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From Cartwright to The Cubs: A Brief History of Baseball

WRITTEN BY: Bella Coyne

When we think of baseball, we picture Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth; we smell hotdogs; we taste cracker jacks and peanuts-and-coke; we hear the organ music, the crack of the ball against the bat, and the roar of the crowd. But does anyone think of the name “Alexander Joy Cartwright”? Or think about the Comiskey Park incident in 1974? Or know how many cameras were used at the first baseball game? Well, allow me to remedy that, because today we’re discussing the history of America’s favorite pastime!

Baseball as we know it today is a product of two popular English games, a volunteer firefighter, and an enthusiastic American people. If we want to get philosophical here, we can point out that like most American traditions, baseball was created under the influence of many cultures and habits of other countries. Perhaps the two most notable influences were rounders and cricket, both of which were widely enjoyed sports during the time the first colonists left for America. Armed with the knowledge of both the games’ rules, colonists played them so much that they began to craft their own sets of rules. And in America’s early days, there were many variations of the game being played in town squares, school yards, and public parks. To quote John Thorn, Official Historian of the MLB:

“Clearly bat-and-ball games were being played everywhere, and many of these games must have required a batsman to notch a tally by running around bases without being put out by a thrown ball. Each of these games varied minutely from the others, but all may be termed baseball because each exhibited, in my view, the essence of the game: a bat; a ball that is pitched or thrown to the bat; two sides alternating innings; multiple safe havens, whether bases or stones or stakes; and a round circuit of such havens that scores a run”.

Now for the volunteer firefighter! Skipping ahead to 1845, when baseball had become more widespread and fairly set in its rules: a group of New York City men started the New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club (try saying THAT five times fast). One of the founding members, Alexander Joy Cartwright, was a businessman and volunteer firefighter. AJC did us all a massive favor and officially solidified and wrote down all of the baseball rules, eliminating the dangerous ones and setting in stone those that had survived the test of time. It is due to his devotion to the sport and fabulous organizational skills that we have solid ground to stand on regarding the rules of baseball!

However, it wasn’t until the 1860’s that baseball strengthened its roots as the American pastime. During the Civil War, both Union and Confederate soldiers alike played baseball in their free time. Army doctors strongly recommended physical activity in between battles, and given that the average age for soldiers in the War was 25, those strapping young men were quickly able to form teams within their regiments, playing most often on Sundays in the springtime. Baseball was at once a form of exercise and a distraction from the horrors of the bloodiest war America would ever see. The game soon spread from the military camps into the surrounding towns, planting its flag as America’s favorite pastime while soldiers and civilians alike found some joy amid the turbulence.

Americans continued to enjoy playing and spectating local games live all the way through the turn of the century and the Roaring 20’s. But, though the MLB was officially founded in 1903, baseball still wasn’t accessible unless you were in the stands or on the field; however, all of that changed in New York City, 1939. You might be thinking, hey! I didn’t think television sets were even a thing yet, let alone live broadcasts! Well, reader, you’re exactly correct. The first-ever televised MLB game wasn’t broadcast to household television sets, and it wasn’t live. It was an experiment for the 1939 World’s Fair, to showcase the new invention of commercial TVs and provide a glimpse into the future. But, let’s be real, it wasn’t all that futuristic - only two cameras were used to capture crackly game footage. One stood at the third base line, and one filmed high up above home plate, providing a wide view of the field. Both of the cameras remained stationary, reducing the bat and ball to near invisibility and the players to fuzzy dots on the screen, but for the folks at the Fair, that was enough. For reference, nowadays, the typical baseball game is filmed with eight cameras to start with: one in each dugout; one at first; one at third; three at right, center, and left fields, respectively; and one at the home plate. But it isn’t always that simple. The World Series usually uses upwards of 40 cameras at each game!

Hey! Next time you’re at a party and need to impress someone, you can pitch one of these baseball fun facts:

- While historians continue to uncover diaries and letters of men in the War Between The States that describe baseball within the soldiers’ own camps, stories have also been passed down from ear to ear about Unions and Confederates laying down their weapons and joining in friendly games during battle-free afternoons.

- On April 5, 1974, when the Chicago White Sox and the California Angels played at Comiskey Park, the security guards became overwhelmed with the enthusiastically rowdy crowd - failing to stop a crowd of streakers from taking to the field!

- Baseball is one of the most suspicious sports out there. There are countless “curses”, supposedly caused by everything from traded players, to black cats, to greed, to billy goats. The longest-running curse was sparked by the aforementioned billy goat! The Chicago Cubs won the World Series in 1908, and didn’t win again until 2016. Around halfway through that drought, in 1945, a man named William “Billy Goat” Sianis attempted to bring his own pet goat into the stadium to watch the game with him. Fellow fans complained so much of the stink that Sianis was asked to leave the stadium. As he left in a fury, he muttered an alleged curse. According to history, as he left, he proclaimed: “You’re not gonna win this one and you’ll never win a World Series again!” From then on, fans were certain. It was the goat that stopped them from winning, and they didn’t win again until 71 years later.

It’s incredible to watch baseball grow and change along with our United States. As our country expanded, settlers took baseball with them, growing our home and popularizing our sport. Through wars, curses, and World’s Fairs, baseball has remained a constant source of excitement for the American people, never stopping, even when our world was dire (like after Pearl Harbor! You can read all about President Roosevelt’s famous “Green Light Letter” here.) Sure, ticket prices have inflated a bit. The first World Series in 1903 cost 50 cents to attend, whereas today, you can expect to pay at least $1,000. (That’s a little nuts.) But for some of those die-hard baseball fans out there (like Jimmy Fallon’s character in Fever Pitch or your dad’s old pal from the “good ole days”), it’s a small price for such an exhilarating experience. It is, after all, America’s Favorite Pastime.

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