Baseball is not a conventional industry. It belongs neither to the players nor management, but to all of us. It is our national pastime, our national symbol, and our national treasure.
–John Thorn, Baseball: Our Game
No sport looms larger in the public consciousness or historical memory than baseball. Many see the sport as an embodiment of American nationalism, a touchstone uniting native and immigrant, a level playing field bound by the same set of rules for success. For others, it recalls a by-gone age of idyllic pastoral simplicity and innocence, although in truth, baseball was popularized nationally during the American Civil War and America’s deadliest conflict had important consequences for the game itself. Once a regional sport confined to New York, the Civil War exposed baseball to a national audience and became a common interest that united both North and South. The game broke down social boundaries of class and rank, providing an oasis of equality, prioritizing athletic ability rather than social standing, and allowing officers and soldiers to play as equals. Baseball improved camaraderie, morale, and unity among the soldiers on both sides. After the war, men enthusiastically brought the New York variant of baseball home making the sport a critical part of Reconstruction. Baseball emerged as a reflection of the war’s effect on the nation as a whole. As these united states became the United States, baseball was on its way to becoming a unified national pastime.
Professionalization, the Civil War and Baseball’s Creation Myth: How a Civil War Hero Became Baseball’s Founder
By the turn of the twentieth century, professional baseball had begun to take form. The first professional baseball teams formed after the Civil War, starting with the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1869; other teams quickly followed suit in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston. These teams formed a professional league known as the National Association (NA) in 1871. From the beginning, the National Association was plagued with corruption. Players would often jump from club to club in exchange for higher pay, completely disregarding contracts. Gambling was rampant as players often accepted bribes to influence their play on the field. When the troubled league folded in 1875, the National League (NL) replaced it the next year under the leadership of Chicago White Stockings owner William Hulbert.
While the National League’s early years were tumultuous, with rival leagues emerging and teams frequently disbanding, it remained largely unchallenged as the premier professional league until 1901. That year, the Western League under President Ban Johnson rebranded itself American League (AL), directly challenging the National League. At the time, National League baseball was notoriously brutal; the New York Tribune called it a “rowdy game, a riotous game, a brawling, disgraceful game, and a game presided over by umpires whose decisions are not respected and whose penalties are not imposed because players are allowed to violate the rules of the game by talking to, brow-beating and menacing the umpires.” Johnson’s league offered a “softer” brand of baseball, demanding a cleaner and more professional standard of play with strict penalties for fighting and profanity. This policy was designed to attract families to the ballpark and, by 1902, American League attendance surpassed the National League. By incorporating teams dropped by the National League and offering higher salaries for players, the American League successfully raided its rival. After a short war between the two leagues, the National League acknowledged the American League as its equal and signed a National Agreement. The two leagues united as Major League Baseball (MLB) and agreed to have their champions play one another in a World Series every year. Subsequently, professional baseball’s popularity skyrocketed attracting seven million fans annually by the end of the decade. In the same period, the World Series became the most popular sporting event in the nation, with profits soaring. Further boosting the professional game’s popularity was the emergence of baseball’s first national superstars: Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, Ty Cobb, and Walter Johnson.
The founders of Major League Baseball believed that marketing their sport as a uniquely American pastime could symbolize the country’s unity and prominence on the world stage and team owners thought that a patriotic branding would attract even more spectators to the ballpark. As Hall of Fame Pitcher, part-owner of the Chicago White Stockings, and sporting goods tycoon Albert G. Spalding put it in a letter to Boston sportswriter Tim Murnane, “our good old American game of baseball must have an American Dad.” Yet, Spalding and other owners’ desire for an “American game” found an opponent in Spalding’s Guide editor Henry Chadwick. The British-born Chadwick had long claimed that baseball was a descendent of the English schoolboy’s ball and bat game rounders. In response, Spalding wrote former baseball players and influential sportswriters requesting evidence that baseball was an entirely American invention.
