The origins of baseball are still somewhat disputed by historians, partly due to references dating back several centuries to European games that may have been early ancestors of the modern game of baseball. The first known American reference to baseball appeared in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1791, in which a town by-law prohibited the game in the area around the town meeting house.
However, it is now generally agreed upon that the most recognizable iteration of baseball came about in 1845, when Alexander Cartwright, a member of the New York Knickerbockers club, led the codification of a modern set of rules. Subsequently, the first officially recorded game took place in 1846, and the sport grew in popularity during the period of the Civil War. By the end of the war, journalists were already referring to baseball as “America’s Pastime.”
In its earliest years, baseball was strictly an amateur sport. However, once club owners began to take in revenue from gate admissions, several clubs began to embrace professionalism. The National Association of Professional Base Ball Players existed briefly from 1871 through 1875, and is considered by some to have been the first major league.
The formation of the National League in 1876 marked the beginning of what contemporary fans would recognize as the modern major leagues. The National League was an organization of clubs, not players (as before), and implemented stricter rules on game schedules, gambling and player contracts. Professional baseball expanded in the late 1800s, with clubs from New York to Florida to California, as well as the first Negro Leagues.
Several leagues similar to the National League arose and ultimately failed over the next few decades until the somewhat successful Western League declared its intent to operate as a major league and changed its name to the American League in 1901, the same year that the final major rule changes to the game were made.
After 1902, both leagues signed an agreement that established their dominance as major leagues over the numerous other independent leagues. In addition, the two leagues agreed to cease the practice of cross-league raids on player contracts, which had been a serious problem. They also established the World Series, which was first held in 1903, with the Boston Americans defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates. Baseball witnessed several changes in the style of play, as well as considerable expansion in the following century, but the game has remained substantially the same.
The Dead-ball Era
The Dead-ball Era lasted from the beginning of the twentieth century until roughly 1920, and was so named because of the style of play that characterized those years. Home runs were very rare, games were typically low-scoring, and the game was dominated by legendary pitchers like Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Christy Mathewson and Grover Cleveland Alexander. The statistics of these pitchers were superhuman by today’s standards. “Small ball,” an aggressive, scrappy style that favored bunts, stolen bases, singles, and hit-and-run plays was commonplace during these years.
It was also called the Dead-ball Era literally because of the quality of the baseballs. At the time, baseballs were extremely expensive (adjusted for inflation, balls could cost more than $60), and so it was typical for one ball to last an entire game. As a result, by the end of games, the balls were often scuffed, discolored and misshapen, making them difficult to see and hit.
The Dead-ball Era came to an end thanks to two contributing factors: A few significant rule changes, and the heroics of one man. In 1920, the spitball was officially outlawed, which prevented pitchers from manipulating the ball’s spin and movement as much as they had previously. In addition, the leagues mandated that umpires replace any baseballs that became discolored or scuffed. Finally, a trend towards home runs and offensive production came about because of Babe Ruth. In his first season as a full-time hitter, Ruth belted an unprecedented 29 home runs. Ruth was sold from Boston to New York in 1919 and proceeded to break his home run record in each of the next two seasons.
During the 1920s, he hit more home runs than entire teams on his way to setting both the career and single-season home run records. He also paved the way for sluggers like Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig and Hank Greenberg. During the years between WWI and the Great Depression, baseball saw a tremendous rise in fan attendance. This caused owners to build bigger stadiums with more stands and smaller outfields. The nation’s love affair with the long ball was established and the Dead-ball Era was history.
|MLB Stadium Dimensions (in feet) - 1915
|Connie Mack Stadium
The War Years
The second World War affected baseball just as it did the rest of the country. The last year prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ subsequent involvement in the war was the 1941 season, a particularly memorable one as far as the history of the sport is concerned. That year, two of baseball’s greatest players each accomplished what was arguably their greatest feat. Boston’s Ted Williams batted .406 and still stands as the last player to post a .400 average for a season. Meanwhile, New York’s Joe DiMaggio carried an unprecedented hot streak through the summer that resulted in a league-record 56-game hitting streak, a mark that has not been threatened since.
But when the nation joined the allied forces later that year, it forced Williams and DiMaggio, as well as hundreds of other big leaguers, to sacrifice part of their careers for military service. The game soldiered on through the war years, and in the absence of so many male ballplayers, baseball witnessed the founding of the first All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which lasted from 1943 until 1954. As it always does, baseball survived the war and was rewarded with renewed popularity and record-high attendance in the 1940s and 1950s.
Since the late nineteenth century, a so-called gentlemen’s agreement amongst baseball club owners had precluded African Americans and other non-white players from playing in the major leagues. Negro leagues were in existence dating back to the 1880s, although few lasted for very long. The most successful Negro leagues arose in the 1920s. They featured some of the best players in the country at the time, including several who would go onto have memorable – even Hall of Fame-caliber – careers in the major leagues.
There were reported attempts by several owners and managers to integrate Negro League players in the 1930s and 1940s, but none were successful. The death of longtime league commissioner and staunch segregationist Kenesaw Mountain Landis in 1944 opened the door for integration, and allowed Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey to finally break the color barrier.
The man Rickey chose for this distinction was now-Hall of Fame infielder Jackie Robinson. Although Robinson was likely not the best player in the Negro Leagues at the time, he was tremendously talented, college-educated, and had served as an officer in WWII. Perhaps most importantly, Rickey believed Robinson possessed the personality and character strength that would enable him to withstand the abuse and scorn he would inevitably have to endure.
Robinson was a huge success in the major leagues, winning the first Rookie of the Year award in 1947. Over the next few decades, African Americans (as well as Latino players) slowly integrated into the league, and reportedly constituted 27 percent of all players by 1974. A few of the most notable players from that period were Bob Gibson, who led St. Louis to two World Series titles in the 1960s, Hank Aaron, who broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record in 1974, and Willie Mays, a 20-time All Star who is widely considered to be the best all-around player of the era.
