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Baseball: The Greatest American Tradition, Constantly Reinvented

It’s the game of life. It’s America’s pastime. It’s more American than apple pie (which is, to be fair, German). So, let’s get nostalgic for the smell of hot dogs and peanuts, clay and grass—today we hoist a pint to baseball.

If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.—Yogi Berra

The Origins of Baseball

Baseball, like tennis and golf, is one of the many permutations of the “hit a ball with a shaped piece of wood” games that have been around for thousands of years. Its most identifiable antecedents include European games such as “goal ball,” “fetch-catch,” “dog and cat,” “horne-billets,” “round ball,” “trap ball,” “rounders,” and “stoolball” (which sounds like something you never want to discuss with a medical practitioner).

In different permutations of the game: players could be called “out” when the opposing team hit them with the ball (ow!), the team with the pitcher would attempt to score while the team with the bat tried to prevent the pitcher from knocking down a goal (usually a stool—hence “stool ball”) by hitting the ball out of the way, the players ran around a set of bases counter-clockwise, and one or both teams could score in any given round. Small details like the scoring rules, number of allowed players, and designated equipment changed on a game-to-game basis.

The earliest print reference to “base ball” specifically dates to 1744 and John Newberry’s A Pretty Little Pocketbook:

John Newberry’s A Pretty Little Pocketbook

[The Ball once struck off,

Away flies the Boy

To the next destined Port,

And then Home with Joy


Thus Britons for Lucre

Fly over the Main

But, with Pleasure transported,

Return back again.]

Ironically, at least from an American perspective, the whole game is pitched (so to speak) as a testament to the most exploitative form of British colonialism. Metaphorically, the players aggressively embark on a journey, gain treasures from the rest of the world (scoring bases), and then victoriously return back to “home.”

colonial political joke

But apparently colonialism was not as one-sided as Newberry imagined, because English settlers brought their ball and stick games with them when they visited foreign climes. In India, the game evolved alongside England’s beloved cricket, but in the fledgling United States, the game turned into baseball.

Interestingly, the permutation of the game played by adults was first organized by firemen. By 1845, the game was popular enough that Alexander Cartwright decided to standardize the rules, naming his official system “The Knickerbocker Rules” after his own Knickerbocker Base Ball Club (comprised mostly of men from the Knickerbocker Fire Engine Company). He didn’t invent the rules, so much as pick his favorite among the rule variations and stick his own name on it, but apparently he was either persuasive, or people just liked saying the word “Knickerbocker,” because the rules stuck and became the rough initial basis for modern baseball.

Knickerbocker Base Ball Club

(Note that scruffy baseball beards and tobacco have been a signature baseball thing for going on 200 years.)

The more recognizable rules, however, were established in the less-amusingly named 1857 “Laws of Baseball”: 90-foot base paths, 9 innings, 9 players. And, if you’re doing the math in your head, you’ll notice that baseball became a formal institution right on the eve of the American Civil War (1861-1865). And part of the reason that baseball became a national symbol for America is that, over the course of the 20th century, it came to both reflect and embody critical internal American social conflicts.

During the Civil War, baseball grew exponentially in popularity, as soldiers from different parts of the country played baseball together, solidifying the rules and the game’s popularity as a national sport. But although the game was popularized by the Civil War, and became professional in 1869, it was also segregated along racial lines. By the 1880s, the “Negro leagues” were formed for African-American and Latin American players who were excluded from the NABBP, and later the MLB. In practice, almost a century would pass before an African-American played in the major leagues.

African American baseball leagues - jackie robinson

But when baseball opened up, American sports would be changed forever. Jackie Robinson became a landmark figure, who won Rookie of the Year, played as an All-Star for six consecutive seasons, led the National League once for batting and twice for stolen bases, played in six World Series championships, and won the National League Most Valuable Player. More importantly, his popularity changed along with the evolution of the Civil Rights movement. He was lionized in the 1960s and posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, then immortalized in the 1990s, when the modern MLB retired Robinson’s number 42 across all major league teams. In 2004, the MLB also adopted the tradition of “Jackie Robinson Day” on which every player on every team wears the number 42 in his honor. The undeniable fact that Robinson was a literal and metaphorical game-changer is almost overshadowed by the fact that the nation’s perception of Robinson became a case-study for the changing values of the nation as a whole.

first women's baseball team

Over the arc of the same years, baseball also created new opportunities for women. The first women to be paid for playing baseball took place in 1875, although women’s teams were not organized into official professional leagues, or recognized by the then NABBP. But that didn’t stop individual teams from organizing their own uniforms, games, and tours. During the 1930s, the “Bold Years,” female American players toured internationally, and a handful of women signed formal minor league contracts. There were numerous attempts to form an all-female league (the AAGPB, 1943-54; the AWBA, founded in 1988; and the AWBL, which displaced the AWBA in the 1990s, alongside the WNABA.) But all of these cumbersomely-acronymed leagues struggled financially and were eventually subsumed into the American Women’s Baseball Federation, which was established as an amateur organization, but also the first women’s league to be recognized by USA Baseball. Although women played baseball professionally decades before they were able to be paid for hockey, tennis, or basketball, women’s baseball has never taken root as a professional sporting league.

Having said that, things are likely to change in the near future, as women’s softball is being re-included in the 2020 Olympics after an eight-year hiatus, and that international recognition may yet mark a new inning in the history of women’s sports.

A Nod to the Red Sox…

The timing of this article was actually thrown off by the speed with which the Red Sox won the 2018 World Series—slamming through the Dodgers in a quick five games. The series was both stunning and historically notable, since it marks the centenary of the Red Sox’s 1918 World Series five-game win over the Chicago Cubs.

The Boston Red Sox were founded as the Boston Red Stockings in 1901, but the team name was (in a remarkably forward-thinking marketing move) shortened by the team owner John Taylor in 1908, shortly before the Sox moved into the now-iconic Fenway Park in 1912. The team began their history as a powerhouse, winning five World Series championships before 1918. But after they made the mistake of trading Babe Ruth to their most bitter rival, the New York Yankees, the team suffered from “the Curse of the Bambino” and failed to capture another World Series until 2004—an 86-year slump.

babe ruth "the curse of the bambino"

But the ghost of Ruth must have offered his absolution in spades; the Red Sox have since gone on to win four World Series trophies in the last fourteen years. Their rivalry with the Yankees, however, continues unabated.

Baseball & Men’s Fashion

Even though he’s won the ESPY “Best Major League Baseball Player” award three times in the last four years, Mike Trout still tends to walk the Red Carpet in a suit whose trousers seem to have been borrowed from a much larger teammate.

mike trout clothing style amiss

The Houston Astros put in a better showing for their “Best Team” award, but none of the baseball players even tried to compete with some of their more fashion-outrageous athletic counterparts.

baseball players and their lack of style

One can only imagine what Yogi Berra would say, if he had to weigh in on the new generation—but perhaps we can close with a classic.

The future ain’t what it used to be. – Yogi Berra

Until next season!

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