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The History of Baseball

BaseballBaseball is a game of bats and balls that can trace its history back to the eighteenth century and possibly before. The earliest games, which eventually evolved into the sport we know today, were created in the United Kingdom, though historians have had difficulties pinpointing the specific sport from which baseball grew. This is a troublesome task, as there were numerous bat-and-ball-based possibilities in the region for centuries.

The most popular consensus is that it all began with a sport called “rounders,” though there are some earlier mentions of similar games in various historical pictures and manuscripts. What we do know is that the sport landed in North America as early as the 1830s. Once it reached the United States, it spread like wildfire.

By the mid-1850s, the game was immensely popular. This is when we first saw the media reference the sport as the “national pastime.” Those early years in the nineteenth century saw a game in flux as rules and leagues were still being figured out. Eventually, there were two major leagues in the country: the National League and the American League.

For years, the two leagues operated as individual entities. The associations came together in 1903 and created the World Series, an end-of-the-year contest between the teams with the best records in their respective leagues. Finally, in 2000, the two separate associations were dissolved as legal entities, becoming one united Major League Baseball organization, with the two previous leagues acting more as conferences.

At present, baseball is a sport with global appeal. It is most popular in North America, Latin America, and parts of Asia, namely Korea and Japan. In fact, in 2005, a new worldwide competition called The World Baseball Classic was created, in which national teams face off in a World Cup-like tournament. Today’s club baseball is dominated by the wealthiest professional league, the MLB, which attracts the best talent in the world.

Let’s look at how we got here!

Origin Games

Before the game of baseball was fully formed, there was a litany of various folk games based on bats and balls being played throughout Europe, notably the United Kingdom. Most of these games involve a thrower or pitcher of some kind trying to get a ball past an offensive player with a paddle or bat. From there, some had bases and runners like the sport we know today, while others had more unfamiliar rulesets.

Eventually, in the eighteenth century, the name “baseball” was used, and the rules began to resemble something closer to what we watch today. The closest relative to baseball was called “rounders” and was most popular in England. While there isn’t definitive proof, it is believed to be the primary origin of the eventual sport. Let’s look at some of the early inspirations for the nation’s pastime.

Trap Ball

Trap BallTrap ball has been played in England since the fourteenth century. In this unique bat-and-ball game, a ball is thrown into the air to be hit by the batsman and then fielded. Unlike baseball, there is no running once the projectile is hit. Instead, the object of the game is for the fielder to gather the hit ball and attempt to throw it back within the vicinity of the batter.

The possible impact this medieval game had on the future of bat-and-ball games, and thus baseball itself, is the inclusion of foul lines. The batter was forced to hit the ball between two boundaries, usually in the form of posts, in order for the hit to count. Over the next several centuries, these posts became the foul poles that we see today.

Stoolball

StoolballWhen Joseph Strutt wrote his book “The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England” in 1838, he included a passage about the game “stoolball.” Hoping to prove that these baseball-esque games had been played since the fourteenth century, Strutt referenced William Pagula’s poem from 1330, in which the poet was recommending stoolball be banned within churchyards by the clergy.

Stoolball can be seen as a precursor to both baseball and cricket. Initially, the thrower would attempt to hit a target, while the batter tried to defend it. In order to maintain the target, the hitter would swat the ball away with their hand in earlier iterations and a bat in later versions. There is very little known about the specifics of the target used for this game, but it is believed that it may have been actual tree stumps.

The object of the game was for the pitcher to hit the stool or stump with their ball. If they were successful, the batter would be out. But every time the hitter was able to knock the ball away successfully, they scored one point. There was no running or fielding, just pitching and hitting.

It is believed that stoolball is responsible for the creation of both cricket and rounders, which both eventually influenced baseball’s creation.

For Example

The wickets in cricket are called “stumps,” a possible throwback to the original target.

Furthermore, in later variations of stoolball, a second stool was employed, and points were awarded for running back and forth between them after hitting the ball, just like cricket.

