The Birth of Baseball: Sport History’s Most Mysterious Paternity Test

The Birth of Baseball:

Sport History’s Most Mysterious Paternity Test

The question of who invented baseball depends entirely on one’s definition of “baseball.”  If we mean the modern, technology-enhanced and multi-national industry version, then perhaps baseball was “born” with the 1998 home run race between Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa which finally buried the ghosts of 1994’s strike.  Or perhaps today’s game is another incarnation: a post-steroids era formally begun with Sen. George Mitchell’s provocative report in 2007, or even with Jose Conseco’s equally provocative 2005 book.  Both stand as turning points in the public’s perception of America’s national pastime.  To be sure, however, these are notable moments in baseball’s history – as are dozens of others throughout the decades – yet they mark not the birth baseball, but rather the transition from one era of baseball history to another.

Abner Doubleday

Gen. Abner Doubleday.

Traditionally, General Abner Doubleday is credited with “inventing” baseball in Cooperstown, New York.  Though this myth has been thoroughly debunked (his family had already moved away from Cooperstown two years before the supposed invention in 1839; Doubleday himself never left any hint involvement in his lengthy writings; the only source for the myth is Abner Graves, who’s reliability has been seriously questioned), Doubleday is officially glorified by the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown as the game’s inventor.

When we speak of baseball as the game we know today, the closest we will come to an “inventor” is New York Knickerbockers founder Alexander Cartwright, who in 1845 codified the first set of rules which most closely resemble today’s game and which sparked a process of standardization culminating in the modern sport.

Alexander Cartwright Hall of Face PlaqueWe must first consider the evolution of baseball by analyzing earlier games with similar characteristics.  Of course, Americans and Europeans had been playing “ball” for quite some time before 1845, certainly by the 1760’s and probably much earlier.  Rounders was a common game played in Britain, and various forms of “town-ball” were played throughout the American colonies.  In fact, bat and ball games may have been played in the 14th century, and certainly primitive versions of soccer, rugby and cricket go back centuries (Block, 148).  More specifically, a 1748 letter by Lady Harvey identifies “base-ball” as a game which all “schoolboys are well acquainted with.” (Block, 154)  This letter indicates that the game was already established, a common game with which all young people would be familiar.

Furthermore, Canada was not excluded from baseball’s genealogy.  Towns across that country played an assortment of games including rounders, ball, bat and others which probably came directly from England, but which may have followed American travelers and disaffected loyalists from the south.  Records indicate these games were regional and versions could be found in diverse areas separated by thousands of miles.  Yet the few fragments of history which describe these folk games tell us little more than that people participated in some form of moderate athletic activity which included a ball.  Regardless of the particulars, American’s attached to the sport early on, with one New Yorker in 1823 calling round-ball “manly…it is innocent amusement, and healthy exercise… and has no demoralizing tendency.”

But despite the evolution which we now know took place, were these games baseball?  It is difficult to argue that they are.  We know very little about the rules, playing fields, popularity or consistency of these games.  We know that almost certainly they represent the forebears of baseball, as today’s game combines elements from round-ball, rounders, town-ball and probably many other undocumented games.  Just as the debate over abortion focuses on what moment a human is considered a living human, the debate over the birth of baseball is obfuscated by what moment we consider baseball to be baseball (how’s that for an analogy?).  A fetus shares many qualities of a human – it has cells, some organ systems, a heart, etc. – yet there is a legitimate question about whether a fetus is actually a human, even though we know most fetuses will eventually become a human.

Similarly, rounders, town-ball and even “base-ball” share many qualities of modern baseball – they’re played with a ball, they’re played in a field, usually in some circular formation, etc – yet those games lack certain fundamental qualities of today’s game.  Going deeper, the development of an embryo goes through many stages, starting with a simple ball of a few cells and adding various parts until it is ultimately birthed into the world complete.  Baseball, too, has its origins in various ball games and over time players experimented with various rules and changes until finally the game became the “completed” (though permanently evolving) masterpiece at which Bud Fowler, Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, Steve Carlton and Chase Utley have starred.

