9 of the Most Significant Items in Baseball's Early History
Pulled from A History of Baseball in 100 Objects by Josh Leventhal, these items help tell the story of how baseball grew to resemble the game we know today.
1. A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744)
Often considered the first ever English-language children's book, A Little Pretty Pocket-Book also holds the distinction of containing the first-known mention of "base-ball." The book features rhymes about various childhood games accompanied by woodcut illustrations and some designated "moral" or "rule of life." The "Base-ball" entry includes the following rhymes (remember, the funny-looking "f" is actually an "s"):
The picture shows three boys playing a game with posts standing in for bases but no bats. Without rules, we can't know how much this resembled modern baseball or even the British game of "rounders" that emerged in the early 1800s.
2. The Doubleday Ball (1839)
The myth that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in a single, purely American stroke of brilliance has been thoroughly debunked numerous times since Abner Graves originated the story about how Doubleday taught him and his fellow Cooperstown schoolboys the new game back in 1839. However, it is because of this fictional origin story that the Baseball Hall of Fame is located in Cooperstown, New York, and it was this frayed baseball, found in a trunk thought to have belonged to Graves, that was the very first item added to the collection by the Museum's founder Stephen C. Clark. It remains on prominent display to this day.
3. Union Prisoners at Salisbury, N.C. (1863)
This picture of an idyllic baseball game actually depicts a POW camp from the Civil War. In a testament to how ingrained in the culture baseball already was at the time, Union soldiers held prisoner by the Confederacy often played baseball to keep their spirits and physique up. In 1862, Union officer and artist Otto Boetticher made this drawing while being held prisoner. The following year, it was published as a color lithograph.
4. Constitution and Playing Rules of the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs (1876)
When it was formed in 1876, the National League became the third organized baseball league. But while the other two—the National Association of Base Ball Players and the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players—have long since disappeared, the National League will celebrate its 140th anniversary next year, enjoying its status as the longest-running pro sports league in the country.
The NL was born out of Chicago White Stockings' William Hulbert's coup from within the short-lived and unstable National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. The White Stockings and seven other teams Hulbert recruited introduced business into the world of baseball, with a focus on keeping out small markets and turning a profit. Among the regulations listed in the formative documents were bans on gambling and alcohol and a provision that the team with the best record—provided they played the stipulated minimum number of games against each other team in the League—would be named the "Champion Base Ball Club of the United States."
5. Fred Thayer's Catchers Mask (1876)
When baseball first began, there was virtually no protection for the players—the fielders caught balls barehanded and catchers wore only mouth guards (if they wore any protection at all). The rules made this possible, as runners were out if a hit or strike was caught on a bounce. Also, pitchers threw underhand with less velocity. This didn't keep the game injury-free, though, and catchers often suffered broken noses, black eyes, or other facial ailments. In 1876 Fred Thayer, the captain of the Harvard University baseball team, designed a mask for catchers based on those worn by the school's fencing team. Starting in April 1877, Harvard's catcher James Tyng started wearing the crude wire mask in games.
It took a while for the contraption to catch on among the pros, where players feared that such protection compromised their manliness. Rule changes starting in the 1880s which allowed pitchers to throw overhand and required catchers to set up closer to the plate all but necessitated a greater level of gear, and masks caught on, while padded chest-protectors also began to make an appearance.
6. Umpire's Ball-Strike Indicator (1887)
For one year (1887), there were four strikes to a strikeout, and it took five balls to earn a walk (the number dropped each year from the original nine balls per walk). While the four-strike rule was clearly an aberration, it's indicative of a changing ethos in baseball.
Initially, games were thought of as offensive and defensive expositions. The pitcher was there primarily to lob underhand tosses that were easy to hit. As the rules started to allow pitchers to protect their interest more and more with side arm and then overhand throws, the offensive output around the Leagues fell. The fourth strike was briefly introduced in order to combat this.
The pitcher's role was clearly in flux that year. It was also the first time that batters were no longer able to explicitly request a pitch location. In prior seasons, the strike zone had been determined batter by batter as each player was allowed to request a general location for their desired pitch, and then balls and strikes were determined based on whether or not the pitcher met this request. Starting in 1887, the uniform strike zone that we know today was introduced.
7. World Series Championship Trophy (1888)
In the late 1870s and early 1880s, the new National League had no interest in coordinating or collaborating with other nascent leagues. Although they played exhibition games against the short-lived International Association of Professional Baseball Players, this was mostly to poach their better players, a practice which irreparably crippled the smaller league. The American Association, which launched in 1882 and fashioned itself as a blue-collar alternative where alcohol consumption was permitted, fared a little better. In the first year of its existence, the champion from the AA, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, split a two-game exhibition series against the NL champion Chicago White Stockings.
In the following years, the two leagues sent their respective champions to play exhibition series of varying lengths against one another each year. In many ways they differed from our modern World Series—they often played all 10 or even 15 games, even if a winner had been decided. The matchups were hardly even, and in the seven years that the two leagues played championship series the AA won only once. But in 1888, the World Series got a little more modern with the introduction of the championship trophy. That first trophy, which was awarded to the NL's New York Giants, currently sits in the Hall of Fame with the distinction of being the oldest existing baseball championship trophy.
8. Spalding World Tour Banquet Program (1889)
In the late 19th and early 20th century, Albert G. Spalding was one of the most influential figures in baseball. After a successful playing career, Spalding retired from the field in 1878 to serve as the president and part owner of the White Stockings and focus on the A. G. Spalding Sporting Goods Company.
In an effort to promote the game and his new business venture, Spalding decided to bring baseball to the rest of the world with a promotional tour. Following the 1888 season, Spalding's White Stockings and a group of All-Stars from other teams took to the road. Starting in Chicago, the tour first played a series of exhibition games across the country before embarking from San Francisco on an international leg. They played games in New Zealand, Australia, modern-day Sri Lanka, Egypt, and all around Europe for several months. Upon their return to the States, the teams were celebrated with a prominent banquet in New York and then again in Chicago after playing their way around the Northeast.
9. Contract for the Formation of the American League (1900)
In 1899, Byron Johnson served as the president of a regional minor league called the Western League. That year, he announced that it would disband and reform as the American League of Professional Base Ball Clubs. It was intended as a direct challenger to the NL, which had contracted from 12 teams to eight just a few years before, leaving lots of high-caliber talent unemployed.
At first, Johnson tried to make nice with the NL, offering to sign an agreement in 1900 that would require both leagues to respect each other's contracts. This offer was rejected by the NL and a rivalry ensued. The AL started moving teams into cities already occupied by the NL and, without a salary cap like the older league, started poaching star players.
For a few years, the attendance began to tip in the AL's favor as the NL frantically brought futile lawsuits against the upstart league. Finally, following the 1903 season, the NL agreed to peace and even offered to merge the two leagues. The AL declined, preferring to coexist as equal major leagues.