Origins of baseball
The distinct evolution of baseball from among the various bat-and-ball games is difficult to pin down. However, it is mainly agreed that modern baseball is an American development from earlier British games, such as rounders, with possible influences from cricket.
The earliest known mention of the sport is in a 1744 British publication, A Little Pretty Pocket-Book by John Newbery. It contains a wood-cut illustration of boys playing “base-ball” (showing a similar set-up to the modern game, yet significantly different) and a rhymed description of the sport.
Alexander Cartwright had a hand in compiling and publishing an early list of rules in 1845 (the so-called Knickerbocker Rules) to meet the demands of the already popular sport, and today’s rules of baseball have evolved from them.
History of baseball in the United States
As far back as the 1870s, American newspapers were referring to baseball as “The National Pastime” or “The National Game.” An award-winning account of the origins of the game is David Block’s Baseball Before We Knew It: A Search for the Roots of the Game (University of Nebraska Press, 2005). The publisher’s description of the book notes that “David Block looks into the early history of the game and of the 150-year-old debate about its beginnings. He tackles one stubborn misconception after another, debunking the enduring belief that baseball descended from the English game of rounders and revealing a surprising new explanation for the most notorious myth of all—the Abner Doubleday–Cooperstown story.” In short, the debate on the game’s origins may never be settled to everyone’s satisfaction.
Another early mention of the game can be found in an 1886 edition of Sporting Life magazine, in a letter from Dr. Matthew Harris of Boston, Massachusetts, formerly of St. Marys, Ontario, who details a base ball game played in Beachville, Ontario, on June 4, 1838 — Militia Muster Day.
Professional baseball began in the United States around 1865, and the National League was founded in 1876 as the first true major league, quickly producing famous players such as Cap Anson. Several other major leagues formed and failed, but the American League, established in 1901 as a major league and originating from the minor Western League (1893), did succeed. While the two leagues were rivals who actively fought for the best players, often disregarding one another’s contracts and engaging in bitter legal disputes, a modicum of peace was established in 1903, and they began playing a World Series that year. The next year however, John McGraw, manager of the National League Champion New York Giants refused to participate in the World Series against the American League champion Boston Pilgrims, as McGraw refused to recognize the American League. The following year, McGraw relented and the Giants played the Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series.
Compared to modern times, games in the early part of the 20th century were lower scoring and pitchers were more successful. The “inside game”, whose nature was to “scratch for runs”, was played rather more violently and aggressively than it is today. Ty Cobb said of his era especially, “Baseball is something like a war!” This period, which has since become known as the “dead-ball era”, ended in the 1920s with several rule changes that gave advantages to hitters and the rise of the legendary baseball player Babe Ruth, who showed the world what power hitting could produce and thus changed the nature of the game.
During the first half of the 20th century, a “gentlemen’s agreement” in the form of the baseball color line effectively barred African-American players from the major leagues (though not Native Americans, oddly enough), resulting in the formation of several Negro Leagues. Finally in 1947, Major League Baseball’s color barrier was broken when Jackie Robinson was signed by the National League’s Brooklyn Dodgers. Although it was not instantaneous, baseball has since become fully integrated.
The middle of the century led major league baseball to the West of the United States and also became a time when pitchers dominated. Scoring became so low in the American League, due to pitching dominance, that the designated hitter was introduced; this rule now constitutes the primary difference between the two leagues.
Despite the popularity of baseball, and the attendant high salaries relative to those of average Americans, the players have become unsatisfied from time to time, as they believed the owners had too much control. Various job actions have occurred throughout the game’s history. Players on specific teams occasionally attempted strikes, but usually came back when their jobs were sufficiently threatened. The throwing of the 1919 World Series, the “Black Sox scandal”, was in some sense a “strike” or at least a rebellion by the ballplayers against a perceived stingy owner. But the strict rules of baseball contracts tended to keep the players “in line” in general.
This began to change in the 1960s when former United Steelworkers president Marvin Miller became the Baseball Players Union president. The union became much stronger than it had been previously, especially when the reserve clause was effectively nullified in the mid-1970s. A series of strikes and lockouts began in baseball, affecting portions of the 1972 and 1981 seasons and culminating in the infamous 1994 baseball strike that led to the cancellation of the World Series and carried over into 1995 before it was finally settled.
The players typically got what they demanded, but the popularity of baseball diminished greatly as a result of the players’ actions, and fans were slow to return. Cal Ripken’s record-breaking 2131st consecutive game in 1995 was a feel-good moment that helped boost interest in the sport. The great home run race of 1998 between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa really turned things around, captivating fans all summer. As with other times when adversity threatened the game, positive on-field events triggered a renewed surge in baseball’s popularity in America.
Professional baseball leagues began to form in countries outside of America in the 1920s and 1930s, including the Netherlands (formed in 1922), Japan (1936), and Australia (1934). Today, Venezuela (1945), the whole of Europe (1953), Italy (1948), Korea (1982), Taiwan (1990), and mainland China (2003) all have professional leagues as well (however, the leagues in Australia], Italy and the United Kingdom have generally had a niche appeal compared to the leagues in Asia and Venezuela and only now is the sport beginning to broaden in scope in those nations, most notably in Australia, who won a surprise silver medal in the 2004 Olympic Games). Israel is trying to form a professional baseball league with the help of American emigres. Canada has a franchise in Major League Baseball as well. Competition between national teams, such as in the World Cup of Baseball and the Olympic baseball tournament, has been administered by the International Baseball Federation since its formation in 1938. As of 2004, this organization has 112 member countries. The new World Baseball Classic, first held in March 2006, seems likely to have a much higher profile than previous tournaments, owing to the participation for the first time of a significant number of players from the United States Major Leagues.
The 117th meeting of the International Olympic Committee, held in Singapore in July 2005, voted not to hold baseball and softball tournaments at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, but they will remain Olympic sports during the 2008 Summer Olympic Games and will be put to vote again for each succeeding Summer Olympics. The elimination of baseball and softball from the 2012 Olympic program enabled the IOC to consider adding two other sports to the program instead, but no other sport received a majority of votes favoring its inclusion. While baseball’s lack of major appeal in a significant portion of the world was a factor, a more important factor was the unwillingness of Major League Baseball to have a break during the Games so that its players could participate, something that the National Hockey League now does during the Winter Olympic Games. Because of the seasonal nature of baseball and the high priority baseball fans place on the integrity of major-league statistics from one season to the next, however, it would be more difficult to accommodate such a break in MLB.