Rounders

RoundersRounders is an English game, the playing of which can be traced back to the mid-eighteenth century when the Tudors still ruled. The game is remarkably similar to baseball and similarly features bats and balls, as well as four bases which are run around in order to score points, which they call “rounders.”

The primary difference between this old folk game and baseball is that in rounders, the person serving up the ball is a bowler or feeder, rather than a pitcher. Instead of delivering the ball with an overhand pitch, the ball is launched with an underarm pendulum throw. There are other differences as well, such as running around the bases with the bat in hand and the possibility of scoring half-points.

Regardless, there are many more similarities than there are differences. It’s easy to see the role that rounders played in the evolution of America’s eventual pastime.

Cricket

CricketWhile there were many similar games that were possibly played as far back as the thirteenth century, the sport called “cricket” is first found in the history books around 1550. Sharing common ancestors with baseball, cricket is also a game of bats and balls, although with its own twist. Rather than running bases, the hitters ran back and forth between stools, and the hitting process involved protecting wickets called stumps, which the bowlers would aim to knock down.

Cricket became its own sport well before the earliest mentions of the game of baseball. While they share certain similarities due to their common lineage, each sport adopted different rules and features of these numerous folk-sport influences and evolved into their own unique contest. Today, baseball and cricket are the two most popular bat-and-ball sports in the world, but few know that they originally came from the same place. Now they are like distant cousins; they come from the same bloodline, but they have very little in common beyond bats and balls.

Earliest Mentions of Baseball Precursors Throughout History

Beyond the four most significant early influences, shared above, there have been hundreds of additional games which resemble baseball and possibly played a role in its creation. Throughout hundreds of years of history, there have been a great many recorded accounts of games based on throwers and batters. Here are some of the most prominent:

The Romance of Alexander (1344)

Most of the credit for the original folk games that led to baseball and cricket is given to the English. However, there is some evidence that those games were actually inspired by games that the French created. A drawing in the 1344 French manuscript titled “The Romance of Alexander” features a group of clergymen and women playing a game called “la soule.” This too was a bat-and-ball game that closely resembled modern-day co-ed softball.

Tudor Times (1744)

The first instance of the name “baseball” being used can be found in “A Little Pretty Pocket-Book,” written in 1744. It was an English children’s book that included a picture and accompanying story about the game.

The Prince of Wales (1749)

While it was called “single-season” in the history books, the first recorded baseball game took place in Surrey, England, and included the Prince of Wales as a participant in the competition.

“The Card” by John Kidgell (1755)

John Kidgell’s book “The Card” is considered the second mention of the actual sport of baseball in print. The reference can be found on page 9 and reads “and the younger Part of the Family, perceiving Papa not inclined to enlarge upon the matter, retired to an interrupted Party at Base-Ball.”

Baseball in the Dictionary (1768)

In 1768, the editors from Encyclopedia Britannica published “A General Dictionary of the English Language.” Within its pages, baseball made its first appearance in the dictionary. It was defined as “A rural game in which the person striking the ball must run to his base or goal.”

Johann Gutsmuth’s Popular Pastimes (1796)

Les Jeux des Jeunes Garçons (1810)

By 1810, the sport was beginning to take form and was more widely known. “Les Jeux des Jeunes,” published in Paris in 1810, became the second book to include printed rules of the game.

“Village Sketch” by Mary Russell Mitford (1820’s)

In Mitford’s “Village Sketch,” the author describes a woman’s desire to join a game of baseball, writing, “her longing eyes fixed on a game of baseball at the corner of the green till she reaches the cottage door, flings down the mop and pitcher and darts off to her companions quite regardless of the storm of scolding with which the mother follows her runaway steps.”

“The Boy’s Own Book” by William Clarke (1828)

The game William Clarke’s 1828 novel mentions is actually rounders. What makes this piece of history unique is that it’s the first printed description of a bat-and-ball sport played on a diamond, with players running the bases to score.