In 1905, Spalding formed a “Special Baseball Commission” to settle the matter. Spalding dictated nearly all aspects of the commission handpicking its members, whom he called seven men “of high repute and undoubted knowledge of baseball,” and appointing his friend Abraham G. Mills as the chairman. The commission did no original research but worked to solicit information. On October 12, 1907, Spalding’s secretary James E. Sullivan delivered a report from Abner Graves, an elderly mining engineer from Denver, who claimed that baseball was invented by Civil War veteran Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, New York: “The American game of base ball…was invented by Abner Doubleday of Cooperstown, N.Y., either the spring prior or following the ‘Log Cabin and Hard Cider’ campaign of General Harrison for president,  the said Abner Doubleday being then a boy pupil of Green’s Select School in Cooperstown, and the same, who as [Union] General Abner Doubleday won honor at the battle of Gettysburg in the Civil War…”
Doubleday was a graduate of West Point and an accomplished Civil War veteran. He was present for the first shot of the Civil War at Fort Sumter and a commander at Gettysburg where he helped to repel Pickett’s Charge. For Spalding, Doubleday was an ideal founder for baseball. He was an archetype of the heroes that had captivated the American public, celebrated at both “Blue-Grey reunions and [nationally] in the wake of the lopsided American victory in the Spanish-American War.” But there was just one problem: there was no evidence to support Graves’ claim that Doubleday invented baseball in 1839 at Cooperstown. None of Doubleday’s diaries mentions the invention of baseball and he was already a cadet at West Point by the spring of 1839. Graves, the commission’s only source for the Doubleday myth, may have had his own nationalist motivations in proposing the Civil War hero as baseball’s founder. In his final letter to Spalding, Graves declared, “I would rather have Uncle Sam declare War on England and clean her up rather than have one of her citizens beat us out of Base Ball.” Many baseball historians have also questioned Graves’ mental stability. Always regarded as an eccentric, Graves killed his wife in 1924 after having paranoid delusions that she was trying to poison him. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and institutionalized for the rest of his life.
Despite the lack of evidence, Spalding quickly championed Doubleday, the Civil War hero, as baseball’s great founder. Subsequently, the commission published its findings in March of 1908 declaring, “First: That ‘Base Ball’ had its origins in the United States. Second: That the first scheme for playing it according to the best evidence obtainable to date, was devised by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown N.Y.”
The fraudulent posthumous coronation of Doubleday as baseball founder remains widely believed today. The Baseball Hall of Fame resides in Cooperstown, where it receives thousands of visitors every year. The adoption of the Doubleday myth was a complete victory for Spalding and the more accurate “rounders theory” promoted by Chadwick was discarded. In its place, baseball became a uniquely American invention, created by a Civil War hero and popularized by soldiers both Blue and Grey. In his 1911 history of the game, America’s National Game, Spalding remarked on baseball’s success by writing triumphantly, “Modern baseball had been born in the brain of an American soldier. It received its baptism in the bloody days of our Nation’s direst danger. It had its early evolution when soldiers, North and South, were striving to forget their foes by cultivating, through this grand game, fraternal friendship with comrades in arms.” Spalding was not entirely wrong. However, the reality was much more complicated than the myth he had created.
The Birth of Baseball in the United States: A Uniquely New York Game
Rather than the pastoral Cooperstown, modern baseball was born in America’s largest metropolis: New York City. By the 1840s, the first known consolidated rule set was created by the Manhattan-based New York Knickerbockers led by Alexander Cartwright. The Knickerbockers were well organized and promoted formalized rules for their game, emulating the more prestigious cricket clubs common in New York City at the time. Other teams in Manhattan and Brooklyn quickly emerged and sought to copy the Knickerbocker’s success.
Early baseball particularly appealed to urban immigrants from Ireland and Germany who were unfamiliar with cricket and other English sports. Many of the first baseball clubs emerged from working- and middle-class urban communities rather than in “upper crust” English immigrant communities where cricket was generally preferred. Unlike their English counterparts, German and Irish immigrants were eager to “Americanize” and adopt the new sport. As the New York Times put it in 1857, “the reproduction of the taste and habits of English sporting life in this country is neither possible nor desirable.”
While baseball had achieved widespread popularity in New York by the 1850s, its national appeal was small. Despite its lofty title, the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP), the nation’s first amateur baseball league formed in 1857, featured teams exclusively from Manhattan and Brooklyn. The only major cities outside of New York where the game gained traction were Philadelphia and Boston. Philadelphia continued to play the game in a form more in line with the older ball and bat game “town ball” than the New York rules, while Boston and the rest of New England played a different variant of baseball called the “Massachusetts game.” By 1860, the “New York game” seemed poised to remain an urban curiosity. It would take the enormous upheaval of the Civil War to change baseball’s fate.
