Thursday, May. 23, 2019

Early History of Baseball

By Robert L. Harrison · October 19, 2018

Swedish immigrants playing baseball in Mill Valley on the Fourth of July, 1905 <span>&copy; Anne T. Kent Room </span>

Swedish immigrants playing baseball in Mill Valley on the Fourth of July, 1905


A member of the Hitchcock Military Academy baseball team, San Rafael, circa 1907 <span>&copy; Anne T. Kent Room </span> Chinese baseball team at San Quentin State Prison, dressed in Los Angeles uniforms, circa 1915 <span>&copy; Anne T. Kent Room </span> Baseball game played during the 2nd annual May Day celebrations at the Tamalpais Centre in Kentfield, May 1910 <span>&copy; Anne T. Kent Room </span>

Please Note: A previous version of this article was initially published.

Baseball is nearly as old as America.  A version of the game was played in the early 1800s. Not only has baseball grown up with the Country, in many ways, it mimics many of the positive features of the American culture.  The game was adopted by newly arrived immigrants and offered them great opportunity to succeed.  The useful and ubiquitous baseball cap is worn around the world for sporting events and causes of all description.  Baseball has been celebrated in music, poetry and the movies. 

The object of Baseball is winning but not by doing unnecessary physical harm to your opponent.  Its name is from its marque feature: the “base”, where a player is safe from the perils of a route to “home”.  It includes plays known as the “sacrifice” and the “bunt”.  Baseball’s most aggressive play, the “homerun”, occurs when the batter hits the ball as far as possible and scores a run by sprinting around the bases and returning safely to home.     

Abner Doubleday is often given credit for dreaming up the game of baseball in 1839 while at West Point.  He went on to become a Civil War hero and was said to encourage the game to his troops.  It is now clear that baseball in some form was being played long before Doubleday’s dreams as a cadet.

The first documented references to a game of baseball are thought to have been on April 23, 1823 in The National Advocate and the rival New-York Gazette and General Advertiser.  The articles referred to the Saturday games of “base ball” being played at the corner of Broadway and 8th Street in lower Manhattan.  In 1823 this corner would have been pasture land.

Rules for a game somewhat akin to the modern baseball were first developed by the New York Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in 1845.  These rules included a field with a diamond, foul lines, three strikes and you’re out and making outs by tagging rather than hitting the runner with a thrown ball.   

In 1851 the first references to baseball in the Bay Area appeared in the February 4thissue of the California Courier.  The Courier opined, “The plaza [Portsmouth Square] has at last been turned to some account by our citizens.  Yesterday quite a crowd collected upon it, to take part in and witness a game of ball, many taking a hand.  We are better pleased at it than to witness the crowds in the gambling saloons which surround the square.”

Two days later the Daily Alta California reported, “Base Ball – This is becoming quite popular among our sporting gentry, who have an exercise upon the plaza nearly every day.  This is certainly better amusement than ‘bucking’ and if no windows or heads are broken will prove much more profitable.”

The Laws of Base Ball, which some historians consider the “Magna Carta” of the game, were written in 1857. The rules were agreed to in a convention called by the Knickerbocker Club.  Important rules which are still in use today include: nine players on a side; nine innings to game; and 90 feet between the bases.  The original handwritten version of the Laws of Base Ball is currently on display at the Library of Congress through June 2019.

In 1858, shortly following the “Laws”, the concept of a strike zone and called strikes was instituted. Prior to that change games could be unduly extended as there was no incentive for the batter to swing at a pitch, even if it was perfectly hittable. 

The game grew enormously through the last half of the nineteenth century.  In 1858 the Daily Alta reprinted an article from the New York Times, “The readers of the Times must have noticed the extraordinary increase of attention lately on the part of the public to base ball and cricket playing”  

In 1860 the Sacramento Daily Union published a game box score quite similar to the modern version.  The Union’s box score listed the players by batting order and field position, the same nine field positions of today’s game.  The number of runs and outs were the only statistics shown for each player.  The result of the game was San Francisco Eagles 31, Sacramento Club 17.

The first reference to a north bay baseball club was in the April 25, 1861 Sonoma Democrat report: “A base-ball club has been organized at Santa Rosa”.  The Marin Journal reported on a game played in San Rafael on July 21, 1867 between two San Francisco teams.   The Journal also reported on games played in San Jose.  On April 20, 1867 the Santa Clara College Originals beat the San Jose Atlas 62 to 27. 

The early games frequently resulted in a higher score and a longer game time than is typical today.  This was due in part to the pitcher not being penalized for throwing countless unhittable balls to the batter.  There was no “walk” rule in the early games.  In 1863 a system of “called balls”, pitches not within the strike zone, was recognized to limit this pitching technique.  Initially the new rule allowed the batter to walk to first base after nine pitches were called outside the strike zone.  By 1889 the modern four ball walk rule was instituted.

Baseball was no doubt being played by Marin teams in the 1860s but there is no reference to a local team until October 23, 1869 when the Marin Journal reported, “Base Ball Club – A base ball club was organized in this place on Tuesday night last.”   In the 1870s additional teams were organized in San Rafael and others soon appeared all over Marin including:  Tomales; Nicasio; Sausalito; Mill Valley; Novato and the Ross Valley.

With the growth of the game it was inevitable that paid professional teams would arise.  The Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first “all-professional” team, emerged in 1869.  The Red Stockings visited San Francisco and played local teams in September 1869, a major event in the Bay Area’s baseball history.  By 1876 the professional National League was created with eight teams from Boston to St. Louis.  The rival American League formed in 1900. Baseball’s “modern era” began in 1903 when the National Baseball Commission was created.  The first major league “World Series” was played in October that year with Boston of the American League beating Pittsburgh of the National League.

Marin County had little contact with major league teams until 1958 with the arrival of the Giants in San Francisco.  However, the county did enjoy play by some well-known major leaguers.  Babe Ruth played in a game at Point Reyes Station in 1926.  The team from Point Reyes featured Marin resident and Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Gomez.  Gomez lived in Fairfax, and later in Novato, died in Greenbrae and was buried in San Rafael in 1989. 

There have been fifteen major league players born in Marin.  The most notable among them was Sam Chapman of Tiburon. The one-time American League All-Star played for the Philadelphia Athletics  from 1938 until 1951.      

Baseball, whether professional or amateur, continues today as it has for 200 years as a healthy form of Summer time exercise and/or entertainment for all ages.  In 1856 there was good reason that the New York Mercury newspaper termed the game the “national pastime”.

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8 Comments

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Sierra Salin wrote 7 months ago

Tons and tons of Baseball history in Marin. Look into Albert Park sometime or the other marin fields.  Lots of  pro players  have lived here, or tried to. Willie Mays wanted to buy a home in Sleepy Hollow (San Anselmo) and no realtor would show him a house..... Willie Macovey used to spenda  time in San Rafael,  Barry Zito built (and sold) a monster $$$ 10+mil eyesore home atop Kent Woodlands.

Really though, what is more important are all the kids (and adults)  that have played and are still playing.

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Carol Acquaviva wrote 7 months ago

So true, Sierra! I think there could be a book written about the history of baseball just in Marin. Thank you for reading!

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Judy Coy wrote 7 months ago

A little more Marin baseball history can be found here: https://sananselmohistory.org/articles/play-ball/

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Fran Cappelletti wrote 7 months ago

Great stories. Here is one I wrote about a pitcher on the 1911 Larkspur team.

http://fcapp8.weebly.com/uploads/3/8/7/4/38748005/dutch_ruether_and_his_long_and_winding_career.pdf

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Carol Acquaviva wrote 7 months ago

Thank you Judy and Fran!!

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