“The Book of Sports” by Robin Carver (1834)

The rules of baseball were once again published for the public in 1834, this time by Robin Carver in Boston.

The National League (1876 – Present)

Major League Baseball’s National League is the oldest current professional sports league in the world. The organization was established in 1876 with these eight charter franchises:

  • Chicago White Stockings (present-day Chicago Cubs)
  • Philadelphia Athletics
  • Boston Red Stockings (present-day Atlanta Braves)
  • Hartford Dark Blues
  • Mutual of New York
  • St. Louis Brown Stockings
  • Cincinnati Red Stockings
  • Louisville Grays

First Game (1876)

The National League’s inaugural game took place on April 22, 1876, in Philadelphia. The game featured the Philadelphia Athletics versus the Boston Red Stockings. Boston would go on to win the contest by a score of 6 to 5.

Early Years

The first few years in the National League were quite tumultuous. After the first season, the New York and Philadelphia teams were expelled for refusing to take part in western road trips. For the next two seasons, the league operated with only six clubs, and by 1880, six of the eight charter clubs had folded.

More clubs were brought into the fold, and finally, in 1882, all eight franchises from the previous season returned for a second consecutive year without any turnover. A year later, the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Gothams became National League teams. The Gothams went on to become the San Francisco Giants, and the Phillies have retained the same name and location for the entirety of their existence.

American Association (1882 – 1891)

Before the American League ever existed, the American Association was baseball’s second league. The Association was the National League’s primary rival for ten seasons before eventually folding in 1891. Over the course of a decade, twenty-five different clubs called the American Association home. In their best year, the AA boasted twelve professional teams as part of their ranks.

Note:

In their time in place, the Association was considered the fun league. While the National League was puritanical and strict, the AA allowed alcohol at their games, offered lower ticket prices, and founded franchises in cities like Louisville, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, locations considered too immoral for the NL.

While the National League banned the sale of alcohol on their grounds, several of the Association franchises were endorsed by breweries and distilleries.

While the two leagues had vastly different moral standards, they did manage to cooperate to create a game-changing event. From 1884 through 1890, the best team from each organization would compete in what was basically a rudimentary version of the World Series. There was little consistency from year to year, with the series lengths ranging from three to fifteen games. Of the contests that were played, the National League team won four times, the American Association won once, and there were two bitter and disputed ties.

In its later years, the American Association struggled to keep their franchises, with several defecting to the rival National League.

Furthermore, a third professional league was established, which cut into the AA’s ticket sales, talent pool, and profits. Between the loss of clubs and the financial implications of a third baseball league, the American Association finally folded in 1891, but not without making a significant and lasting impact on the game.

The clubs that began in the Association before jumping to the National League are some of the most successful in Major League Baseball history. The defecting franchises included the Brooklyn Bridegrooms (present-day Los Angeles Dodgers), Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds, and the St. Louis Browns (present-day Cardinals).

The American League (1901 – Present)

The organization that would eventually grow to become the American League began as a minor league called the Western League. The association struggled to survive in their early years before Ban Johnson took over. Seeing a void left by the now-defunct American Association, Johnson brought the Western League to major league status and renamed it the American League.

1901

The American League’s first season took place in 1901, and the newfound majors began their history with eight original franchises called the “Classic Eight.” The teams that were included in that initial group were:

  • Baltimore Orioles (folded after the 1902 season, not to be confused with the current team by the same name)
  • Boston Americans (present-day Boston Red Sox)
  • Chicago White Stockings(present-day Chicago White Sox)
  • Cleveland Blues(present-day Cleveland Indians)
  • Detroit Tigers
  • Milwaukee Brewers(present-day Baltimore Orioles)
  • Philadelphia Athletics(present-day Oakland Athletics)
  • Washington Senators(present-day Minnesota Twins)

Rivalry

Much like the American Association before them, it wasn’t long before the AL was directly competing with the more established National League. Due to the lack of a salary cap in the newly-formed major league, the American League became an attractive destination for talented players, including Babe Ruth. With the talent also came fans, and the early years of the AL had much higher attendance numbers than their National League competitors.

