The Spitter History Project: Introduction: In the Beginning, People Played Games

First, let me start off by stating if you haven’t really read a lot by John Thorn, this may surprise you.

But everything you think you know about the origins of baseball is wrong.

Abner Doubleday creating the game? Bullshit of the highest degree, concocted by Albert Spalding and others to make sure everyone knew baseball was a truly American game.

The Knickerbocker rules as the first formal rules of Base Ball in 1845? Nope. There’s evidence of some clubs and rules dating back to 1837.

The Cincinnati Red Legs as the first professional baseball club? Not quite. The Red Legs also being in operation continuously since their formation in 1869? Hardly.

So, how does baseball form?

Slowly, gradually, and over decades.

There were kids games: Town Ball, Rounders, One o’ Cat, and others that were basically games that involved striking a ball with an object and running.

Then there was cricket, which evolved in jolly old England in the 1500’s and imported over when they colonized us.

What we do know is that gentlemen working in civil service or in clerking jobs formed clubs and societies in the 1800’s to get exercise and socialize. They were men of some means and had leisure time, and wanted to get fresh air and stay fit. So, the Knickerbockers wrote a set of rules that survives to this day (well, the parchment survives, many rules have been altered) that spelled out a game which was evolved from rounders. That’s the rules many thought were the first rules of baseball, but there’s evidence clubs were in existence before then.

The first recorded game was between the Knickerbockers and the New York Nine, which means there was another club that knew the rules and could play the game with some competence.

At the same time, clubs in Massachusetts created their own form of ball that had competing rules. Fast forward a few years, there was a hubbub about what rules were to be adapted, and most of the Knickerbocker rules (or variations thereof) were adopted. If you want some riveting reading, check out the debates on catching a ball on a bounce versus on the fly.

Matches were arranged between clubs when they could. Most of the games early on were intra-squad games using the number of players that they had on site. Soon, though, the game started to draw interest and spectators and the games were arranged between clubs for trophies and championships, and sometimes “picked nines” (which is a term that should get back in vogue – basically it was the best players from various clubs) played these champion clubs. During this time, the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) was formed to govern the game and the rules thereof.

Mind you, I’m compressing a whole bunch here.

During the Civil War, the first baseball legend was born, as Jim Creighton died a few days after smacking a home run. There’s a lot of information about Creighton’s actions before and after, as he also was a cricket player of repute. But he hit a long home run, then he fell dead. That’s an instant legend.

Baseball took off during the War, as troops played the game when idle, and taught the game to others. Soon, both the North and the South played the game, where it really became something that united us all (well, slightly united us).

Originally, the game was a battle between the batter and the fielders. The pitcher was just there to deliver the ball fairly to the batsmen. Soon, though rules were adapted, added, subtracted, deleted and pitchers started to have a little more affect in the game (curves, inshoots, and throwing hard).

It may look odd to us now, having a pitcher in a box throwing underhand to a batsman, and any ball hitting fair at any time was fair, and balls being caught on a bounce or one being allowed to strike a runner with a thrown ball to retire a runner. (Soaking, as it were). But those latter rules went by the wayside. Still, the game evolved into three outs per inning, nine players per time, and nine innings to play.

The big sea change happened during the 1860’s. As people became more interested in baseball as a spectator sport (either that, or gamblers found that baseball was just as lucrative as horse racing and fisticuffs), and clubs became competitive and charged admission to games, clubs tried to attract the best players to become a member. So much for baseball being a leisure activities for gentlemen of means.

Sometimes, this meant paying the players, under the table, or giving them a job where all they had to do was show up, go home, and then play ball. This latter was common in clubs formed originally by gentlemen working in the same trade or profession. It even extended to government jobs (shock!) as ‘postal clerks’ formed a club to play ball.

These were really professional ball players, and many clubs were stocked with them by the end of the 1860’s. These clubs went on barnstorming tours, and could be off their job for weeks at a time, somehow, but no one complained.

Also, since there was gambling around baseball, gamblers were around baseball. They convinced some players that it would be in a great financial interest if they didn’t try their best. A couple of players were banned from playing for clubs belonging to the national organization because of their association with gamblers.

So, players like Lip Pike and Dickey Pearce and others were ‘professional,’ but in 1869 it was decided to formally end the charade and the NABBP gave professionalism the okey doke. Thus, the Cincinnati Red Legs were formed, and barnstormed through the country winning game after game. Their team was stacked to the gills of formerly ‘amateur’ all stars, and many of them took ‘jobs’ in Cincinnati to attract them. But after a loss in 1870, the team petered out since it was pretty expensive to keep a team on the road all of the time, even in 1870. So those Reds died before the National Association was formed in 1871.

Various clubs and players decided to form a real professional organization, which would be more about the clubs themselves than the NABBP. So, the National Association of PROFESSIONAL Baseball Players formed, and started play in 1871. The various clubs in cities throughout the country continued, but soon the NA was the premier place for baseball talent, and the start of our journey through baseball time.

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