Sports History: A basic need for outdoor exercise to conserve national health

A basic need for outdoor exercise to conserve national health and the sponsorship of social leaders thus served in large measure to break down the barriers that had formerly stood in the way of the development of organized sports. Games which could appeal to every one had at last been invented or developed. And a post-war atmosphere, in which the instinct for pleasure is naturally intensified, provided fertile ground for the growth of these new forms of recreation. It is perhaps not so surprising after all that within a short quarter-century of the day when one English visitor declared that "to roll balls in a ten pin alley by gas-light or to drive a fast trotting horse in a light wagon along a very bad and dusty road, seems the Alpha and Omega of sport in the United States," almost every one of our modern games was being played by a rapidly growing army of enthusiasts.

The pioneer of them all, baseball, had evolved from the various bat-and-ball games that the early settlers had brought with them from England. A children's game actually known as base-ball had been played in the eighteenth century. It is noted in A Pretty Little Pocket Book, Intended for the Amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly, which was first published in England in 1744 and soon after reprinted in this country. Jane Austen refers to it in Northanger Abbey. Four-old-cat, rounders, and town-ball, each of which contributed something to baseball, were also being played in the early nineteenth century by young men and boys throughout the country. Samuel Woodruff, writing on amusements in 1833, speaks of New Englanders as being experts in such games of ball as "cricket, base, cat, football, trap-ball."

But there was no formality about these early games -- no regular teams, no accepted rules of play, no scheduled contests. Cricket was the only one at all organized. New arrivals from England almost invariably formed cricket teams. It was an occasional diversion in all parts of the country, played north and south and on the western prairies. It was most general in and about Philadelphia, where groups of English factory-workers played weekly games. But cricket never really took hold in America. Its leisurely pace could not be reconciled with a frontier-nourished love for speed, excitement, action. It was steadily driven to the wall as the far more lively game of baseball, slowly taking its modern form and shape, made a more universal bid for popularity.

The date of baseball's emergence as a game definitely different from rounders or town-ball has been patriotically determined by a national commission which set out in 1907 to establish its American origins. But there is no recorded evidence to justify its conclusion that modern baseball stems from Abner Doubleday's supposed adoption of the diamond at Cooperstown, New York, in 1839. Although town-ball as it was generally played at that time had four bases at the corners of a square and there were no foul balls (one hit the ball in any direction and ran), the diamond and other attributes of the modern game had already been adopted in both rounders and children's base-ball. The beginnings of the organized sport may perhaps be more accurately traced to a group of New York business and professional men who about 1842 began playing it at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken. They formally organized the Knickerbocker Club and under the lead of Alexander J. Cartwright adopted a code of rules which was printed in 1845. There were to be nine players
on each side, three men out constituted an inning, and the game was won by the first team to make twenty-one runs, or "aces" as they were then called. The first match game on record was played a year later with a picked team which called itself the New York Baseball Club, the "all-stars" winning 23 to 4 in four innings.

In keeping with their social status, the members of the Knickerbocker Club played in neat uniforms of blue trousers, white shirts, and straw hats. As important as the game was the formal dinner which followed it. For some time, indeed, every effort was made to keep baseball an exclusive sport, and not until the 1850's were more democratic clubs organized and the Knickerbockers compelled to recognize that workers as well as gentlemen could play the game. For there was no need in baseball to undergo the expense of maintaining a boat club or keeping up a stable of riding-horses. It wanted only an open field, a bat, and a ball. "The great mass, who are in a subordinate capacity," a contemporary pointed out succinctly, "can participate in this health giving and noble pastime."

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