- See the rules of the Massachusetts Game here.
- Check out this timeline of early baseball history provided by PBS.
Forged in Fire: The Baseball Boom on Civil War Battlefields
As the Civil War began, the baseball clubs of New York became enthusiastic supporters of the Union war effort. The New York Clipper, an entertainment journal that covered the NABBP, celebrated players who enlisted and urged others to follow their example: “better join in boys, than be loafing the streets or hanging around bar-rooms, and thus show the people you have some noble traits that atone for whatever bad ones you get credit for.” In July 1861, Otto W. Parisen, a member of the Knickerbockers, received a commission as a Captain in the Ninth Infantry Regiment and fought at the Battle of Antietam. Ninety-one former members of the Brooklyn Excelsior enlisted in the Union army. One member, physician A.T. Pearsall, joined the Confederate side. When these men left for the war, they brought New York baseball with them, laying the foundation for an explosion of baseball’s popularity during the Civil War.
Soldiers began playing baseball almost immediately. Regiments from New York were naturally the most active players since they were most familiar with the game. The first organized baseball game of the war took place on July 2, 1861, when a team from the 71st New York Regiment defeated the Washington Nationals amateur club, 41 to 13, in a park across from the White House. Later that month, the regiment suffered heavy casualties at the First Battle of Bull Run, losing many of its best athletes. The teams arranged a rematch in early 1862 where the Nationals defeated the decimated New Yorkers 28 to 13. These makeshift games were common and often attracted significant viewership and newspaper coverage on the home front. One such game occurred on Christmas Day in 1862 between the 165th New York Volunteer Regiment and another team composed of soldiers from various other states at Hilton Head South Carolina. A.G. Mills, one of the future architects of the Doubleday Myth, was present that day, and later recalled that nearly 40,000 soldiers spectators were in attendance.
Organized events like this helped to popularize the game among Union soldiers. Colonel Mason Whiting Tyler explained that by 1863 baseball was “all the rage now in the Army of the Potomac…[the camps are] alive with ball players, almost every street having its game.” John G.B. Adams of the 19th Massachusetts Regiment reported that “base ball fever [had] broke[n] out” as different regiments played against one another usually favoring the New York game. New York baseball had gained a clear advantage over cricket, town ball, and the Massachusetts game as the sport of choice among Union soldiers. New Yorkers took notice as the regiments from other states they once beat with ease quickly improved. George T. Stevens serving in the New York Volunteers recounted “there were many excellent players in the different regiments…these matches were watched by great crowds of soldiers with intense interest.” Even New England regiments, which usually played the “Massachusetts game” amongst themselves usually adopted the New York rules in contests against soldiers from other states. By the end of the Civil War, the New York game had almost entirely displaced the once plentiful local varieties of ball and bat games.
In most cases, Civil War baseball was played in the relative safety of military encampments. However, battles often disrupted these games. George Putnam, a Union soldier stationed in Texas in 1863, described one such incident. He wrote that a game had to be “called-early” after a surprise attack by Confederate infantry: Despite these dangers, baseball usually provided a welcome distraction from the carnage of the battlefield. On April 3, 1862, Frederick Fairfax of the Fifth Ohio Infantry wrote home from Virginia describing the specter of violence that haunted these games:
“It is astonishing how indifferent a person can become to danger. The report of musketry is heard but a very little distance from us…yet over there on the other side of the road is most of the company, playing [baseball] and perhaps in less than half an hour they may be called to play a ball game of a more serious nature.”
For soldiers, these games were rare moments of leisure from the anxiety and rigorous lifestyle typical during the Civil War. As John G.B. Adams put it, playing baseball “was a grand time, and all [participants] agreed that it was nicer to play base [ball] than minie [bullet] ball.” Consequently, officers often used baseball for official purposes, encouraging soldiers to play as relief from the monotony of military camp life and to complement training activities. They also hoped to use these games to foster camaraderie and teamwork among men who would soon be required to fight together in the battlefield. These efforts appear to have been quite successful. The Clipper reported to the home front on the “beneficial effect [baseball has] on the spirits and health [of soldiers], and how [the games] tend to alleviate the monotony of camp life…they also lead to a wholesome rivalry between companies and regiments, and augment the sprit du corps of the same, to an extent that to those who have not witnessed it, it would appear marvelous.” Soldiers on the front seemed to agree. As early as December 1861, George Lewis of the First Regiment of Rhode Island recorded in his regimental history that “many of the boys had a revival of their school days in a game of [base] ball. These amusements had much to do in preventing us from being homesick, and were productive, also, of health and happiness.” Even the United States Sanitary Commission, an organization created during the Civil War to provide medical care to the Union army, encouraged baseball as a way to improve regimental health.
