Baseball is America’s sport. While the popularity of professional baseball has been somewhat eclipsed by football, basketball, and, in recent years, NASCAR, baseball retains a historic position in American mythology. Everyone likes baseball. Look, here's even President Richard Nixon enjoying a Senators vs. Yankees game back in 1969!
As the United States’ own pastime, it holds an important place in our minds. Whether we grew up in the Northeast or in the desert of Arizona, in a farm community or a big city, there’s always some team and some plays that stick in our collective memory. How about that time in 1989 when the San Francisco Giants’ Kevin Mitchell caught a ball barehanded in a game against the St. Louis Cardinals?
In the 19th century, America invented baseball. In the 20th, we dominated the game and polished it to a high gloss. Now, in this century, American baseball and the rest of the world appear ready to shake hands across great distances, each glad for the other's version of the sport and better for it, too.
EVERYTHING YOU JUST READis baloney. Baseball is no more inherently American than soccer is inherently Argentine. We imported it. We have a pretty hard time admitting that, though.
While many popular sports are of the get-the-object-in-one-net-based-receptacle-at-one-end-then-turn-around-and-do-it-again-with-the-other-team variety—like soccer/ice hockey/polo/basketball—baseball is another one altogether.
Americans didn’t invent baseball. While the first recorded baseball game occurred in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1846 (in four innings the New York Nine defeated the Knickerbockers, 23–1), we seem to have imported the basic structure and rules of the game wholesale from the United Kingdom, which played a number of baseball-like games in its history.
According to an 1801 book by Joseph Strutt called The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, baseball goes back to at least the 14th century and a game called stoolball, in which a batter stood before a stool and hit a ball thrown by a pitcher with a bat. If the ball hit the stool, the batter was out.
The picture above can be found in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. It was drawn in 1344. And it sure looks like a batter and a pitcher, doesn’t it? And in the first chapter of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, written 1798, the heroine is notable for favoring "cricket, base ball, riding on horseback and running about the country to books."
Because the evolution of games isn’t really recorded, however, the baseball origin question became a matter of confusion and intense debate for American baseball enthusiasts, particularly at the turn of the last century.
And so in 1905, after baseball historian Henry Chadwick wrote that he believed that baseball “gradually evolved from English game of rounders," Albert Spalding, a baseball pitcher turned sporting goods entrepreneur, decided to investigate. Spalding brought together a group of men, called the Mills Commission, to explore the matter. Two United States senators, many baseball executives, and a few retired players met to figure out the answer once and for all. The commission wasn’t exactly impartial, however; there were no historians or even sports experts in the group. They were pretty much all baseball guys.
The commission declared that Union Civil War General Abner Doubleday invented baseball, seemingly from scratch. Yes, apparently one day he just sat down and thought “if only there was a way to play a sport while we chew tobacco.” Then he took out a pencil and paper and made the whole damn thing up.
The commission published its report in 1907. It determined that Doubleday created baseball in 1839. He made up the game in Cooperstown, New York. He also, Northanger Abbey notwithstanding, invented the word "baseball," designed the baseball diamond, and wrote all of the game’s rules.
Doubleday, who was dead by the time the commission met, would have been a little surprised to discover this. He never claimed he invented baseball.
The strongest evidence for Doubleday inventing baseball on his own came from a letter by Abner Graves, an elderly man who wrote to the commission saying Doubleday was the inventor. And Graves, who spent the last years of his life in a hospital for the criminally insane, was five years old in 1839.
The commission doesn’t seem to have done substantive research to reach its conclusion. There were no published primary sources that said anything about Doubleday inventing baseball or that substantiate the claim that the man was in Cooperstown. He was in college in 1839, in a town 150 miles away. Doubleday’s 1893 New York Times obituary also doesn’t mention that he invented baseball.
SO WHY ARE WE so eager to declare baseball our own, special sport? Part of it may have been that people like Spalding, facing waves of new immigrants and a changing culture, were anxious to declare that baseball was uniquely American, invented in a wholesome town in upstate New York, free from foreign influences, and the work of a war hero and a gentleman.
But then, societies have always been pretty eager to invent traditions to suit whatever needs they had. As Eric Hobsbawm wrote in The Invention of Tradition, a 1983collection of essays arguing that many of various societies’ "traditions" are actually recently developed and synthetically generated:
Inventing traditions, it is assumed here, is essentially a process of formulation and ritualization, characterized by reference to the past, if only by imposing repetition. The actual process of creating such ritual and symbolic complexes has not been adequately studied by historians. Much of it is still rather obscure. It is presumably most clearly exemplified where a ‘tradition’ is deliberately invented and constructed by a single initiator....
There is probably no time and place with which historians are concerned which has not seen the ‘invention’ of tradition in this sense. However, we should expect it to occur more frequently when rapid transformation of society weakens or destroys the social patterns for which ‘old’ traditions had been designed, producing new one to which they were not applicable, or when such old traditions and their institutional carriers and promulgators no longer prove sufficiently adaptable and flexible, or are otherwise eliminated.
The precise motivations of Spalding are hard to determine but, historically, newly-minted nations are very eager to develop their own traditions, and as quickly as possible. Whenever we have a need for a history and a backstory that fulfills a narrative we want to promote, it’s pretty easy to dream it up and disseminate that history.
I’m no expert in the history of games, but this seems a pretty clear case to me. Stoolball probably evolved into a few different games, including cricket, in which players hit a ball with a flat bat and then attempt to score as many “runs” as possible in an “inning.” There’s also rounders, another bat-and-ball game, where participants hit a small ball and run around four bases in the course of innings in which teams alternate at batting and fielding. A baseball field looks like this. A rounders field looks like this.
In fact, it appears the rounders/baseball/cricket relationship is sort of like the relationship between humans/orangutans/chimpanzees; it’s not that one descends from another; it’s that they all seem to originate from one common thing.
The evolution of the sport into a unique American institution was rapid. Enthusiasts created the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the world’s first professional baseball team, in 1869. By the Second World War, when almost every high school in America had a baseball team of its own, the sport was important enough that, when Major League Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis wrote a letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt urging him to ensure that baseball continued during the war, Roosevelt wrote back: "I feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work." By the 1960s, there were major league baseball teams across the United States.
Now, even though a large proportion of American major league players are natives of the third world, there’s even an argument to be made that baseball is our tradition, even if we totally copied it from someone else. It’s ours now, the peanuts and the crackerjacks, the experience of sitting in bleachers in the summer for nine grueling innings, the $5 hotdogs, the $8 cups of Bud Light. That's America, even if the thing we’re all there to celebrate really originated on the yards of English villages, in gloomy, foggy, Medieval Europe.