An Inquiry Into The Origin Of Baseball, With A Brief Sketch Of Its History

Concerning the origin of the American game of baseball there exists considerable uncertainty…

A full chapter excerpt from Play Ball! Everything You Need to Become the World’s Best Baseball Player, by John Montgomery Ward of the New York Baseball Club

An Inquiry Into The Origin Of Baseball, With A Brief Sketch Of Its History

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Concerning the origin of the American game of baseball there exists considerable uncertainty. A correspondent of Porter’s Spirit of the Times, as far back as 1856, begins a series of letters on the game by acknowledging his utter inability to arrive at any satisfactory conclusion upon this point; and a writer of recent date introduces a research into the history of the game with the frank avowal that he has only succeeded in finding “a remarkable lack of literature on the subject.” In view of its extraordinary growth and popularity as “Our National Game,” it is important, however, that its true origin should, if possible, be ascertained.
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In 1856, within a dozen years from the time of the systematization of the game, the number of clubs in the metropolitan district and the enthusiasm attending their matches began to attract particular attention. The fact became apparent that it was surely superseding the English game of cricket, and the adherents of the latter game looked with ill-concealed jealousy on the rising upstart. There were then, as now, persons who believed that everything good and beautiful in the world must be of English origin, and these at once felt the need of a pedigree for the new game. Someone discovered that in certain features American baseball resembled an English game called “rounders,” and immediately it was announced that baseball was only the English game transposed. This theory was not admitted by the followers of the new game, but, unfortunately, they were not in a position to emphasize the denial. One of the strongest advocates of the rounder theory was a well known, English-born outdoor sports reporter for a principal metropolitan newspaper. In this capacity and as the author of a number of independent works of his own, and the writer of baseball articles in several encyclopedias and books of sport, he has lost no opportunity to advance his pet theory. Subsequent writers have, blindly, it would seem, followed this lead, until now we find it asserted on every hand as a fact established by some indisputable evidence; and yet there has never been produced a particle of proof to support this conclusion.
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When was baseball first played in America?
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The first contribution which in any way refers to the antiquity of the game is the first official report of the “National Association” in 1858. This declares “The game of baseball has long been a favorite and popular recreation in this country, but it is ‘only’ within the last fifteen years that any attempt has been made to systematize and regulate the game.” The quotation marks (‘) are inserted to call attention to the fact that in the memory of the men of that day baseball had been played a long time prior to 1845, so long that the fifteen years of systematized play was referred to by an “only.”
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Colonel Jas. Lee, elected an honorary member of the Knickerbocker Club in 1846, said that he had often played the same game when a boy, and at that time he was a man of sixty or more years. Mr. Wm. F. Ladd, one of the original members of the Knickerbockers, says that he never in any way doubted Colonel Lee’s declaration, because he was a gentleman eminently worthy of belief.
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Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, several years since, said to the reporter of a Boston paper that baseball was one of the sports of his college days at Harvard, and Dr. Holmes graduated in 1829.
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Mr. Charles De Bost, the catcher and captain of the old Knickerbockers, played baseball on Long Island fifty years ago, and it was the same game which the Knickerbockers afterward played.
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In the absence of any recorded proof as to the antiquity of the game, testimony such as the foregoing becomes important, and it might be multiplied to an unlimited extent.
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Another noticeable point is the belief in the minds of the game’s first organizers that they were dealing with a purely American production, and the firmness of this conviction is evidenced by everything they said and did. An examination of the speeches and proceedings of the conventions, of articles in the daily and other periodical publications, of the poetry which the game at that early day inspired, taken in connection with the declarations of members of the first clubs still living, will show this vein of belief running all the way through. The idea that baseball owed its origin to any foreign game was not only not entertained, but indignantly repudiated by the men of that time.
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In view of the foregoing we may safely say that baseball was played in America as early, at least, as the beginning of the 19th Century.
