A Symbol of America
One of the most defining aspects of American culture is the game of baseball. It exists as a uniquely American endeavor, and is not only an important part of American history, but also an important part of American culture and society. In many ways, baseball reflects America. Through its historical influence, and representation of culture, baseball continues to make an imprint on American society. Baseball represents America in many different ways, but greatest among them is the issue of racial segregation, as seen by the Negro Leagues. The history of baseball is also the history of America, and in cetain ways, they are one and the same.
Who invented the game of baseball? If one were to ask this question to the common person on the street, the answer would most likely be Abner Doubleday. However, the notion that Abner Doubleday invented baseball is more of a cultural narrative than historical fact. Every schoolchild knows the myth, that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown, New York in 1839. In reality though, baseball’s conception is a little more complicated.
To begin with, baseball does not really have one specific point of origin. Some say that it comes from the English game of “Rounders,” others say that it evolved from the American juvenile game of “one old cat.” One old cat was played with few people, and in such a simple form, that it would hardly be recognized as a team sport. However, as the amount of players on each team increased, the game evolved into what would be known as “Town Ball.” Although it could be said that baseball evolved from both Rounders and “Town Ball,” many consider the improvements made on the Town Ball game prior to 1839 as the true beginning of the sport, thereby making it of a uniquely American origin (Bartlett 4).
The first formal baseball organization was begun by a group of New Yorkers, led by Alexander Cartwright, who began the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in 1845. It was a social club of athletically inclined men who had been gathering in Madison Square to play what was originally an enhanced version of English Rounders. Over time though, it took on the name baseball, and evolved into what was considered a sport of American origin. One man emerged from this organization, and would in time come not only to represent the Knickerbockers, but the New York clubs in general. That man was A.G. Spalding, and he is universally acknowledged to have done more to build baseball into the nations favorite sport than any other individual (Bartlett 1). The rules that the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club had were set and defined, and could easily be compared to those used in today’s game. In the days of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, the game was considered a gentlemen’s sport, or at least the players saw in that way. In a letter to club members, A.G. Spalding once wrote, “But…let us never forget that the men who first gave impetus to our national sport…were gentlemen ‘to the manner born,’ men of high tastes, of high ability, of upright character” (Bartlett 15). The original intention of the club was to establish themselves as “gentlemanly” sporting venue, and in the beginning that was indeed the case. Eventually though, less “gentlemanly” players had a tendency to find themselves on a roster if they possessed a keen athletic ability. They had also wanted to assert themselves as a kind of Marybelne Cricket Club. This was the most prestigious cricket club in England, and enjoyed the status of “first among equals” when it came to the cricket community, they also considered themselves the social arbiter of their sport (Bartlett 8).
The first formal match game in baseball history took place on June 19, 1846 on the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New York. The Knickerbockers agreed to play an informal team who went under the name the “New York Nine.” The Knickerbockers lost the match. By this time, the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club had ceased to be the sole authority and premiere baseball organization that it had once been. Throughout the 1850s, baseball clubs sprung up throughout the New York area and beyond, and the Knickerbockers found themselves rejected as the dictators of baseball fashion (Voigt 8). In 1858, twenty-five different clubs and the Knickerbockers held a convention to consolidate the rules of the game. In 1859, they voted to organize themselves as the National Association of Base Ball Players. Unknown to them at the time, this signaled an important event in the evolution of the sport: it had become less of an amateur event, and more of a professional endeavor.
Along with the 1860s came a change in the nature of baseball. As a result of the Civil War, the sport of baseball spread throughout the country. Union soldiers brought it with them to the front lines, and it reached the far corners of the nation. In a bit of irony, there are reports that baseball games between Union prisoners and Confederate guards actually took place. At a time when the Republic was divided politically, it was united culturally by the emerging national pastime. Throughout the 1860s, a “mania-like” interest forced the clubs to place more of an emphasis on winning for the glory of the town for which they played. A love of the game spread throughout the nation, and baseball clubs were becoming more common. Mark Twain described it in this manner, “Baseball is the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century.” America was beginning to identify with this new national pastime, and it soon became a national obsession. A monumental moment in baseball history occurred in 1876 when representatives of the eight biggest clubs in the National Association met to discuss the future of organized baseball. Led by William Hulbert of Chicago, they agreed to come up with a new, more structured organization. This organization would have a constitution, regulations, and contracted players. It became known as the National League. In response, a rival league was founded in 1882 and was known as the American Association. The American Association differed in some ways, mainly in admission prices and Sunday games; but there was an agreement between the two that allowed exhibition games between each league’s best team after the regular season.
