The Rise of Baseball as an Expression of National Values Part One: the Colonial Period Through the Civil War

June 19, 2013 is the 167th anniversary of the first organized and recorded baseball game (1846) as well as Lou Gehrig’s 110th birthday.  Over the next few days, I will be publishing posts that analyze the importance of Baseball and Lou Gehrig in particular on American Culture.  This is Part One.


“Baseball Match at the Elysian Fields, Hoboken.” Harper’s Weekly, October 15, 1859. (

In 1845, a group of middle class New Yorkers known as the Knickerbockers began organizing and standardizing the rules to a sport that would become baseball.  Shortly thereafter, amateur baseball clubs and organization sprang up around the greater New York area.  The outbreak of the Civil War and troop movements furthered the spread of the game, and by the 1870s professional teams and organizations were promoting baseball as a spectator sport.

As baseball spread in popularity, the game itself became a representation of American values.  Promoters of the sport hailed it as a democratic institution[1] where players act “like a gentleman on all occasions” never taking “an ungenerous advantage of his opponents.”[2]  Baseball’s sensibility and reputation was opined by enthusiasts as uniquely American, and immigrants soon adopted the game through acculturation.  Its impact was felt across both class and racial lines (although leagues segregated very early on to reflect the sensibilities of society) as the sport spread through the stadiums and sandlots of America.

In times of both calm and crisis the American public has turned to baseball for entertainment.  Its star players have become household names, and baseball’s imagery and language has become part of our national culture.   American biographer Gerald Early once remarked, “I enjoy the game… principally because it makes me feel American.  And I think there are only three things that America will be known for 2,000 yeas from now… the Constitution, jazz music, and baseball.”[3]  While baseball’s rules and scope have changed over the years, its cultural impact has remanded a constant.

Long before baseball became an organized sport in the 19th century, ball and bat games were played throughout the American Colonies. As early as 1773, Southern African Americans began playing ball games on Sundays, although participation in such games could lead to punishment.[4]  More commonly played in the North however, these games, referred to as “trap,” “townball,” or “base,” were largely informal with rules that varied depending on where they were played.   Teams usually played on a square field and all batted balls were considered in play (even balls that went backward).  The English game of Cricket was also frequently played in the United States throughout the Nineteenth Century.  While baseball has many similarities to cricket, early baseball has much more in common with the aforementioned games.  However, many of the skills transferred between both games, and often skilled players could excel at both.  Historical drawings and accounts show these games continued throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries.

While baseball is often thought of as a pastoral game, modern baseball was actually born in America’s largest city.  Popular myths involving Civil War General Abner Doublebay inventing baseball and others have been widely debunked, and the history of the game is difficult to contribute to a single person.   However, the rules of the modern game can be traced to a group of New Yorkers in America’s antebellum period.  In 1845 Alexander Cartwright and his fellow New York Knickerbockers Base Ball Club wrote down basic rules for their version of “Base ball”.  Instead of a square field, the Knickerbockers played on a measured diamond field that included foul lines and formal rules on the number of strikes (three) which would make an out.  While their home of Manhattan lacked open space for games, the Knickerbockers found plenty of space at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey.  Shortly thereafter, baseball exploded around the greater New York area.  The Knickerbocker rules became known as the New York rules, and were gradually adopted throughout the region.   By 1855, twelve baseball clubs existed in New York and “baseball players had covered every grassy lot within ten miles of New York into playing fields.” [5] Although 1850s New York was a melting pot (nearly 4 in 10 residents were immigrants) baseball nonetheless spread throughout New York’s boroughs and outlying areas.  By December 5, 1856 New York’s Sunday Mercury had dubbed Baseball “the national pastime.”[6] While such a proclamation may have been premature, baseball’s impact on New York was undeniable.

