Unlike professional basketball and American football, interest in baseball has not been sweeping the globe. Declining participation at the amateur level and protracted labor problems at the professional level have thrust "America\'s Pastime" into an era of uncertainty. Despite this current adversity, baseball will always occupy an important place in American culture. This column starts a three part look at the history of baseball.
Most cultures have some sort of stick and ball game, cricket being the most well-known. While the exact origins of baseball are unknown, most historians agree that it is based on the English game of rounders. It began to become quote popular in this country in the early 19th century, and many sources report the growing popularity of a game called "townball", "base", or "baseball".
Throughout the early part of that century, small towns formed teams, and baseball clubs were formed in larger cities. In 1845, Alexander Cartwright wanted to formalize a list of rules by which all team could play. Much of that original code is still in place today. Although popular legend says that the game was invented by Abner Doubleday, baseball\'s true father was Cartwright.
The first recorded baseball contest took place a year later, in 1846. Cartwright\'s Knickerbockers lost to the New York Baseball Club in a game at the Elysian Fields, in Hoboken, New Jersey. These amateur games became more frequent and more popular. In 1857, a convention of amateur teams was called to discuss rules and other issues. Twenty five teams from the northeast sent delegates. The following year, they formed the National Association of Base Ball Players, the first organized baseball league. In its first year of operation, the league supported itself by occasionally charging fans for admission. The future looked very bright.
The early 1860s, however were a time of great turmoil in the United States. In those years of the Civil War, the number of baseball clubs dropped dramatically. But interest in baseball was carried to other parts of the country by Union soldiers, and when the war ended there were more people playing baseball than ever before. The league’s annual convention in 1868 drew delegates from over 100 clubs.
As the league grew, so did the expenses of playing. Charging admission to games started to become more common, and teams often had to seek out donations or sponsors to make trips. In order for teams to get the financial support they needed, winning became very important. Although the league was supposed to be comprised of amateurs, many players were secretly paid. Some were given jobs by sponsors, and some were secretly paid a salary just for playing.
In 1869, the Cincinnati Red Stockings decided to become a completely professional team. Brothers Harry and George Wright recruited the best players from around the country, and beat all comers. The Cincinnati team won sixty-five games and lost none. The idea of paid players quickly caught on.
Some wanted baseball to remain an amateur endeavor, but there was no way they could compete with the professional teams. The amateur teams began to fade away as the best players became professionals. In 1871, the National Association became the first professional baseball league.
Professional baseball was built on the foundation of the amateur leagues that preceded it. Interest in baseball as a spectator sport had been nourished for more than 25 years when the first professional league began operation. The National Association fielded nine teams in 1871, and grew to 13 teams by 1875.
The National Association was short-lived. The presence of gamblers undermined the public confidence in the games, and their presence at the games combined with the sale of liquor quickly drove most of their crowds away. Following the 1875 season, the National Association was replaced with the National League. Previously, players had owned the teams and run the games, but the National League was to be run by businessmen. They established standards and policies for ticket prices, schedules, and player contracts.
The businessmen demonstrated that professional baseball could be successful, and a rival league soon emerged. In 1882, the American Association started to compete with reduced ticket prices and teams in large cities. Rather than fight each other, the two leagues reached an accord, ratifying a National Agreement.