The Rise of Baseball as an Expression of Cultural Values Part Two: Baseball’s Post Civil War Boom to FDR’s “Green Light” Letter

June 19, 2013 was the 167th anniversary of the first organized and recorded baseball game (1846) as well as Lou Gehrig’s 110th birthday.  As a celebration of these events, I will be publishing posts that analyze the importance of Baseball and Lou Gehrig in particular on American Culture.  Please Read Part One Here.

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The Hall of Fame Plaque of Henry Chadwick, baseball’s iconic promoter and first beat writer who was instrumental in creating the statistics and record keeping still used in today’s game. (Source: http://baseballhall.org/hof/chadwick-henry).

While the NABBP suffered in organization and attendance during the Civil War, the end of hostilities resulted in baseball being more popular than ever.  Many veterans, most notably Hall of Fame Member and first National League President Morgan G. Bulkeley, would advance the promotion and organization of both professional leagues and interest in baseball in the decades following the Civil War.  Notable clubs continued barnstorming tours throughout the United States.  On September 6, 1867, the Walla Walla Statesman advertised a game between a local club and the Brooklyn Excelsiors. “”The Excelsiors having challenged the Walla Wallas to play a match game of baseball, the challenge has been accepted and the game will come off at the ball grounds to-morrow …Clubs will bring out their crack players, and hence an interesting game may be expected.”[1]    More than 259 miles away, the Vancouver register noted “Base ball mania” had reached its African American townspeople who were buying equipment at a local town stores.[2]  Traveling clubs from the north east as well as soldiers returning to the west and south spread the popularity of baseball beyond its pre-Civil War market.  This spread helped reduce the class and race barriers that existed in the early years of baseball, thereby allowing a wide variety of Americans to enjoy the game.  At Vassar College, women formed baseball clubs, encouraging other colleges to follow suit with women’s teams.  In 1867, the Dolly Vardens of Philadelphia were formed with a membership consisting entirely of African American women.

With the return of peace the popularity of baseball soared.  The Arizona Weekly Miner reported games being played by mining teams throughout the state on immigrant heavy baseball teams.  In 1868, historian Jules Tygiel estimates 200,000 baseball enthusiasts had attended a baseball game.[3] Books such as Beadle’s Dime Base-Ball Player and children’s fiction Changing Base were popular.  Americans were following, discussing, and reading about baseball like never before. Commenting on the era, the Chicago Tribune would call the post civil war era “the arrival of the age of baseball,” a sentiment which was shared by publications throughout America.[4]

Perhaps not a single person was more responsible for promoting of Baseball after the Civil War than Henry Chadwick.  An English born journalist, Chadwick began covering baseball games for various New York papers including the New York Clipper and the Sunday Mercury in the 1850s and 1860s.  In addition, he published some of the first texts solely dedicated to baseball using statistics and scoring methods he created. While covering and promoting the game, Chadwick served as its chief marketer.  In his Chadwick’s Baseball Manual, Chadwick wrote of baseball, “this game is fully entitled to the name of American, and it is a sport just suited to the peculiar temperament of the people of the great republic.”[5]  Chadwick held the baseball player to a high moral standard as well.  His ideal player exemplified the “beauties of the game,” by practicing good sportsmanship and refraining from cheating and profanity.[6]  He saw the game not only as masculine and American, but also a gentlemanly and analytical one.  Throughout his Base Ball Manual, he referred to the playing of sport as a scientific one, alluding that the sport was as physical as it was mental.

As a beat reporter, Chadwick’s background in cricket soon lead him to develop a way to keep statistical records for baseball.  By the time Chadwick’s Base Ball Manual was  published in 1874, Chadwick’s Box Score and practice of ‘scoring’ the games were being used by several newspapers Chadwick’s system of record keeping (commonly referred to as a box score), has become the standard that American newspapers use today to keep record of games both in an individual and cumulative fashion.  Statistical staples, such as batting average, walks and earned run average for pitchers are attributed to him.[7]  This system is of chief importance to followers of baseball everywhere.  It gives readers a general sense of how each player did in each game, whether as a batter or pitcher, as well as, makes notes of fielding miscues and other information.  These scores also allow baseball stats to be accumulated and compared against each another, thereby – allowing baseball enthusiasts to compare one player to others.