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It may be instructive now to inquire as to the antiquity of the “old English game” from which baseball is said to have sprung. Deferring for the present the consideration of its resemblance to baseball, what proof have we of its venerable existence? Looking, primarily, to the first editions of old English authorities on outdoor sports, I have been unable to find any record that such a game as “rounders” was known. Though I have exhausted every available source of information, I have not discovered any mention of it.
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The first standard English writer to speak of rounders is “Stonehenge” in his Manual of Sports, London, 1856. Since then almost every English work on outdoor sports describes the “old English game of rounders,” and in the same connection declares it to be the germ of the American baseball; and yet, curiously enough, not one of them gives us any authority even for dubbing it “old,” much less for calling it the origin of our game. But in 1856 baseball had been played here for many years; it had already attracted attention as a popular sport, and by 1860 was known in slightly differing forms all over the country. To all these later English writers, therefore, its existence and general principles must have been familiar, and it is consequently remarkable that, in view of their claim, they have given us no more particulars of the game of rounders. Are we to accept this assertion without reserve, when an investigation would seem to indicate that baseball is really the older game? If this English game was then a common school-boy sport, as now claimed, it seems almost incredible that it should have escaped the notice of all the writers of the first half of the century; and yet no sooner does baseball become famous as the American game than English writers discover that there is an old and popular English game from which it is descended. Many of the games which the earlier writers describe are extremely simple as compared with rounders, and yet the latter game is entirely overlooked!
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But upon what ground have these later writers based their assumption? Many, doubtless, have simply followed the writings from this side of the Atlantic; others have been misled by their ignorance of the actual age of our game, for there are even many Americans who think baseball was introduced by the Knickerbocker and following clubs; a few, with the proverbial insular idea, have concluded that baseball must be of English origin, if for no other reason, because it ought to be.
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It is not my intention to declare the old game of rounders a myth. There is ample living testimony to its existence as early perhaps as 1830, but that it was a popular English game before baseball was played here I am not yet ready to believe. Before we accept the statement that baseball is “only a species of glorified rounders,” we should demand some proof that the latter is really the older game. In this connection it will be important to remember that there were two English games called “rounders” that were entirely distinct from one another. Johnson’s Dictionary, edition of 1876, describes the first, and presumably the older, as similar to “fives” or handball, while the second is the game supposed to be allied to baseball. “Fives” is one of the oldest of games, and if it or a similar game was called “rounders,” it will require something more than the mere occurrence of the name in some old writing to prove that the game referred to is the “rounders” as now played. And if this cannot be shown, why might we not claim, with as much reason as the other theory has been maintained, that the “old English game of rounders” is only a poor imitation of the older American game of baseball?
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Up to this point we have waived the question of resemblance between the two games, but let us now inquire what are the points of similarity.
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Are these, after all, so striking as to warrant the assumption that one game was derived from the other, no matter which may be shown to be the older? In each there are “sides;” the ball is tossed to the striker, who hits it with a bat; he is out if the ball so hit is caught; he runs to different bases in succession and may be put out if hit by the ball when between the bases.
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But with this the resemblance ceases. In baseball nine men constitute a side, while in rounders there may be any number over three. In baseball there are four bases (including the home), and the field is a diamond. In rounders the bases are five in number and the field a pentagon in shape. There is a fair and foul hit in baseball, while in rounders no such thing is known. In rounders if a ball is struck at and missed, or if hit so that it falls back of the striker, he is out, while in baseball the ball must be missed three times and the third one caught in order to retire the striker; and a foul, unless caught like any other ball, has no effect and is simply declared “dead.” In rounders the score is reckoned by counting one for each base made, and some of the authorities say the run is completed when the runner has reached the base next on the left of the one started from. In baseball one point is scored only when the runner has made every base in succession and returned to the one from which he started. In rounders every player on the side must be put out before the other side can come in, while in baseball from time immemorial the rule has been “three out, all out.” The distinctive feature of rounders, and the one which gives it its name, is that when all of a side except two have been retired, one of the two remaining may call for “the rounder;” that is, he is allowed three hits at the ball, and if in any one of these he can make the entire round of the bases, all the players of his side are reinstated as batters. No such feature as this was ever heard of in baseball, yet, as said, it is the characteristic which gives to rounders its name, and any derivation of that game must certainly have preserved it.
