A Baker’s Dozen Things You Should Know About Early Baseball

Capitoline Grounds, Brooklyn (about 1870)

So far I’ve stayed away from questions of baseball’s origins or of its formative, non-professional years. The main reason for that is simply I don’t have the level of expertise to weigh in authoritatively. But with that caveat, I want to look at Paleolithic baseball in a few posts. Here’s a baker’s dozen of early thoughts on what I’ve found. Be aware that many of these comments are overly broad and are meant as general, rather than specific, in nature.

1. There seems to be general agreement that the Knickerbockers created a set of rules that became the basis for modern baseball, thus setting New York baseball apart from games with more informal rules. There is great disagreement as to who actually did them (Alexander Cartwright or someone else), how much impact they initially had, and when other teams began to use them as the basis for the way they played the game. The idea that the Knickerbockers invented the game is universally ridiculed as nonsense.

2. The best early teams were mostly centered around New York, with Brooklyn especially being a hotbed. And despite most being in the North, they were almost uniformly segregated by race.

3. Having said that, there were teams a lot of places from Boston to DC and further away from the coast.  Many had their own set of rules that differed greatly from what we might consider baseball.

4. By the mid-1850s the New York teams and rules were dominant and other teams were beginning to use the New York set of rules (founded in some degree on the Knickerbocker rules).

5. It was a hitters game. Even losing teams were scoring 25-30 runs.

6. Uniforms were already present and evolving, but neither ball parks nor equipment were particularly evolving.  Ball parks were in many ways simply large open spaces where someone stuck down some bases (That’s a bit overstated, but not by much.). There were no gloves and the primary difference between a bat and a table leg is that the latter came with a table top attached.

7. There were some genuinely excellent players and I plan to do a couple of posts on some of them.

8. There was already one great team, the Atlantic, and they also get a post.

9. The impulse to organize a league led to a loose confederation of teams and players that tried to set up a standard schedule and championship play without much success.

10. Professionalism was rearing its head as early as 1860 (and perhaps earlier) and would end up tearing apart the fabric of the earliest league and many of its teams. This would culminate with the Red Stockings, the Pike Case, and the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players.

11. Rosters were extremely tiny and apparently flexible. In following one team through one year, I’ve discovered great shifts in players and it’s almost impossible to tell that a team one year is the same team the next by simply looking at the rosters; turn-over is that great. By about 1860 this begins to cease and rosters become more stable, but not significantly larger.

12. The Civil War did a job on a number of teams and players.

13. And no where in all this does the name Abner Doubleday appear (but you already knew that, right?).


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2 Responses to “A Baker’s Dozen Things You Should Know About Early Baseball”

  1. keithosaunders Says:

    Generally I tend not to think much about baseball’s ancient past. It’s amazing to realize, though, that people in the Civil War era were playing virtually the same game that we know and love today. It makes me feel connected to those guys in a strange way.

    I wonder what Robert E. Lee would have thought of inter-league play!

  2. Kevin Graham Says:

    I look forward to this series of posts. Don’t forget about Doc Adams.


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