When examining the origins of a word one must be careful to distinguish between the word and the thing itself. The origin of the word is often quite different from the origin of the thing that it represents. Such is the case with baseball. In this case the word is much older than the game we today know by that name.
The word baseball was first recorded in the 1740s, although the first citation is somewhat disputed. What may be the oldest known use of the word is in in John Newbery’s A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, which is the first children’s book for entertainment, as opposed to education, ever published. The book was first published in 1744, although no copies of the first nine editions survive. Baseball appears in the 1760 edition, the earliest to survive, and probably appeared in the earlier editions as well. The book, originally published in London, but reprinted several times in the United States, contains the following poem:
The Ball once struck off,
Away flies the Boy
To the next destin’d Post,
And then Home with Joy
The game described in Newberry’s book bears little resemblance to the modern game of baseball other than the use of a ball and bases. Judging from the picture that accompanies the poem, they didn’t even use a bat, instead striking the pitched ball with the hand. But despite the differences, this game of English baseball is clearly the progenitor of the modern game (OED, Block 178–79).
The earliest undisputed use of the word appears by the English aristocrat Lady Hervey (née Mary Lepell), who mentions the game in a 14 November 1748 letter:
Now, in the winter, in a large room, they divert themselves at base-ball, a play all who are, or have been, schoolboys, are well acquainted with (OED, Block 140).
A few years later clergyman John Kidgell gives a more detailed description of the game in his 1755 book The Card:
The younger Part of the Family [...] retired to an interrupted Party at Base-Ball, (an infant Game, which as it advances in its Teens, improves into Fives, and in its State of Manhood, is called Tennis.) (OED)
This game of baseball was quite common in 18th and early 19th century England, played by girls as well as boys. It even merits a mention by Jane Austen, who refers to the game in Northanger Abbey, published in 1818, but perhaps written as early as 1798:
It was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had by nature nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, base ball, riding on horseback, and running about the country, at the age of fourteen, to books.
The earliest known American reference to the game is from 5 September 1791, when the town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts passed an ordinance to protect the newly installed windows of the town meeting house:
Be it ordained by the said Inhabitants that no person or Inhabitant of said Town, shall be permitted to play at any game called Wicket, Cricket, Baseball, Batball, Football, Cats, Fives or any other games played with Ball, within the Distance of eighty yards from said Meeting House.
The origin of the word baseball is complicated by the existence of another game known as prisoner’s base or simply base. References to base go back to the 14th century, but the game of base is probably not an ancestor of baseball. Base did not even use a ball, being simply a chase game. Still, researchers often confuse the two when finding early references to people “playing a game of base” (Block 122–23).
So that’s where the word comes from, but when did the modern game of baseball come into being? There is no single event that one can point to as the defining moment. Instead, modern American baseball took a slow evolutionary journey from roots in English baseball.
There are many myths about the origin of American baseball. Perhaps the three most common are that it:
- Was invented by Abner Doubleday in 1839,
- Was invented by Alexander Cartwright in 1845, and
- Derives from the English game of rounders.
None of these are accurate.
The Doubleday myth got its start in 1905 when a certain Abner Graves claimed to have witnessed Abner Doubleday invent the game of (and the word) baseball in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York. Doubleday would later go on to win fame as general in the US Civil War. As we have seen, both the word and the game are older than this and, besides, the famous Abner Doubleday was a cadet at West Point in the spring of 1839 and could not have been in Cooperstown to invent the sport. Graves, who was only six years old at the time, probably witnessed a game of early baseball and mis-remembered the details. Graves also changed his story over the years, and as he retold it, it not only grew in detail, but he, himself, became a player in that game and not a mere witness (Block 50–57).
Another myth is the claim that the rules for the modern game of baseball were laid down in 1845 by Alexander Cartwright and the other members of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. According to this story, the next year, the first game of modern baseball was played at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey. (The Knickerbockers lost to the New York Baseball Club.) The Knickerbocker club did indeed codify a set of rules to baseball in 1845, but Cartwright himself probably had nothing to do with it, as he did not become an officer of the club until later. The team did play in Hoboken the following year, but again this was nothing special.
The Knickerbocker Club was not even the first to codify the rules of baseball. The earliest known publication of baseball rules dates to some fifty years earlier, and in Germany of all places. In 1796, Johann Christoph Friedrich Gutsmuths wrote Ball mit Freystäten (oder das englische Base-ball), which translates as Ball with Free Station (or English Base-ball). The description appears in Gutsmuths’s book Speile zur Übung und Erholung des Körpers un Geistes für die Jugend, ihre Erzieher und alle Freunde Unschuldiger Jugendfreuden (Games for the exercise and recreation of body and spirit for the boy, his educator and all friends of the joys of youth) (Block 67)
Nor were the Knickerbocker games of 1846 the first organized games of baseball as many believe. Organized ball was played in Manhattan as early as the 1820s, as this citation from the 25 April 1823 edition of the National Advocate indicates:
I was last Saturday much pleased in witnessing a company of active young men playing the manly and athletic game of “base ball” at the Retreat in Broadway (Block 160).
And there were significant differences between the Knickerbocker rules and the ones we know today. The Knickerbocker rules stated play would continue until one team scored twenty-one aces (presumably meaning runs, but the rules did not define the term) instead of nine innings. The 1845 rules had the bases approximately seventy-five feet from each other, instead of the modern ninety. Pitches were delivered underhand. And the number of players on each side was not stated in the rules (presumably it would vary from game to game). The one great innovation of the Knickerbocker rules was that they allowed for force outs and tag outs at the bases, where previously one had to throw and hit the runner with the ball to get him out. So, while the Knickerbocker rules were an important milestone in the evolution of baseball, they did not constitute a watershed (Block 80–93).
The final myth we’ll address here is that baseball derives from the English game of rounders. This is not correct. American baseball and English rounders are both descendents of English baseball, with significant changes in rules, as well as a name change, occurring over the centuries.
The name rounders does not appear until 1828, in William Clarke’s Boy’s Own Book:
In the west of England this is one of the most favourite sports with bat and ball...In Rounders, the players divide into two equal parties, and chance decides which shall have the first innings (OED)
Rounders is simply a name for a regional variant of English baseball. By the time rounders was invented, baseball was already well established in America. Gradually, this regional name supplanted the use of baseball throughout England, so by the time that Americans began investigating the origins of their national pastime at the beginning of the 20th century, the name baseball had been all but forgotten in England, leaving only the familiar rounders (Block 22–31)
Block, David, Baseball Before We Knew It, U of Nebraska P, 2005), 50-57, 67, 140, 148–49, 178–79, 122–23.
Oxford English Dictionary Online, third edition, September 2011, s. v. baseball, n., rounder, n.2.
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton