How did baseball develop

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Figure 1. Baseball played in a prisoner of war camp in the American Civil War.

Baseball has been called America's pastime and for most of the 20th Century, it was the most popular sport in the country. Even though baseball is an iconic American sport, it developed over an extraordinarily long period of time. It is a descendant of ball games that were played in the early Medieval period and over time adapted into a very different game. As with other major American sports, Great Britain played a key role in baseball's development.

The Origins of Baseball

In Medieval England, during the Anglo and Norman periods, there appears to have been a game played in a type of field or clearing in the woods. This may have involved some type of ball game and some have suggested the word for this game, craic, which may have developed into the term cricket.[1] The game may have been played by children but almost no records exist of how this game was played.

Another game developed in France in the Medieval period, which may have had similarities to craic, was La soule. This was a type of ball game using leather or wooden ball that would involve people forming teams in a field and the ball would be hit or kicked around. Scoring a goal was likely the objective and, similar to many other games of the day, the game seemed violent and injury was common.[2]

Recently it has emerged that the closest and oldest ancestor to baseball is a game called rounders.[3] This is a game that involves using a round bat that would hit a leather ball. The game also has four bases that a runner would go around.

The field was square rather than diamond-shaped and the ball smaller than a baseball today. Bats were also flat although the ends were round. Very likely in the 18th-century immigrants from England or Ireland, where the game was played, brought this game to the United States. By 1791 in the United States, the term baseball had been used to describe the game in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.[4] Earlier references to the term baseball exist in Great Britain in the 1740s, but the game seemed different, as it involved triangle-shaped configuration for bases and the bases were posts rather than relatively low or flat objects.

The late 18th century game of baseball was still quite different. It seems to involve one out before the opposing team would then get an opportunity to hit the ball. The batter had three attempts to hit the ball. Nevertheless, very likely the rules were not well codified and variations existed. In fact, even the term baseball was not universally agreed upon, as variations such as town- or round-ball were used.

A key development was the Knickerbocker Rules, developed in 1845 in New York. Some of the rules are still utilized from these rules today, such as the rule that baseball must be pitched and not thrown. However, many rules, such as the number of outs (21).[5] Nevertheless, the standardization attempt now began to harmonize baseball rules across different areas, leading to the eventual merger of the game.

The Rules Develop

By the 1850s, baseball had now become popular, particularly on the east coast. In 1857, a convention of clubs around New York City occurred. The Knickerbocker rules were seen as vague and the increasingly popular and competitive nature of baseball meant that the rules began to be exploited. In particular, new clubs were emerging outside of the small click of clubs in New York that had adopted the Knickerbocker rules.[6]

Rules such as bats had to be round, home base was where the ball was hit, pitching came from a fixed distance, a foul ball caught means the batter is out, and players had to run relatively straight between bases and outside given parameters would mean they are out. These and other rules advanced in this convention are still with us today and many recognize these rules as the true origin of modern baseball. Other minor rule changes followed in the 1860s. It was also in the 1860s that baseball was become commercialized, with tickets being now sold and advertisers taking advantage of the gatherings watching the game. [7]

America's Pastime Develops

Even during the Civil War, both sides were actively playing the game and some of the prisoner camps had developed baseball diamonds, with the diamond now standardized by the 1857 rules. In fact, it was Union prisoners of war that are credited with spreading the popularity of baseball in the South (Figure 1). The New York rules developed in 1857 were now becoming widespread as men were stationed in different parts of the country or were even prisoners in the South, where they taught this game to fellow prisoners and their guards.[8]

In the 1860s, the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) developed, which was an amateur association for players and clubs. By the late 1860s, the popularity of baseball led to the development of the first professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings. Even before the development of the Red Stockings, some of the best amateur players were now getting paid to play for specific clubs, indicating the increasingly competitive nature of baseball. Soon in the 1870s, other teams followed, including the Chicago White Stockings and Boston Red Stockings, and a league of professional teams playing each other was formed. The first professional association was called the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, although it only lasted from 1871-1875. With the professionalization of baseball, players now had contracts and were given strict rules to follow.[9] Unfortunately, this was also the beginning of open racism, where African American players were excluded from playing in the early professional teams. Although the convention is Jackie Robinson was the first African American player to play professional Major League baseball after this ban was lifted in 1947, in actuality several African American players played professional baseball either before the ban or as pretending to be Native Americans.

In the 1880s, several leagues were emerging but it was the major cities that developed the most popular and appealing leagues. These teams eventually formed what became the National League, which was a league of eastern cities. A Western League of western cities emerged in 1893 and ultimately became the American League. This created a situation of somewhat two major leagues that were parallel or similar to each other, although the style of play was slightly different in that the Western league was considered more novel in its style. By 1902, the two leagues signed an agreement to play each other in a World Series contest. This now formed what became the American and National leagues and conception of the World Series as we know it today.

