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Vintage Baseball Uniform


Baseball began in the United States in the mid-1800's. Historical evidence indicates that Americans developed the game from an old English sport called rounders. In spite of this evidence, many people believe that Abner Doubleday of the United States invented baseball.

Early development 

Rounders. People in England played rounders as early as the 1600's. Rounders, like baseball, involved hitting a ball with a bat and advancing around bases. Although rounders resembled baseball, there were many differences between the two games. Perhaps the main difference was the way in which fielders put out base runners. Fielders threw the ball at runners. If the ball hit a runner who was off base, the runner was out. This practice was called soaking or plugging runners.


From rounders to baseball. American colonists in New England played rounders as early as the 1700's. They called the game by several names, including town ball, the Massachusetts game, and—sometimes— base ball. Rules for the game appeared in books from time to time. Even so, people generally played the game according to their local customs. The number of players on a side, the number of bases and distance between them, and other rules varied from place to place.

Americans gradually changed the game into baseball. The earliest known published reference to organized baseball appeared in the July 13, 1825, edition of the Delhi (New York) Gazette. 

One of the key points in the development of baseball took place when players replaced the practice of soaking runners with the present practice of tagging them. Historians believe players in New York City probably made the change in the 1830's or 1840's.


The Abner Doubleday Theory. In spite of evidence showing that baseball developed from rounders, many people believe that Abner Doubleday invented the game in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839. Doubleday later became a general in the U.S. Army. He died in 1893.

The Doubleday Theory arose from a dispute over the origin of baseball in the early 1900's. A commission was appointed to settle the question of the game's origin. Many people told the commission that baseball developed from rounders. But the commission's report, published in 1908, credited Doubleday with inventing the game. It based its conclusion on a letter from Abner Graves, who had been a boyhood friend of Doubleday's. Graves said he had been present when Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown in 1839.

Historians now believe that Doubleday had little, if anything, to do with baseball. They also point out that the game described by Graves included the practice of soaking runners. Thus, it was not essentially different from rounders.


Alexander Cartwright, a New York City sportsman, is called the father of organized baseball. In 1845, he started a club whose only purpose was playing baseball. Called the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York, it was the first organization of its kind. Cartwright wrote a set of baseball rules when he organized the club. These rules, together with rules added in 1848 and 1854, did much to make baseball the game it is today.

The 1845 rules set the distance between the bases at 90 feet (27.4 meters), and provided for nine players on a side. They contain the first known mention of the need to tag runners rather than soaking them. The 1848 addition included the present-day rule of tagging first base to put a batter out on a ground ball. The force out rule was added in 1854.


Rule changes. Although Cartwright's rules and today's rules are alike in many ways, there are also many differences between the two. Following are some of the original rules and the dates when they were changed.


Length of game. Cartwright provided that the first team to have 21 or more runs at the end of an inning won the game. The present rule in which the team with the most runs after nine innings wins was adopted in 1857.


Pitching. At first, the pitcher stood 45 feet (13.7 meters) from home plate and had to throw the ball underhanded. The pitching distance was increased to 50 feet (15.2 meters) in 1881 and to the present 60 feet 6 inches (18.4 meters) in 1893. The rule that allows the pitcher to throw overhanded was adopted in 1884.


Fly-outs. Originally, a batter was out if a fielder caught the ball either on the fly or on the first bounce. An 1864 rule change provided that fair balls caught on the bounce were not outs. An 1883 rule change provided that foul balls caught on the bounce were not outs.


Strikes and balls. In early baseball, batters only made strikes by swinging and missing. Called strikes became part of the game in 1868. The National League adopted the foul strike rule in 1901, and the American League in 1903. There was no such thing as a walk in early baseball. An 1879 rule change provided that a batter walked after nine balls. The present four-ball rule was introduced in 1889 after several changes.


The spread of the game 

Groups throughout the eastern United States formed baseball clubs shortly after the Knickerbocker Club began. The Civil War (1861-1865) helped spread baseball to all parts of the country. Union soldiers who knew about the game often played it for recreation. Other Union troops and Confederate prisoners watched them. In this way, people from many parts of the nation learned baseball. They taught it to others when they returned home after the war. Soon, people in cities and towns and on farms in all parts of the country began playing baseball.


Professional baseball. All early baseball players were amateurs. But in 1869, the Cincinnati Red Stockings decided to pay all its players and became the first professional baseball team. Many other teams then turned professional. In 1876, eight professional teams formed the National League, the first major league. Eight teams formed the American League in 1900. The American League became the second major league in 1901.

At first, the cities represented by major league teams changed often. By 1900, the National League had teams in Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Cincinnati, New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. By 1903, the American League teams represented Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, New York City, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C. The same 16 teams were to make up the major leagues and play in the same cities for 50 years.


Early strategy and stars. Early major league baseball is sometimes called the dead ball era. Baseballs used from the start of the game until about 1920 were "dead"; that is, less lively than those used today. Most batters were place hitters rather than long ball hitters. Wee Willie Keeler, a leading batter of baseball's early days, stated the batting philosophy of the era. His famous motto was: "I hit 'em where they ain't."

