How old is baseball? The ‘Secret History’ Of Baseball’s Earliest Days

How old is baseball? In 1903, the British sportswriter Henry Chadwick published an article speculating that baseball derived from a British game called rounders, which Chadwick had played as a boy in England.

But baseball executive Albert Spalding disagreed. Baseball, said Spalding, was fundamentally an American sport and began on American soil.

To settle the matter, the two men appointed a commission, headed by Abraham Mills, the fourth president of the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs. The commission, which also included six other sports executives, labored for three years, after which it declared that Abner Doubleday invented the national pastime.

This would have been a surprise to Doubleday. The late Civil War hero “never knew that he had invented baseball. [But] 15 years [after his death], he was anointed as the father of the game,” says John Thorn.

how old is baseball

The Real Story Behind Baseball

The real story of baseball is far older than what the Mills Commission determined, says Thorn. Different variations of the game were played in the 18th century in different parts of the country — New York, Philadelphia and Massachusetts each had their own versions — but eventually something like the New York game, which featured the creation of a foul territory and made players stay on the base path while running, won out — though not necessarily because it was a better game.

“I think the New York game won out through superior public relations because I have played recreation games of the Massachusetts game and it is a fantastically fun game both to play and watch,” says Thorn. “The New York game, in many measures, is inferior. [In the Massachusetts game] you did not have to stay on the base path while you were running. So you could lead your opponents on a merry chase into the outfields and beyond.”

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On the migration of baseball from farm to city

“The earliest mentions that we can find of baseball by old timers take you back to west-central Massachusetts in the 1750s, ’40s and in one citation 1735. The game has no record in the cities until, at the very earliest, 1805.”

On early equipment and uniforms

“Fielding gloves are a much later innovation, in the 1870s. There’s no indication that the early clubs had uniforms but they may have worn ribbons on the fronts of their shirts. They may have worn ribbons on their jerseys. The exchange of ribbons, which is a very medieval custom, was a part of the organized game from its earliest days — that the winning team would entertain the losing team at a post-game banquet and they would exchange prizes.”

On how the modern game is different

“I think enclosed ballparks are of enormous importance because now you had a fence — no matter how distant — that you could hit the ball over, and little by little, slugging came into the game. Now Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, Frank Chance — you name the hitting heroes of first decade of the century — there was no point in them hitting the ball, swinging at a pitch the way Babe Ruth did, because they weren’t going to drive a mushy ball in the seveth inning over a fence 500 feet away anyway.

The innovation of enclosed fields and ever diminishing distances to walls — so the ballplayers get larger, the fields get smaller, power becomes more easy to accomplish. The game changes and pitching becomes a game of throwing breaking balls. You can’t throw a ball down the middle; you cannot take it easy with batters in the seventh, eighth and ninth positions, because anyone can hurt you in today’s lineup.”

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On being Major League Baseball’s official historian

“I take it philosophically to mean that baseball has looked at what I’ve done over the years and thought that I might be helpful in attaching younger fans to the joys of the history of the game. Baseball is a tremendously exciting game and there is no question that the game as played on the field today is far better than it was 20 years ago or 40 years ago or 60 years ago, and so on. However some things have been lost in terms of our attachment to story and I’m hoping that I can make the game’s history come to life.”

Who Was Abner Doubleday?

Doubleday, who was born to a prominent family in upstate New York in 1819, was still at West Point in 1839, and he never claimed to have anything to do with baseball. Instead, he served as a Union major general in the American Civil War and later became a lawyer and writer.

In 1907, 16 years after Doubleday’s death, a special commission created by the sporting goods magnate and former major league player A.J. Spalding was set up to determine baseball’s origins—namely if it was invented in the United States or derived from games in the United Kingdom. The commission used flimsy evidence—the claims of one man, mining engineer Abner Graves, who said he went to school with Doubleday—to come up with the origin story, which managed to stick.

Cooperstown businessmen and major league officials seized on myth’s enduring power in the 1930s, when they established the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in the village.

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how old is baseball

What Are Baseball’s Real Origins?

As it turns out, the real history of baseball is a little more complicated than the Doubleday legend. References to games resembling baseball in the United States date back to the 18th century. Its most direct ancestors appear to be two English games: rounders (a children’s game brought to New England by the earliest colonists) and cricket.

By the time of the American Revolution, variations of such games were being played on schoolyards and college campuses across the country. They became even more popular in newly industrialized cities where men sought work in the mid-19th century.

In September 1845, a group of New York City men founded the New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club. One of them—volunteer firefighter and bank clerk Alexander Joy Cartwright—would codify a new set of rules that would form the basis for modern baseball, calling for a diamond-shaped infield, foul lines and the three-strike rule. He also abolished the dangerous practice of tagging runners by throwing balls at them.

Cartwright’s changes made the burgeoning pastime faster-paced and more challenging while clearly differentiating it from older games like cricket. In 1846, the Knickerbockers played the first official game of baseball against a team of cricket players, beginning a new, uniquely American tradition.

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