On September 25, 1856 a letter to the editor entitled “A Defense of Baseball as a Manly Exercise” appeared in the New York Times.  Responding to an earlier published Times article that praised athleticism of English boys, the writer states, “During the whole of your editorial you make not the slightest mention of the American game – that of Base Ball, which here deservedly takes the place of Cricket.”[7]  The writer continues, “I will guarantee, that nowhere will you behold more manly forms” than on the baseball field.[8]  Signed “BASEBALL” the writer sells the sport of baseball as a manly exercise and as a source of national pride.  A year later, the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) is formed in New York as an attempt to standardize and promote the sport.  The NABBP would serve as the chief governing organization of baseball until the separation of professional and amateur leagues in 1871.  The clubs, making decisions democratically, would create many rules (such as the nine inning game and the strike zone) that are pivotal to today’s modern game.

The promotion of baseball by published letters and the NABBP furthered the game in New York area.  A New York Times 1858 editorial notes that a special match between the best of the New York players and Brooklyn Players was to be played at a race course in Long Island (neutral ground).  Promising seats for 50,000 spectators, the event promises and promotes a good time for middle class sensibilities and values.  The editoral notes Ladies would be allowed separate covered seating.  “A large awning will be spread in front of the ladies stand under which there will be room, with seats, for several thousands” the writer promises.[9]  In addition, despite the event being at a race track, it notes “intoxicating liquor” will not be served (instead opting for lower alcohol beer, fitting with middle class sensibilities of the time) and gambling will not be allowed.  Through the editorial, the promoter assured respectability to the event and, therefore, baseball in general.

After the match, an article was published featuring the score (22-18), the performance of the players and other details about the event.  Surprisingly, as much space was devoted to the social aspect and gentlemanly nature of the players as to the actual game. Despite rain, the paper notes a large and well behaved crowd.  After the game, the players and guests shared refreshments cordially.  The writer notes, “Judge Van Cott, of the Gotham Club, proposed as a toast: Health, success and prosperity to the members of the Brooklyn Base Ball Clubs” and the toast was returned by an opposing player “in good taste.”[10]  Lastly, the article felt it fit to mention that a pickpocket had been caught and stolen property was returned to the victims, which included a prominent attorney.  In its account of the game, the New York Times further recognized the respectability of baseball, its players, and the behavior of its spectators.  By detailing the game before and after, the Times further promoted its values and respectability.  The New York versus Brooklyn All-Star game is interesting for another reason: it represents one of the first paid attendance games in New York’s baseball history.  While charging for the game was intended to recoup fees for the rented race track, it was not long before ball clubs were charging regularly for the spectator sport.  Brooklyn’s Union Grounds would institute a fee to watch club play in 1862.[11]

In 1860 New York’s Sunday Mercury assigned reporters to follow all NABBP contests and create a summary of the season, legitimizing both the association and the sport as newsworthy.   By the spring of 1861, sixty-two members comprised the urban-centered NABBP, including clubs from Newark, Detroit, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore.  Games played by NABBP were well attended, and players from local teams became community icons. James Creighton, often cited as baseball’s first star, went on the first barnstorming tour with the Brooklyn Excelsiors during the Civil War era.  Creighton became the main draw of the tour, wowing people with both his pitching (which was still underhanded at the time) and hitting prowess.  While he was playing, there was rampant speculation he was being paid by the Excelsiors due to his superior skill and ability to draw crowds.  While uniforms and other luxuries were provided by the players, pay was something that was both frowned upon and outlawed by NAABP.  Unfortunately, Creighton would die in 1862 at just 21 years-old after rupturing his bladder on a homerun swing.  Conscious of what the publicized death might mean for the sport, the president of the Excelsiors tried to convince the press that Creighton had actually been playing cricket not baseball.[12] In an era where baseball was competing with other games for an audience, news of a star players death and perceived danger might drive away spectators or dissuade mothers from letting their sons play the sport.

