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The early years and origins of baseball

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The modern game of baseball can trace its ancestry back into Medieval England, but not Abner Doubleday.

Abner Doubleday Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

The story of baseball’s origins is pretty simple. In 1839 in the city of Cooperstown, New York, Abner Doubleday developed the game of baseball, with the first game being held there according to the rules and regulations set down by the future Union general. From there, the game spread throughout the country, and when the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame was established in the 1930s, the sport’s birthplace was the natural location for it.

It’s a nice story, but it’s just that — a story. There’s actually no real evidence that Abner Doubleday invented the game of baseball at all. For starters, he wasn’t even in Cooperstown in 1839, but rather was at West Point. No records, written or otherwise, from in or around Cooperstown have even a passing mention of “base ball,” nor is there any significant record of the sport in Doubleday’s own personal writings. When the Civil War general died in 1893, his obituary did not mention the sport at all.

So how did a random general end up being credited as the inventor of America’s national pastime? Based on the testimony of one man — Abner Graves, who was five years old in 1839 — a National League commission declared Doubleday to be the sport’s inventor in 1908; the reason for this seems to be a desire to reject other proposed origins that would give baseball an English origin in favor of one that made it entirely American.

If Abner Doubleday is not responsible for the creation of baseball, where did it truly begin? Well, answering that question is a bit complicated. Very little documentation exists for early bat and ball games, the predecessors to baseball and cricket, for the twofold reasons that they were primarily games of the lower classes and they were often banned by overbearing Puritan governments attempting to legislate the leisure activities of these lower classes. From what little references we do have, these sports were united by the concept of a “pitcher” throwing something that the “hitter” attempted to hit with something vaguely resembling a bat, although regional variations differed in what the pitcher threw, what happened after the batter hit it, how points were scored, and what everything was called in the first place. Many of them, at one time or another, was referred to as “base ball,” even if they had absolutely no relation to the modern sport that bears its name.

The first major bat and ball game, which has become known as stoolball, dates back to at least the 15th century (and possibly as early as the 11th), and has its origins in Sussex, England. In stoolball, one player attempts to hit an object (typically either a tree stump or church pew, but whatever was handy could suffice) with a ball, while another player attempted to defend the object, originally with a bare hand, then with a bat-like object. If the ball hit the object, the batter was out. If not, then, depending on regional variation, he either immediately scored a point or had to run to another object to score (like in cricket) or around a series of objects (like in baseball). Associated in literature with churches and the Easter season, stoolball spread throughout the British isles, eventually coming to North America during the colonial era.

Within England, stoolball evolved in some capacity into a game known as rounders. Called “base-ball” in 1744’s children book A Little Pretty Pocket-Book —the first reference we have to the name in print — rounders appears to be the first documented case of a bat and ball sport played on a diamond with four bases, and has been played in England since the latter half of the 15th century. The sport has many similarities to baseball, with nine players including a “bowler”. The batter would attempt to hit a “good ball” with a bat and circle the bases, which were arranged in the shape of a square. Unlike in baseball, however, batters had to run whether they hit the ball or not, and there is no foul territory (although the batter cannot advance past the first base if he hits the ball into foul territory).

It appears likely that stoolball and rounders evolved into what appears to be baseball’s immediate predecessor, town ball. Even within the loosely-defined early bat and ball games, town ball is a bit of an enigma, for although it developed in cities in the Northeastern United States during the latter third of the 1700s and first half of the 1800s, most records that we have about the game are personal recollections of the game decades later. The one that appears to be baseball’s predecessor involved the general layout of the baseball diamond that we have today, with the exception that the batter did not stand at home plate, but halfway between home plate and first base. Additionally, depending on regional variation, you retired a runner either by striking him with the ball (e.g., in modern schoolyard kickball) or by throwing the ball through the basepath in front of him. Innings took on the form of either one-out-all-out or all-out-all-out, the former requiring one batter retired to end the end, while the latter needed every batter to be.

From 1830 to 1860, we have records of the Olympic Ball Club based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that appeared to have played their own version of town ball for thirty years. In Philadelphia town ball, every single plate appearance was either a home run or an out, with the bases not being the safe havens that they were in other variants of the sport. In 1860, however, they adopted the “New York rules,” as part of town ball becoming subsumed into the variant that became the modern game of baseball.