The Sport Today

Figure 2. The Nego league produced some of the best players in the 1920s and 1930s, with whites even going to games during World War 2 in particular.

By the first decade of the 20th century, players were now becoming national superstars. This included Honus Wagner, who was adept at stealing bases as well as hitting.[10] One major difference in the game was the ball itself. Baseballs in the early 20th century were expensive, making a single ball often used in an entire game.

Even hitting the baseball out of the park required the ball to be retrieved if possible. This allowed pitchers to use this to their advantage, as they contributed to disfiguring the ball, making it harder to hit. Pitchers such as Cy Young began to dominate the game. This was also the period when larger ballparks were now being built, accommodating the much larger audiences coming to games. In the 1910s, new hitters, such as Ty Cobb, emerged and made the game now more offensive-oriented. However, the biggest event was the so-called Black Socks scandal of 1919 between the Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds. The Chicago White Sox were by far the best team but purposely lost the World Series by taking bribes.

The big turnaround though came with the Babe Ruth era, as his slugging and popularization of the home run in the 1920s now made baseball an internationally known game and synonymous with the United States.[11] The combination of radio, increased offense, and the larger-than-life appearance of Babe Ruth popularized the game to a level unseen for any other sport in the United States. This was time commonly called the "Golden Age" of baseball, as its popularity was at a frenzy level across the country. Parallel to the Major League teams was the Negro League created by Rube Foster (Figure 2). It was a league of originally eight teams for African Americans and also Latino players. Earlier manifestations of the Negro League existed, but those folded quickly. The Negro National League and Eastern Colored League formed the two mains leagues that played in their own World Series in the 1920s. Players just as skillful as Major League players emerged, such as Satchel Paige, who became a Major League rookie in 1948 at the age of 42.

Financial problems occurred soon after, however, with a new Negro league forming in the 1930s. In World War II, many African American players were older and so they did not serve in the war effort. They remained and played in the United States, where African Americans working in factories and other work increasingly came to watch their games. In effect, as World War II limited the Major League because so many players left for the war effort, the Negro league proved to be a diversion for those in the home front, including many whites. This likely helped set up the stage for the integration and raising of the ban on African American players in baseball in 1947.[12]

Since the late 1940s, television began shaping baseball. As with many other sports, the spread of television shaped schedules and when games could be played, including night games becoming more common since the 1940s.[13] Today, baseball continues to be dubbed America's pastime and with basketball and football is among the most popular sports in the United States.


  1. For more on this early development, see: Williams, J. (1999) Cricket and England: A Cultural and Social History of the Inter-war Years. Sport in the global society. London ; Portland, OR, F. Cass.
  2. For more on La soule, see: Baker, W.J. (1988) Sports in the Western world. Sport and Society. Rev. ed., Illini books ed. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, pg. 46.
  3. For more on rounders, see: Block, D. (2006) Baseball Before we knew It: A Search for the Roots of the Game. Lincoln, NE, Bison Books.
  4. For more on the emerging game of baseball in the 18th century, see: Light, J.F. (2005) The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball. 2nd ed. Jefferson, N.C, McFarland & Co.
  5. For more on the Knickerbocker Rules, see: Melville, T. (2001) Early Baseball and the Rise of the National League. Jefferson, N.C, McFarland, pg. 12
  6. For more on the 1857 convention and early rules development, see: Anon (2014) Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game. 8, 8, Jefferson, NC, McFarland & Company.
  7. For more on the mid-late 19th-century development of baseball, see: Peter Morris (ed.) (2012) Base ball pioneers, 1850-1870: The Clubs and Players who spread the Sport Nationwide. Jefferson, N.C, McFarland & Co.
  8. For more on the spread of baseball during the Civil War, see: Kirsch, G.B. (2003) Baseball in Blue and Gray: the National Pastime During the Civil War. [Online]. Available from:
  9. For more on the early professional development of baseball, see: Furst, R.T. (2014)

    Early professional baseball and the sporting press: shaping the image of the game. [Online]. Available from:

  10. For more on the early 20th-century development of baseball, see: Ritter, L.S. (1992) OCLC: 24792523. The Glory of their Times: The Story of the early days of baseball told by the men who played it. New York, Quill, William Morrow.
  11. For more on the Golden Age of baseball, see: Frommer, H. (2004) New York City Baseball: The Last Golden Age, 1947-1957. Madison, Wis, University of Wisconsin Press.
  12. For a history on the Negro league and the African American experience with baseball in the early 20th century, see: Hogan, L.D. (2014) The Forgotten History of African American Baseball. Santa Barbara, California, Praeger, ABC-CLIO, LLC.
  13. For more on the influence of television on baseball, see: Ham, E.L. (2011) Broadcasting baseball: a history of the national pastime on radio and television. Jefferson, NC, McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.