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Beginning of Baseball, Some Thoughts

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  • Beginning of Baseball, Some Thoughts

    Some thoughts on the beginning of baseball

    The idea of baseball, under varying spellings, names and rules, had different definitions in centuries past than it does to us in the 21st century. It could loosely mean ‘playing ball’ with just a ball. Add bases, a bat and/or a lot and the sport became a little more defined.

    Was there some sort of ballplaying before the beginning of civilization? Probably. As humans settled into communities, opportunities for the game to be a little more organized arose. With a wide range of types of balls, bats, lots and rules, the game developed its own identity on a region-by-region (perhaps neighborhood-by neighborhood) basis throughout the world. In fact, variants of the game existed in each region according to who was actually playing and other factors: socioeconomic; sex; time of year; available grounds and playing implements; age range; time allotted; size of grounds; imagination; physical limitations; relationship between participants; etc.

    Baseball as we know it today developed in New York City and Brooklyn in the 1830s, 1840s and ‘50s amid the Industrial Revolution after groups of men came together, originally seeking exercise and camaraderie. Yes, there are numerous recorded references to baseball or ball playing prior to this. For example:

    English literature: 1744, 1748, 1749, 1755, 1768, 1788, 1796, 1798, 1799, 1824
    Pittsfield, MA bylaws, 1791
    Game of Bace between Columbia College students, friends and/or faculty in 1805
    Game in Broadway, NY at the Jones’ Retreat saloon, 1823
    Game chronicled by William Wood, 1832

    The question still looms: What were they actually playing? Were these a loose version of the game we know today or ones that closely resembles it, especially the latter contests?

    Among the variants of the game played, some were a little more defined like: rounders; town ball; various cat games; wicket; cricket; base or baseball of various incarnations.

    KNICKERBOCKERS

    Don’t waste time on Abner Doubleday, the Spalding/Mills fallacy and the Cooperstown myth, our baseball began with the Knickerbocker club of New York City and their antecedents and peers. Yes, there were others before the Knickerbockers; in fact, the Knickerbockers themselves were, in part, an amalgamation of other baseball men coming together (a few identified as previously playing with the Gothams or another club simply called the New Yorks).

    The Knicks seem to have loosely come together in some fashion in 1842. Other early known clubs in no particular order:

    New York (probably cricket players)
    Another club identified as New York
    Magnolia
    Gotham/Washington
    Eagles
    Unnamed clubs at Jones’ Retreat
    Various Brooklyn clubs such as an offshoot of the Union Star Cricket Club

    The Knicks got/get the recognition because of their staying power and socioeconomic class and the attention both attracted in the press. There were assuredly other clubs but today we can only identify those that were recorded. We know about most of the above because of their relationship to the Knickerbockers. Other adult clubs, like the Magnolias, amassed for the same purpose of playing ball but did so outside a chronicler’s eye.

    No, the Knicks were not the first or most competitive but they are the true fathers of the current game. Their seriousness to maintain a well-structured club and long-term success in doing so imparts their importance to the development of the game. A father doesn’t necessarily have to be present at creation. A stepfather who has staying power and is there for the formative years, sending his child off into adulthood is a father by any definition.

    The Knicks formally organized and penned its rules on 23 September 1845. There is good reason to believe that the makeup of the field and those rules were not original to 23 September 1845 nor even the Knickerbockers (perhaps the Gothams in 1837 as claimed by William Wheaton).

    The Knicks focused primarily on intra-squad games. Perhaps this makes them less competitive compared to the teams that emerged in the 1850s. They in fact did play games with other clubs and even brought in a ringer or two at times (maybe the sport’s first pseudo-professionals) as some members pushed to enter the fray. But the Knicks first got together in 1842 for the purpose of exercise among friends. By the 1850s, the Knicks were aging both physically and mentally and were at heart wedded to the amateur ideal or at least averse to rampant professionalism and the gambling that went hand-in-hand.

    FIRST RECORDED GAMES

    The first recorded games after the formation of the Knickerbocker rules. The key word is ‘recorded;’ they were not the first by far highlighted merely by the identity of the venues. Baseball was played elsewhere earlier.

    Monday 10/6/1845
    Knicks vs Knicks at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, NY just off the waters of the Hudson River. (11-8 in 3 innings, 7 on a side)

    Friday 10/10/1845
    New York vs Brooklyn Union Star (an offshoot/subset of the Union Star Cricket Club) at Union Star Cricket Grounds (22-1, Brooklyn victorious)

    Tuesday 10/21/1845
    New York vs Brooklyn Union Star at the Elysian Fields (NY won 24-4)

    Friday 10/24/1845
    New York vs Brooklyn Union Star at the Union Star Cricket Grounds (NY won 37-19)

    Friday 6/19/1846
    Knickerbockers vs New York at the Elysian Fields (NY won 23-1)

    KNICKERBOCKER RULES (formally adopted 23 September 1845)

    1-attendance
    2-naming the umpire
    3-naming team captains
    4-layout the field
    5-practice days
    6 and 7-filling out the rosters
    8-how to win
    9-pitchers’ role
    10-foul territory
    11-strikes
    12 and 13-making outs
    14-interference
    15-three outs to a half inning
    16-maintaining the batting order
    17-umpire’s authority
    18-foul balls
    19-balks/illegal pitches
    20-ground rule hits

    PROLIFERATION OF THE GAME

    The Knicks published their rules in 1848, creating the basis for the game to grow. The original rules did indeed provide a general overview of the game. The nuances of the action and situational rulings/requirements however were done on the field, presumably in a friendly or near-friendly manner between clubmates. But that couldn’t be abided when others took up the game and prioritized competition.