Later, Chadwick would also be instrumental in developing rules and bylaws for the new National League in 1876.  Chadwick was so instrumental to the spread of Baseball that when the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum sought to induct members into their museum, he was part of the inaugural class along with such baseball immortals as Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth.  His plaque, hanging in the museum declares Chadwick “Baseball’s preeminent writer for half a century.”[8]  Many of the statistics and record keeping Chadwick created as he followed professional teams are still used today.  In addition, Chadwick’s methods of keeping score are still used in games from Little League to the Major Leagues, and spectators will often score a game at the ball park.

With baseball’s meteoric rise in the years following the Civil War, its organizers and promoters maintained a concern for its reputation and the values that it represented.  While other sports such as cricket were still popular in the United States, interested parties maintained a focus on baseball’s American origins in Reconstruction Era America.  Chadwick and other writers focused on baseball being a game with a uniquely American character.  An 1869 article titled “The National Game” claimed, “the fact that the players at base ball unflinchingly face the dangers shows the inherent bravery of the American people and their determination to obtain even amusement at the risk of danger.”[9]  The author also notes that baseball players willingly expose themselves to danger, unlike cricket players who wear protective gear.  Despite the recognition of the inherent dangers of baseball, its origins and respectability were contrasted to billiards, horse racing, and other athletic past times.  The New York Herald considered baseball to be an “advantage to the youth of this country.”[10]  The idea that baseball could teach bravery, discipline, and strategy was marketed well by Chadwick and his fellow enthusiasts.

Despite baseball’s growth, its original league, the NABBP, was in danger.  Membership peaked in the 1860s, despite the league’s reluctance to let African American teams in for membership.  At the same time, rumors of players being paid illegally, game fixing, and rampant gambling ruined the leagues reputation.  In 1867, Harper’s Weekly warned people that players and the games were controlled by gamblers.  Despite the early efforts of pioneers like Spalding and Chadwick to maintain a middle class respectability, gambling became an important part of the game for baseball spectators.  Historian Roger I. Abrams noted how common gambling on Baseball was, particularly in Boston.  “Betting on the outcome of baseball games was an accepted part of the commercial amusement almost from its inception.  Although betting was not limited to Irish, some of the most prominent of Boston’s “sports” were sons and grandsons of Eire.”[11]  Players jumping from team to team and disorganization of teams further crippled the NAABP.

In 1869, as part of a new rule by the NAABP, the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first publicly professional team in baseball history.  Organized by Harry Wright, the players were paid middle class wages and went undefeated that season.  As money continued to pour in from attendance and concessions, many other teams followed suit.  By 1871, the professional teams splintered off from the NAABP forming the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (NAPBBP) or National Association (NA).  Without its best players, the NAABP soon died.

The paying of baseball players represented a huge shift in the culture of baseball.  Previously, most of the players in the NAABP had professional careers which allowed for the leisure activity of playing baseball.  However, with players earning salaries in the neighborhood of $1,000 suddenly a career in baseball began to look like a promising profession.  In the 1870s, for example, the average miner made between $350 and $450 dollars.[12]  For working class people, baseball became a lucrative career choice, and the National Association (which had 26 teams at its high water mark) and many other minor baseball leagues quickly filled with men of all classes and races.  Immigrants such as Cuban-born Esteban Ballan soon filled the ranks of the National Association.  Team rosters and records from the era also reveal many players of German and Irish ancestry.

By the 1880s, despite previous attempts to segregate baseball, several Midwestern professional baseball teams had African players.  Players like Moses and Weldy Walker, “Bud” Fowler, and Frank Grant were team stars who were more accepted in the Midwest.  Despite their skill, black players still faced persistent racism.  Despite their obvious skill, Moses and Weldy Walker, were mysteriously barred from the American Association after playing in only a few games.  Some players, such as Major League hall of famer Cap Anson, threatened to boycott games played against teams with African American players.  Numerous unofficial reports exist which suggest white players intentionally tried to hurt black players by throwing at or colliding with them. While playing in the minor Tri-State league, Weldy Walker heard a rumor the league was planning to ban African American players.  Distraught, he wrote a letter that appeared in the Sporting Life asking league officials to reconsider.[13]

By the early 1890s, few African American players were still playing in the minor leagues. In response, all African American teams began surfacing in the 1880s.  These teams provided entertainment to African American baseball fans and still gave African American players the opportunity to make a career out baseball (although most did not earn a living wage playing ball on these teams and later the Negro Leagues). Other than the occasional barnstorming game of Negro and Major League stars, baseball segregation remained in place until Jackie Robinson broke the “color line” in 1947 by playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Unfortunately, the values promoted by baseball officials and writers soon mimicked the culture and inequality of Jim Crow laws that dominated American society during the time period.