If one believes that “conception” is the starting point, one could go back centuries to the very earliest of recreational activities throughout Europe.  However, pinpointing the moment of birth – at which time everyone agrees a human is a human, or baseball is baseball – is difficult.  Though many scholars and interested parties have intelligently argued the game was “invented” far earlier, Alexander Cartwright’s 1845 codification must represent the singular moment of birth, where baseball ceased to be a variety of folk games and began its ascent to the top of America’s consciousness.

Cartwright created the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in 1842.  Three years later, he and his club formally recorded the first rules of the game, transforming baseball from a juvenile recreational activity to an established, adult sport.  Though this version would undergo many more rounds of tinkering just as a baby goes through many changes on its way to being an adult, but the basic structure of Cartwright’s game remains clear and resilient as the foundation for today.

Specifically, Cartwright’s rules call for three outs per inning, three swinging strikes for an out, foul balls, force-outs, and importantly, a four base, square configuration.  No one can confuse these simple rules for any other sport; they are innately baseball.  “Stool-ball”, a ball game from England during the 16th century bears some resemblance, as do other games, such as the presence of a pitcher and batter.  Yet these similarities have no more meaning than the similarity of golf and beer-pong that the object is to put a small white ball in a “hole”.  Many of these early games did not even require a bat, bear hands were used instead . Surely, this was not baseball.

So can Cartwright accurately be labeled baseball’s inventor?  Probably not, just as we do not call the delivering doctor the creator of a baby. Cartwright was not an artist working on blank canvas, but instead he was like a museum curator combining different artists work into a wonderful exhibit for all to see.

Generations of customs, numerous early relatives and geographic distinctiveness combined to blur the exact moment baseball became baseball.  Yet since America claims baseball as its “national game,” and many other regions lay claim to the sport, the question of baseball’s origin is not entirely benign.  Baseball’s evolution mirrors the development of the interconnected and interdependent world.  As national desire to grow and spread out increased, so too did the proliferation of primitive folk games until popularity demanded standardization.  That growth fostered competition, ingenuity and also oppressive racism, again mirroring the industrial spirit which came to define the American identity.

Cartwright’s impact on the development of the game is perhaps greater than any other individual.  His version – the “New York game” – is what ultimately came to comprise our understanding of baseball.  The peculiarities of history mean his codification is the earliest and most complete record of a specific game with specific rules.  His nascent game dominated all other version by the end of the Civil War, and anyone reading his rules would instantly think of baseball, nothing else.

Inventor? Maybe. The man who delivered baseball into the world as the strongest child in a family with dozens of uncles? Alexander Cartwright, indeed.

+Cliff Satell

Note: this essay by Cliff Satell was originally written for “Baseball in a Global Perspective” a Duke history course taught by Prof. John Thompson in Spring 2009.  It has been updated slightly.

Works Cited

A Little Pretty Pocket Book, 11th ed. 1763.

Adelman, Melvin. ”The Early Years of Baseball, 1845-60.” A Sporting Time: New York City and the Rise of Modern Athletics 1820-70. Ed. S.W. Pope. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Block, David. Baseball Before We Knew It. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005. 152-162.

Ford, Adam. A Game of Long Ago. Philadelphia: The Sporting Life, 1886.

Humber, William. “It’s Our Game, Too, Neighbour.” Dominionball: Baseball Above the 49th. Ed. Jane Finnan Dorward. Cleveland: SABR, 2005. 58-87.

Malloy, Jerry. “Sol White and the Origin of African-American Baseball.” Introduction to History of Colored Baseball, Sol White. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.1995. Reprinted in Baseball History from Outside the Lines. Ed. John E. Dreifort. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001. 62-91

“The Page Fence Giants Play the Cincinnati Reds.” Early Innings. Ed. Sullivan. Cincinnati: Cincinnati Enquirer, April 12, 1895.

19c Base Ball. Compiled by E. Miklich. 2007. Accessed February 5, 2009.

The Society For American Baseball Research (UK Chapter). Martin Hoerchner. 2007. Accessed February 5, 2009.