The Hall of Fame
The Baseball Hall of Fame was created in 1936 with five players selected to be the inaugural class: Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Honus Wagner. Now a huge tourist attraction, the Hall of Fame Museum remains in Cooperstown, New York and features 289 members as of 2010. Of these members, 237 are former players (including 35 Negro Leaguers), 26 are executives or baseball pioneers, 18 are managers, and eight are umpires. New members are elected each year by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America as well as the Baseball Veterans Committee.
Expansion and the Minor Leagues
Organized baseball has existed in the western United States almost as long as it’s been in the East. When the National and American leagues established themselves as the premier major leagues at the turn of the century, the smaller leagues continued to operate as independents. The most notable of these is probably the Pacific Coast League, a particularly lucrative league based in California since 1903. In the 1930s, Branch Rickey established the first semblance of a farm system for his major league club. The concept grew over the next few decades, as numerous teams from independent leagues became minor league affiliates for the N.L. and A.L. clubs. The PCL was hesitant to give up its independent status until the 1950s, when Major League Baseball began to expand west.
It started with the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers franchises relocating to San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively, in 1958. Over the next twenty years or so, the leagues added clubs in cities such as Seattle, Anaheim, Kansas City, Arlington (Texas), Toronto, San Diego, and Oakland. The addition of several franchises in the 1990s brought the total number of clubs to nearly twice what it had been half a century before.
Once Major League Baseball infiltrated the west coast, the PCL finally accepted status as a minor league, with their longstanding teams now serving as Triple-A affiliates for the major leagues clubs in the west. Today, the farm system has evolved to the point that each National and American League club has a Triple-A, Double-A, and several Class-A affiliates featuring young players who are under contract with the club and being groomed for the big leagues.
The Fordham Rose Hill Baseball Club of St. John’s College in New York, which became Fordham University (and now holds the record for the most collegiate baseball victories with 4,031), played the first college baseball game in 1859 against St. Francis Xavier College. The game was played under the modern “Knickerbocker Rules” established by Alexander Cartwright. Collegiate baseball became more prevalent towards the end of the nineteenth century when the existing professional leagues grew in popularity.
By 1900, many of the major universities had baseball teams, and the college game became one of the more widespread forms of amateur baseball. These days, college baseball does not receive the same national attention as collegiate football or basketball due to a lesser capacity for commercial and financial appeal.
However, baseball at the collegiate level has grown tremendously in popularity since around the 1970s. Recruiting for baseball became a more involved process and many of the best young players started playing in college before signing professional contracts. Shortly thereafter, ESPN began televising postseason games, particularly the College World Series, a yearly eight-team tournament in Omaha, Nebraska that decides the national champion.
Traditionally, institutions in California, as well as those in the Southeast and Southwest regions of the United States, have dominated the college baseball ranks due to their ability to practice year-round and subsequently recruit the best players. Today, many consider college baseball to be another level of the minor leagues, because of the tremendous depth of talent and the high quality of play.The college game is played substantially the same as it is at the professional level, except that it allows the use of a designated hitter (like the American League) and aluminum bats.
The Rise of Youth Baseball
Young people have played baseball recreationally for more than a century, but it wasn’t until Carl Stotz founded Little League Baseball in 1939 that organized youth baseball came into prevalence. Little League began with a three-team league in Williamsport, Pennsylvania and has since expanded to include more than two million players in over 80 countries. Little League boasts smaller field dimensions (60-foot base paths, 46-foot pitcher’s rubber), six-inning games, and allows the use of aluminum bats. The Little League World Series is still played yearly in Williamsport, featuring the best 11-12 year-old All-Star teams from around the world.
Another youth league that arose shortly after Little League was Babe Ruth. Using the same rules and dimensions as the professional game, Babe Ruth now moderates leagues for more than one million children ages 13 to 15.
Finally, PONY (an acronym for Protect Our Nation’s Youth) emerged in the late 1950s and has become extremely popular, even replacing Little League in some communities. PONY features seven different levels of play (with slightly different rules and field dimensions) for players ages 5 to 18. With millions of players and unprecedented growth of interest in other countries, youth baseball now has more participants than any level of the game, securing a future for our nation’s favorite pastime.
Although the rules remain the same, baseball is a far different game than it was at its inception. Increased media coverage, particularly on television and the Internet, over the last few decades has changed the way baseball is perceived. Today, people have access to virtually everything that happens in the sport, and for better or worse, the professional game is played under a worldwide microscope.
In addition, baseball has become much more of a business. Marketing and endorsements have become a regular part of the game, and even the lowest paid major league players have one of the most lucrative professions in the nation. This is due in no small part to the shift in power away from the owners and towards the players in the last half-century.
In 1966, the Major League Baseball Players’ Association was formed, the most significant result of which was the collective bargaining agreement. This put an end to the reserve clause, which had given owners outright control over their players for so long, and ushered in an era of free-agency and arbitration. An unfortunate outcome of this was the ongoing feud between the owners and the Players’ Association that has caused multiple work stoppages, and even forced the league to cancel the 1994 World Series.
More recently, we have entered an era of extreme specialization. Scientific advances have provided players with the opportunity to use steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, and increased knowledge about strength training and conditioning has made players stronger and faster than ever before. In addition, meticulous and comprehensive analysis of every aspect of the game, as well as what could accurately be deemed a “statistical revolution” have changed the way both teams and games are managed. As with everything else, technology has irrevocably changed the game of baseball, but the sport has withstood changes for more than a century and will no doubt continue to exist, and thrive, for generations to come.