The Great American Pastime: Baseball, Origins and Features
At one time the words “America" and “baseball" were practically synonymous. Baseball was America’s national pastime for over a century. It was as wildly popular as video games are today. Learn about the origins and features of the game.
Who Came Up With Baseball?
Was there a founder of baseball? Many considered a man named Alexander J. Cartwright to be the “father of baseball." He organized the first team in 1840, the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club (note the spelling of baseball then). He named the team after the Knickerbocker Fire Engine Company because as a boy, he used to play a bat and ball game called “town ball" in the streets of Manhattan with the volunteer firefighters in his neighborhood.
Baseball aficionados say Cartwright developed the diamond shape of the field and the basic rules. 20 years later, captured Northern soldiers played during the Civil War and taught the game to their Southern guards.
This may be why Abner Doubleday, the Union-based Army General who ordered the first shot from Fort Sumter at the start of the Civil War is often mistakenly credited with inventing baseball. The Doubleday myth also led to a group called the Mills Commission commissioning the building of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum mistakenly in Cooperstown, New York.
Covering the Bases
The competitive game became so popular that in 1876, the best teams created the National League. The American League followed some 25 years later. Since other clubs were tempting the top players with secret payments, the “major leagues" began offering salaries and participating in the World Series playoffs by the turn of the century.
The growth of the pro teams spearheaded the creation of scorecards, programs and souvenir baseball cards. This is how the fans followed their new favorite teams and players (besides, where else would you put the stats?). By 1908, the sport had its own song. Fans still sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game" at every baseball game during the top and bottom of the seventh inning, which is known as the seventh-inning stretch.
In the infancy of baseball, batters used bats with one flat side and pitchers threw underhand. The ball was softer, too so fielders could play without gloves. Harry Wright, founder of the first all-pro team –the Cincinnati Red Stockings—invented the basic baseball uniform, which is actually very similar to the uniforms worn today.
The evolution of the equipment didn’t really catch on until the 1870s when catcher’s masks, padded gloves and horsehide covered balls came to fruition.
If you cut open an official baseball today, you would find a core of cork and rubber, more black rubber and then a red rubber coating, followed by 4-ply and 3-ply wool and cotton, under a full-grain alum tanned cowhide leather coating that is sewn with 5-ply waxed cotton thread, hand-stitched. (The alum in the tanning process turns the leather its characteristic white color.)
You might think something this intensely made would last years, but the lifespan of a Major League ball during a game today is about six pitches.
Players wore caps with team logos to keep the sun out of their eyes. During World War II, when many new products were being fabricated, they implemented durable high-quality helmets made of hard plastic.
Taking the Field
To play baseball, two teams go out on the field. One plays offense, the other, defense. The team at bat is on offense and the ones out in the field (the outfield) are defending the diamond bases and home plate. When the defensive team logs three outs by striking a batter out or tagging a runner with the ball, they change places. The team with the most runs at the end of nine innings is the winner.
Baseball etiquette dictates that the visiting team bats in the first half, or “top" of each inning. Tie games are decided in extra innings until one team outscores the other.
A run is counted when a batter touches first, second and third base and then crosses home plate without being called out by the umpire (the judge). Of course, players have perfected touching base by sliding into it before they are tagged by the ball.
There are many terms for what happens during game (the game’s jargon). The bat can be a wand, the lumber or a toothpick. Balls can be pearls, pills, rocks, apples or peas. Players earn nicknames, such as the famous George Herman who was called “Babe Ruth." He even had a candy bar named after him (yes, you can still get one today!). When an umpire thinks a player or his manager is exhibiting unsportsmanlike conduct or if they argue too much, he ejects them to the dugout by saying, “You’re Outta Here!"
Teams retire the jersey numbers on the uniforms of the greats. For example, there will never be a number 24 for another San Francisco Giant’s player, as it belongs to Willie Mays.
An Ode to Baseball
“Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt; Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt;
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip, Defiance flashed in Casey's eye, a sneer curled Casey's lip."
This comes from a great rhyming poem written by Ernest Lawrence Thayer, “Casey at the Bat". (Follow the link in the References section to read the rest of this wonderful poem.)
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