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Newark Star-LedgerGeorge P. Kirsch has written an interesting, readable book about the sport's growth during the Civil War that teaches readers how the game evolved into the national pastime.
— Jeff Diamant
During the Civil War, Americans from homefront to battlefront played baseball as never before. While soldiers slaughtered each other over the country's fate, players and fans struggled over the form of the national pastime. George Kirsch gives us a color commentary of the growth and transformation of baseball during the Civil War. He shows that the game was a vital part of the lives of many a soldier and civilian--and that baseball's popularity had everything to do with surging American nationalism.
By 1860, baseball was poised to emerge as the American sport. Clubs in northeastern and a few southern cities played various forms of the game. Newspapers published statistics, and governing bodies set rules. But the Civil War years proved crucial in securing the game's place in the American heart. Soldiers with bats in their rucksacks spread baseball to training camps, war prisons, and even front lines. As nationalist fervor heightened, baseball became patriotic. Fans honored it with the title of national pastime. War metaphors were commonplace in sports reporting, and charity games were scheduled. Decades later, Union general Abner Doubleday would be credited (wrongly) with baseball's invention. The Civil War period also saw key developments in the sport itself, including the spread of the New York-style of play, the advent of revised pitching rules, and the growth of commercialism.
Kirsch recounts vivid stories of great players and describes soldiers playing ball to relieve boredom. He introduces entrepreneurs who preached the gospel of baseball, boosted female attendance, and found new ways to make money. We witness bitterly contested championships that enthralled whole cities. We watch African Americans embracing baseball despite official exclusion. And we see legends spring from the pens of early sportswriters.
Rich with anecdotes and surprising facts, this narrative of baseball's coming-of-age reveals the remarkable extent to which America's national pastime is bound up with the country's defining event.
"The book is a pleasure to read, and deserves numerous votes for the current literary All-Star Game."--David Wee, American Historical Review
"George P. Kirsch has written an interesting, readable book about the sport's growth during the Civil War that teaches readers how the game evolved into the national pastime."--Jeff Diamant, Newark Star-Ledger
"Although baseball shares the public stage with other sports nowadays, it is still the professional sport most prominent in American historical consciousness. George B. Kirsch's book offers an intriguing look at the very early years of baseball, which were intertwined with the crucible of the Civil War. . . . Overall, this is a solid examination of the subject and will be of interest to sports and baseball historians, in particular, but also those scholars and general readers interested in the social history of the Civil War."--John Sickels, Civil War History
THE RISE OF BASEBALL
In Albert G. Spalding's classic early history and celebration of baseball, America's National Game, he included a long newspaper description of the game as it was played by country boys long before the time of Doubleday or the Knickerbockers. The author of the story, undated from the Memphis Appeal, recalled that on Saturday afternoons "the neighborhood boys met on some cropped pasture, and whether ten or forty, every one was to take part in the game." He explained that "self-appointed leaders chose sides and whirled a bat that decided who would hit first. The bat was "a stout paddle, with a blade two inches thick and four inches wide." The ball "was usually made on the spot by some boy offering up his woolen socks as an oblation, and these were raveled and wound around a bullet, a handful of strips cut from a rubber overshoe, a piece of cork or almost anything." The field might have four, six, or seven bases, which "were not equidistant, but were marked by any fortuitous rock, or shrub, or depression in the ground where the steers were wont to bellow and paw up the earth." Home plate was "the den." In addition, "there were no masks, or mitts, or protectors. There was no science or chicanery, now called 'head-work.' " The pitcher's object "was to throw a ball that could be hit. The paddleman's object was to hit the ball, and if he struck at it-which he need not do unless he chose-and missed it, the catcher, standing well back, tried to catch it" for an out. After hitting the ball the batsman ran from base to base. "There was no effort to pounce upon a base runner and touch him with the ball. Anyone having the ball could throw it at him, and if it hit him he was 'dead'-almost literally sometimes. If he dodged the ball, he kept on running till the den was reached . . . No matter how many players were on a side, each and every one had to be put out." There was no umpire, and "very little wrangling." The score was kept by someone cutting notches in a stick, and "the runs in an afternoon ran into the hundreds."
Before the Civil War there were numerous variations on the rules and customs reported in this reminiscence. Young men in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City adapted and tried to improve the ball games that city youth and rural boys had enjoyed for generations. In 1831 a few young sportsmen began a new era of Philadelphia ball playing when they crossed the Delaware River for regular contests of "two old cat" at Camden, New Jersey. Before long they had recruited enough players for Saturday afternoon townball, despite being "frequently reproved and censured by their friends for degrading themselves by indulging in such childish amusement." These ball players competed on public grounds, where neither rent nor permission was required, and made their own bats and balls. After another group of townball enthusiasts joined them in 1833, the two formally merged and organized the Olympic Ball Club, drawing up a constitution and field rules to govern their play.