Important:

When the original Baltimore Orioles franchise got in over their head in debt, the NL owners got their revenge. After wracking up so much debt that they were unable to pay their players, the Orioles ownership ranks began selling off their shares in the franchise to part-owner John Mahon. Once Mahon was the majority owner, he flipped the club to Andrew Freedman and John T. Brush, the owners of the National League teams the Giants and Cincinnati Reds, respectively.

The new owners promptly released all of the best players from the roster, only to re-sign them to their National League clubs. The AL then stepped in and seized control of the gutted franchise and was forced to restock the gutted roster with borrowed talent from other American League teams. At the end of the season, the AL and NL owners met and declared a truce to end the talent poaching and underhanded tactics.

The World Series (1903)

The National League representatives had hoped that the 1902 peace treaty would result in a merger between the two major leagues, but the AL was uninterested. Instead, the two sides came together and organized another post-season competition between the champions from each league. This time, it would be named the World Series.

The first World Series was played between the Boston Americans representing the AL, and the Pittsburgh Pirates from the National League. Boston went on to win the matchup, prompting the NL to withdraw from the following year’s event. However, in 1905, the World Series was reinstated and would be played every subsequent season until 1994 when a strike shortened the season.

The Negro Leagues

Before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, baseball was segregated, with the two major leagues only accepting white players. In response to the racism that they faced from the American and National Leagues, black (as well as some Latino) players formed their own teams, many of which had become professional clubs by the 1880s.

The first widely-known black professional baseball franchise was established in 1885.

The Cuban Giants were formed by combining talent from three other clubs, two of which were from Philadelphia, with the third located in Washington DC. The team was so successful that the National Colored Base Ball League was founded in 1887 as a minor league.

The NCBBL began with six clubs and was lead by Walter S. Brown. After establishing the charter franchises, Brown applied for official minor league status under the National Agreement, a set of rules formed after the nasty AL vs. NL turf war of 1902. The agreement dealt with things like player acquisitions and talent poaching and would ensure the fledgling league’s rosters weren’t signed away. Unfortunately, the protections would be unnecessary, as the NCBBL would collapse a little over a month into the season.

In the early 1920s, there were numerous leagues founded for black players, including the Negro Southern League, Eastern Colored League, and Negro National League. Black baseball was thriving and full of talents like Rube Foster, Cool Papa Bell, and Willie Wells. However, the various leagues were struggling somewhat with continuity, as clubs were continually joining and folding.

By the early 1930s, Negro League baseball was in a crisis of both collapsing clubs and leagues.

Around this time, a gangster by the name of Gus Greenlee purchased a team called the Pittsburgh Crawfords for the purposes of laundering money. However, he quickly fell in love with the sport and began making additional investments into his club. He invested $100,000 into a ballpark and signed Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, who would both go on to become blackball superstars.

Greenlee upped the ante in 1933 when he founded another new Negro National League since the organization that initially used that name had recently folded. One of the six-team league’s most notable achievements at this time was their East-West All-Star Game, which drew a crowd of 20,000 fans to Comiskey Park in Chicago.

During World War II, the Negro Leagues thrived. While they lost some players to the war effort just like the major leagues did, many great black players were over the age of thirty and thus not suitable for military service. With a significant portion of the black civilian population making good money by helping in the war industries, the games were packed nightly. The Negro World Series was reinstated in 1942 and was played annually through 1948, a year after the color barrier was broken.

Major League Baseball History

Major League Baseball has gone through many different eras and phases, as well as scandals and controversies. There have been periods of low-scoring, powerless games and decades of steroid-fueled home-run kings. We’ve seen a World Series thrown for money and an all-time great player banned for life for gambling on baseball. But always, baseball prevails, and you never know what the next era will bring.