Within Union armies, the demands of the Civil War had created the ideal conditions for the sport’s national popularization. By bringing together men of all social classes and cultures, the war created the perfect storm for baseball’s explosive growth. In need of an activity to boost morale, encourage physical conditioning, and develop teamwork, soldiers of all ranks and status embraced the New York game.
Southerners Embrace a Yankee Sport: Confederate Baseball
Before the Civil War, baseball had achieved little popularity in the South. Compared to its growing popularity in the North, cities south of the Mason-Dixon line largely ignored baseball in favor of cricket. Dixie newspapers commonly claimed that baseball “smacked of a ‘Yankee’ game,” and was antithetical to southern culture. The exception was New Orleans, by the far the largest city in the pre-Civil South, which had tight business connections with New York through the cotton trade and a large population of northern transplants. On the eve of the Civil War, New Orleans had fifteen baseball clubs, nearly all of which played the New York game, more than any city outside of the northeast.
The Civil War exposed many soldiers from all southern states to New York baseball for the first time and, over the course of the war, helped to popularize the game. Unfortunately, relatively little documentation exists regarding Confederate baseball. Judging from soldiers’ letters and diaries, many southerners’ initial exposure to baseball came largely in the form of watching Union men play the New York game in prisoner of war camps. Within Confederate POW camps, Union prisoners often used baseball to pass the time, with the most prominent site of play occurring at Salisbury Prison in North Carolina. Charles Carroll Gray, a Union physician held at Salisbury during the summer of 1862, reported in his diary that POWs celebrated July 4th “with music, reading of the Declaration of Independence, and sack and foot races in the afternoon, and also a baseball game.”
Baseball games like the one described by Charles Gray were common at Salisbury during the summer of 1862 and generated excitement throughout the POW camp as spectators from both sides enjoyed the game. William J. Crossley a sergeant in the Second Rhode Island Infantry who was captured at the First Battle of Bull Run recalled that baseball created “as much enjoyment to the Rebs as the Yanks, for they come in hundreds to see the sport. I have seen more smiles today on their oblong faces than before I came to Rebeldom, for they have been the most doleful looking set of men I ever saw, and the Confederate gray uniform really adds to their mournful appearance.” The summer of 1862 was the peak of baseball’s popularity in Confederate POW camps. By 1863, deteriorating conditions at Salisbury including food shortages, overcrowding, and severe winter, had led to the death of nearly one-quarter of the prison’s population. As Salisbury became the deadliest prison camp of the entire Civil War, baseball disappeared.
However, by that time, the sport’s popularity had spread to the southern press and Confederate troops outside of the camps. Confederate officers and officials began to encourage baseball in the same fashion as their Union counterparts. Dr. Julian Chisolm, a Confederate medical officer suggested that the “manly play of [base] ball,” become part of soldiers’ daily exercise. Confederate troops began to play so frequently that even Union soldiers took notice. John G.B. Adams described one such incident while at the Union encampment in Falmouth Virginia, watching Confederate soldiers play baseball from across the Rappahannock River: “We [Union soldiers] would sit on the bank and watch their [Confederate soldiers] games, and the distance was so short we could understand every movement and would applaud good plays.” This frequent play did not come without difficulty. Southerners had a much harder time obtaining baseballs and bats, having to resort to makeshift equipment. Their bats were often made of wood boards, or fence rail, while the ball “might be nothing better than a yarn-wrapped walnut.” Whether any Union-Confederate games took place on the battlefront is unclear. The only source describing such a contest comes from sportswriter Wells Twombly in his 1976 book, 200 Years of Sport in America: A Pageant of a Nation at Play. Twombly describes an incident where members of Stonewall Jackson’s second brigade encountered a group of unarmed Union soldiers. After realizing the northerners were unarmed, the two sides agreed to play a baseball game according to the New York rules. Unfortunately, no primary source exists which can corroborate this account.