By the eve of the Civil War, baseball was making an indelible mark on American popular culture.  In 1859 the nationally read Harper’s Weekly published an image entitled “Baseball Match at the Elysian Fields, Hoboken” along side an image of cricket in the October edition of its magazine.[13]  The same year, the first intercollegiate baseball game was played between Amherst and Williams College.  It was not long before the game spread to other colleges throughout the northeast.  The playing of baseball at elite academic institutions only furthered the idea of the respectability of the game.  Promoters sold baseball not only as a manly undertaking but an intellectual one, with terms such as ‘scientific’ “reflecting the rhetoric of nineteenth-century modernism”.[14]

Weeks before the 1860 election, a pro-Lincoln Currier and Ives political cartoon drawn by German born Louis Maurer depicted the political candidates as baseball players.  Predicting Lincoln (who himself participated in baseball games ) as the victor, Maurer used baseball terms such as “foul ball,” “short stop,” “home run,” and “home base” in the cartoon, suggesting a large percentage of their readers would be familiar with such terms.  The cartoon entitled “The National Game. Three “Outs and One “Run,” is also significant since it references baseball as a game of national importance.[15]  Both the image in Harper’s Weekly and “The National Game” political cartoon suggest a large familiarity with the game of baseball and its terms that reaches well beyond Northeastern parts of the country.

Although games of structured baseball were being played throughout the south and as far west as California during the antebellum period, the Civil War did much to spread the popularity of baseball.  Union soldiers, particularly those from the urban north, introduced the New-York style game to their western and southern counterparts (as well as the immigrants enlisted in the War effort).  Baseball games were commonly played during downtime, and evidence shows both Union and Confederate prisoners played the game while detained.  In 1863, artist Otto Botticher’s lithograph depicted union soldiers playing baseball at the Salisbury Confederate Prison in North Carolina. Often guards would join in such games, and journals indicate games at the Salisbury camp were quite common.[16]  As the war continued, games became less common in prison camps (whether that is due to lack of resources or animosity toward prisoners is not clear).  However, baseball remained a popular past time between troops during the Civil War.

Reflecting on the importance of the Civil War to baseball, professional player and pioneering National League organizer Albert Spalding wrote, “The sport had its baptism when our country was in the preliminary agonies of a fratricidal conflict… It was the medium by which, in the days following the “late unpleasantness,” a million warriors and their sons, from both belligerent sections, passed naturally, easily, gracefully, from a state of bitter battling to one of perfect peace.”[17] Organized baseball continued to be played throughout the war, and new rules, such as the stolen base, were added during that time.


[1] Albert G. Spalding,  America’s National Game:  Historic Facts Concerning the Beginning, Evolution, Development, and Popularity of Baseball (New York:  American Sports  Publishing Company, 1911), 6.

[2] Henry Chadwick, “The Model Base Ball Player,” from Haney’s Base Ball Book of Reference (1867), (accessed June 19, 2013).

[3] Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, Baseball: An Illustrated History (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1994), 463.

[4] “Early Baseball Milestones,” Baseball Memory Lab, (accessed June 19, 2013).

[5] Jules Tygiel, Past Time: Baseball As History (New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 2000), 6-7.

[6] Ward and Burns, Baseball, 6.

[7] “A Defense of Baseball As A Manly Exercise,” Early Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1825-1908, ed. Dean A Sullivan (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 21.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Great Baseball Match” New York Times, July 12, 1858,

[10] “The Great Baseball Match at the Fashion Course – Brooklyn Beaten,” New York Times, July 21, 1858,

[11] Tygiel, Past Time, 13.

[12] Ward and Burns, 14.

[13]“Baseball Match at the Elysian Fields, Hoboken,” Harper’s Weekly, October 15, 1859, Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

[14] Tygiel, Past Time, 12.

[15]“The National Game.  Three ‘Outs’ and One ‘Run’,” New York: Currier and Ives, 1860.  Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

[16] Debbie Schaefer-Jacobs, “Civil War Baseball,” National Museum of American History, (accessed January 1, 2013).

[17] Spalding, 8-9.

2 thoughts on “The Rise of Baseball as an Expression of National Values Part One: the Colonial Period Through the Civil War

  1. Pingback: History For Free | The Rise of Baseball as an Expression of Cultural Values Part Two: Baseball’s Post Civil War Boom to FDR’s “Green Light” Letter

  2. Pingback: Welcome to new friends: Erik Randall and Ian Mcdougall – History for Free | Hey Sweetheart, Get Me Rewrite!

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