The National Game: Baseball and American Culture

The National Game: Baseball and American Culture

by John P. Rossi

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John Rossi offers not only an expert overview of baseball over the past 175 years; he shows how the game has reflected and contributed to changes in American society over time. The National Game chronicles baseball's popular successes and financial failures; its interleague wars and continuing struggles between owners and players; and its accommodations to radio and


John Rossi offers not only an expert overview of baseball over the past 175 years; he shows how the game has reflected and contributed to changes in American society over time. The National Game chronicles baseball's popular successes and financial failures; its interleague wars and continuing struggles between owners and players; and its accommodations to radio and television—without neglecting the colorful players and managers who have won the hearts of fans. "A succinct, knowledgeable synopsis...recommended."—Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post.

Editorial Reviews

Chicago Tribune
Concise, accurate and underpinned with a genuine love of the sport, "The National Game" gives us baseball and the country with all the warts and glory.
Tracing mention of the game back to the US war of independence, Rossi (history, La Salle U., Philadelphia) chronicles baseball's popular successes and financial failures, its interleague wars and continuing struggles between owners and players, and its accommodations to radio and television. His emphasis is on how it reflected and contributed to the larger society of the various periods. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Tampa Tribune
For the real fan, this is an interesting and absorbing book.
Virginia Quarterly Review
Not only readable but satisfying to those who are interested in the broader historical context of the sport.
The San Diego Union-Tribune - John Curtis
Fresh and stimulating insights into the relationship between baseball and American culture.
The Instrumentalist - Jonathan Yardley
Succinct, knowledgeable...recommended without reservation as an introduction to baseball history.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Baseball has formed an intimate link with American history and culture for more than a century and a half. No other sport has imbedded itself so deeply in the national psyche or has generated such a large body of serious literature, from Ring Lardner's "You Know Me Al" stories right through Bernard Malamud's The Natural and Mark Harris's Bang the Drum Slowly. At the level of popular culture, "Casey at the Bat" and "Take Me Out to the Ball-Game" are among the most recognizable of sports motifs. Our everyday language abounds with baseball terminology: out in left field, cleanup hitter, strike out, grand slam.

    Unlike the other American games of football or basketball, baseball has taken on mythic qualities. Its supposed invention by Abner Doubleday, one day in the summer of 1839, has been honored by the American government with a postage stamp. Although research has undermined the Doubleday myth, its persistence tells us much about the hold that baseball has on the American consciousness. The public has believed the Doubleday story for so long because it appeals to the American sense of uniqueness. Americans want the sport that as early as 1856 was called the national pastime to have sprung into existence like some immaculate conception, owing nothing to any other game or especially to any other nation.

    In fact baseball emerged in the early nineteenth century as a unique game in America—at a particular time and particular place—for a variety of reasons. The game was not the result ofa single invention or spontaneous eruption; it evolved over the years from various bat-and-ball games played in England and the American colonies. The two strongest influences creating the new game of baseball were the old English game of rounders and offshoots of it such as "town ball" and "old cat." In these games, where the number of players could vary, a ball was hit by a batter swinging a stick, who then proceeded to run from one base to another (the number of bases also varied). The rules for rounders were more formalized; the "old cat" and "town ball" games changed depending on the number of players and even whether the game was played on a city lot or in more open country. There is ample evidence of these games being played and even the name base ball being used in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. For example, George Ewing, a soldier in George Washington's army at Valley Forge, in April 1778 recorded in his journal playing a game "base." Many illustrations can be found of men and boys playing a recognizable form of baseball in books and pamphlets published in the early nineteenth century.

    Baseball began to take on its modern formulation in the 1840s, especially in the northeastern corner of the United States where the English sporting tradition was strongest. The country was changing rapidly as a result of cheap transportation and the spread of education. Cities were experiencing a huge expansion. In the 1840s, while the population of the nation grew by 36 percent, that of cities and towns of over eight thousand increased by 90 percent. In these sprawling cities baseball took hold as the public sought an outlet for its energies and a way to spend its leisure time.

    The new nation had no organized sports, though cricket, horse racing, and hunting were popular. Middle-class shopkeepers, clerks, small manufacturers, and skilled craftsmen in the growing cities wanted a more organized outlet for their energies. They also sought to emulate the club tradition of England where cricket had emerged seventy years earlier. Cricket remained popular in the United States up to the 1860s. It was played mainly by the wealthy, though America continued the English tradition of working-class cricket clubs.

