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Exhibition Baseball Americana

Origins and Early Days

“I think there are only three things America will be known for 2,000 years from now . . . the Constitution, jazz music, and baseball.”—Gerald Early, writer

In the beginning there were whittled bats and woolen balls, medieval monks and nuns in the as yet unnamed outfield, a single base, then rectangles rather than diamonds. Over time, a motley family of English and European bat-and-ball games, including “Base-Ball,” migrated to America. In the early twentieth century, patriotic sportsmen would erroneously report that baseball was a wholly American invention.

Instead, Americans had transformed a folk game into a complex, organized, and increasingly competitive endeavor. Amateur teams flourished in the northeastern United States, prompting the New York Mercury, in 1856, to declare baseball the “National Pastime.” During and after the Civil War, soldiers spread the sport in every direction. By 1869, the earliest team card had been produced, uniformed clubs operated on the West Coast, and the Cincinnati Red Stockings were the first openly professional team. Baseball could now wear a “Made in America” label on its sleeve.
Baseball's Roots
Baseball as the National Game
The National Game, from Coast to Coast

Baseball’s Roots

Early baseball was a variant of bat-and-ball games in the medieval world, such as stool ball, old cat, and trap ball. Such games involved hitting, fielding, and sometimes base running, although the rules were few and flexible. During the Revolutionary War, American soldiers wrote of “playing ball,” though it’s not always clear what game they were playing. By the mid-nineteenth century, two distinct brands of baseball rivaled for supremacy. In New England, the Massachusetts Game was played on a rectangular field and employed overhand pitching. Its most compelling feature, though, was that fielders could put out a baserunner by striking him with a thrown ball. Meanwhile, the New York Game was contested on a diamond-shaped field, and the pitcher delivered the ball underhand. Although the Massachusetts Game was played regionally throughout the nineteenth century, the New York version, smartly promoted by the seasoned Knickerbockers and an enthusiastic local press, won out as the preferred form of the sport.

A Little Pretty Pocket Book

John Newbery. A Little Pretty Pocket Book. First American edition. Worcester, Massachusetts: Isaiah Thomas, 1787. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (005.00.00)

Baseball as the National Game

“As Base Ball is peculiarly our national game, we are extremely glad to see it exciting attention among our Students,” gushed the Yale Literary Magazine in 1865. Players and fans rightly regarded the improvements and evolution of organized baseball as uniquely American, but the “national game” was more a cultural idea than a geographic reality. Game coverage and box scores appeared regularly in newspapers, teams adopted standard rules, entrepreneurs constructed enclosed ballparks, and college clubs put each other on the calendar. Then in 1867 Washington, D.C.,’s Nationals conducted baseball’s first “western tour,” a wildly successful enterprise that traced the game’s cartographic boundaries without venturing beyond Chicago. The tour sketched out an early road map for potential nationwide competition, and within two years, one of the Nationals’ western victims had gone professional and become the country’s premier team.

Civil War Prisoners at Play

Otto Boetticher. Union Prisoners at Salisbury, North Carolina. Lithograph. New York: Sarony, Major & Knapp, 1863. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (013.00.00)

The National Game, from Coast to Coast

“What other nation on the face of the earth has a game to compare . . . to baseball? You cannot name one,” surmised the San Francisco Chronicle in 1887, noting that baseball fever was a “disease that is now epidemic.” The malady had been festering in town since the Civil War, when a pair of former New York Knickerbockers established the San Francisco Pacifics in 1862. The completion of the transcontinental railroad soon made it feasible for eastern clubs to bring their brand of major league ball to the West Coast in the off season, and in 1890 minor league teams debuted from Portland to Seattle. In 1884, the winners of the National League and American Association pennants met in the first “World Series,” unabashedly attaching global importance to their championship match, even though it went unnoticed by other nations.

Philadelphia Clubs at Home

Philadelphia Clubs at Home. Chromolithograph. Philadelphia: A. M. J. Mueller, 1915. Reproduction. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (020.00.00)