The Birth of Baseball
A CultureMap®
by Gabriel Rosenberg
Published on 10/10/13

Baseball was born in New York City and from the start was a gritty, tough-talking, tobacco-spitting urban game, not the polite pastoral recreation historians often claim. Nor was it conceived in a flash of ingenuity by a Civil War hero named Abner Doubleday. America’s pastime actually evolved from various European bat-and-ball contests, but admitting this may run you afoul of red-blooded Americans. Woe unto the umpire who doesn’t call it for the home team.

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New York Knickerbockers  (American baseball club | 1845–c. 1870)
to  Abner Doubleday  (1819–1893 | American Army general)

In 1905 A.G. Spalding, a retired pitcher and cofounder of Spalding sporting goods, sponsored a commission to investigate baseball’s origins. He was intrigued by the testimony of 71-year-old Abner Graves, who claimed Abner Doubleday invented the game in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839 because he’d once witnessed Doubleday etch a baseball diamond into the dirt with a stick. Never mind that an 1893 obituary states Doubleday “did not care for or go into any outdoor sports” or that Graves would later murder his wife and die in an insane asylum—Spalding had his guy.

Confirmed by Congress in 1953, baseball’s true father is Alexander Cartwright, its birthplace an empty lot in New York City’s Murray Hill neighborhood, its year of birth 1845. Spalding likely knew this; on his desk he kept an 1845 scorecard of Cartwright’s squad, the New York Knickerbockers, as one would a souvenir bobblehead. The problem with Cartwright was that the Knickerbocker captain had developed the sport from the British game rounders, undermining Spalding’s narrative of baseball as America’s pastime, whereas Doubleday was a Civil War hero who lent all-American mythos to the game. Like an umpire dusting off home plate, Spalding wiped Britain’s fingerprints from baseball.

New York Knickerbockers  (American baseball club | 1845–c. 1870)
to  Rounders

In stoolball, a medieval British game, a player throws a ball at a stool while another defends it with a paddle; in cricket (which dates to the 16th century), a “bowler” pitches to a batsman, who tallies runs by sprinting between two posts. Anthropologists in Mexico have even unearthed terra-cotta figurines dating back as far as 700 A.D. showing helmeted men crouched batting-stance-style with a club raised over their shoulder, as if posing for their bubblegum card.

Baseball’s direct ancestor is rounders, a British bat-and-ball sport in which players score runs by completing a circuit of four bases. Early 19th-century Americans played informal offshoots of the game, calling it “base” or “base ball,” with varying rules.

In 1845 Alexander Cartwright drafted the first official baseball rulebook, the Knickerbocker rules, named after his New York squad. Its lasting contributions include the diamond-shaped infield (previously square) and bases placed 90 feet apart. But this was still a far cry from modern ball: As in rounders, pitchers threw underhand, a ball caught on one bounce was registered out, and fielders went bare-handed—a practice that endured until 1875, when gloves were introduced to protect players’ already leathery, swollen mitts.

New York Knickerbockers  (American baseball club | 1845–c. 1870)
to  The U.S. Civil War  (1861–1865)

From the first recorded game, in 1846, when the New York Knickerbockers lost 23–1 to the New York Nine, until the late 1860s, when former Knickerbocker center fielder Harry Wright assembled the first professional team, baseball was chiefly a New York game. The Civil War spurred baseball’s burgeoning popularity: Union soldiers played in encampments during idle stretches, generals encouraged it for purposes of levity, Army doctors even recommended it as a fitness regime. An 1860 political cartoon shows Abraham Lincoln—baseball in one hand, a train rail in the other—standing over his political opponents in triumph. His speech bubble reads, “Remember that you must have a good bat [to hit] a home run.”

Only after the war, when soldiers returned home, spreading the baseball gospel around the country, did it become a national sport. Emancipation helped: In the 1870s free African Americans (including the son of abolitionist Frederick Douglass) formed their own ball clubs, and some were recruited by professional teams. Integration lasted only a few tenuous decades—and came at a cost. White resisters employed the “spike” maneuver to sabotage black participation, sliding roughly into black basemen with their feet up, using their cleats like bayonets.

New York Knickerbockers  (American baseball club | 1845–c. 1870)
to  Mark Twain  (1835–1910 | American writer)

The surname of Diedrich Knickerbocker, fictional author of Washington Irving’s 1809 satirical History of New York, is today a nickname for any New Yorker. Thus baseball’s first team (and New York’s current basketball team) essentially called themselves the New York New Yorkers. Irving’s literary descendant Mark Twain was a Knickerbocker himself from 1900 to 1908 and an early celebrity endorser of baseball. He described it as the “symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive…of the raging, tearing, booming 19th century.”

One game Twain attended in 1875 featured A.G. Spalding, a slim, mustachioed pitcher (or “hurler”) for the Boston Red Stockings and future cofounder of the Spalding sporting goods company. Though Twain favored the opposition (Hartford), Spalding shared the author’s view of the sport, later going to great lengths to package baseball as America’s national pastime.

In 1889 Twain spoke at a New York banquet in Spalding’s honor, praising him for his role in promoting baseball around the world. That year the author sent his own baseball ambassador, Hank Morgan (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court), to sixth-century Camelot, where Hank teaches King Arthur the Knickerbocker rules. Who better to introduce baseball to another era than a Yankee?

Mark Twain  (1835–1910 | American writer)
to  “Casey at the Bat”  (Ernest Thayer | poem | 1888)

Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat” mythologizes the clutch situation: Bottom of the ninth, two outs, down 4–2, two runners on, two strikes, Casey swings…and misses. The poem also introduced the ritual cliché “Kill the umpire!” hollered by spectators after a controversial call. Surprisingly, in a setting where overzealous fanatics can drink, gamble, shout, stomp and avail themselves of large wooden clubs, umpires have a decent survival record.

Not so in Mark Twain’s world. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), Hank Morgan, a 19th-century time traveler to Arthurian Britain, organizes a game between two teams of brutish knights. For every disputed call, a fatal bat is dealt to the umpire’s head. In Twain’s Letters From the Earth (published posthumously in 1962), a batter endeavors to “destroy the Umpire with his bludgeon”—and ultimately succeeds.

In 1887 Twain, a great promoter of baseball, arranged to umpire a game in Elmira, New York (even then the sport was advertised as “the old-fashioned game of base ball”). But when Twain saw the hordes of drunken fans, he opted for a bleacher seat. He was heard to say he didn’t wish to make a martyr of himself.

Abner Doubleday  (1819–1893 | American Army general)
to  The U.S. Civil War  (1861–1865)

The only self-aggrandizing Abner Doubleday ever did was to call himself the hero of Sumter, at which 1861 battle he ordered the first Union shot of the Civil War. A decorated general and career military man, Doubleday also fought at Antietam, Gettysburg and the second battle of Bull Run. But he never mentions baseball in any of his letters or journals. There’s no proof he ever heard of it (although soldiers on both sides were known to play at encampments to pass the time). In 1839, the year Doubleday supposedly invented the game in Cooperstown, New York, he was at West Point military academy, training for a decidedly different sort of contest.

The mythology insisting on Doubleday as the father of baseball attracts annual flocks of flag-waving pilgrims to Cooperstown—much the same way history buffs and Civil War reenactors gravitate to Gettysburg. Doubleday is called a hero of both locales, but at only one have the townsfolk dedicated, consecrated and hallowed a statue in his honor. Today at Gettysburg’s annual vintage baseball festival, bare-handed recreationists donning old-timey uniforms can snag pop flies in the shadow of Doubleday’s bronze likeness, as they play by the rules he didn’t write.