Bunting and base stealing were more common in the early days than they are now. But since the early 1960's, there has been an increase in base stealing. King Kelly probably was the most popular player of the late 1800's. His fame came from his ability to run the bases. Fans urged him on with the chant, "Slide, Kelly, Slide."

Other stars of the 1800's included Cap Anson and Charlie (Old Hoss) Radbourn. Anson became the first player to make more than 3,000 base hits during a career. Radbourn pitched 73 complete games in 1884 and won 60 of them.


The 1900's 

Interest in baseball soared after 1900. The game soon played such an important part in American life that it became known as the national pastime. Many boys spent almost all their leisure time during warm weather playing baseball. People in all walks of life eagerly followed the major league pennant races and the World Series. Star players became local, or even national, heroes. Many people could name every major league player, and knew the batting averages and other accomplishments of players. Jacques Barzun, a famous philosopher and educator, perhaps best summed up the importance of baseball in American life. Barzun wrote: "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball."


The early 1900's. The year 1900 marks the beginning of the modern era of major league baseball. By that time, the two major leagues had been formed, and most baseball rules were the same as today. Records established by players and teams are divided into two categories: modern (since 1900) and premodern (before 1900). Career records made by players who played during both periods are counted as modern records. For example, Cy Young holds the modern record for most games won by a pitcher (511). But Young won about half of these games before, and half after, 1900.

Ty Cobb, a Detroit Tiger outfielder of the early 1900's, became one of the greatest and most exciting players of all time. He ranks as the all-time leading hitter in the major leagues with a .367 career batting average. Honus Wagner of the Pittsburgh Pirates was another great star of the era. A bowlegged shortstop, Wagner led the National League in batting eight times and ranked among the best fielders and base runners. Outstanding early pitchers included Christy Mathewson of the New York Giants, Grover Cleveland Alexander of the Philadelphia Phillies and other teams, and Walter Johnson of the Washington Senators. Mathewson and Alexander hold the record for most games won by a pitcher in the National League (373). Johnson's blazing fast ball helped him become baseball's "strikeout king." He struck out more batters than any other pitcher in American League history (3,508). He won 416 games, more than any pitcher except Cy Young.


The Black Sox Scandal. In 1919, the Cincinnati Reds defeated the Chicago White Sox in the World Series. The next year, eight White Sox players were accused of throwing (trying to lose) the World Series in return for money from gamblers. Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned the eight players from baseball. This scandal, called the Black Sox Scandal, shocked fans and hurt the game's reputation. Landis had been appointed commissioner in 1920 especially to investigate the scandal. A federal judge with a reputation for honesty, he helped restore public confidence in baseball.


The Babe Ruth Era. Also in 1920, Babe Ruth joined the New York Yankees. Around that time, teams began using livelier baseballs. Ruth began hitting more and longer home runs than anyone thought possible. He hit more than 50 homers in four different seasons, including a record 60 home runs in 1927. Before Ruth, no player had hit more than 24 in a season. Ruth had hit 714 home runs when he retired in 1935.

Ruth's fame became so great that the 1920's in baseball is often called the Babe Ruth Era. Wherever the Yankees played, fans flocked to see Ruth. Large numbers of people who knew nothing about baseball began following Ruth's career and became interested in the game. In addition, Ruth's success helped change baseball strategies. More batters became full swingers rather than place hitters, and home runs became a leading part of the game.

Baseball's many other stars of the Babe Ruth Era included first baseman Lou Gehrig. Gehrig became the first modern player to hit four home runs in a game. He also played in 2,130 consecutive games, a major league record until Cal Ripken, Jr., broke it in 1995. Rogers Hornsby reached his peak during the era. In 1924, he hit .424 for the St. Louis Cardinals, a modern record.

Many radio stations began broadcasting baseball games during the 1920's. As a result, play-by-play accounts of baseball games reached millions of people.


Depression and war. Major league baseball, like other businesses, faced economic hardship during the Great Depression of the 1930's. Money received from radio stations in return for the right to broadcast games helped teams financially. Also, some team owners installed lights in ballparks so that teams could play at night and attract fans who worked during the day. The first night game took place in Crosley Field, Cincinnati, between the Cincinnati Reds and Philadelphia Phillies on May 24, 1935. The first All-Star Game was played in Comiskey Park in Chicago on July 6, 1933. The Baseball Hall of Fame opened in Cooperstown in 1939.

The United States entered World War II in 1941. Many major league players served in the armed forces. From 1942 through 1945, teams used many players who were too old, too young, or physically unable to serve in the armed forces. The war ended in 1945, and most of the players returned to baseball for the 1946 season.

During the war, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was formed, with teams in several small Midwestern cities. Play began in 1943 and ended after the 1954 season.