These pioneer athletes were principally merchants and "respectable and well-known citizens of Philadelphia," several of whom later distinguished themselves in their city's business and professional life. They were remembered as a "conservative and temperate body of gentlemen who enjoyed mixing their sports with good conversation, wit, food, and drink." A highlight of each season was the Fourth of July celebration, when their president read the Declaration of Independence and the members sang songs and heard "an address delivered for the perpetuation of the Stars and Stripes." Thus townball displayed an early association between ball play and nationalism that would increase significantly during the Civil War era and well beyond into the twentieth century. That pastime remained popular in the Philadelphia area through the late 1850s, with several clubs in Camden and Germantown joining Philadelphia's Olympics, Excelsiors, and Athletics. There is some evidence that emigrants from the City of Brotherly Love carried their sport to Cincinnati, Ohio, and neighboring towns in northern Kentucky, where townball flourished before the Civil War.
Townball players in the Philadelphia region generally made their own bats and balls and competed according to rules that resembled English rounders. Brief newspaper accounts and box scores suggest that they played with eleven men on a side for either two or eleven innings. All men batted in an inning when only two innings were played. When one out retired a side the game lasted eleven or more innings. They also seemed to have used stakes as bases. Detailed box scores gave the total score, including runs per inning. Typically the victorious team scored at least 75 runs. The box scores also listed statistics for each man for "Fielding" and "How Put Out." The "Fielding" section listed numbers for balls caught on the "fly," on the first "bound," and "behind" (probably tipped balls received by the catcher). The "How Put Out" part listed "fly," "bound," "behind," and also "no balls" and "On Stakes." "No balls" probably counted strikeouts (three missed swings). "On Stakes" likely meant runners put out on the bases, although there is no indication if runners were tagged out or if they were hit with balls thrown at them by fielders.
Yankee varieties of townball were called "base" or "round-ball." In 1856 a Boston enthusiast described that sport as "truly national," a game that "is played by the school boys in every country village in New England, as well as in the parks of many of our New England cities." He continued: "Base used to be a favorite game with the students of the English High and Latin Schools of Boston, a few years ago . . . Base is also a favorite game upon the green in front of village school-houses in the country throughout New England; and in this city, on Fast Day . . . Boston Common is covered with amateur parties of men and boys playing Base." Boston's truckmen attracted large crowds of spectators, who admired their "supply of muscle that renders them able to outdo all competitors in striking and throwing."
This "Massachusetts game" generally matched sides of eight to fifteen men on a square field with bases or tall stakes (up to five feet high) at each corner. The batter stood midway between first and fourth (home) base and tried to hit a ball "made of yarn, tightly wound round a lump or cork or India rubber, and covered with smooth calf-skin in quarters. . . the seams closed snugly, and not raised, lest they should blister the hands of the thrower and catcher." The round bat varied from three to three and a half feet in length and was often "a portion of stout rake or pitchfork handle . . . wielded generally in one hand by the muscular young players at the country schools." The pitcher threw the ball swiftly overhand (not underhand, as in the New York version), "with a vigor . . . that made it whistle through the air, and stop with a solid smack in the catcher's hands." The receiver had to be able "to catch expertly a swiftly delivered ball, or he would be admonished of his inexpertness by a request from some player to 'butter his fingers'!" The batter could strike the ball in any direction, there being no foul territory. James D'Wolf Lovett recalled that when he played as a boy for a junior club near Boston, batters sometimes shortened up on the bat, grasping it near the middle, "and by a quick turn of the wrist [struck] the ball, as it passed them, in the same direction in which it was thrown, thus avoiding the fielders and giving the striker a good start on the bases." After hitting the ball, the striker ran around the bases until he was put out or remained safely on a base. He could be retired if the catcher caught three missed balls, or if a hit ball was caught on the fly, or if he was struck by a thrown ball while running the bases (called "soaking" or "burning" a runner). Usually one out ended the inning, and the first team to score a fixed number of runs won the game.
The first modern baseball organization in Massachusetts was the Olympic Club of Boston, whose members began playing in 1854, formally established the club in 1856, and published rules and regulations in 1857. That year brought many spirited intrasquad games and matches against newly formed clubs on Boston Common. In late June about 2,000 spectators attended the first round of an informal Massachusetts championship tournament between the Olympics and the Wassapoag Ball Club of Sharon. Each team had twelve men to a side, twenty-five runs were needed to win the game, and three victories decided the match. Wassapoag defeated the Olympics but then lost to the Unions of Medway. A dispute over rules canceled the return contest for the title and eventually led to the Massachusetts Baseball Convention in Dedham in May 1858, at which the Massachusetts Association of Base Ball Players was created and a constitution, bylaws, and rules and regulations were approved.
