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The American Game

May 2024
5min read

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.

In 1862 William H. Cammeyer laid out the Union Grounds in eastern Brooklyn and allowed three clubs to use it for their home games, provided he was permitted to charge spectators ten cents each for admission. Other enclosed ball fields soon followed. The field owners, naturally, wanted the best possible teams in order to draw the largest crowds. They were a powerful force behind the increasing professionalization of baseball.

By the late 1860s there were three semiprofessional teams in New York and Brooklyn. In order to lure them to their fields, the owners began paying them a percentage of the gate. Cammeyer paid the Brooklyn Atlantics 60 percent of their gate receipts, less expenses, to play at his field, the money being divided among the players. It was not a large leap from owning a ballpark and paying the players a percentage of the gate to owning the team and paying the players a salary. Cammeyer took the team he formed, the ancestor of today’s Los Angeles Dodgers, into the National League when it was formed in 1876.

The year 1869 saw the first all-salaried team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings. The team toured the country and did not lose a single game that year. Clearly, if other teams were to compete with the Red Stockings, they would have to become professional too. The amateurs still in the game protested, but it was too late. There was good money to be made in baseball, and market forces, as they usually do in America, took over. By 1874 serious amateur baseball was history.

Having become a business, baseball, like all other businesses, had to contend thereafter with two paramount considerations: how to attract paying customers and how to divide the spoils between labor and capital.

If the business of America is business, then baseball truly is the American game. It was a business as well as a sport from the start.

To attract a larger and larger crowd, the rules of baseball slowly evolved. Hitters had been dominant in the early days, but with better balls, and better fields, the pitchers took over. In 1920, to increase the number of crowd-pleasing hits, such pitching tactics as spitballs were phased out and the livelier baseball was introduced. It worked. In 1919 the home-run total for the two leagues was 446. There were 630 the following year and 937 in 1921.

After the pitchers had again gained the upper hand in the 1950s and 1960s, thanks largely to the new specialty of relief pitching, the American League created (over the collective dead bodies of millions of baseball purists) the designated hitter in 1973. It all has worked. In 1876, the first year the National League operated, 343,750 people attended games, an average of only about 1,300 per game. In 1988 attendance at major-league games reached 53.8 million, far above that for any other team sport.

Negotiations between the owners and the players have not been smooth. In 1869 The New York Times reported that players’ salaries could be as high as twenty-five hundred dollars, an excellent wage for a young man in those days. As competition among the owners for baseball talent escalated, however, so did the wages. The owners saw their profits being threatened and did exactly what you would expect nineteenth-century businessmen under the circumstances to do: they conspired to fix prices. In 1879 they added the so-called reserve clause to the standard player’s contract, which in effect made it impossible for a player to move to another team without the consent of the owner of his present one. This not only prevented players from switching teams but worked wonders in keeping down player salaries.

Despite the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, this obvious combination in restraint of trade lasted almost a century, thanks to some of the U.S. Supreme Court’s more pixilated decisions. In 1923 Oliver Wendell Holmes simply declared baseball not to be a business, regardless of the 8,974,000 people who paid good money to watch major-league games that year. Not being a business meant the Sherman Act didn’t apply and the semiserfdom of baseball players could continue.

When the reserve clause finally fell in 1975, salaries zoomed. In 1973 the highest-paid player in baseball pulled down $250,000. In 1988 the average player earned $439,000. The owners, of course, are screaming poverty, but the operating profit of major-league baseball in 1989 was more than $200 million. Not bad for a game dreamed up on the streets of New York by some businessmen looking for exercise.

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