With almost utmost certainty, the sun will rise in the east, set in the west, and Major League Baseball will begin a new season in the spring. Such has been assured since 1871, as professional baseball first complemented everyday American life by virtue of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Player’s (NAPBBP) inaugural season. The formation of the NAPBBP denoted a fundamental separation of amateur and professional baseball clubs, and the eternal intertwining of sport and business. This moment in history would more broadly beget a critical juncture in the development of the modern American identity as this era of the nineteenth century is characterized by a generation of citizens who have only known an autonomous United States, thereby distinguishable as the first purely born and bred American population. With this new status came the need to comprehend what constituted wholly American values beyond just regional, economic, and social distinctions, the remnants of a fractious colonial past. Baseball quickly became part of this new sense of American similitude, labeled the “national pastime” for nearly its entire existence. As baseball grew from a regional game into a nationwide phenomenon, more drastic change accompanied, by means of money permeating the sport. The five seasons of NAPBBP play from 1871 to 1876 transpired during a decidedly dynamic period of American history. The societal identity formation occurring during the early stages of the Gilded Age corresponds both in time, and essence, with baseball’s maturation process, culminating in a purely professional NAPBBP. Through analyzing these simultaneous processes, their relation to one another, and the notion of baseball as a microcosm of American society, what characteristics became inherently American, who had the power to actually establish these allegedly universal ideals, and the implications such principles had on the nation’s population become apparent. Baseball, and more specifically the NAPBBP, offered the principal values of late nineteenth century collective American society.
Baseball’s beginnings, like many of our country’s forefathers, can be traced back to England. Emerging from traditional ball-games like cricket and rounders, baseball was part of a movement of young people taking part in outdoor recreational activities as a medium for exercise and social gathering. This new generation of Americans, the ones who would be the first to participate in the national pastime, grew up in the early nineteenth century and lived in an independent America from birth. Baseball’s pioneer players lived mainly in the Northeast and unlike their colonial ancestors, who were rightly occupied with erecting a New World civilization and pursuing religious freedom, these young men and boys had time for leisure. Baseball quickly filled this void. By 1845, the first organized club, the New York City’s Knickerbocker Club was established as a “fraternal” group of young men playing impromptu intra-squad games, paying little attention to who won or lost the games but instead to promoting health, recreation, and social interaction. By the 1850’s, more clubs organized in the New York City area and games between clubs had become commonplace, with competition still in a complementary role to leisure and socializing. As the organized baseball club system continued to grow outwards from New York to new groups of players, this perception of the sport as merely a mode of exercise among friends evolved alongside other changes in American society.
Many of the first formal baseball clubs were organized along professional or geographical lines. Warren Goldstein describes in his bookPlaying for Keepsthat “certain clubs were centered in particular trades, workplaces, or neighborhoods” and “the experience of baseball play in the mid-nineteenth century was not very far removed from the experience of work, especially from the world and culture of the urban workplace.” This early makeup of baseball clubs reflected the growing significance of industrialization and the city in American society as baseball’s rise in popularity occurred during the most extensive period of urbanization in United States history. In 1860, 6.2 million Americans lived in urban areas, or places with 2,500 or more residents. By 1900, this number grew considerably to 30 million people and the number of urban areas nearly quadrupled. Between 1860 and 1880, big cities, or urban areas with a population larger than 100,000 individuals, realized an increase in number from nine to twenty. Most of these new urbanites came by way of migration from rural areas and immigration from foreign countries. These individuals came to cities in pursuit of economic success, for manufacturing was progressively replacing agriculture as the leading industry in the United States during this period. These changes resulted in a contemporary urban environment composed of people with similar jobs and economic status living near one another in dense communities. Many early baseball clubs formed based on these associations, like the Esculapian Club of Brooklyn composed of physicians or the Malta Club that strictly accepted milkmen. Individuals who played baseball, which at this point still retained many of its fraternal elements, teamed up with neighbors and co-workers to play the game as a leisurely escape from the grind of the industrial work. This manner of organization came with several implications that would ultimately alter the role of baseball in these young cities and serve as the origin for the development of professionalism and the NAPBBP.
The increased number of clubs, along with the players’ strong sense of loyalty to them, procured leisure and exercise giving way to competition and an opportunity to exude dominance over a rival profession or neighborhood. Now that the results of a game reached beyond the extent of one club playing in isolation of the others, competition progressed from a private to public matter. Losing had consequences that affected a club’s reputation, and moreover an identifiable group’s perception among others also living in their communities. Clubs began employing a “first nine”, or the best nine players on the team, when previously the best players would be split up and play any position to ensure fair teams for intra-squad games. The first nine would practice by playing in the field together against the inferior players of the club to become specialized at a certain position and develop their skills for the now meaningful and competitive inter-club games. Additionally, the heightened emphasis on competition warranted a singular set of rules as to avoid confusion and unfair play.