At this convention representatives of the Tri-Mountain club tried to persuade the delegates to adopt the code of the New York version of the game, which had been created by the New York Knickerbocker club back in the 1840s. It featured a diamond instead of a square for the bases, with the batter standing at home plate. The New York regulations also stipulated that the ball had to be pitched underhand, not thrown overhand; that a ball knocked outside the range of first or third base was foul; and that a player was out if a hit ball was caught on the fly or first bounce, or if a fielder held the ball on a base before the runner arrived, or if, between bases, a fielder touched the runner with the ball. "Soaking" the runner was prohibited, three outs retired the side, and twenty-one runs (called aces) decided the game, provided each side had an equal number of outs. But the majority of the Massachusetts men preferred their traditional style of play and rejected the upstart New York version. They approved rules which formally established a game similar to traditional New England townball, with a square field, overhand pitching, no foul territory, ten to twelve men per side, one out to retire all, and victory belonging to the team that first scored one hundred runs.
The convention's labors bore fruit, for during the years remaining before the Civil War the "Massachusetts Game" flourished. In September 1858 a Boston correspondent to the New York Clipper reported a sharp increase in public interest in both cricket and baseball, which he attributed in part to the favorable notices from the local press and to the cooperation of city merchants who closed their doors on summer Saturday afternoons. He also credited much of the excitement to the recent formation of the state association of baseball players, adding: "Base Ball is getting to be the most predominant institution of this State. Clubs are now forming in every country town and village, and a great many matches have been played this season." Proof of the baseball fever sweeping New England was evident in a September 1859 match played for the Massachusetts state championship between the Unions of Medway and the Winthrops of Holliston. Several railroads issued excursion tickets to Boston's Agricultural Fair Grounds, where a large crowd bet heavily on the two-day encounter, won by the Unions, 100-71.
While the Massachusetts form of baseball thrived during the 1850s, it faced a formidable rival in the New York City version, which mushroomed in popularity during these years. Modern baseball derives most immediately from the New York version, created by the Knickerbockers during the mid-1840s. As Melvin Adelman has shown, the majority of these sportsmen were prosperous (but not affluent) middle-class merchants, bankers, doctors, lawyers, clerks, and other white-collar workers. None belonged to the city's elite, although a few ranked just one rung below the city's aristocracy. These first ball players sought health, exercise, and good fellowship in their sport and were not very much interested in seeking out other nines for interclub competition. Perhaps because of their defensiveness about playing a child's game, or because they valued privacy, they did not seek publicity in New York's daily or weekly papers.
One of the chief organizers of the Knickerbockers in 1845 was Alexander J. Cartwright, Jr. While he certainly deserves far more recognition than Doubleday for the creation of baseball, it is doubtful whether his contribution was so critical as to justify his later enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. The son of a shipping proprietor, Cartwright began his business career as a clerk and then joined with his brother to open a bookstore and stationery shop during the mid-1840s. He belonged to a volunteer fire company and played baseball with friends and fellow firefighters on the east side of Manhattan. Some baseball historians believe that Cartwright was the one who first suggested that the Knickerbockers try a diamond instead of a square for the bases, with the batter standing at home plate. He is often credited with the codification of its first rules, but it is more likely that he shared that task with several of his teammates-especially William R. Wheaton and William H. Tucker. As described above, the distinctive features of their regulations included the infield diamond for bases, underhand pitching, foul territory, the force out and tag play for retiring runners, three outs to a side, and victory to the first team to score twenty-one runs.
The Knickerbockers played intrasquad games in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan, then in 1846 moved to the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, New Jersey. There they competed in a few matches against other teams, including a semi-organized outfit called the New York Club. The Gothams (originally named the Washingtons), the next formal baseball club, began play in the early 1850s at the St. George Cricket Club ground in Harlem. The Eagles (1852) and the Empires (1854), both of New York City, and the Excelsiors (1854) of South Brooklyn increased to five the number of teams playing by the Knickerbocker rules before 1855. During the next six years a veritable baseball mania overtook the greater New York City region, as more than two hundred junior and senior clubs sprang into action in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, Westchester, and northern New Jersey.
Neither Abner Doubleday or Alexander Cartwright or any other person created the modern sport of baseball; rather, it evolved in stages from earlier bat and ball games. Historians today believe that Henry Chadwick was correct in linking baseball to English rounders. Robert Henderson, for example, has shown that early nineteenth-century American sports books printed rules for rounders under the heading "Base, or Goal Ball." Townball seems to have been an Americanized variation of rounders, and both probably developed as team versions of the traditional game of "old cat." Strictly speaking, modern baseball is a refined, United States variety of townball and therefore is certainly an indigenous sport.
Excerpted from Baseball in Blue and Gray by George B. Kirsch Copyright © 2003 by
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