    Baseball's growth coincided with the expansion of cricket, but in the 1860s the new game finally pulled away form its English cousin. American writers observed that baseball was "the equal of cricket as a scientific game"—that is, as a game requiring the mental powers of judgment, calculation, and quick perception. More important, as the American Chronicle of Sports and Pastimes boasted in 1868, baseball had changed more in ten years than cricket had in four hundred, and in doing so had adapted to its American circumstances.

    The newly rich middle classes in America shared the English enthusiasm for sport and the value of outdoor exercise as a way of overcoming the dangers of a sedentary life, which was believed to promote bad habits. It was among these men that baseball first emerged. The social aspect of the game was a powerful attraction. Clubs and fraternal organizations of all kinds sprung up in the second quarter of the nineteenth century throughout the United States, helping to build America's reputation as a nation of inveterate joiners with their volunteer fire companies and numerous fraternal and religious societies.

    We will never know the exact process by which baseball developed, but it is clear that by the 1840s the game in some form was being played enthusiastically, especially in the area from Pennsylvania north through New York and into New England. It developed differently from place to place, but the level of play became more sophisticated and forms of the game enormously popular. Baseball clubs appeared in almost every town and city of any consequence. At first the game was played mostly by the better-off younger members of the middle class. (Workingmen who had to work longer hours did not have the opportunity to take off in the late afternoon for exercise, nor did they have the money to pay club dues or the costs of equipment or uniforms.) Yet the game was broadly popular, even among working-class young men who took every opportunity to play baseball. Within a few years, by one estimate, two-thirds of the early baseball players came from a working-class background while the remaining third was of the artisan class.

    One of the most appealing aspects of the new game for the working classes was the simplicity of the equipment required—just a bat and a ball, and a space to play in. Any open field or city lot would suffice. The simplicity of the game was one of the reasons for its rapid spread. Cricket's influence was evident in the social aspect of early baseball. Often the games were followed by a dinner held in a tent on the playing grounds, or the players and their guests might retire to a nearby pub to celebrate. At first, victory or defeat was not as important as the excuse for a social gathering. But that soon changed.

    Among the most popular forms of baseball was the Philadelphia version, in which home base was an iron plate while the playing field was diamond-shaped and the batter was retired if he was tagged out or the ball was thrown to the base ahead of him. In the Massachusetts game the field was rectangular, with ten to fourteen players on defense while bases or bounds, usually sticks, were located sixty feet apart at each corner of the field. These games clearly blended rounders with elements of town ball. Then, in 1845, Alexander Cartwright, a bank teller and volunteer fireman in New York, codified a set of rules for his baseball club, the Knickerbockers. This was a club of gentlemen, prosperous businessmen and merchants who desired vigorous athletic activity which baseball provided. They were also "men who were at liberty after 3 o'clock in the afternoon," unlike laborers who would have no time during the week for recreation.

    Cartwright's scheme borrowed the diamond shape from the Philadelphia game, placed the pitcher or bowler forty-five feet from the batter, and set the bases ninety feet apart. The bases were canvas bags, not sticks or stones, while home plate and the pitcher's plate were round iron disks. Cartwright specified nine players, distributing them essentially as they are today except for the shortstop, who moved about the infield. As in the other versions of baseball, the pitcher's job was to put the ball in play, not to get the batter out. He threw softly underhand. The batter was out if the ball was caught in the air or on one bounce, or if the fielder threw the ball to the base before the runner arrived there. In other forms of baseball the batter was "soaked" or hit by the ball (thrown by a fielder) and put out. Cartwright ended the inning when three outs were made; the game was over when one side scored twenty-one runs, or "aces."

    Cartwright's invention, soon known as the "New York game," was fast with plenty of hitting and fielding action. It was livelier than the more leisurely cricket and could be played on any field because it didn't require manicured grounds.

    The popularity of the New York game grew and spread throughout the North and East, reflecting the growing power of New York City itself as the nation's leading metropolitan area. By 1850 New York's population was 516,000, or 176,000 more than the second-largest city, Philadelphia. New York was also at the center of a main railroad hub and enjoyed the largest port traffic in the nation. Thus it was perfectly suited to spread Cartwright's new game. But in the final analysis the success of the New York game was rooted in its logic and simplicity: it was easy to learn and relatively easy to master. Cartwright's rules were in such demand that he had more than 100 copies printed. An address placed in the Sunday Mercury indicated where baseball clubs could write for further information about his innovations.