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If the points of resemblance were confined solely to these two games it would prove nothing except that boys’ ideas as well as men’s often run in the same channels. The very ancient game of bandy ball has its double in an older Persian sport, and the records of literary and mechanical invention present some curious coincidences. But, as a matter of fact, every point common to these two games was known and used long before in other popular sports. That the ball was tossed to the bat to be hit was true of a number of other games, among which were club ball, tip cat, and cricket; in both of the latter and also in stool ball bases were run, and in tip cat, a game of much greater antiquity than either baseball or rounders, the runner was out if hit by the ball when between bases. In all of these games the striker was out if the ball when hit was caught. Indeed, a comparison will show that there are as many features of baseball common to cricket or tip cat as there are to rounders.
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In view, then, of these facts, that the points of similarity are not distinctive, and that the points of difference are decidedly so, I can see no reason in analogy to say that one game is descended from the other, no matter which may be shown to be the older.
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But if baseball is not, after all, sprung from the English rounders, what is its origin?
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I believe it to be a fruit of the inventive genius of the American boy. Like our system of government, it is an American evolution, and while, like that, it has doubtless been affected by foreign associations, it is none the less distinctively our own. Place in the hands of youth a ball and bat, and they will invent games of ball, and that these will be affected by other familiar games and in many respects resemble them, goes without saving.
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The tradition among the earliest players of the game now living is that the root from which came our present baseball was the old-time American game of “cat-ball.” This was the original American ball game, and the time when it was not played here is beyond the memory of living man. There were two varieties of the game, the first called “one-old-cat,” or one-cornered-cat, and the other “two-old-cat.”
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In one-old-cat there were a batter, pitcher, catcher, and fielders. There were no “sides,” and generally no bases to run, but in every other respect the game was like baseball. The batter was out if he missed three times and the third strike was caught, or if the ball when hit was caught on the fly or first bound. When the striker was “put out” the catcher went in to bat, the pitcher to catch, and the first fielder to pitch, and so on again when the next striker was retired. The order of succession had been established when the players went on the field by each calling out a number, as “one,” “two,” “three,” etc., one being the batter, two the catcher, three the pitcher, four the first fielder, etc. Thus, each in order secured his turn “at bat,” the coveted position. Sometimes, when the party was larger, more than one striker was allowed, and in that case, not only to give the idle striker something to do, but to offer extra chances for putting him out, one or more bases were laid out, and having hit the ball he was forced to run to these. If he could be hit with the ball at any time when he was between bases he was out, and he was forced to be back to the striker’s position in time to take his turn at bat. This made him take chances in running. No count was kept of runs. Two-old-cat differed from one-old-cat in having two batters at opposite stations, as in the old English stool-ball and the more modern cricket, while the fielders divided so that half faced one batter and half the other.
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From one-old-cat to baseball is a short step. It was only necessary to choose sides, and then the count of runs made by each would form the natural test of superiority. That baseball actually did develop in this way was the generally accepted theory for many years.
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In 1869 an article in The Nation, from A. H. Sedgwick, commenting upon the features of baseball and cricket as exemplifying national characteristics, said: “To those other objectors who would contend that our explanation supposes a gradual modification of the English into the American game, while it is a matter of common learning that the latter is of no foreign origin but the lineal descendant of that favorite of boyhood, ‘two-old-cat,’ we would say that, fully agreeing with them as to the historical fact, we have always believed it to be so clear as not to need further evidence, and that for the purposes of this article the history of the matter is out of place.”
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Without going further into a consideration that might be greatly prolonged, I reassert my belief that our national game is a home production. In the field of outdoor sports the American boy is easily capable of devising his own amusements, and until some proof is adduced that baseball is not his invention I protest against this systematic effort to rob him of his due.