Dead Ball Era (1900 – 1919)

Before Babe Ruth breathed life back into the sport, Major League Baseball was going through a twenty-year stretch called the dead ball era. Baseball was a low-scoring strategic affair with franchises all employing what would eventually be called “small ball.” In 1908, teams were averaging a combined 3.4 runs a game, the lowest in history.

There were several variables that contributed to this unprecedented run of low-scoring seasons. First, at the turn of the twentieth century, the rule was changed to make foul balls count as strikes. Before then, batters could foul off pitches with no consequences, so this resulted in an enormous shift in power, giving the pitchers a much more significant advantage over their foes.

Second, they reused the same baseballs until they started to fall apart. The more a ball is hit, the softer it becomes. The softness means the projectile absorbs more of the force of the bat and doesn’t travel as far. Third, if the soft ball wasn’t enough, pitchers were also allowed to scuff and mark the ball, as well as cover them in saliva to throw a spitball. All of these actions significantly increase the movement of the ball, making them more difficult to hit.

Lastly, the ballparks being built were simply very large. The grounds that the Chicago Cubs played on measured 560 feet from home plate to the center field wall. Even more absurd, the Red Sox center field fence was 635 feet away! So no matter what was going on with the balls or foul rules, the size of the outfield alone was enough to put an end to any home runs.

The Black Sox Scandal (1919)

Black Sox ScandalThe 1919 World Series was played between the Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds. The White Sox were heavily favored to win the series, but there was dissension in their clubhouse. A considerable swathe of the players hated the club’s owner, Charles Comiskey. He had a reputation for underpaying his athletes, and without a union or free agency, the reserve clause meant players were either stuck playing for him or not playing at all.

Any player who refused to play for the team that owned their rights was banned from joining another squad. They’d have to accept whatever was offered to them and live with it because the owner held all of the leverage. This made players an easy target for gamblers and mobsters hoping to manipulate outcomes for big gambling wins.

That’s precisely what happened in 1919. Eight White Sox players were convinced to purposely lose the series in exchange for cash. The rumors began to spread quickly, especially when large sums of money started moving the line in the Reds’ favor. When the game began, Eddie Cicotte, Chicago’s pitcher, beaned the leadoff hitter in the back, a signal that they were accepting the bribe.

The bought players went along with the plan early in the series. However, when the gamblers didn’t come through with the promised money for each loss as expected, the White Sox players started trying and won games six and seven of a nine-game series. The gamblers went into a panic and began making threats, and the Sox would lose the series in game eight.

The rumors surrounding the fix grew loud enough that a grand jury investigation was held. When the proceedings were complete, eight players and five gamblers were implicated in the scheme. Charges were brought to trial, but the players were all found not guilty. Regardless, every player embroiled in the scandal was banned from baseball for life, including the Hall of Fame.

Jackie Robinson Breaks the Color Barrier (1947)

Jackie Robinson was a second baseman who broke the color barrier when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Before his arrival in the major leagues, baseball was a segregated sport, with blacks and Latino players forced to stay in the Negro Leagues, while the majors were exclusively for whites.

Note:

While Robinson possessed extraordinary skill on the field, he has also been celebrated for his exemplary character, bravery, and patience. He was often subject to verbal racial abuse, yet he continued to hold himself to a higher standard and play his game. Out of respect for what he endured and the poise with which he bore it, Robinson is one of the most beloved players in MLB history and the only player whose jersey is retired by every franchise.

Beyond becoming one of the most important civil rights figures in American history, Jackie Robinson could also really play baseball. In his ten-year major league career, he was a six-time all-star, a World Series champion, Rookie of the Year, and the National League MVP. Robinson was selected as a member of Major League Baseball’s All-Century Team and is celebrated every year on April 15th, when every player in the league dons the number 42 jersey for the day.

