In 2019, Google celebrated the Fourth of July with an interactive baseball-themed Google Doodle. An anthropomorphic peanut throws a pitch, and you, as the googly-eyed food at bat—corn on the cob, hot dog, watermelon, etc.—click to swing at it.
It’s a charming nod to one of America’s most iconic pairings: baseball and the Fourth of July. In honor of the upcoming holiday, here’s a look at how it came to be.
The Old Ball Game
America’s relationship to England during the antebellum period was a little idiosyncratic. The Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 were still fresh enough in memory that many Americans of British descent still felt less than warm toward their homeland, but the two countries’ cultures remained intertwined.
“The era of Anglo-American amity had not yet dawned; our country’s spiritual separation from the Mother Country … was still in process,” historian John Thorn wrote in Total Baseball. “And having baseball to rival and replace cricket was an important step in that process.”
The push to establish baseball as America’s national pastime began before the Civil War, and by the early 20th century, a creation myth had been born: Union general Abner Doubleday had purportedly invented the sport in Cooperstown, New York, circa 1839. It would later come to light that Doubleday had had little to no association with baseball at all; the sport likely just evolved from cricket and a British children’s game called rounders. But baseball player–turned–sporting goods manufacturer Albert Spalding and a committee of like-minded men touted the Doubleday origin story as proof that baseball had always belonged to America alone.
However misguided, baseball’s perceived American-ness made it a natural match for another American tradition centered on spotlighting—and celebrating—the division between the U.S. and Britain: the Fourth of July. Mentions of baseball games held on the holiday date at least as far back as the 1860s.
“The number of base-ball matches advertised for the Fourth of July can be counted by the hundred. Dozens of clubs will make out-of-town visits,” The Brooklyn Union reported on July 3, 1867. “In fact, it would take a column to give announcements of all the proposed trips.”
It’s hard to say how intentional the patriotism was behind the ball games on Independence Day. After all, it’s only natural that people would decide to spend summer’s biggest holiday watching (or playing) summer’s biggest sport. Whatever the case, it reinforced baseball’s bond with the nation’s birthday.
The two institutions have long enjoyed quite a bit of overlap in their customs. Take, for example, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” whose first sport-related performance occurred in May 1862 at the grand opening of a new baseball field in Brooklyn, New York. (The proceedings were followed by a baseball game.)
“They hire a band because it’s a big celebration,” University of Michigan musicology professor Mark Clague told NPR. “When you have live music in 1862, during the Civil War, you’re going to play patriotic songs. So they play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ sort of coincidentally.” By that point, the anthem, written 1814, was already a familiar fixture of Independence Day celebrations. Baseball eventually adopted it for opening day ceremonies and, later, every single game—including, of course, those that fall on the holiday.
It’s a similar story with fireworks, which Philadelphians set off on the Fourth of July way back in 1777. Baseball’s first fireworks show was held on July 4, 1909, after the Pittsburgh Pirates played a double header at their then-new home stadium, Forbes Field. As night games became more common in professional baseball, so too did fireworks—especially on the Fourth of July.
Patriotic songs, pyrotechnic displays, hot dogs, cold beer, even just being outside: Baseball culture is Fourth of July culture, and this is what sets it apart from other popular holiday-sport pairings in the U.S. Sure, millions of people watch football on Thanksgiving—but people don’t typically eat turkey and mashed potatoes on game days throughout football season, and tailgating doesn’t boast ties to the Pilgrims. (In fact, the Detroit Lions’ long history of playing on Thanksgiving began as a marketing tactic.) Nor does basketball share much with Christmas beyond its schedule.
Curveballs and Screwballs
In more than a century’s worth of Independence Day MLB games, certain moments stand out. Chief among them is Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man” speech, delivered at Yankee Stadium after the first half of a double header in 1939. That said, his tearful farewell to the sport due to ALS would have been just as well-remembered had it happened on a different date.
But some games owe their notoriety in part to the holiday—like the 19-inning battle between the New York Mets and the Atlanta Braves at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium in 1985. The game had started at 9:04 p.m. after a 1.5-hour rain delay, and by the time the Mets finally won just short of 4 a.m., the nearly 45,000-strong crowd had dwindled to about 8000 spectators. The fireworks show went on as planned, prompting a flurry of phone calls to the police from locals either vexed by the noise or worried that Soviet bombs were causing it.
Exactly one year earlier, Phil Niekro of the New York Yankees pitched his 3000th strikeout—a milestone that Houston Astro Nolan Ryan had reached on the Fourth of July in 1980.
Philadelphia Phillies catcher Tim McCarver’s contribution to Independence Day baseball history was more of a faux pas than a feat. During a 1976 game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, McCarver knocked one out of the park with bases loaded—but then got called out for jogging past the first-base runner. What should have been a grand slam was downgraded to a three-run single. “The Grand Slam became the Grand Sob,” teammate Tug McGraw joked. The Phillies clinched the win anyway.
When fans head to ballparks on the Fourth of July—this year, all 30 MLB teams are scheduled to play—most of them probably aren’t too concerned with witnessing a career-defining strikeout or a grand slam gone wrong. They’re simply there to celebrate America’s birthday in the most American way possible (even if it is a bit more British than early enthusiasts liked to admit).