By 1864, New York baseball games had become commonplace in almost every southern regiment. In the summer of that year, Confederate prisoners at Johnson’s Island Prison in Ohio organized New York baseball teams called the “Confederates” and “Southerners.” Confederate Colonel D.R. Hundley recalled the resulting games with great excitement in his diary on August 27, 1864: “During the progress of the game, nearly all the prisoners looked on with eager interest, and bets were made freely among those who had the necessary cash, and who were given to such practices; and very soon the crowd was pretty nearly equally divided between the partisans of the white shirts [Southerners] and those of the red shirts [Confederates], and a real rebel yell went up from the one side or the other at every success of the chosen colors. The Yankees themselves outside of the prison yard seemed to be not indifferent spectators of the game, but crowded the house tops, and looked on with as much interest almost as did the rebels themselves.”
Both Unionists and Confederates from all states now eagerly played and spectated New York baseball. When Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, effectively ending the Civil War, both armies played baseball games to pass the time. Southerners had fully embraced the Yankee game, providing one avenue of unity in a newly reunited, but still deeply divided, country.
Reconstruction and the Legacy of Civil War Baseball
The game that only New Yorkers fancied the “national pastime” before the Civil War was now truly that. Soldiers on both sides of the Civil War brought baseball home with them, resulting in a boom of the game’s popularity. Baseball became a symbol of American nationalism and North-South reconciliation. As the Clipper put it, “Base Ball has undoubtedly become [a unifying] institution of the [entire] country…[even] politicians are commencing to curry favor with the fraternity of ball players, as a class of ‘our fellow citizens.’” The resulting explosive growth of amateur ball clubs in both the North and South meant that interregional and intersectional matches became common for the first time.
Many Americans envisioned baseball as an embodiment of the ideals of Reconstruction. One reporter even claimed, “more good will be done in the way of social reconstruction in a few seasons [of baseball] than the politicians could achieve in half a century.” This rhetoric of post-Civil War unification quickly became central to baseball’s ethos and players, officials, and journalists quickly embraced it. A baseball reporter from the Philadelphia Sunday Mercury defended a Louisville club’s decision to wear rebel colors, grey uniforms, with an impassioned call for unity: “Whether they were former rebels or Union men…has got nothing to do with our National Game…if Jefferson Davis, or any other man who had served in the rebel cause, was to meet me on the ball field, and salute me as a gentlemen, I would endeavor to prove to him that I was one.” Similarly, as the NABBP expanded across the country, it headed the pleas of the Clipper to make “sectionalism…unknown in our national game,” by selecting the southerner Arthur P. Gorman as its president in 1866.
But while baseball promoted the ideals of reunification, the league also reflected many of Reconstruction’s failures. While the number of black baseball players increased dramatically in number following the Civil War, participation in state and national associations was restricted. The NABBP was openly segregationist, declaring in 1867 “if colored clubs [and players] were admitted there would be in all probability some division of feeling, whereas, by excluding them no injury could result to anybody, and the possibility of any rupture being created on political grounds would be avoided.” The NABBP’s successors, the NA and Major League Baseball, would maintain the color line through a so-called “gentlemen’s agreement” where owners tacitly agreed to exclude African American players. While baseball endeavored to culturally unify North and South, it would take nearly another century until the color line was broken and baseball truly fulfilled its promise to become the national game.
Catto, an intellectual and civil rights advocate, founded and led the Philadelphia Pythians in 1867. Under his leadership, the Pythians became the leading black baseball club of the 1860s. While the Sunday Mercury favorably described the club as “a well-behaved, gentlemanly set of young fellows,” Catto and his team were denied admission to the Pennsylvania state baseball association.
Throughout the rest of the 19th century, the ties between baseball and American nationalism would only strengthen. Internationally, American imperialism allowed baseball to become a tool for businessmen, missionaries, diplomats, and soldiers to promote the United States’ economic, political and cultural interests globally, particularly in Latin America and the Far East. Domestically, baseball’s connections to the American nation were enhanced by conscious mythmaking, particularly Major League Baseball’s promotion of Doubleday as the sport’s founder, and pageantry including the playing of the national anthem before games, and the presidential opening day first pitch. Baseball’s ties to American nationalism, forged first on the battlefields of the Civil War, continue today.