    By 1860, with the addition of a few refinements, such as the adoption of the nine-inning concept from the Philadelphia game and the requirement that fly balls be caught in the air rather than on one bounce, Cartwright's version became the most popular form of baseball being played. Other forms of baseball as well as cricket continued to be played for some years, but they too gave way to the New York game. By the onset of the Civil War, American newspapers were carrying detailed, inning-by-inning scores of games. The rise of the cheap penny press led to increased sports coverage, helping baseball gain a new audience. The weekly New York Clipper, founded in 1853, and the Police Gazette (1845) devoted considerable space to baseball. Beadle's Dime Base-Ball Player first appeared in 1860 and sold between fifty thousand and sixty thousand copies annually. Perhaps most important, the game benefited from its affinity for statistics, still one of baseball's greatest strengths when measured against other popular sports.

    At first, writers counted runs as in cricket. But Henry Chadwick, an English immigrant and one of the first sports-writers, around 1860 invented the method for compiling batting averages as well as the first "box score." Chadwick's idea was to provide a clear statistical breakdown of the game by showing the number of runs, hits, and outs recorded by each player. The box score, which might have been inspired by cricket scoring, caught on quickly because it was a simple way of showing what had happened in a particular game. Together with the idea of batting averages, box scores launched the statistical life of baseball whereby players and teams may be compared in a way denied other sports. A glance at any sports page today shows the continuing popularity of baseball statistics. Baseball is the only sport, in fact, where statistics reveal anything important about the game. The best hitter has the highest batting average; the most powerful, the most home runs. Pitchers can be measured by wins, percentage of victories, earned runs allowed per nine innings, or games saved. Almost from the beginning, the new sport of baseball was a mathematical wonder.

    Chadwick ranks with Albert Goodwill Spalding as one of the key figures in spreading the popularity of baseball. He reported the game for various newspapers in the New York area and edited the first true baseball guides: Beadle's Dime Base-Ball Player and Spalding's Official Base Ball Guide. In 1868 Chadwick also wrote the first serious analysis of the sport: The Game of Base Ball: How to Learn It, How to Play It, and How to Teach It. In many ways, as much as any individual he deserves the title the "Father of Baseball." He not only wrote enthusiastically and expertly about the sport, he literally preached the gospel of baseball. After seeing his first game he noted, "I was struck with the idea that base ball was just the game for a national sport for Americans, and ... I came to the conclusion that from this game of ball ... our people could be lifted into a position of more devotion to physical exercise and healthful outdoor recreation." From this view Chadwick never deviated.

    A clear sign of baseball's popularity occurred on the eve of the Civil War. In 1860 the Excelsior Club of Brooklyn undertook the first tour of a baseball nine, traveling by train throughout New York State and then down to Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware, playing before large crowds that were already deeply informed about baseball. The success of this tour showed the possibility of spreading the game throughout the nation now that a railway network was near completion. Journeys that would have seemed impossible in the 1840s now were commonplace. It can be argued that baseball's acceptance as America's game paralleled the spread of the railroad to every corner of the pioneering nation. By the 1880s baseball was known or played throughout the country, just when the railway network bound the nation together.

    The enthusiastic adoption of baseball fit the national mood. The game gave the country a sport that was not quite cricket, not quite rounders, and perfectly suited to the contours of the country—it was fast, dynamic, and uniquely American. America was changing with incredible speed. Railroad mileage tripled in the 1840s. Steamboats on the Mississippi linked the Midwest with the South, with the 1,440-mile trip from New Orleans to Louisville taking just four days in 1853. The 1840s saw the largest influx of immigrants to that time in American history. More than a million Irish and a million Germans entered the country in the years 1846-1855, bringing with them new attitudes, tastes, and standards. They were searching for ways to identify themselves with their new home. Baseball was one such way.

