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.
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 where players act “like a gentleman on all occasions” never taking “an ungenerous advantage of his opponents.” 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.” 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. 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.