In spite of the exclusion of African American players from its top leagues, baseball continued to captivate America.  Players  of the famous 1869 Cincinnati White Stockings met with President Ulysses Grant, thereby starting a long tradition of United States Presidents welcoming members of champion sports teams to the White House. Despite this important cultural recognition, Henry Chadwick and Chicago White Stockings owner William Hulbert still feared the National Association was still overwrought with gambling.  Writing of the National Association later, star player, manager, and sporting goods magnate Albert Spalding wrote, “the occasional throwing of games was practiced by some” and games were “scenes of drunkenness and riot of every day occurrence, not only among spectators, but now and then in the ranks of the players themselves.”[14]

While such descriptions worried owners, they had more pressing concerns with the structure of the National Association.  Unlike most industries in the Gilded Age, the players (and not the owners) had all the power in labor negotiations.  At the end of the season, players could negotiate new contracts with whatever team they chose.  Some players would even switch teams in the middle of the season, creating chaos and in extreme instances causing teams to fold.  Teams, like the Boston Red Stockings, owned by Harry Wright, dominated the association with their generous salaries and demands of discipline.  Nonetheless, owners like Hubert and Wright sought to reform the way professional baseball was played, by making it  more profitable  and curbing the negative elements of gambling, fighting, and transient players.

In 1876, a group of owners disbanded the National Association and created the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs in its place.  In their constitution, they promised to, “encourage, foster, and elevate the game of baseball; to enact and enforce proper rules for exhibition and conduct of the game, and to make base ball playing respectable and honorable.”[15] Among the rule changes were bans on alcohol sales, gambling, and playing baseball on Sundays.  In addition, stringent rules were imposed on the number of teams and their behavior.  The Chicago Tribune, excited by what the new organization meant for its local White Stockings (today’s Chicago Cubs) wrote, “Chicago people will turn out this summer more largely than they have since 1870 because they will be assured of honest games and good games.”[16]

Despite the reforms, the National League had its own set of controversies.  Some of the teams dropped out and were replaced by new teams.  Players from the Louisville Grays were banned for gambling, in violation of the new National League rules.  In addition, the same issues that plagued other American labor industries also plagued baseball.  The National League instituted a reserve clause, forcing players to sign contracts that guaranteed they would play for the team they signed with until they retired or were traded.  Players who refused to sign were blacklisted (paralleling the power of factory owners to refuse organization).  Star player John Montgomery Ward, wrote an article in response to the Reserve Clause entitled “Is the Base Ball Player Chattel?” where he accused the owners of corruption and mistreatment. [17]Eventually, baseball players would attempt to organize, forming the Players League – which did attract some star players.  However, Spalding (who took over the Chicago White Stockings after Hubert died) prevailed.  It was not until the 1970s that major league baseball players would have the right to free agency.

While the Players League failed, other baseball leagues arose in the United States in the 1880s and 1890s.  One such league, the American Association, tried to challenge the National League by promising to treat their players better.  Led by Ban Johnson, this league also allowed alcohol sales at the game and charged lower ticket prices.  Despite some star players, these leagues were generally considered inferior to other leagues.  However, these leagues did provide its hometown team with entertainment.  In 1888, Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s poem Casey at the Bat appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.  The poem told the story of a local team and its star-player named Casey.  The poem, rich with imagery of Casey and his rabid followers screaming at the umpire told the store of small town minor league baseball in the 1880s.  The end line, “But there is no joy in Mudville-might Casey has struck out”[18] shows the connection that baseball fans –short for fanatics – have to their local team and players.  Eventually, the poem’s popularity was celebrated by performances by actors throughout the United States.  Michael “King” Kelly, the baseball superstar of the time period, also made additional money reciting the poem for audiences.  Later, Kelly would be the subject of the popular 1889 song, “Slide Kelly Slide!” which warned the daring aggressive star to slide to avoid getting tagged out.

Baseball’s place as the America’s Game was secured by the 1890s.  With hit songs and poems and its every growing attendance, baseball was everywhere.  Baseball players likenesses were used to sell cigarettes, resulting in a spike in tobacco sales and the first baseball cards.[19]  Though a baseball fan might never see his favorite star in person, he could read about the players exploits in the paper and get an image of him from a package of cigarettes.

In 1901, the American League joined the classification of Major League Baseball with higher paid stars like Nap Lajoie, John McGraw, and Joe Kelley. In 1903, the American and National Leagues committed the best team in both leagues to play for the First World Series, a tradition.  That year the heavily Irish Boston community cheered for their team, led by Irish American Jimmy Collins, against Pittsburgh and their hometown hero Honus Wagner.

