Baseball was not invented by any one individual. It’s a unique sport in that it was created over a long period of time by many individuals all across America. From the farmland fields to the town squares of the cities to the prairies of the west to the plantations of the south, children and adults everywhere built upon their own versions of the game with a stick, a ball, and a series of bases one had to run around before scoring.
It began with immigrants and the games they brought with them, such as rounders and cricket. These games were already evolving, and when they arrived in the new country and were played with other immigrants and American born citizens, they altered even more. Everyone put their own spin on the game, making it fit the environment and culture in which they were playing.
Rules were typically based on what was convenient at the time. For instance, if a farmer’s field had six trees in it, he may have six bases, or if there were two, one might say that the batter had to run around both of the trees before getting back to a rock that served as home base. The vast majority of people who lived in cities and towns got used to playing in town squares where there were four corners, thus town ball was born, with four bases and a home position.
Rules were also based on social norms and cultural standards. Examples include catching the ball before it bounced on the ground, which, before the days of gloves, was a way to prove how manly one was. Striking out, which was not a normal rule in the early days, was sometimes instituted to shorten a game, and make it more watchable for the ever-growing number of spectators.
Thus, these games, which many were beginning to call “base ball,” (two words,) were as diverse as the people and regions in which they were played. Though leagues began to form around the New York and New Jersey areas in the 1840s, and rulebooks began to be formalized in that specific region, people who played the game in other parts of the country continued their own versions, and many did not even hear about this northeastern style. Most Americans played as they always had, and when someone moved from one area to another, they had to learn the rules of the new region.
Thus, by the middle of the 19th century, base ball, town ball, stick ball, cricket, goal ball, fletch-catch, rounders, lapta, stool- ball, whatever one wanted to call it, was shaping up to be the primary game in America, even though it had no formalized method of play.
When the Civil War came about in 1861, men from all over the country were crowded together in camps north and south. Many had never been far from their homes before. Few understood the cultures of their fellow Americans. Playing games with them during long lulls in the fighting were ways for them to break the ice. Card games were the most popular, and betting on anything and everything. Gambling was the ultimate pastime.
Whenever the men wanted to play a physical game, it was almost always a form of base ball. How they played it and with what rules was based on what states the men were from. Those who assumed everyone played as they did were up for a major surprise, and rules had to be discussed before the games began to avoid arguments.
These games, whether cards or base ball, were obviously played between soldiers on the same side most of the time. However, the American Civil War was unique in that, though it was one of the bloodiest wars to that date, it was also one of the most “civil” in that soldiers treated enemies with a higher level of affability. There were many instances of enemy soldiers coming out of their entrenchments and talking to one another between battles. Pickets regularly shared newspapers with each other, and traded coffee for tobacco, or other goods. Burial details many times worked together, and after, sat and chatted. Others just came out under a white flag in the evening, not surrendering, but just to meet with an old friend, and sit and chat with those who were, just hours earlier, mortal enemies, and would be again in the morning. Many eye witness accounts describe family members finding one another in these ways, some locating old friends, and some making new ones. It must have been surreal to see men who had been trying to kill one another chatting it up in the evening, or during a siege, only to go back and have to kill each other the next day.
Sometimes these men took advantage of the opportunity to play games with the enemy. What exactly happened during these games has not been recorded in history, but those who witnessed them were struck by the unusualness of it.
But it isn’t as odd as one might think, if one considers the time. Of course, there is the fact that it was one country fighting itself. As many differences as there were between the people, they did share an overall culture. Also, the fighting style of the time was almost game-like. There were rules and codes of honor one was supposed to follow, and almost all did. For instance, in one battle where a now-famous general saw a white flag raise and wave, he began to ride into the field, ready to take the enemy surrender. The enemy general, rather than order him shot, stood up, ordered his men to stop firing, and called out, “That wasn’t a white flag, general! We were just signaling to our own men! Go back before you get shot!” The enemy general rode back to his line, and once safely in place, the men of both sides resumed firing.
When enemies played games together, their rules were swapped, and they spread out from there. Thus, Southern forms of base ball and cards influenced Northern forms, and vice versa.
The sides also had to do what their governments could not, compromise, in order to have a game. These compromises also became rules which sprinkled into the mix and became part of what we know of the game today.
By the time the war ended, rules from all over the country had been tried and tested together. Good ideas flourished, and bad ones, or rules that didn’t fit, fell to the side. Men went back home and played the game with rules they had learned from others in different parts of the country, and even further developed it. The popularity of it grew, and caused publishers to create rulebooks, and distributors to sell them. The rules that went into these pamphlets were a direct result of what men from all the different states had done.
As the game progressed, and the published materials were tried and practiced across the country, more revisions were made, and the game was polished and perfected until at last it became the game of baseball, as we know it today, at about the turn of the 20th century. To get there, it had been formed, tested, played and revised by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. It had come to this country the same way they had, as an immigrant who was changed by the land, the culture, and the other people who had come from their own countries. And finally, the game was formed by the most American thing of all; that most overlooked and underappreciated talent of our country, the very foundation of our being. Compromise.
Compromise made it possible to form a country made of such diverse cultures, and of such a broad scope. It made it possible to tie together such differing colonies, to create states with varying idealisms. It made it possible to stretch from sea to shining sea, and yet remain together as one cohesive nation. And when these values were impressed upon this game, they built it in the same way. It is altogether appropriate that such a game was forged during a time when the country was reforming itself. Baseball was literally reformed with it, and its invention is one and the same with the healing of our nation.
The game was not conceived by one person, not formed by an individual committee, not brought over by a single culture. It was a creation of the people, by the people, and for the people.
In these ways, baseball truly is the American game.