Throughout the 1880s, there were several advances made in the way the game was played. The overhand pitch became allowed, baseball gloves gained acceptance, and new standards for bats and balls were adopted. Unfortunately, the American Association folded after the 1891 season: though some of its teams did manage to join the National League. From this point until the turn of the century, baseball experienced somewhat of a decline in interest. This decline soon ended though when renewed interest was sparked by the foundation of a new league in 1901. Ban Johnson, a successful president of a minor league in the West, founded the American League, which would eventually rival the older National League. Between 1901 and 1903 hostility did exist between the two leagues, but in 1903 the National League agreed to recognize the American League and both agreed that the championship team from each league would meet for a World Series. In the early part of the century, baseball once again enjoyed widespread popularity. The World Series emerged as one of the most enjoyed and most important sporting events of the day. During this time, a new brand of heroes emerged from baseball. Players such as Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Ty Cobb amazed an awe-struck nation, which had become captivated by baseball. Indeed, America had fallen in love with the game of baseball. America had taken baseball as its own; it was something played in the streets and alleys of the cities, and in the fields of the country. Across America, perhaps one of the strongest bonds holding the nation together was baseball.
Baseball was such an embedded part of the American culture that it even mirrored society in several of its fashions. Sadly, this meant that baseball adopted some of the more unfortunate aspects of society, the main one being segregation. During much of America’s history, institutionalized social segregation was an accepted way of life, and this had its effect on the game of baseball. From 1887 to 1946 a gentlemen’s agreement between club owners excluded blacks from the major and minor leagues. This symbolized the ignorance, and closed-mindedness of the era. It was not as if baseball had passed over African-Americans; blacks had embraced the sport as much as the rest of America. Because of this segregationist policy, black ballplayers were forced to organize their own teams. Over time, a whole subculture of “blackball” emerged, and it became known as the Negro Leagues (Metcalfe 8).
During the time of the Civil War, the black community became caught up in the same baseball fervor that had taken root in the rest of the country. Black teams and local leagues formed across the nation, and in the 1880s, black players even began to make their way into the minor leagues. However, the club owners put a stop to this in 1887, and baseball became segregated. The one exception to this was Moses “Fleetwood” Walker, who played for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association. He was the first black major leaguer, but an injury resulted in the team releasing him; another black player would not join the ranks of the major leagues until Jackie Robinson in 1947. Beginning in the 1890s, high-profile black teams began to assert their presence. These teams were comprised of black all-stars who excelled at all aspects of the game. In the early 1900s, exhibition games between black teams were the norm, but in 1920 they took on a more formal bearing. In 1920, Andrew “Rube” Foster organized the first African-American baseball league, and it became the Negro National League. Foster had long been a presence in “blackball” and was the owner and manager of the Chicago American Giants, one of the nation’s most prestigious black teams. Three years later, the Eastern Colored League was formed. To almost all who took part in it, black professional baseball was more than just a popular spectator sport: it was intended to empower an oppressed people, and was recognized as such. From 1924 to 1927 the two leagues met in a World Series every year. Some of the other more prestigious teams of the Negro Leagues included the Homestead Grays and the Kansas City Monarchs. Perhaps one of the most unfortunate aspects of the segregationist policy was that many of the best players of the day were kept from the major leagues. They did get the opportunity to compete against major league teams though. Early in the 20th century, black teams were occasionally granted the opportunity to play exhibition games against major league teams. This ended in 1923 though, when Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis put a stop to the games between the two leagues. Although Landis’ racial intolerance was one of the reasons for this, the most likely basis for canceling these games was that it was an embarrassment to the major leagues. Negro League teams would consistently win these games, and some reports indicate that the Negro League teams won sixty-five percent of the games (Metcalfe 10). One of the more famous of these matches was a three game series between the Chicago American Giants and the Chicago Cubs, who had established themselves as a dominant force in the National League. The Cubs barely won the series, and to this day, one of the games remains in dispute.
The Negro Leagues experienced a lull during the 1930s due to the national depression, but in 1933 a new Negro National League was formed, and it was joined by a Negro American League in 1937. During this time, when baseball was to achieve perhaps the height of its glory, the Negro Leagues were overflowing with immense talent. Such legendary players as Josh Gibson, Leroy “Satchel” Paige, “Smokey” Joe Williams, and James “Cool Papa” Bell dominated in the Negro Leagues. Although they were never able to play in the major leagues, their presence was certainly felt. Once during at exhibition game that featured Satchel Paige and an emerging star named Joe DiMaggio, a scouting report sent back to the majors read, “DiMaggio everything we hoped he’d be, hit Satch 1 for 4.” There did exist a level of respect for their ability, but it existed more among the baseball professionals and dedicated followers than among the common public.