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The recorded history of the game may be briefly sketched; it is not the object here to give a succinct history:
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In 1845 a number of gentlemen who had been in the habit for several years of playing baseball for recreation determined to form themselves into a permanent organization under the name of “The Knickerbocker Club.” They drew up a Constitution and By-laws, and scattered through the latter are to be found the first written rules of the game. They little thought that that beginning would develop into the present vast system of organized baseball. They were guilty of no crafty changes of any foreign game; there was no incentive for that. They recorded the rules of the game as they remembered them from boyhood and as they found them in vogue at that time. For six years the club played regularly at the Elysian Field, the two nines being made up from all the members present. From 1851 other clubs began to be organized, and we find the Washington, Gotham (into which the Washington was merged), Eagle, Empire, Putnam, Baltic, Union, Mutual, Excelsior, Atlantic, Eckford, and many other clubs following in the space of a few years.
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In Philadelphia town-ball was the favorite pastime and kept out baseball for some time, while in Boston the local “New England game,” as played by the Olympic, Elm Tree, and Green Mountain Clubs, deferred the introduction of baseball, or, as it was called, “the New York game,” until 1857.
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Baseball grew rapidly in favor; the field was ripe. America needed a live outdoor sport, and this game exactly suited the national temperament. It required all the manly qualities of activity, endurance, pluck, and skill peculiar to cricket, and was immeasurably superior to that game in exciting features. There were dash, spirit, and variety, and it required only a couple of hours to play a game. Developed by American brains, we took to it with all the enthusiasm peculiar to our nature.
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In 1857 a convention of delegates from sixteen clubs located in and around New York and Brooklyn was held, and a uniform set of rules drawn up to govern the play of all the clubs.
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In 1858 a second general convention was held, at which twenty-five clubs were represented. A committee was appointed to formulate a Constitution and By-laws for a permanent organization, and in accordance with this “The National Association of Baseball Players” was duly organized. The game now made rapid strides. It was no boys’ sport, for no one under twenty-one years of age could be a delegate. Each year a committee of men having a practical knowledge of the game revised the playing rules, so that these were always kept abreast of the time.
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During 1858 a series of three games between picked nines from New York and Brooklyn was played on the Fashion Course, Long Island. The public interest in these games was very great and the local feeling ran high. The series, which terminated in favor of New York, two to one, attracted general attention to the game.
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In 1861 a similar game was played called “the silver ball match,” on account of the trophy, a silver ball, offered by the New York Clipper. This time Brooklyn won easily, and it is said some 15,000 people were present.
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At the second annual meeting of the “National Association” in 1860, seventy clubs had delegates present, representing New York, Brooklyn, Boston, Detroit, New Haven, Newark, Troy, Albany, Buffalo, and other cities. During this year the first extended trip was taken by the Excelsior Club of Brooklyn, going to Albany, Troy, Buffalo, Rochester, and Newburgh. All the expenses of the trip were paid from the treasury of the traveling club, for there were no enclosed grounds in those days and no questions as to percentage or guarantee were yet agitating the clubs and public. The Excelsiors won every game, and their skillful display and gentlemanly appearance did much to popularize the game in the cities visited.
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Already in 1860 the game was coming to be recognized as our national pastime, and there were clubs in all the principal cities. Philadelphia had forsaken her town-ball, and Boston’s “New England” game, after a hard fight, gave way to the “New York” game. Washington, Baltimore, Troy, Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, all had their champion teams. From Detroit to New Orleans, and from Portland, Maine, to far-off San Francisco, the grand game was the reigning outdoor sport.
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With the outbreak of the Civil War came a very general suspension of play in the different cities, though the records of occasional games in camp show that “the boys” did not entirely forget the old love. In 1865 the friendly contests were resumed, though the call of the rolls showed many “absent” who had never been known to miss a game. More than one of those who went out in ’61 had proven his courage on the crimson field of battle in the war.
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During the seasons of ’65, ’66, and ’67 amateur baseball was in the height of its glory. At the annual Convention of the National Association in ’66 a total of two hundred and two clubs from seventeen States and the District of Columbia were represented; besides, there were present delegates from the Northwestern and Pennsylvania Associations, representing in addition over two hundred clubs.