    Baseball's appeal initially was to an older generation of Americans and was largely nostalgic. Because most men had played some form of it as children, they could identify with baseball and enjoy playing or watching. It gave the businessmen in cities and towns a way to relive their youth. One of them, Frank Pigeon of the Brooklyn Eckford Club, summed up this aspect of the new game. He saw baseball as a way for he and his friends to "forget business and everything else, go out on the green fields, don our ball suits, and go at it with a rush. At such times we were boys again." Sport in general and baseball in particular was important for the newly powerful middle classes because it was believed to relieve anxieties, discourage impulsive behavior, and teach important qualities such as leadership and cooperation. Although conceived originally as an outlet for the middle class, baseball was also seen as a way of socializing the energies of the more impetuous lower classes. It would lose its amateur qualities within a single generation.

    By the outbreak of the Civil War there were hundreds of baseball clubs of all kinds in America, and baseball was rapidly on its way to becoming the national game. Four years after the war ended, the New York Herald estimated that the number of active baseball clubs had climbed to over a thousand. The sport had moved from an informal game to a fraternal one in less than a generation. It was being played with greater professionalism and sophistication, and in the process was undergoing subtle changes. In 1863 it was decided that fly balls had to be caught in the air and not on one bounce in order to be out. In 1867 catchers, who originally stood fifty feet behind the batter, now moved closer to home plate. A few years later Fred Thayer of Harvard made an iron bird-cage mask to protect the catcher's face, adapting the idea from fencing. The fraternal element generated intense competition and rivalries both within cities and between cities. Large crowds began to turn out for important games. Baseball after the Civil War, like the nation, was ready to take off.

The Professional Game

According to most authorities, the Civil War hindered the development of baseball as the nation dealt with more important business. We know that baseball was played during the Civil War as there is a painting of Union prisoners of war playing the game in Salisbury, North Carolina, in 1862. Some evidence shows that a baseball game was played around Christmastime in New York that same year between a team from the 165th New York Infantry and an all-star squad. Reports give the crowd as forty thousand, which is certainly too high for the time. Also in 1862 a team of Philadelphia players invaded Gotham to play a series of games against New York, Brooklyn, and Newark. These contests helped revive baseball in the midst of the war.

    Various forms of baseball were played in the South, although not as extensively as in the North. The war introduced the game to more men both North and South, who brought it back to their communities outside the Northeast where baseball first took root. The war certainly created a desire to find unifying themes for a desperately divided nation. Baseball helped fill that desire. Already called the National Game before the war, baseball provided a ritual and sport around which the country could rally. The years after the Civil War saw an explosion of interest in the game. As the Newark Daily Advertiser noted, the end of the war brought a virtual baseball boom throughout the nation. Some baseball supporters hoped it could help heal the wounds caused by the war. Northern teams that traveled south to play were not always greeted warmly, but gradually the Southern cities and towns began to embrace the new game. Wilke's Spirit, a New York paper, noted that the New York Mutual team had been received warmly in New Orleans on an exhibition tour. "This National Game," it observed hopefully, "seems destined to close the National Wounds opened by the late war. It is no idle pastime which draws young men, separated by two thousand miles, together to contest in friendship, upon fields but lately crimsoned with their brothers' blood in mortal combat."

    Baseball's new popularity was reflected in many different ways after the Civil War. Popular songs and dances drew on baseball themes, such as "The Live Oak Polka" and "The Baseball Polka." A child's board game invented in the 1860s was called "Baseball." We also know that colleges had integrated baseball into their sports programs as early as the late 1850s. In fact, convincing evidence shows that baseball was the most popular college sport in the last half of the nineteenth century. The first intercollegiate game was played on July 1, 1850, between Amherst and Williams College. Amherst won by a typical early baseball score of 73 to 32. A wonderful series of evocative photos, recently discovered, shows a recognizable game of baseball at Wesleyan College around 1867. The players are clearly at their regular positions, and the pitcher is about to deliver the ball with an underhand or submarine motion. Fans dressed in top hats are scattered around the edges of the field.

    Some evidence indicates that President Lincoln and his son Tad attended a baseball game in Washington during the Civil War. Connecting the martyred president to baseball was typical of the way the first generation of its supporters sought to give the game a national identity. Bill Stern, the popular (and overly imaginative) radio broadcaster of the 1930s and 1940s used to tell a dramatic tale of the assassination of Lincoln. With his last breath the dying president reached out from his deathbed to the officer sitting beside him: "Don't let them destroy baseball," he said. Then, after a pause, Stern would say, "That officer was none other than Abner Doubleday, the inventor of baseball." Of course, Lincoln never regained consciousness after he was shot, and Doubleday was nowhere near Washington that night. But myth is sometimes stronger than reality. Baseball by the 1860s had arrived as an American phenomenon.