While many forms of the game existed during the sport’s youth, the New York Knickerbockers, the first baseball club, dictated the direction of baseball’s style. Known as the “New York Game”, these set of rules differed from the other popular approach, the “Massachusetts Game”. The “Massachusetts Game” involved no foul territory, a larger field, and “plugging” or using the ball as a weapon to peg the base runner for an out The “New York Game” became the standard for competitive baseball and accelerated the sport’s growth as the game became quicker-paced, thus more exciting for both spectators and players. Baseball’s rapid progression into a more widely played, skilled, and defined game compelled the prominent clubs of the time to collaborate and form a National Association of Base Ball Players (National Association). Officials from fourteen New York City and Brooklyn clubs met on January 22nd, 1857 to create a uniform set of rules, agree on a standard ball, collect a $2 entrance fee from each club, and elect officers to govern the organization. This convention symbolized the beginning of formally established and regulated sport leagues in the United States and the first step towards an eventual schism between amateur and professional baseball.
Before proceeding to chronicle the history of the National Association and the ultimate creation of a separate professional league, the NAPBBP, it is crucial to look back on the brief, yet significant, beginnings of baseball and its relationship to the development of the modern American identity. While Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner did not coin the term “Gilded Age” until writing their novelThe Gilded Age. A Tale of Todayin 1874, what was happening in the amateur baseball world up to the National Association’s first convention in 1857 foreshadowed the eventual course of events of the society on a national scale and also the small, yet growing, world of professional baseball. “Gilded” is defined as being covered with a thin layer of gold, and while only superficial, light reflecting off the precious metal can amaze the beholder. Such was the case with the emergence of the elite, competitive baseball clubs in the first National Association. While teams like the New York Knickerbockers represented only the minority of baseball clubs, those composed of highly skilled and competitive players, their actions dictated the direction of baseball. Americans were taught that sport was a means for character training and self-discipline, and that the vigor associated with playing baseball made for a better person. However, the masses, which were still dominantly rural, unskilled, and unrefined even amidst industrialization, were emphatically supporting a sport that was steadily becoming more suited for a minority of urbanites, skilled players, and the gentlemanly type. The National Association became the golden standard for the baseball community yet was misrepresentative of average, amateur baseball players. Similarly, urbanization and industrialzation influenced the representation of the opportunistic, rich capitalist as the epitome of American success while in reality the average American still had an agrarian background and little or no ability in industry. Glenn Porter illustrates this divide, “Although the heartland’s values retained remarked and disproportionate force despite the shifting economic realities, America’s cultural tune was in fact gradually coming to be called more by the urban and industrial sectors and less by the rural and agrarian ones.”The introduction of professionalism and the formation of the NAPBBP magnify these issues even more.
 William R. Hooper, “Our National Pastime,”Appleton’s Journal: A Magazine of General Literature, February 25, 1871, 225
 Tom Melville,Early Baseball and The Rise of the National League(Jefferson, North Carolina: McFardland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2001), 10.
 Warren Goldstein,Playing for Keeps: A History of Early Baseball(Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1989), 24.
 Robert G. Barrows, “Urbanizing America,” inThe Gilded Age,ed. Charles W. Calhoun (Lonham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007), 101-118.
 Hooper, “Our National Pastime,” 226.
 Melville,Early Baseball and The Rise of The National League,10.
 Goldstein,Playing for Keeps: A History of Early Baseball,22.
 Melville,Early Baseball and The Rise of The National League,11.
 Our National Sports,”The New York Herald, 23 January 1857, B8.
 Ruth C. Crocker, “Cultural and Intellectual Life in the Gilded Age,” inThe Gilded Age,ed. Charles W. Calhoun (Lonham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007), 211-237.
 Ellen M. Litwicki, “The Influence of Commerce, Technology and Race on Popular Culture in the Gilded Age,” inThe Gilded Age,ed. Charles W. Calhoun (Lonham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007), 187-209.
 Glen Porter, “Industrialization and the Rise of Big Business,” inThe Gilded Age,ed. Charles W. Calhoun (Lonham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007), 11-27.
- Quote paper
- Eric Rosenberg (Author), 2011, The National Association of Professional Base Ball Player’s: The Origins of Professional Baseball and The American Identity, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/211231