Why you should care
Because baseball creation stories may be nothing but “foul play.”
When the center fielder was struck down, it wasn’t a baseball that had done it but a bullet. The player, a solider from a New York regiment, had been playing ball in Texas — just beyond Union lines — when Confederates attacked. The assault, as recounted by George H. Putnam, a Union soldier, was eventually repelled, but not before the Confederates captured the player and took off with the “only baseball in Alexandria, Texas.”
There has always been lots of conjecture about the birth of American baseball, from assumptions that it evolved from colonial games like rounders or cricket, to claims that it was all due to the ingenuity of a Civil War general. But the truth is that it developed from a variety of influences and over a period of time — and, most likely, from the desire of a nation that had been at war with itself to find something to root for and share.
Perhaps soldiers who had dodged bullets didn’t relish the idea of a pitcher plugging them with a hard baseball for fun.
As for links to British cricket or rounders, George Kirsch, a history professor at Manhattan College and author of Baseball in Blue and Gray: The National Pastime During the Civil War, is fairly certain that the game did not evolve from cricket, because of different lineages and completely different rules. He also says it’s impossible to know the “exact rules” for early versions of rounders, because the game had “so much local variation.” But what is clear is that while a variety of bat and ball games were played, it was the need to boost morale during prolonged Civil War encampments, combined with the love for the “New York” version of the game, that helped it triumph as a national pastime.
Lisa R. Neilson, who teaches a course on the history of baseball at Marist College, points out that games played with balls and batlike objects have existed since antiquity. “In the sixth book of the Odyssey [translated by George Chapman],” she says, two references to “stool-ball,” a game that’s “believed to be an ancestor of baseball,” are made, in addition to possible references in the Domesday Book.
The Mills Commission, created in 1905 by Albert Spalding — the pitcher and sporting goods entrepreneur — was set up to look into a claim by writer Henry Chadwick that baseball evolved from rounders. The commission decided that Union Gen. Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839, and while that theory has since been disproved, many still cling to the tale.
John Thorn, Magor League Baseball’s official historian, writes in his book Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game, that men searching for the birth of the game “were trying to create a national mythology from baseball, which they identified as America’s secular religion because it seemed to supply faith for the faithless and unify them.” So rather than being created in a timely fashion — deserving of credit to any one game or person — baseball “wasn’t invented” so much as “evolved,” Neilson says. The conflict between North and South would eventually help filter out the preferred form of the sport as soldiers from different regions took it home with them.
Before the Civil War, Americans played a variety of ball games, including the Massachusetts Game, in which players soaked or plugged (hitting a runner with the ball) to get an opponent out, in addition to variations of rounders, town ball and cricket. The New York Game, from New York and New Jersey, boasted baseball’s first codified rules, set up for the New York Knickerbockers in 1845 by Alexander Cartwright, aka the “father of baseball” — although some question how influential he actually was. The development and popularity of the New York Game is important to note, because once war kicked off, many players from Northern baseball teams enlisted in the Union Army and continued to play the game.
In between battles, encamped soldiers, mostly from the North, played baseball to relieve boredom, stay fit and lift spirits. New Englanders would most likely have played the Massachusetts Game, but, over time, the New York Game proved more popular. Perhaps soldiers who had dodged bullets didn’t relish the idea of opposing players plugging them with a hard baseball for fun.
But another factor contributing to baseball’s dissemination was, oddly enough, prison camps. Union captives played baseball in Salisbury, North Carolina, attracting the attention of locals who came to watch, while on Johnson’s Island, Ohio, Southern prisoners played with Union guards. This use of New York–style baseball across military lines, Kirsch says, was “crucial in exporting the game.”
After hostilities ended and Reconstruction began, Northern baseball teams went on tour, in part spreading the sport’s popularity even further while also helping heal the gaping wounds of a divisive war. Baseball soon became the national pastime, intertwined with patriotism … and good old-fashioned American fun.