Historian Roger I. Abrams writes, “By the turn of the twentieth century, baseball had become firmly fixed as America’s national game. It was played by boys and men on urban sandlots and rural fields.  It was a passion that consumed much of the spring, summer, and fall… Baseball was an important part of Americana.”[20]  Baseball heroes, such as Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig would become legends, whose stories were made in to books and movies.  While baseball had controversies (such as the Black Sox gambling scandal of 1919) it continued to thrive with an audience that included members of all classes.

Since its modest beginning in 1845, baseball has come to represent America’s many values and sensibilities.  The personas of stars such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig– helped illustrate America’s virtue and the ability to achieve the American dream despite humble beginnings. Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier was a cultural event that demonstrated America’s need for change and helped usher in the civil rights movement.  Baseball’s significance on American culture was perhaps best explained by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his infamous 1942 “Green Light Letter”.  Asking Commissioner Landis to keep baseball going throughout World War II, Roosevelt emphasized that everyone “out to have a chance at recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.”[21]  Although Roosevelt believed everyone had to make sacrifices for the war effort, including the many major league players who would later fight in World War II, he also recognized the importance of the joy of baseball on the American psyche.

Baseball has continued to have a profound influence on popular culture since its beginnings in the 19th Century.  While both baseball and the United States have gone through a variety of changes, of the sport of Baseball has remained both a rite of passage and a national pastime for America and its people.


[1] “Match Game,” Walla Walla Statesman, August 6, 1867, http://www.sos.wa.gov/history/images/newspapers/SL_dir_wallawallastat/pdf/SL_dir_wallawallastat_09061867.pdf#page=3 (accessed June 20, 2013).

[2] “Base ball mania” Vancouver Register, July 27, 1867, http://www.sos.wa.gov/history/images/newspapers/SL_dir_vancouvervancregi/pdf/SL_dir_vancouvervancregi_07271867.pdf#page=2 (accessed June 20, 2013).

[3] Jules Tygiel, introduction to Baseball as AmericaSeeing Ourselves in the National Game, ed. Jane Forbes Clark (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2002), 21.

[4] Tygiel, Past Time, 13-14.

[5] Henry Chadwick, Chadwick’s Base Ball Manual (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1874), 5.

[6] Chadwick, “Model Baseball Player.”

[7] “Chadwick, Henry,” National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, http://baseballhall.org/hof/chadwick-henry (accessed June 20, 2013).

[8] Ibid.

[9] “The National Game,” New York Herald, July 5, 1869.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Roger I. Abrams, The First World Series and the Baseball Fanatics of 1903 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2003), 91.

[12] John P. Rossi, The National Game: Baseball and American Culture (Chicago:  Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, 2002), http://www.thediamondangle.com/books/rossi.html (accessed June 20, 2013).

[13] Weldy Walker, “Why Discriminate?” Sporting Life, March 14, 1888, http://www.la84foundation.org/SportsLibrary/SportingLife/1888/VOL_10_NO_23/SL1023005.pdf (accessed June 20, 2013).

[14] Spalding, 190.

[15] Constitution and Playing Rules of the National League (Chicago: A.G. Spalding & Bros., 1882), 7.

[16] “The Diamond Squared: And an Honest Base-Ball Association Born Into The World,” Chicago Tribune, February 4, 1786.

[17]John Montgomery Ward, “Is the Base-Ball Player a Chattel?” Lippincot’s Magazine, August 1887, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~Hyper/INCORP/baseball/wardtext.html (accessed June 20, 2013).

[18] Ernest Lawrence Thayer, “Casey at the Bat,” San Francisco Examiner, June 3, 1888.

[19] Ward and Burns, 36-37.

[20] Jules Tygiel, introduction to Baseball as AmericaSeeing Ourselves in the National Game, ed. Jane Forbes Clark (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2002), 21.

[21] Roosevelt, Franklin Delano,  “Green Light Letter – Baseball Can be Played During the War” (1942),  Baseball Almanac, http://www.baseball-almanac.com/prz_lfr.shtml (accessed June 20, 2013)

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5 thoughts on “The Rise of Baseball as an Expression of Cultural Values Part Two: Baseball’s Post Civil War Boom to FDR’s “Green Light” Letter

  1. Pingback: History For Free | The Rise of Baseball as an Expression of National Values Part One: the Colonial Period Through the Civil War

  2. Pingback: Poetry Friday: Play ball! | Expect the Unexpected | Hey Sweetheart, Get Me Rewrite!

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