The Steroid Era

After the baseball strike of 1994, Major League Baseball was struggling to lure fans back to their product. Viewership and attendance were down across the board, with many fans disgusted over the prospect of the World Series being canceled, which hadn’t happened since 1904. It was going to take something drastic to get them back.

Luckily for the MLB, steroids were about to supercharge the league in the blink of an eye. While the league did ban anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, there weren’t any tests or measures in place to prevent their usage. From 1991 through at least 2003, a massive percentage of the talent pool was using performance-enhancing drugs to increase their size and power.

It wasn’t until Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire were both chasing the single-season home run record that the public fell in love with the sport again.

It was the biggest story in the industry, and every day, one or both of the behemoth sluggers would launch another home run into orbit. McGwire would eventually go on to break the record, and the MLB’s viewership had returned.

Over the next several years, the rumors about steroids continued to get louder, and what we were seeing became more apparent. Almost everyone was on the juice. Players like Roger Clemens were suddenly more muscular than ever and having career-best years in their 40s. Barry Bonds’ helmet size literally grew; he barely resembled the man who previously played for the Pirates.

Eventually, Jose Canseco wrote a book that blew the lid off of the whole thing. He told us that everyone in the game was doping and how. There was an investigation on Capitol Hill where numerous legendary players were dragged in front of Congress and questioned about the epidemic. Some players came clean, others perjured themselves, and nobody came out looking good.

Now, an entire era of baseball has been tainted by suspicions of cheating. As these players are coming eligible for Hall of Fame induction, many of the writers with a vote are refusing to include them on their ballots. Even Barry Bonds, who holds both the single-season and career home run records, has failed to get in on his first several attempts.

Historically Important Baseball Records

RecordPlayerAchievement
Highest Career Batting AverageTy Cobb.367 AVG
Most Career Home RunsBarry Bonds762 HR’s
Most Career HitsPete Rose4256 Hits
Most Career Games PlayedPete Rose3562 Games
Most Career Strike Outs (hitting)Reggie Jackson2597 Strike Outs
Most Career Pitching WinsCy Young511 Wins
Most Pitching Wins (Season)Old Hoss Radbourn59 Wins
Best Career ERAEd Walsh1.82 ERA
Most Career Starts (pitching)Cy Young815 Games
Most Career Strike Outs (pitching)Nolan Ryan5714 Strike Outs
Most Career Pitching ShutoutsWalter Johnson110 Pitching Shut Outs
Most Career No-Hitters (pitching)Nolan Ryan7 No-Hitters
Most Consecutive Games Played Cal Ripken Jr.2632 Consecutive Games
Most Career Stolen BasesRickey Henderson1406 Stolen Bases
Most All-Star Games PlayedHank Aaron25 All-Star Games

The Wrap-Up

Versions of baseball have been played in North American and Europe for centuries. Bat-and-ball sports first grew popular overseas, where there were numerous games, all with their own unique variations of the rules, equipment, etc. We have evidence of these sorts of competitions dating back to at least 1344, but the name “baseball” didn’t appear in a dictionary until 1768.

Sometime in the mid-1800s, baseball made its way across the pond to North America. Once here, it rapidly became one of the nation’s favorite pastimes. Professional leagues and teams began being established and competing against each other, although the general organization of the contests, rules, and everything else about the sport was still very much in flux.

Finally, two top-tier associations emerged in North America: the American League and the National League. Each began with a small handful of founding franchises and slowly expanded and grew through the decades.

The rival leagues started competing in a World Series as far back as 1903, although they wouldn’t be officially consolidated into one organization until 2000. Now, Major League Baseball is the highest level of the sport in the world, attracting talent from all over the globe.

There’s no professional sports league in all of the United States with a longer, richer history than baseball. With over a century of statistics and a ruleset that has stayed reasonably consistent, no other sport lends itself to comparisons between the past and present quite like “America’s favorite pastime.”

The MLB has been through numerous eras, scandals, and golden years during its existence and promises to continue making history to discuss for many years to come.