    The proliferation of the sport in New York City and Brooklyn took place in 1852 and 1853, precipitating the Eagles, perhaps in conjunction with or at the behest of other clubs, to approach the Knicks in an effort to aid in an effort to unify the unwritten situational aspects of the contests/actions. The result was the first of many adaptations in the evolution of the rule book in 1854. Eventually, efforts were made calling for a convention of ball clubs to promote and oversee the fledgling sport.

    THE VENUES

    One of the earliest playing grounds where the game that we would recognize as baseball was played by men was at Madison square (a former military arsenal and parade grounds). In the words of William Wheaton, a member of the Gotham club in the 1830s and a future Knickerbocker, “We laid out the ground at Madison square in the form of an accurate diamond, with home-plate and sand-bags for bases. You must remember that what is now called Madison square, opposite the Fifth Avenue Hotel, in the thirties was out in the country, far from the city limits.”

    From there, the Knicks and other clubs moved to Murray Hill and then Elysian Fields. Surely, there were spots in and around New York City and Brooklyn unrecorded to history besides the Union Star Grounds.

    Chasing lots became common (more likely had always been common for ballplayers) throughout the country. As civilization and cities grew, the best lots were eaten up by progress. As ballplaying between aggressive men and the crowds it drew became a nuisance or hazard in the cities/towns, men traipsed further and further outside city limits to the countryside or plains or towards any permissible or acceptable unused parcel.

    This aspect of baseball from the very beginning necessitated one of the most majestic phrases in all of sports – ground rules. The term just oozes nostalgia in a way that most sports where all the action takes place within a rectangle could never. Here, each community could own its identity within the sport even when all the other rules were identical or at least striving towards uniformity.

  • #2
    Good points all, Brian. The Knickerbockers did not invent baseball, nor necessarily shepherd it once it organized, but from 1845-1857, they were the preeminent baseball organization and they did the one thing that secured the prominence of the New York game over other regional variants: they codified and improved upon the rules. More pointedly, it was those rules which were agreed upon (most importantly) by other clubs for the conduct of interclub matches. Without the Knickerbockers, there probably wouldn't have been an NABBP and, without that, baseball would have likely evolved very differently. The Knickerbockers were never a professional club and not even a terribly competitive club, in terms of talent, by the early 1860s, but its role as the beau ideal of baseball in the decade before the Civil War was integral to the game's development.

    The contributions of several men (both pre-Knickerbocker and during their Knickerbocker tenure) combined to give us the ruleset adopted by the NABBP, which is the first recognizable "baseball" to my mind. That said, Alexander Cartwright's contributions being equally substantive to these (much less greater) is as fallacious as the Doubleday myth. Cartwright's role was as minor as it was transient.

    The whole later insistence, by Spalding and others, that baseball must have zero connection to its distant past of rounders (with the various "town ball" games in the interim) lacked both nuance and necessity. Baseball has always been uniquely American and rounders having a distant ancestral relationship to it doesn't render that any less true.

    What a shame that the truth isn't enough for so many.

    I don't know what possessed you to post this today, but thank you for the great reminder!
    "It is a simple matter to erect a Hall of Fame, but difficult to select the tenants." -- Ken Smith
    "I am led to suspect that some of the electorate is very dumb." -- Henry P. Edwards
    "You have a Hall of Fame to put people in, not keep people out." -- Brian Kenny
    "There's no such thing as a perfect ballot." -- Jay Jaffe

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    • #3
      I've always thought the Doubleday myth was a bit frustrating, but I've also enjoyed leaning into it now and then. There's an appeal to believing that there was one particular guy, an American war veteran so as American as can be, just dreaming it up one day. It's less satisfying to imagine it evolving over time. And I love that baseball has a sort of "capital" (Cooperstown). But I'm frustrated by the fact that the myth was created for a reason I find totally silly. It's like they were completely unwilling to admit that it may have any British origin at all. It just strikes me as petty. So, I do enjoy the myth for the normal reasons one would, but I can also say I wish nobody had come up with it, and everyone had always acknowledged the truth that baseball came slowly.
      My parents have raised me to love deadball and I never recovered :P
      17, Madison, generally a Brewers fan but screw it, I'll root for anyone who's fun to watch!

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