Even though it signaled the end of an era, the eventual demise
of the Negro Leagues could be called a blessing in disguise. In 1947,
an event occurred that would bring about the end of the Negro Leagues.
It was the year that Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Although this act signaled the end of the Negro Leagues, it was also its
greatest triumph. The sensational act of a black baseball player
in the major leagues captured the attention of the nation. Robinson’s
composure and professionalism touched many fans, and even helped to ease
racial relations. Unfortunately, as a result of this, attendance
and interest in the Negro Leagues diminished, and eventually became sparse
at best. Baseball had created a new era, and although the Negro Leagues
would not be part of it, they could rest with the assurance that it was
because of them. In essence, this was truly the goal of the Negro
Leagues, to eventually integrate baseball. It is indeed ironic that
the Negro Leagues laid the foundation for their eventual demise.
As they faded away, they could be comforted by the realization that their
dream had come true. In a way, this almost adds to the mystique and
sense of awe that is often associated with the Negro Leagues.
In many ways, the Negro Leagues were a representation of American culture.
During much of the early 20th century American society was segregated, and so, unfortunately, was the national pastime. African-Americans were not allowed in diners, movie theaters, or, regrettably, in professional baseball. Baseball mirrored American culture almost perfectly; it even had its own Civil Rights Movement, which came in the form of integration. America prides itself on the fact that this country exists as a melting pot, a nation dedicated to freedom and equality. Yet, at the same time, it could be tainted by such ignorant practices as racial intolerance. Although the conception of the Negro Leagues was forced by intoleration, it had a great historical impact, and in the end, was a success. The Negro Leagues were a tremendous accomplishment for the African-American community. From the early 1920s through the mid-1940s, the Negro Leagues represented one of the largest black-owned and black-operated industries in America, and arguably their most prominent institution (Ribowsky 12). Among the ranks of the Negro League rosters competed some of the greatest players of the game. Although during its time, many baseball fans were oblivious to its talent, it exits today as one of the most important institutions in baseball history, and the American culture.
The mannerisms that a society associates with often come to characterize not only a social culture, but a nation as well. In America, the aspect that most defines American culture and way of life is the game of baseball. It is a cultural icon above all others. It is a sport rooted in the American spirit, and characterized by its ever-present place in the hearts of all Americans. It is the national pastime, the American sport, one cherished and loved by an entire nation. In many ways, it symbolizes not only America, but the American spirit. The scholar Gerald Early wrote, " I think that there are only three things that America will be known for two thousand years from now when they study this civilization; the constitution, jazz music, and baseball. They're the three most beautiful designed things this country has ever produced." From its very conception, throughout its evolution, and even in its modern day existence, baseball has a special and unique place in our national history and culture. Its creation was seen as an accomplishment of a uniquely American nature. As America as a nation evolved, so did the sport of baseball. During the age of Industrial growth, when cities were vastly expanding, baseball was seen as a pastoral presence in an ever-growing urban environment. Baseball symbolized society, even in all its glories and faults. This especially can be seen when it comes to racial segregation. Racial segregation plagued American society for generations, and sadly, during much of the 19th and 20th centuries, baseball was as segregated as America herself. The result of this culminated in the Negro Leagues, an African-American baseball organization. In so many ways, baseball is a symbol of America. Never has there been such a uniquely American cultural phenomenon that has had such a historical impact on the nation. Baseball is the national pastime, an honor no other sport is bestowed with, and it exists as a direct result of the American spirit. There is no other sport so rich in history as baseball, and certainly none of greater identity to the nation. Baseball exits as a representation of America, her culture, and all that she stands for.
Bartlett, Arthur. Baseball and Mr. Spalding, (Farrar, Straus, and Young, New York), 1951.
Metcalfe, Henry. A Game For All Races, (Metrobooks, New York), 2000.
Ribowsky, Mark. A Complete History of the Negro Leagues, (Carol Publishing Group, New York), 1995.
Smith, Robert. Baseball, (Simon and Schuster, New York), 1970.
Voigt, David. American Baseball, From Gentlemen's Sport to the Commissioner System, (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma), 1970.
www.baseballhalloffame.com - the website of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York
www.mlb.com - the website of Major League Baseball, it contains information on current league standings, and a short history of the Negroe Leagues.
http://www2.tltc.ttu.edu/Harper/3339BB/Webstuff.baseball.htm - this websitte contains links to sites concerning baseball history, and historical information and facts.
www.negroleaguebaseball.com - a website dedicated to information about the Negro Leagues. It contains both player and team profiles, as well as other background information.
- a website that outlining the history of the Negro Leagues, and also contains
information on Negro League players.
Site Created by: Mike "Someday my Cubs will win the World Series" Mencarini