Baseball, an American invention, is part of American culture and national identity and for many boys, playing baseball is a male RITE OF PASSAGE. Although the game of baseball as it is known today is uniquely American, it derives from the popular English children's bat-and-ball game called rounders. In the American colonies various versions of bat and ball games–chiefly popular with boys–evolved such as round ball, goal ball, one old cat, town ball, and base.
As early as the 1700s there are also references to men playing forms of baseball. A diary entry of a soldier from the American Revolution, who served under General George Washington at Valley Forge in 1778, talks about exercising in the afternoon by playing at base. A 1787 notice forbids Princeton College students from playing stick and ball games on the common.
Credit for the game of baseball as it is known today, however, goes to Alexander Cartwright, a bank clerk, who established the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York in 1845 and wrote down the first official set of rules. These rules also became know as "New York rules." By 1857 there were almost fifty clubs within and around Manhattan. These baseball clubs were organized around occupational, ethnic, and neighborhood affiliations. That year, the Knickerbocker Club with fifteen other New York area clubs formed the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP). Many of these New York City area clubs also formed junior boys' teams. By 1860 there were enough junior boys' teams to form a national association. The era of informal boys' games had evolved into the era of formally organized clubs. Boys continued to play informal pick-up games of baseball in rural areas in open fields, in urban areas in vacant lots, and in the street.
The Civil War, rather than curtailing the development of baseball, became instrumental in democratizing and spreading the game throughout the country. Veteran soldiers, having played the game during the war, brought the game back to their hometowns. At the end of the war in 1865 the National Association of Base Ball Players membership included ninety-one clubs from ten states. The upper-class amateur gentlemen's club game of the Knickerbockers had evolved into the people's game. However, this democratization had its limits. In 1867 the NABBP banned black players, setting a precedent for segregated teams that remained in place for eighty years.
As baseball became more popular, rivalries between city and town teams placed greater emphasis on winning than sportsmanship, leading to an influx of gamblers and to star players being paid off the record. The first professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, was formed in 1869. In 1869 and 1870, the team barnstormed across the country playing against local amateur teams, winning 130 of the 132 games they played. Their popularity led to the formation of other professional teams. In 1871 the National Association of Professional Baseball Players was formed and in 1881 the American Association followed. The 1880s mark the golden age of baseball and by 1890 there were seventeen white and two black professional leagues. The era of professional baseball had arrived. Although professional baseball was confined primarily to urban areas, every town and city had amateur and semi-professional teams that drew large crowds. Watching baseball games became a major form of entertainment. Professional team owners even encouraged women to come to the games in the belief that the presence of ladies would attract more male fans and curtail their rowdy behavior.
Baseball was also flourishing in the public schools. Grammar school boys often played at recess and high schools were developing their own teams. At private boys' boarding schools baseball was a part of the athletic program. By the end of the century boys at Exeter, Andover, Groton, St. Marks, and other elite schools were playing interscholastic ball. Boys also played baseball at private military academies such as the Virginia Military Institute. Even though baseball was considered a boys' game, some girls at Miss Porter's, an elite private girls' school in Connecticut, as early as 1867 also played the game.
With the development of the PLAYGROUND MOVEMENT first in Boston in 1885 and then in other cities, baseball became a popular playground sport. Settlement houses, boys clubs, and the YMCA developed baseball programs to keep boys off the street and out of trouble. Through playing baseball it was hoped that boys would learn sportsmanship and would become good citizens. Baseball was also seen as a way to Americanize immigrant groups.
Although baseball-type games had been played at men's colleges as early as the late 1700s, it was in the 1850s and 1860s that baseball became an integral part of men's college life. The first intercollegiate game was played between Williams and Amherst Colleges in 1859. Although the general belief was that strenuous physical exercise was unhealthy for women, a few women's colleges such as Vassar, Smith, Mount Holyoke, and Wellesley allowed girls to play baseball as early as 1866. However, by the 1930s, softball had replaced baseball in girls' sports programs. By the 1980s, there were 1,600 college men's baseball programs associated with the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
In the 1900s, in the public's mind baseball represented all that was good about America. Baseball served as a model for children's moral development. Therefore the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, over the fixing of the World Series, was a national disgrace. The scandal so deeply affected the American public that when Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis became Commissioner of Baseball in 1921, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat wrote that if Landis could keep baseball on a high ethical plane, it would be more important than anything he could do on the federal bench.
The golden era of sport in the 1920s produced baseball's first superstars, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Lou Gehrig. Games were broadcast over the RADIO to millions of people. It was during this time that organized youth baseball got its start. In 1925 the American Legion started their junior baseball program to give more boys an opportunity to play and as a means of teaching them good sportsmanship and citizenship. With the financial support of major league baseball, American Legion baseball competition began in 1926. In 1928 the issue of girls playing became an explosive one when it was discovered that Margaret Gisolo was a member of the Blanford, Indiana, team. Although Margaret was allowed to finish the season, the next year the rules were changed to allow boys only to play. Later leagues were careful to specify that only boys could join. In 1939 Carl Stotz founded Little League Baseball with the purpose of developing citizenship, sportsmanship, and manhood. PONY (Protect Our Nation's Youth) Baseball, Inc. was formed in 1951 and the Babe Ruth League in 1952. Not until 1974 after a lengthy court battle were girls allowed to play Little League baseball. After that the other leagues also permitted girls to play. Even with that change relatively few girls play baseball today.
American Legion and Little League Baseball continue to be popular programs. In 2000 American Legion Posts sponsored 5,300 baseball and other athletic teams throughout the United States. By 1999 Little League baseball was being played in 100 countries. Baseball became an Olympic sport in 1992.
Berlage, Gai. 1994. Women in Baseball: The Forgotten History. West-port, CT: Praeger.
Crepeau, Richard. 1980 Baseball: America's Diamond Mind. Orlando: University Presses of Florida.
Rader, Benjamin. G. 1999. American Sports: From the Age of Folk Games to the Age of Televised Sports, 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Seymour, Harold. 1990. Baseball: The People's Game. New York: Oxford University Press.
Ward, Geoffrey, and Ken Burns. 1994. Baseball: An Illustrated History. New York: Knopf.
GAI INGHAM BERLAGE