    In 1858 a group of amateur baseball clubs met in New York to organize a ruling body, the National Association of Base Ball Players. This group assumed the responsibility for rule making and for maintaining the fraternal nature of the game. It also sought to promote the new sport and, in proper Victorian form, to maintain its integrity. By the end of the war the Association represented 91 clubs drawn from 10 states. Three years later that number had jumped to 350 clubs as baseball took its position as the leading sport in America, a position it held for a century.

    The success of the NABBP reflected baseball's astounding growth: the game had spread to every corner of the country, including California. But growth also brought problems. Competition created a need to win. To find the best players, clubs began to lose their amateur flavor as they brought in paid players who were enlisted not for fraternal reasons but to produce victories. Baseball entered what Harold Seymour called the twilight zone between amateurism and professionalism. It was only a matter of time before professionalism took hold, because it was becoming clear by the 1860s that there was money to be made on baseball. By charging admission—even if only ten cents—teams could turn a profit.

    The intense competition generated by baseball in the years after the Civil War also promoted another dimension of the sport that was deeply rooted in American history—gambling. Americans had inherited from their English forebears a love of gambling, and nothing lent itself better to that activity than betting on a team or an individual. With its evil twin, alcoholism, gambling would plague baseball throughout its history and at times threaten the very existence of the game.

    The National Association of Base Ball Players dissolved in the late 1860s, plagued by schedule breakdowns, poorly organized teams, and players jumping from one team to another—called "revolving" in those days. The Association also suffered from the domination of the New York Knickerbocker Club that acted as if it owned the new sport.

    In 1869 the first truly professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, was formed. The Cincinnati team had been a member of the amateur Association, but team owners wanted to build a successful winning team. They turned to professionals and hired Harry Wright, star outfielder for the Union cricket team, for an annual salary of $1,200 and gave him carte blanche to form a winning club. Wright signed his brother, George, a talented professional cricket player for the highly regarded Philadelphia Cricket Club, at a salary of $1,400. Other professionals were hired, with the lowest-paid player receiving $600. The entire payroll came to $9,300, a considerable sum in those days. These salaries compare favorably with a substantial middle-class income, which in the 1870s averaged approximately $1,000; a common laborer might make about $350 and a miner $450 a year. Thus baseball already offered an income that made it attractive to any male with athletic skill. Money not only changed the game into a professional sport, it also helped destroy its gentlemanly aspect. Young men honed their baseball skills no matter what social class they came from, because baseball paid better than most occupations.

    Historians argue over the question of how deeply baseball affected social mobility in America, but there is little doubt that many young men used it to climb to financial success as well as achieve fame. The players who made up the Red Stockings listed occupations—jeweler, clerk, hatter, bookkeeper—that indicated working-class or lower-middle-class status. Professional baseball gave these men an opportunity to earn incomes far beyond those of their peers. Baseball was becoming a form of male identity and a status symbol for those who could play the game.

    Long before George Steinbrenner, the 1869 Cincinnati club showed what money could do for a baseball team. Harry Wright put the team through a rigorous training program which honed its skills beyond those of other amateur and semi-professional clubs. In 1869 the Red Stockings played 58 games, including 6 against all-star squads, winning 57 and tying 1, a record sure to remain unbroken. They overpowered their opponents by such scores as 103 to 8 and 65 to 1. Low-scoring games were rare in those days of slow pitching and numerous errors. The Red Stockings, it is estimated, played before 200,000 people that season, the year the transcontinental railroad was completed, and traveled more than 12,000 miles and as far as California. President Grant arranged a meeting with the players when they were in Washington and congratulated them on their success. If politicians wished to be associated with the game, it was a sure sign that baseball had arrived.

    The Red Stockings won 27 straight games to open the 1870 season. They did not lose their first game until June, when the Brooklyn Atlantics defeated them in a dramatic 11-inning game, 8 to 7, before a crowd estimated by Harper's Weekly at 10,000 to 15,000 people who paid 50 cents each to see the game. With gate receipts of $5,000 to $7,500 for this one game, baseball was now clearly a financial success.

