagues signed the National Agreement. This marked the beginning of modern-day Major League Baseball (MLB).
Over the years, different pieces of equipment have been added to the game or modified. The first players fielded balls with their bare hands. In 1885, Arthur Irwin used a padded driving glove to protect two broken fingers, and soon most players wore gloves. The first balls were handmade, but by 1910, the first cork-centered ball was introduced. Also in the early 1900s, batting helmets were introduced, although they were not mandatory until 1971.
What started as a club sport for fun has turned into a huge business today. There are 30 teams in the major leagues that play in ballparks around the country and in Canada. The season is long, extending from April to October. In the 1980s, a fantasy baseball league was started, in which participants select players on paper to make up their teams and then make decisions about the “virtual” rosters based on the actual statistics of the players during the season. Whether you like to play or watch, in person or virtually, baseball has all the bases covered!