One of the first clubs that brought a more democratic spirit into the baseball world was the Eckford Club of Brooklyn, formed in 1855. By this year the Knickerbockers had many rivals in and about New York. Games were being placed regularly among such teams as the Gothams, the Putnams, the Harlems, the Excelsiors, and the Eagles. But the Eckford Club had this distinction: its members were shipwrights and mechanics. They suffered the disadvantage in comparison with other clubs of not having very much time to practise, but they soon proved their worth by defeating the Excelsior Club, made up of merchants and clerks. The Newark Mechanics Club was among other organizations composed of workingmen, while one of the best teams playing on the Boston Common, where games were often scheduled at five in the morning so as not to interfere with the players' work, was made up of truckmen. And then in 1856 a young man named Henry Wright, employed in a jewelry manufactory and also a professional bowler with the St. George Cricket Club, joined the Knickerbockers. Social barriers were breaking down completely. The ball clubs wanted to win their games. Here also was a hint of the professionalism toward which they were headed. Another decade and Wright will have gone to Cincinnati to organize the Red Stockings as the country's first admittedly professional team.
Baseball slowly spread north, south, east, and west. It drove out town-ball in New England and cricket in Philadelphia, made its way to the Mississippi Valley ( Chicago had four clubs in 1858), crossed the trans-Mississippi frontier, reached out to the Pacific Coast. Everywhere it was bringing men and boys into active outdoor play. It was also becoming highly organized. The National Association of Base Ball Players was formed in 1858, with twenty-five clubs applying for charter membership, and two years later delegates from fifty organizations attended its annual meeting. New York and New Jersey led in the number of clubs ( New England had a separate association for teams still playing town-ball), but Philadelphia, Washington, Detroit, Chicago, and New Orleans were but a few among the cities where baseball was now established.
The game was attracting spectators as well as players, and a wider public interest was growing out of the reports carried in the newspaper of the interclub matches. It still had features strange to modern times. A man was out on a ball caught on the first bounce; pitching was an underhand throw. Even though there were players who "sent the ball with exceeding velocity," the scales were more heavily weighted in favor of the batter than they are to-day. No gloves were worn. We find The Spirit of the Times praising Mr. Wadsworth of the Knickerbockers for his fearlessness "in the dangerous position of catcher." Contemporary prints portray the umpire sitting out in the field somewhere near first base under an umbrella, in frock-coat and stove-pipe hat.
But baseball was exciting. In 1858 some two thousand persons actually paid fifty cents admission for a match at the Fashion Race Course, the first recorded game with gate receipts. Two years later the champion Excelsiors, of Brooklyn, went on tour and defeated challenging clubs in cities throughout New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. Returning for a match with another Brooklyn team, the Atlantics, they played a game which drew fifteen thousand spectators. Baseball was on its way.
The Civil War interrupted this forward march, but it brought an even larger popular following. The game was everywhere played behind the lines and in base camps, almost on the battlefield. Country boys and factory-workers were introduced to the new sport, and with the end of the war they took it back to their home communities. One result of wartime playing is seen in the attendance of clubs at the first post-war meetings of the National Association. The total jumped to ninety-one in 1865. A year later the membership, representing seventeen states and the District of Columbia, totaled 202. "Since the war, it has run like wildfire," the Galaxy declared editorially. Charles A. Peverelly believed it to be beyond question "the leading feature in the outdoor sports of the United States." And by 1872 the magazine Sports and Games categorically stated that it had become "the national game of the United States."
The American genius for organization was outdoing itself in the growth of the National Association, however, and the keen rivalry among member clubs was promoting professionalism. The practice developed of engaging expert players for a local club through offering them better-paid jobs in the community than they could normally expect to obtain. On occasion players were directly paid for their services in important games. A confusing quasi-professionalism invaded the ranks of what had formerly been a wholly amateur sport. The next step was inevitable. In 1869 the Cincinnati Red Stockings were definitely hired as a professional team for a country-wide tour. They did not lose a game that summer, and the practical advantage of salaried players was recognized by all those sports followers primarily interested in championship teams.
These moves toward professional baseball were both cause and consequence of the heavy betting that began to be made on interclub games. For the gambling fraternity quickly became interested in the new sport. It was taken up as professional footraces and prize-fighting had been. Charges also began to be made that the gamblers were not only beginning to control the ball players, but were operating pools and arranging for games to be won or lost on a strictly business basis. Amateur members of the National Association bitterly contested the increasing influence of these new elements in the game, but their organization was losing its control. In 1871 its place was taken by a new association frankly composed of professional players.
For a time this association did not function very effectively. It was either unwilling or unable to suppress gambling, and baseball fell under a cloud of popular disapproval. Efforts at reform were finally crowned when five years later William A. Hulbert undertook the organization of the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs. Rules and regulations were now adopted which set up strict standards for inter-club competition. With an original membership made up of teams from New York, Philadelphia, Hartford, Boston, Chicago, Louisville, Cincinnati, and St. Louis, baseball had a controlling body. Through its ministrations there grew up the immensely complicated system of franchises, major and minor leagues, player contracts, and other business controls that now characterize the professional game. The National League gave baseball a new stability, restored public confidence in the contests among league teams, and put the sport really on its feet.