America's National Pastime: The Early Game

February 11, 2020

With the approaching release (March 15) of my new vintage baseball novella and novel, I thought folks might enjoy catching a little of the spirit of the game as it once was played.

 

 I won't give a full lesson on the history of baseball. Suffice it to say, the game has been around as an amateur sport since before the Civil War. The 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings are generally acknowledged as baseball's first all-professional team. (What difference did it make that a team's players were all paid professionals? The Red Stockings posted a record of 67-0 against a field of amateur and semi-professional ball clubs that year.) Founded in 1876, baseball's National League (NL) is the world's oldest still-existing professional team-sport league. The American League came along in 1901 and managed to survive, even though the then-monopolistic NL would have liked nothing better than their abject failure. Other professional "big leagues," meanwhile, have come and gone--the American Association, the Players' League, and the Federal League, to name a few.

 

Some of the biggest changes in the history of the sport have included:

  • the strikeout (1858). Players used to be able to remain at the plate until they got a pitch they liked.

  • walks for too many pitches outside the strike zone (1863).

  • pitching overhand (1884). At first, only underhand pitches were allowed, then side-armed delivery, then delivery of the ball from up to shoulder height.

  • the advent of the pitcher's mound, as opposed to pitching from the same level as the rest of the infield (official date difficult to determine, but no earlier than 1893, possibly as late as 1900).

  • Changes to the size, weight, and interior construction of the ball itself (1859, 1861, 1872, 1920).

 

Since the 1990s, clubs around the U.S. have been enjoying a combination of team sport and historical reenactment known as vintage base ball. (That's right "base ball," as it used to be written as two words.) As you'll observe in this first video clip, participants playing by 1860s rules wear period-style uniforms and they wear no gloves. Full-finger gloves weren't introduced to baseball until the mid-1880s.

 

My baseball novella, Over the Right Field Wall, is set in 1891. By that time, the game was played mostly by the rules that are in effect now. The baseball bat of that era may have had a few characteristics that we wouldn't expect to find on wooden bats used by modern major leaguers. Gloves were very small by today's standards. The pitcher still worked from a chalk-outlined box rather than from a pitcher's mound, but fastballs, curveballs, screwballs, and changeups were already becoming part of the hurler's arsenal (although called by different names, in some cases).

 

My full-length vintage baseball novel, Dead Ball, takes place between 1912 and 1914. During that period, spitballs were still allowed, and the same ball was used throughout an entire game. Foul ball? Spectators were expected to throw it back for further play. Home run ball into the bleachers? Same thing--throw it back. Loose seams? Ball and the muddy base paths pretty much the same color? Keep playing with it.

 

During the Deadball Era (1901-1919), strikeouts were frowned upon. It was generally expected that batters would do whatever was necessary to put the ball in play. Outfields of the time were often immense, so there were more inside-the-park homeruns and fewer homers of the over-the-wall variety. The game was played base-to-base with lots of stolen base attempts, hit-and-run attempts, and more bunting than we usually see today. 

 

The second video clip above is a compilation of actual game footage from the Deadball Era. You may notice some familiar names in the informative captions. 

 

 If you visit my Facebook page, you will find some jaw-dropping video clips of present-day major league baseball action. The temptation may be to assume that players during baseball's early years could never measure up to today's skill levels. While that point is up for ongoing debate, I'm inclined to believe that there were plenty of eye-popping plays "back in the day," as well.

 

I hope you've enjoyed this brief peek into old-time baseball, and I hope you enjoy Over the Right Field Wall and Dead Ball when they come out on March 15 in paperback and ebook editions.

 

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