Origin and History of Baseball

A game from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, c. 1280, involving tossing a ball, hitting it with a stick and competing with others to catch it

Origin

The origin of baseball from older bat-and-ball sports is challenging to discover with precision. A French document from 1344 carries an illustration of clerics playing a sport, perhaps la soule, which was similar to baseball.

Other traditional French games such as la balle au bâton, thèque, and la balle empoisonnée also seem similar.

The oldest known baseball evidence is in a 1744 British publication, A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, by John Newbery. It includes a rhymed account of “baseball” and a woodcut that confers a field set-up somewhat related to the modern game—though in a triangular rather than diamond arrangement and with posts rather than ground-level bases.

History

The first game of “Bass-Ball” took place in 1749 in Surrey and featured the Prince of Wales.

William Bray, an English lawyer, reported a game of baseball on Easter Monday 1755 in Guildford.

This early form of the game was brought to Canada by English settlers. Rounders was also taken to the United States by Canadians of both Irish and British ancestry. The first known American connection to baseball appears in a 1791 Pittsfield, Massachusetts town bylaw banning playing the game near the town’s meeting house.

In London in 1828, William Clarke released the second edition of The Boy’s Own Book, which combined the rules of rounders and included the first printed account in English of a bat and ball base-running sport played on a diamond.

The following year, the book was released in Boston.

By the 1830s, there were confirmed reports of various bat-and-ball games recognizable as early baseball forms being played around America. These games were called “town ball,” though other names such as “round-ball” and “baseball” were also used.

Among the oldest examples to receive a complete description—albeit fifty years after the fact, in a detailed letter from an attendee to Sporting Life magazine—took place in Ontario, in 1838. There were many connections to modern baseball, and some significant differences: five 5 (or byes); first bye just 5.5 m (18 feet) from the home bye; batter out if a hit ball was grabbed after the first bounce.

Sports historians have conclusively debunked the once widely accepted story that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839.

The Doubleday myth arrived after a dispute arose about baseball’s origins and whether it had been invented in the U.S. or developed as a modification of rounders.

The theory that the sport was invented in the U.S. was supported by National League president Abraham G. Mills and Chicago Cubs president Albert Spalding. In 1889, Mills declared that baseball was American, which he said was determined through “research and patriotism”; a crowd of about 300 people answered by chanting “No rounders!”

The rounders theory was backed by prominent sportswriter Henry Chadwick, a native of Britain who noted general factors between baseball and rounders in a 1903 article.

In 1905, Spalding called for an inquiry into how the sport was discovered. Chadwick backed the idea, and later in the year, the Mills Commission was announced. Spalding directed the commission to decide between the American game of “Old Cat” and rounders as baseball’s forerunner. Seven men served on the board, including Mills. Spalding picked the committee’s members, picking men who backed his theory and barring supporters of the rounders’ claim, such as Chadwick.

In early 1845, Alexander Cartwright, a member of New York’s Knickerbocker Club, produced a law of baseball rules now called the Knickerbocker Rules. The system, common to bat-and-ball games of the day, of”plugging” or “soaking” —causing a putout by hitting a nearby runner with a thrown ball—was rejected. The rules thus promoted the use of a smaller, harder ball. Several other laws also brought the Knickerbockers’ game resembling the modern one, though a ball caught on the first bounce was, again, an out, and only underhand pitching was allowed.

While there are records that the New York Knickerbockers played games in 1845, the contest long remembered as the first officially documented baseball game in U.S. history occurred on June 19, 1846, in Hoboken, New Jersey: the “New York Nine” beat the Knickerbockers, 23–1, in four innings.

With the Knickerbocker rule as the basis, modern baseball’s code continued to evolve over the next fifty years.

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