Baseball evolved from the British game of rounders, and is a cousin to cricket in that it also involves two teams that alternate on defense and offense and involve throwing a ball to a batsman who attempts to “bat” it away and run safely to a base. The first documentation of base ball is in 1838, but there are references to a game of base ball going back to the late 1700s.
The story promoted as the “invention” of baseball by Abner Doubleday, a Civil Warhero for the Union, has largely been discredited. The first published rules of baseball were written in 1845 for a New York base ball club called the Knickerbockers. The author, Alexander Joy Cartwright, is one person commonly known as “the father of baseball.”
Cartwright laid out rules for playing the game for the first time and made one important change. No longer could an out be recorded by “plugging” a runner (hitting him with the ball). The rules required fielders to tag or force the runner, which is still the rule today.
The National Pastime
The first professional team was formed in 1869 (the Cincinnati Red Stockings), and it gained in popularity to become United States’ “national pastime” in the late 1800s. The two major leagues were formed in 1876 (National League) and 1903 (American League) and the first modern World Series, pitting the two champions of the leagues against each other at the end of the season.
Because of the equipment, baseball in the 19th century was very different than today. Balls were “dead” and didn’t travel as far, and players were looser with the rules involving spitballs and other tactics that are no longer legal.
Baseball’s Golden Age
With the birth of the World Series and the two major leagues, baseball embarked on a golden age in the early 20th century. From 1900-1919, the “dead ball” was still used, and was a game dominated by great pitchers such as Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Cy Young.
With the large stadiums were built for many of the larger clubs, such as Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, the Polo Grounds in Manhattan, Fenway Park in Boston and Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park in Chicago.
A rule change in 1920 prohibited doctoring of the ball by pitchers and a new era began. One player, Babe Ruth, changed the game forever by introducing the power hitter to baseball. At first a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, he was traded to the New York Yankees and hit 714 career home runs, almost 600 more than the previous career home run leader, Roger Connor.
With such stars as Ruth, Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig and Joe Dimaggio, the hitters took center stage.
Meanwhile, black Americans had their own major leagues from 1885-1951, and over the years history has shown it was practically an equal of the major leagues, with its own history and such stars as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and “Cool Papa” Bell. Latin American players also played in the Negro Leagues, and the league played in many of the same stadiums as the majors and had a devoted following.
Finally, in 1946, Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey defied the unwritten rule barring blacks from the major leagues and signed Jackie Robinson to a contract. After a year in the minors, Robinson endured racial bigotry to become a star player for the Dodgers. Because of Robinson’s success, other black players were signed throughout the major leagues, and Robinson became a pivotal figure in the civil rights movement in the United States.
International Growth In Baseball
The first formal baseball league outside of the United States and Canada was founded in 1878 in Cuba, which maintains a rich baseball tradition and whose national team has been one of the world’s strongest. International tours seeded the game throughout the world in the 20th century. Professional baseball leagues formed over the years in the Netherlands (1922), Australia (1934), Japan (1936), Puerto Rico (1938), Venezuela (1945), Mexico (1945), Italy (1948) and the Dominican Republic (1951), Korea (1982), Taiwan (1990) and China (2003).
The first international tournament was held in 1938, called the Baseball World Cup, which is played to this day. Only amateur players played in the World Cup until 1996, when professionals were allowed to participate.
It’s also popular in other pockets throughout the world but has not maintained enough of a hold on the world to continue to be played in the Olympics. The fact that the major-league players don’t play in the Olympics is a major factor. Most competitive baseball is played in North America, the Caribbean and in the Far East. It lags elsewhere in the world.