1874 Tim Murname Cabinet Photo of Philadelphia Athletics

1874 Tim Murname Cabinet Photo of Philadelphia Athletics

Origins of the Game

1845 - 1879

"Baseball... it is America's game... It is our game."

Walt Whitman, 1887

Origins of the Game

1845 - 1879

When men began playing baseball regularly in the 1840s, they were often regarded strangely. In antebellum America, they were expected to work hard, raise a family, and worship their creator. Games were for children. Yet, as fewer men tilled the fields and more worked in cities, many adults looked to athletic games to provide them with outdoor athletic and social activities.

The game we know as baseball evolved gradually from a number of older European bat and ball games in the New York area. There were a few organized clubs before the 1840s, but the first to leave a distinct trail was the Knickerbockers of New York, who gathered two days each week during fair weather, chose up sides, and played a game whose basic rules were committed to writing in 1845.

In the early 1850s other clubs, most prominently the Eagles and Gothams, were organized, and occasionally intra-club matches were arranged and often followed by a social gathering equal in importance to the action on the field. In the five years preceding the start of the Civil War, baseball exploded in popularity and dozens of clubs were organized in New York and Brooklyn. Games took place more frequently and were mainly an amateur sport played by young gentlemen, but the mood of friendly camaraderie sometimes yielded to intense and occasionally bitter competition.

A banner year for the sport came in 1860, when its popularity spread outside of New York. The Excelsiors of Brooklyn toured upstate New York, bringing top-flight baseball to the hinterlands for the first time. The 1860s saw Hall of Fame pitcher William Arthur “Candy” Cummings, as a boy, create the curveball by practicing on circular seashells at the beach. With his deceptive curveball, Cummings broke the time-honored role of the pitcher as supportive server and helped the Brooklyn Stars win four consecutive championships later in the decade.

Although the Civil War put a damper on all sports, baseball still was being played for no other reason than to provide soldiers a respite between battles. At the end of the conflict, baseball fever reignited and the game expanded beyond the New York area as far west as Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis, and even San Francisco. Cincinnati’s Red Stockings were a powerful team comprised principally of Easterners and captained by English-born Harry Wright, baseball’s first great field captain. His 1869 Red Stockings — the game’s first all-professional (that is, paid) team — toured the country, venturing as far as California. Their games were covered by newspapers nationally, and they emerged without a loss.

During the postwar years, baseball was dominated by salaried players who, until professionalism was legalized in December 1868, pretended to be amateurs, although they fooled no one. By 1871, the amateurs and professionals realized they could not continue under the existing National Association, and the professionals formed the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, baseball’s first professional league.

The loosely run professional association lasted only five years. Though the game continued to expand, the association was plagued by gambling, contract-breaking players who jumped from one team to another (distainly referred to as “revolvers” in the press), and a plethora of weak franchises. In 1876, Chicago White Stockings President William Hulbert spearheaded the formation of the National League, an organization that would prove stronger and more respectable than the ineffective National Association. That league, our “senior circuit,” had staying power and still exists to this day.

The National League was not an immediate success. At the end of its first season, Hulbert expelled the New York and Philadelphia clubs for failing to complete their schedules. An embarrassing scandal in 1877, in which Louisville players were paid to throw games, hurt the game’s image. Still, by 1880 the league had survived five seasons, fans (named for “fanatics”) from coast to coast paid to see their favorite teams in rickety ballparks. Baseball was clearly established as America’s national game.

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  • <p>In 1834 Robin Carver’s <i>The Book of Sports...
  • <p>This pastoral illustration from Charles...
  • 1845

    In 1834 Robin Carver’s The Book of Sports was the first publication to feature a baseball illustration that shows the game as uniquely American. The illustration is titled “Playing Ball,” and it shows a group of boys playing ball on a baseball diamond at the Boston Common.

  • <p>In 1834 Robin Carver’s <i>The Book of Sports...
  • 1858

    A three game series between all star teams from Brooklyn and New York draws large crowds to the Fashion Course Race Track on Long Island. For the first time, spectators are required to pay an admission fee to see the game.

  • <p>1859 Constitution and By-Laws of the National...
  • <p>James Creighton cabinet photo</p>
  • 1860

    The Excelsiors of Brooklyn tour upstate New York, the first time a club had taken an extended tour. Later that summer, the final game of the championship series between the Excelsiors and Atlantics ends in a row after a disputed umpire’s call.

  • <p>1860s George Wright print</p>
  • <p>This Woodcut featuring the Brooklyn Atlantics...
  • <p>Shiloh ball</p>
  • <p>Wilmington Quicksteps Trophy Bat from July 14...
  • 1863

    William Arthur “Candy” Cummings develops early curveball by pitching circular seashells at the beach.

  • <p>1867 Nationals of Albany triple plate album...
  • <p>1866 Trophy Ball</p>
  • 1867

    The National Club of Washington, with great fanfare and Henry Chadwick in tow, tours the Midwest by rail, bringing top flight baseball westward for the first time. Baseball growing fan base (short for "fanatics") follow the team’s exploits through the columns penned by Chadwick, the nation’s first baseball beat writer. The Nationals’ only loss is to the Forest City Club of Rockford, whose pitcher is 17-year-old Albert Spalding.

  • <p>1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings cabinet card...
  • 1869

    The all-professional Cincinnati Red Stockings, led by Harry Wright, baseball’s first great field manager, tour the United States and complete their season without a loss.

  • <p>Letter from George Wright to John T. Kavanagh...
  • <p>1870s Harry Wright cabinet card</p>
  • 1871

    The National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, baseball’s first professional league, is formed. The Athletics of Philadelphia win the first championship.

  • <p>Washburn and Moen <i>Barb Fence Armor</i>...
  • 1874

    The Boston Red Stockings and Philadelphia Athletics travel to England to demonstrate the game of baseball in Europe. The English are very eager to see the Americans play cricket but only mildly interested in baseball.

  • <p>This 1875 Philadelphia White Stocking contract...
  • <p>1874 Murnane cabinet photo of Philadelphia...
  • 1876

    The National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs is formed under the leadership of William Hulbert, President of the Chicago White Stockings. The structure of the new league is far superior to that of the weak National Association and sets the foundation for the administration of modern baseball.

  • <p>In 1877 professional baseball was rocked by...
  • <p>In 1877 professional baseball was rocked by...
  • <p>In 1877 professional baseball was rocked by...
Origins of the GameOur National PastimeFrom Dead Ball to Live BallBabe Ruth and the Long BallFrom the Ballfields to the Battlefields

Why is baseball universally considered our National Pastime? Some say the game, at its apex, often achieves something lofty. However expressed, we all can agree that baseball, with its deep American roots, touches us all.



When a baseball player uses the main tool of his trade, the baseball bat, he is gripping the most important single weapon in his arsenal. Each is customized to a certain weight, length, and feel. This exhibit features the bats used by some of baseball’s greats during their professional career.