    The Red Stockings also made a sartorial contribution to the new sport of baseball. The team introduced the knee britches or knicker type of uniform that soon caught on with other baseball clubs, replacing the long pants previously worn by ballplayers. A glance at photographs of Red Stockings players shows that the basic baseball uniform has changed surprisingly little since the 1870s. The players then wore cleated high-top shoes, garrison-style caps with a short bill to shade their eyes, and short collars usually turned up. The Red Stockings also wore a letter C on their chest to identify the team. With few modifications, this type of costume still prevails. The continuity of the uniform is one reason for baseball's popularity. Of all sports, the elements of baseball change most gradually, making it easy for its fans to connect with its past.

    In the late 1860s and early 1870s the game itself continued to evolve. At the time it resembled the modern game of fast-pitch' softball more than baseball. By the 1870s the baseball began to take on the look of the modern ball, shrinking to its present size of 9 to 9 1/4 inches in circumference and 5 to 5 1/2 ounces in weight from the softer, larger ball used earlier in the century. The 1870s baseball consisted of a small core of hard rubber, surrounded with tightly wrapped wool and covered with two carefully stitched figure-eight pieces of horsehide, which gave the ball its distinctive look. Earlier baseballs had been stitched with a cover that looked like a peeled orange.

    By the early 1870s the pitcher, still using an underhand motion, began to throw harder, trying to deceive the hitter rather than allowing him to put the ball in play. Asa Brainerd of the Red Stockings was famous for his fast pitch that he delivered with a last-second snap of the wrist. Harry Wright developed a "dew drop," or what we would now call a change of pace, to throw hitters off balance. The batter might still wait for a pitch he liked, but it soon became common for the umpire to call strikes if the batter stalled. In one famous case, a hitter for the New York Mutuals took fifty pitches before swinging. Giving the umpire the right to call strikes speeded up the game.

    Batters also began to adjust their swing and stance to avoid hitting soft fly balls that were now easy outs, as outfielders rarely muffed them. Instead the batter tried to hit line drives or hard grounders, called "daisy cutters," which had a better chance of being hits. Only the pitcher and catcher wore gloves by the early 1870s, but they were little more than leather gloves with the fingers cut out. The rest of the fielders played bare-handed, thus the large number of errors and hard-hit balls that went untouched. Still, by this time the quality of play was quite high on a professional club. By the early 1870s it was rare for a professional team to lose to an amateur club, as had often happened in the past. In 1871 the Boston Red Stockings played thirty-two games against amateur competition and won every game.

    Professionalism had arrived. A period of amalgamation and consolidation typical of business throughout the country in the last quarter of the nineteenth century now characterized the National Game. Professional baseball at the major-league level was about to become a monopoly or a trust.

The First Major League

AFTER THE 1870 season some of the owners and managers of the teams in the National Association of Base Ball Players became dissatisfied with the league's performance. They saw the potential of making a tidy profit out of the new game. In March 1871 team owners from ten NABBP cities met in New York to form a new league, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. The new key word was "professional," for the ball players themselves ran the league. Consequently the league suffered from the kind of chaos one would expect when the inmates run the asylum: sloppy scheduling, poor management, incompetent business practices and constant "revolving," a plethora of gambling scandals, and, with the emergence of professionalism, a number of unsavory players. Despite these problems the new league survived for a few years until a combination of mistakes destroyed it.

    The new league established teams in nine cities, four of which were in the Midwest: the Chicago White Stockings, Cleveland Forest Citys, Fort Wayne Kekiongas, and Rockford Forest Citys. The other five teams were located in the heart of what had always been baseball country, the urban areas of the Northeast: the Boston Red Stockings, New York Mutuals, Philadelphia Athletics, Washington Olympics, Washington Nationals, and Troy (New York) Haymakers. League rules were simple (but were not, as it turned out, always adhered to). It took just ten dollars to join the Association, and each club agreed to play a five-game series against every other club and to make two trips to the other cities in the league. A league championship was to be awarded the team with the best record.

    Matters got off to a bad start when Fort Wayne dropped out in mid-season 1871, to be replaced by the Brooklyn Eckfords, who themselves lasted only a year. The Chicago White Stockings, who boasted a new ballpark, had to leave the city when the Great Fire of 1871 burned them out of their home. Despite all the positive improvements over the first baseball association, the new league also suffered from birth pangs.