The many stars who played both before and after the war included Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, and Bob Feller. DiMaggio, a Yankee outfielder, became one of the game's greatest all-around players. He set a record when he made one or more base hits in 56 consecutive games in 1941. Williams, a Boston Red Sox outfielder, ranks among baseball's all-time great hitters. He had a lifetime batting average of .344. In 1941, Williams batted .406, marking the last time anyone hit over .400. Musial starred as a first baseman and outfielder for the Cardinals. He won seven National League batting titles. Feller, a pitcher for Cleveland, won fame for his blazing fast ball and many strikeouts.


Postwar baseball. Attendance at baseball games soared after World War II. In the late 1940's and early 1950's, many teams began televising some games.

Until the mid-1940's, black players were not allowed to play in the major leagues. Instead, they played in leagues made up entirely of blacks. These Negro leagues received little publicity. But they had many outstanding players, including Cool Papa Bell, an outfielder; Josh Gibson, a catcher; and Satchel Paige, a pitcher.

Jackie Robinson became the first black player in modern major league baseball when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Many other black players entered the major leagues after Robinson.

The Yankees had become baseball's strongest team during the Babe Ruth Era. From then until the 1960's, they dominated the game more than any other team before or since. From 1949 through 1953, they established a record by winning five straight pennants and World Series. Casey Stengel was their manager.


Franchise shifts and expansion brought about important changes in the major leagues. In 1953, the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee, marking the first time a National League franchise (team) had moved since 1900. In 1954, the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore and changed their name to the Orioles, in the first American League shift since 1903. Several other teams later moved to other cities. Also, during the 1960's, the American and National leagues each added four new teams. In 1969, each league split into two 6-team divisions. In 1977, the American League expanded to 14 teams, which were divided into two 7-team divisions.


Recent developments. In 1961, the American League increased the number of games played by each team yearly from 154 to 162. The National League went to 162 games in 1962. In 1998, Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs dueled in the greatest home run competition in major league history. McGwire broke Roger Maris's single season record of 61 homers and ended the season with a record 70 home runs. Sosa finished with 66. Barry Bonds broke McGwire's record by hitting 73 home runs in 2001.

Lou Brock, a Cardinal outfielder, set a record for career stolen bases, stealing 938 bases by the time he retired after the 1979 season. Brock broke Ty Cobb's record of 892 stolen bases. In 1991, Rickey Henderson, an outfielder for the Oakland Athletics, broke Brock's career record of 938 stolen bases.

Sandy Koufax, a Dodger star of the 1960's, became the first player to pitch four no-hit games in the major leagues. Nolan Ryan of the Houston Astros broke this record in 1981, when he pitched his fifth career no-hitter. Ryan pitched a sixth no-hitter in 1990 and a seventh in 1991. In 1973, Ryan struck out 383 batters, a major league record for one season.

Baseball's many other great stars of recent years include Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, and Henry Aaron, all outfielders. Mays played for the New York (later San Francisco) Giants in the 1950's, 1960's, and early 1970's. He excelled as a hitter, fielder, and base runner. Robinson starred as a hitter in both the American and National leagues. He also became the first black manager in major league history in 1974, when he was named manager of the Cleveland Indians.

Aaron joined the Milwaukee (now Atlanta) Braves in 1954. Several players received more publicity than Aaron. But year after year, Aaron ranked among the game's leading hitters. He established many batting records. Finally, he broke what was probably baseball's most glamorous record—Babe Ruth's career home run total. On April 8, 1974, Aaron hit his 715th career home run in Atlanta Stadium. By the time he retired after the 1976 season, Aaron had hit 755 home runs.

On Sept. 11, 1985, player-manager Pete Rose of the Cincinnati Reds broke Ty Cobb's major league record of 4,191 base hits during a career. By the time he retired as a player after the 1986 season, Rose had 4,256 base hits. He continued as manager of the Reds. In 1989, Baseball Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti banned Rose from baseball for life on charges that Rose had violated baseball rules by betting on baseball games. Rose denied the charges but did not challenge Giamatti's ruling.

The two major leagues were each reorganized into three divisions—East, Central, and West—beginning with the 1994 season. The play-offs were expanded to include the division winners plus the second place team with the best record in each league.

Conflicts between the union of major league players and the owners of the teams frequently disrupted major league play during the late 1900's. There were eight strikes or lockouts from 1972 to 1994. The most serious work stoppage occurred in 1994. A strike began August 12 over financial issues and led to cancellation of the play-offs and the World Series. It was only the second time that the World Series was not played. The first time occurred in 1904. The players ended their strike on March 31, 1995.

In 1996, the owners and the players' union signed an agreement that guaranteed labor peace for five years. The agreement provided for regular season games between American League and National League teams beginning in 1997. In 2002, the baseball owners and the players' union agreed on a new contract to run through 2006, narrowly avoiding a midseason strike.

In 2004, a controversy developed in major league baseball over the possibility that some players were taking illegal drugs called anabolic steroids to enhance their performance. Anabolic steroids are chemical compounds that enable people to add muscle mass and increase their strength. No players were formally charged with taking illegal steroids, but the issue cast a cloud of suspicion over the recent batting achievements of several star players. In January 2005, major league baseball announced a system of penalties to be applied to players who test positively for illegal steroid use.


Contributor:   Donald Honig , Novelist and baseball historian.

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