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In 1867 the trip of the “Nationals” of Washington was the first visit of an Eastern club to the West, and helped greatly to spread the reputation of the game.
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For a number of years, however, certain bad influences had crept into the game and began to work their negative effect.
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The greatest of these evils was in the amount of gambling on the results of games. With so much money at stake, the public knew that players would be tampered with, and when finally its suspicions were confirmed, fans refused further to patronize the game.
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The construction of enclosed grounds and the charge of admission proved another danger. No regular salaries were paid, so that the players who were depending on a share of the “gate” arranged to win and lose a game in order that the deciding contest might draw well.
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Doubtless there were more of these things existing in the public imagination than in actual fact, but distrust once aroused, there was no faith left for anything or anybody.
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Very early in the history of the Association the practice prevailed among certain clubs of offering inducements to good players in order to secure them as members. The clubs which could afford this grew disproportionately strong, and in the face of continual defeat the weaker clubs were losing interest. In 1859 a rule was made forbidding the participation in any matches of paid players, but it was so easily evaded that it was a dead letter. In 1866 the rule was reworded, but with no improved effect, and in 1868 the National Association decided, as the only way out of the dilemma, to recognize the professional class of players. By making this distinction it would no longer be considered a disgrace for an amateur to be beaten by a professional nine.
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For the professionals the change was most beneficial. It legitimized their occupation and left them at liberty to pursue openly and honorably what they had before been forced to follow under false colors. The proud record of the Cincinnati “Reds” in ’69 proved that professional baseball could be honestly and profitably conducted, and from that time forth it was an established institution.
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But with the introduction of professionalism there began a great competition for players, and this brought in a new evil in the form of “revolvers,” or, as they were sometimes called, “shooting stars.” Players under contract with one club yielded to the temptations of larger offers and repudiated the first agreements. It became evident that a closer organization was necessary to deal with these affairs.
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In 1871 the professional and amateur organizations concluded to dissolve partnership. Two distinct associations were formed, and the first regular championship contests were engaged in by the Professional Association. After a few years the Amateur National Association passed out of existence.
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In 1876 eight clubs of the “Professional National Association” formed an independent body, calling themselves “The National League,” and this is the present senior baseball organization.
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In 1881 a new body of professional clubs, The American Association, entered the field, and is now, with the National League, one of the controlling factors of the game.
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There have been a number of other baseball associations formed from time to time, but, unable to compete with the larger Leagues, and despoiled of their best players, they have been forced to withdraw. Under a new regime there are at present quite a number of these minor organizations, and some of them are in a most flourishing condition.
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In 1882 the National League, American Association, and Northwestern League entered into what was called the “Triparti Agreement,” which the following year was developed into the “National Agreement.” The parties to this document are now, primarily, the National League and the American Association. It regulates the term of players’ contracts and the period for negotiations; it provides a fine upon the club violating, and disqualifies the player for the ensuing season; it prescribes the formula necessary to make a “legal” contract; the clubs of each Association are to respect the reservations, expulsions, blacklistments, and suspensions of the clubs of the other; finally, it provides for a Board of Arbitration, consisting of three duly accredited representatives from each Association, to convene annually, and, “in addition to all matters that may be specially referred to them,” to have “sole, exclusive, and final jurisdiction of all disputes and complaints arising under, and all interpretations of, this Agreement.” It shall also decide all disputes between the Associations or between club members of one Association and club members of the other.
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To this main agreement are tacked “Articles of Qualified Admission,” by which the minor baseball associations, for a consideration and upon certain conditions, are conceded certain privileges and protection.