    Probably its most serious problem was instability. Teams were founded and folded with incredible rapidity: twenty-four different teams played in the new league in just five seasons. Only three teams—the Boston Red Stockings, who were made up of defectors from Cincinnati, the New York Mutuals, and the Philadelphia Athletics—played through the entire history of the league. Some clubs lasted just one season, some even less. While the quality of play was high and fan interest surged in such cities as New York, Chicago, and Boston, where the Red Stockings drew seventy thousand fans in 1875, the overall performance of the new league was disastrous. Gambling scandals were common, and newspapers carried stories of players throwing games and gamblers giving odds and taking bets at games. The reputation of the New York Mutuals did not improve when it was discovered that William Marcy Tweed, the corrupt boss of Tammany Hall, owned part of the team.

    Whiskey was sold at games in New York, leading to rowdy fan behavior, with fans spilling onto the field and interfering with games, and umpire baiting, which had been rare in baseball. Henry Chadwick, always the voice of respectable baseball, was aghast at crooked players and fixed games and campaigned for a return to the gentlemanly level of an earlier era.

    Players in the new league were true professionals. Double plays became commonplace while hitting and pitching clearly exceeded the amateur level of play. In 1872 an outfielder, Jim Hatfield, threw a baseball 400 feet, 7 1/2 inches, a feat not matched for 70 years. The number of runs scored declined during the five years of the league from 13 per game for the best team to 10.5, a sign that a balance was being achieved between offense and defense. The 100-to-10 scores of the past were becoming rare.

    The overwhelming majority of players came from urban areas in the east. Philadelphia produced forty, New York twenty-two, and Brooklyn thirty-six players on the league's roster. Seven players were born in England and five in Ireland, the latter foreshadowing the first wave of Irish American players who would come to dominate the game in the next three decades. As early as 1871 an Irish-born player, Tony Foley of County Cashel, briefly managed the Chicago club. Foley was a forerunner of the McGraws, Macks, and Hanlons who would dominate baseball managing by the 1890s. Thus for the first time the Yankee character of baseball was being challenged. The South and West were virtually unrepresented on the rosters of the league teams.

    Play in the new league was dominated by the Boston Red Stockings. Harry Wright had brought with him to Boston the best of the old Cincinnati team, and he added new talent, such as Albert G. Spalding, a great athlete who was to be one of the key figures in the development of baseball in the last third of the nineteenth century. Boston finished third in 1871 behind Chicago and Philadelphia and then won the championship easily for the next four seasons. At first the championship season encompassed just thirty games, but by 1875 the teams were playing eighty-game seasons.

    In 1874, in an attempt to make a financial killing, Wright and Spalding hit upon the idea of touring England and showing off the new American game. The tour interrupted the regular season and showed how greatly financial considerations now controlled baseball. Wright and Spalding were motivated by two contrary but linked ideas—nationalism and the desire to make money. Two talented teams, the Red Stockings and Philadelphia Athletics, spent more than six weeks touring England, giving demonstrations of baseball to indifferent and confused Englishmen. Spalding had also arranged for the Americans to play cricket matches which the Americans won handily, astonishing the English with their hitting and fielding prowess. What the American players did wasn't "quite cricket"—whaling away at pitches and driving the ball incredible distances compared to the more scientific strategy of cricket play favored by the English—but it was successful. The Americans won all their cricket matches but one. Wright worried that the American brand of play would alienate the English by its ungentlemanly roughness, especially as he was concerned to show them that America had developed a game worth imitating.

    The British were impressed by the speed and action of baseball but showed little interest in emulating the Americans. The tour proved to be a financial disaster, costing the Americans more than $3,000 and forcing the players to take a pay cut. The Wright-Spalding tour was the first of a series over the years where baseball people thought the mere exposure of the new American sport to the rest of the world would lead to its adoption—and to even greater profits for them. Innocence combined with avarice overrode common sense. Except for peculiar adoptions in places as different as Japan and parts of the Caribbean, baseball remained a uniquely American game.

Meet the Author

John Rossi teaches American history at La Salle University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He has also written No Golden Age: Baseball from the End of World War II to the First Expansion, 1960.

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