Culture and Recreation


How old is baseball?

Baseball, America’s pastime, is more than 200 years old. According to legend, the sport’s originator was U.S. Army officer Abner Doubleday (1819–1893), who was credited with inventing and naming the game in 1839, while he was attending school in Cooperstown, New York (the site of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum). But in 2004 a document was uncovered in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, citing a 1791 bylaw prohibiting the playing of baseball too close to (within 80 yards of) the town’s meeting hall. Historians verified the authenticity of the document and its date. This is believed to be the earliest written record of the game—and it establishes that the stick-and-ball sport was being played 42 years before Doubleday’s involvement. Baseball historians have long acknowledged that the sport, which is similar to the English games of cricket and rounders, had not one father, but thousands. Although the 2004 discovery indicates that the game was already in existence in 1791, and popular enough to be the subject of a town ordinance, it was in the 1800s that baseball developed into the game Americans still love today.

The first baseball club, the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, was organized by American sportsman Alexander Cartwright (1820–1892) in 1842 in New York City. By 1845 the team had developed a set of 20 rules, which included specifications for where the bases are positioned and how runners can be tagged as out. The rules also defined a field of play, outside of which balls are foul. The so-called New York game spread in popularity after a famous 1846 match in Hoboken, New Jersey. By 1860 there were at least 50 organized ball clubs in the country. Union soldiers helped spread the game during the American Civil War (1861–65), and the popularity of the sport greatly increased during the last three and a half decades of the nineteenth century. The first professional baseball team was the Cincinnati Red Stockings, which began play in 1869. In 1876 the National League (NL) was founded; it included teams in Boston; Chicago; Cincinnati, Ohio; Hartford, Connecticut; Louisville, Kentucky; New York; Philadelphia; and St. Louis, Missouri. By the 1880s the sport had evolved into big business: An 1887 championship series between St. Louis and Detroit drew 51,000 paying spectators. The American League (AL) was formed in 1901, and two years later the two leagues staged a championship between their teams: In 1903, the Boston Red Socks beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first World Series.

An overall increase in American leisure time, created by the innovation of labor-saving household devices as well as a reduction in the average laborer’s workweek helped baseball become the national sport and its favorite pastime. Played on an open field, the game harkened back to the nation’s agrarian roots; but with its standardized rules and reliance on statistics, it looked forward to a modern, industrialized future.

America’s sport: The Chicago Cubs play the St. Louis Cardinals, 1930. Historians recently discovered that baseball dates back to the 1700s.

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