American Icons: Baseball

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1954 Topps Baseball Tin SignThe All-American Pastime


Today, baseball is so prevalent throughout the United States that we may tend to take it for granted. But it hasn’t been a part of our culture for all that long, having really only taken hold following the Civil War. Although most cultures throughout the world have a game involving a ball and a stick, American baseball appears to have evolved from an English game called “rounders”. Played in America in the early 1800s, it was commonly called “town ball”, but also was called just “base”, or “ball” and “round ball” and “base ball”, depending on the region.

Differences between modern-day baseball and town ball included the fact that in town ball there wasn’t any foul territory. Every hit was considered playable. A runner could be called out by hitting them with the ball, as long as they were not on base. This was called “soaking” or “plugging”. The infield was square or rectangular and the batter stood between home plate and first base. After hitting the ball he could run as many bases as possible as long as no one caught the ball either in the air or after the first bounce. Rules were variable and a team could be up at bat until all their players were out (all-out), or until only one player was out (one-out), depending on what was agreed upon. In addition, the number of innings was up to the two teams playing, or they could opt to play until one team got a particular score.

As baseball gained popularity, towns formed teams and larger cities organized ball clubs. In an attempt to standardize the game, the first written rules were assembled by the Manhattan, New York Knickerbockers ball club. These became known as the “Knickerbocker Rules”. The author of the rulebook was the New York bookseller, Alexander Cartwright. He is considered by many to be the Father of Baseball. As a matter of fact, in 1953 the US Congress officially gave credit to Cartwright for inventing the game of baseball, as we know it today. Maybe more importantly, he helped spread the modern form of baseball across the country. Like many others, he got caught up in the Gold Rush frenzy and headed west, sharing his fondness for baseball in towns where he stopped along the way.

The first baseball game to be played using the Knickerbocker Rules and to be officially recorded was played at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1846. The Knickerbocker Club played against the New York Nine, who defeated the Knickerbocker Club 23 to 1 in four innings. Baseball became increasingly popular in New York City, and by 1850, it was becoming an obsession. Several Manhattan ball clubs had formed the National Association of Base Ball players, using the Elysian Fields as their home field. By 1856 newspaper journalists were calling baseball the “national pastime”. In 1865 the Elysian Fields was the sight of a game between the Mutual Club of New York and the Atlantic Club of Brooklyn. The game attracted 20,000 spectators! That’s a pretty impressive turnout when you consider the total population for Manhattan at that time was slightly less than 1 million people.

Two new fields were built in Brooklyn; the Union Grounds for Manhattan’s Mutual Club, and the Polo Grounds for both the New York Metropolitans and the New York Giants. The new fields were fenced, allowing the promoters to charge admission. By 1857 there were sixteen clubs from NYC, and by 1858, there were twenty-five from NYC and one from New Jersey that sent representatives to a convention where they met to standardize the Knickerbocker Rules.

There was a decline in the number of baseball clubs with the beginning of the Civil War in 1861. The traveling by soldiers during the conflict served to spread baseball fever throughout the country and interest in the game was greater than ever at the end of the war. The postwar convention in 1868 was attended by delegates from more than 100 teams.

The first professional baseball team to be formed was the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1869. The National League was founded in 1876. This league has survived to the present day, where many other leagues have not. Although African-Americans were banned from the game in 1867, in 1883 Moses Walker was the first African-American to play professionally, when he signed with the minor league Northwestern League Toledo Blue Stockings. Walker’s career ended when the team released him in 1889. In 1890, the leagues unofficially banned African-Americans from playing baseball once again. The Negro National League formed in 1920. The next baseball player to break the “color barrier” and play on a racially integrated team was Jackie Robinson in 1946 when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The baseball craze has only grown with time. The first modern-day World Series was played in 1903 between the Boston American League and the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1939 Little League Baseball was founded. During WWII, when all able-bodied men were serving their country, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was formed. They played from 1943 to 1954. The first College World Series took place in 1947, and in 1953 the Major League Baseball Players Association was founded. Baseball was admitted to the Olympics as a medal sport in 1992.

Throughout its history, the game of baseball has experienced its ups and downs, its strikes and scandals. But baseball is still the favorite American pastime, which has made it a real American icon. Although baseball is played in many other countries throughout the world, the official game rules evolved here, in the United States. Many outstanding American players live on as heroes and role models like Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig and Hank Aaron, just to name a few. Fans love their ballparks nearly as much as they love their teams and their players. Each baseball stadium is a little different. But that’s a subject for another blog.

Last updated: May 11, 2009
Filed under: American Icons Tagged with: Americas favorite pastime, Baseball