The American Game

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Baseball, we are told, is the American game, and much earnest nonsense has been written about how its attributes mystically reveal the American character. Baseball mirrors American life, it is said. It requires both teamwork and individual genius, involves squandered chances and answered prayers, measures the short term of the single game and the long haul of the entire season. That is all perfectly true, but I’m not sure how it differs from life anywhere else.

What, then, makes baseball so red, white, and blue American? Well, if Calvin Coolidge was right that “the chief business of the American people is business”—and the writer of this column is not about to argue with the notion—then baseball is most certainly the American game. Baseball, you see, was a business as well as a sport from its very earliest days.

Within twenty-five years of the game’s appearance on the American scene in the 1840s, professional players had taken over baseball, and the displaced amateurs—unlike their counterparts in football, track, and basketball—vanished from the game entirely beyond the purely local level. How a multibillion-dollar industry grew out of a child’s game makes an interesting—and very American—story.

Baseball’s origins lie in a game called rounders, played by village boys in England since time immemorial, but it was in America that a child’s game of no great interest was transformed into a man’s game that captured the national imagination.

In rounders, outs are made by throwing the ball at the runner and hitting him with it while he is between bases. A soft ball prevented fractured skulls, but a soft ball couldn’t be hit very far. Once tagging the runner out with the ball had been substituted, a hard ball could replace the soft one, and baseball, that infinite interplay of just four human skills—hitting, running, catching, and throwing—could be born.

It emerged in New York City, where informal clubs, mostly made up of upper-middle-class men (that is to say, businessmen) met to play rounders. At first, winning was not nearly as important as the fun and the exercise. The camaraderie and informality were highly reminiscent of a modern backyard touch-football game.

But as rounders evolved into baseball, matters became more serious. The clubs became formally organized and began playing each other occasionally. Rivalries developed between them, making winning more important. Spectators began showing up and often bet on the outcome.

Until very recently it was thought that the first reported game of baseball was a 23 to 1 shellacking of the Knickerbocker Club by the New York Base Ball Club in 1846. But Edward L. Widmer, a Harvard graduate student, recently unearthed a newspaper box score for a game played in Hoboken, New Jersey, between the New York Club and a team from Brooklyn on October 21, 1845. The New York Club won the game 24 to 4 and even hit a grand slam.

Baseball’s popularity increased slowly over the next ten years, and by 1855 there were a dozen ball clubs playing regularly in New York and Brooklyn. Then, suddenly, baseball exploded, and by 1860 there were more than 125 clubs in the metropolitan area and the game was spreading fast to other cities.

No small factor in this was that the newspapers began reporting more and more baseball news and publishing statistics that allowed readers to compare teams and individual players. This, of course, greatly increased the club rivalries.

In 1857 representatives of fourteen clubs met and adopted the rules of the Knickerbocker Club as the official rules of baseball. In the next few years these rules would be taken up everywhere, extinguishing the other baseball-like games that had evolved from rounders and allowing clubs from different cities to play each other.

The following year the first umbrella organization was formed: the National Association of Base Ball Players. (Actually there was nothing national whatever about the teams represented, as they all came from the New York area, but this sort of Barnum-style exaggeration had always been typical of baseball. The first “World” Series was played in 1903, when no major-league team was located west of St. Louis or south of Washington, D.C., let alone outside the United States.)

In 1860 the Excelsior Club of Brooklyn took the first road tour, a two-week jaunt through western New York State, playing local clubs and thrashing them all soundly. The Excelsior Club now took winning very seriously indeed. It chose its members not for their social attributes but for their skills at baseball. Before long it recruited the game’s first professional player, James Creighton. Creighton was a pitcher who delivered his pitches, at least according to one awed reporter, “within a few inches of the ground and they rose up about the batsman’s hip, and when thus delivered, the result of hitting at the ball is either to miss it or send it high in the air.”

Creighton couldn’t afford to leave his job to tour with the club, but because he possessed a pitch that seemed to behave in flat defiance of laws of physics, the club was only too happy make up his lost wages.

By 1861 baseball had become so popular that two Brooklyn clubs even played four innings in midwinter on ice skates. While the results were more vaudeville than baseball, fully ten thousand people turned out to watch. These huge crowds did not go unnoticed by entrepreneurs.