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The most important feature of the National Agreement unquestionably is the provision according to the club members the privilege of reserving a stated number of players. No other club of any Association under the Agreement dares engage any player so reserved. To this rule, more than any other thing, does baseball as a business owe its present substantial standing. By preserving intact the strength of a team from year to year; it places the business of baseball on a permanent basis and thus offers security to the investment of capital. The greatest evil with which the business has of recent years had to contend is the unscrupulous methods of some of its “managers.” Knowing no such thing as professional honor, these men are ever ready to benefit themselves, regardless of the cost to an associate club. The reserve rule itself is a usurpation of the players’ rights, but it is, perhaps, made necessary by the peculiar nature of the baseball business, and the player is indirectly compensated by the improved standing of the game. I quote in this connection Mr. A. G. Mills, ex-President of the League, and the originator of the National Agreement: “It has been popular in days gone by to ascribe the decay and disrepute into which the game had fallen to degeneracy on the part of the players, and to blame them primarily for revolving and other misconduct. Nothing could be more unjust. I have been identified with the game more than twenty-five years–for several seasons as a player–and I know that, with rare exceptions, those faults were directly traceable to those who controlled the clubs. Professional players have never sought the club manager; the club manager has invariably sought–and often tempted–the player. The reserve rule takes the club manager by the throat and compels him to keep his hands off his neighbor’s enterprise.”
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It was not to be expected that club managers of the stamp above referred to would exhibit much consideration for the rights of players. As long as a player continued valuable he had little difficulty, but when, for any reason, his period of usefulness to a club had passed, he was likely to find, by sad experience, that baseball laws were not construed for his protection; he discovered that in baseball, as in other affairs, might often makes right, and it is not to be wondered at that he turned to combination as a means of protection.
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In the fall of 1885 the members of the New York team met and appointed a committee to draft a Constitution and By-laws for an organization of players, and during the season of 1886 the different “Chapters” of the “National Brotherhood of Ball Players” were instituted by the mother New York Chapter. The objects of this Brotherhood as set forth by the Constitution are:

  • To protect and benefit its members collectively and individually;
  • To promote a high standard of professional conduct;
  • To foster and encourage the interests of ‘The National Game.

There was no spirit of antagonism to the businessmen of the game, except in so far as the latter might attempt to disregard the rights of any member.
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In November, 1887, a committee of the Brotherhood met a committee of the League, and a new form of players’ contract was agreed upon. Concessions were made on both sides, and the result is a more equitable form of agreement between the club and players.
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The time has not yet come to write of the effect of this new factor in baseball affairs. It is organized on a conservative plan, and the spirit it has already shown has given nothing to fear to those who have the broad interests of the game at heart. That it has within it the capacity for great good, I no manner of doubt.
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And thus the erstwhile schoolboy game and the amateur pastime of later years is being rounded out into a full-grown business. The professional clubs of the country begin to rival in number those of the untroubled amateur days; and yet the latter class has lost none of its love for the sport. The only thing now lacking to forever establish baseball as our national sport is a more liberal encouragement of the amateur element. Professional baseball may have its ups and downs according as its directors may be wise or the contrary, but the foundation upon which it all is built, its hold upon the future, is in the amateur enthusiasm for the game. The professional game must always be confined to the larger towns, but every hamlet may have its amateur team, and let us see to it that their games are encouraged.
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This is A full chapter excerpt from Play Ball! Everything You Need to Become the World’s Best Baseball Player, by John Montgomery Ward of the New York Baseball Club, which is available in hardcover, paperback and e-book download editions from Better Days Books. Find out more at www.BetterDaysBooks.com.

First published in 1888, Play Ball! Everything You Need To Become The World’s Best Baseball Player is a classic manual of the Great American Pastime, written by a champion professional ballplayer, team captain and manager. John Montgomery “Monte” Ward was a man of tremendous talent and personal integrity, and a true sports hero for his own time and ours.

This latest Better Days Books Growing up Great Guide for American Boys is a practical and inspiring beginner’s guide to understanding the “nuts and bolts” of America’s favorite game (the rules, the layout of the field, the domain and duties of each position, etc.), and an indispensible handbook aspiring stars of the field, mound and batter’s box can employ toward the achievement of their highest potential as players. Includes valuable tips on training and diet, how and when to steal bases (and how to know when to stay put!), the mechanics of pitching an unhittable curve ball and more!

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