Baseball seems always to have lived more in myth that in history. Children in England and the United States had been playing variants of the game for years such as rounders, one o’ cat, and base. In 1845, some young men in Manhattan organized themselves into the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club and wrote down the rules of the game they were playing. Twenty years later dozens of baseball clubs in New York and Brooklyn, and their journalist brethren, had made what they called the “national pastime” more popular than cricket, and the metropolis had become the country’s first baseball powerhouse.
As baseball clubs were transformed into entertainment businesses and instruments of civic boosterism, so grew their need for first-rate players who could attract paying crowds. The remarkable undefeatable season of the national touring Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1869 paved the way for baseball’s full-blown professionalization in the 1876 formation of the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs. Although distinctions between players and their clubs (now really small businesses) had been hardening for years, the National League formalized the division, which has continued until today.
Baseball soon outdistanced other spectator sports in popularity and contributed to the sports boom of the 1880s and 1890s. Late nineteenth-century baseball resembled the Gilded Age business world. Owners moved the clubs frequently, while rival leagues sprung up and competed for players and spectators. The National League either defeated its opponents outright or incorporated them into a subordinate national structure of minor leagues. Not until 1901 was the National League force to accept the American League, the only other surviving major league. Leagues controlled access to spectators by granting franchises.
Owners and leagues controlled the players through labor practices that combined elements of chattel slavery (the infamous reserve rule) and freewheeling industrial capitalism: blacklisting, fines, salary limits, and reductions, even the use of Pinkerton spies. The reserve clause, initiated in 1879 and inserted into every player’s contract, gave his employer the right to reserve his services for the following year, unless the player was traded, sold, or released from his contract. Players fought the reserve rule, most notably when the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players launched its own Players’ League in 1890.
When the players’ financial backers sold them out to the National League, baseball owners triumphed and ruled organized baseball virtually unchallenged for eighty-five years. They were aided by a series of bizarre Supreme Court rulings that baseball was not interstate commerce and therefore not bound by federal antitrust law. In 1975 and arbitrator ruled that the reserved clause applied for only one year and players, as “free agents,” regained their negotiating power; salaries quickly reached unheard-of levels.
Owners retaliated in 1981 but were soundly defeated by a players’ strike. Then in the late 1980s they conspired (illegally, an arbitrator held) to limit salary offers to free agents. After a twenty-year period of franchise movement, league expansions, and the creation of divisions within leagues, baseball became organizationally stable again in the late 1970s. Attendance grew dramatically throughout the 1980s, more people attended major league baseball games (over 50 million per year at the end of the decade) than at any other time in the games history.
Baseball has been America’s most popular sport for so long mainly because it has successfully straddled some of the nation’s most important cultural divisions. Though it was born among the respectable working class and sporting middle class, the game’s cultural antecedents lay in the boisterous street culture of saloon-based volunteer fire companies, militias, theater partisans, street gangs, and political factions. The National League explicitly appealed to more middle-class audiences by requiring its teams to charge fifty cents, ban the sale of alcohol, and refuse to play Sundays.
The rival American Association appealed to immigrant and working-class audiences by charging a quarter, selling liquor, and playing Sunday ball. Despite the outrage with which baseball officials and writers treat baseball’s occasional betting scandals (in 1865 and 1877 as well as more famously in the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal and the 1989 banishment of Pete Rose), the game has never been completely free of the sporting underworld of gambling and low life. Even though they are all men with extraordinarily disciplined athletic skills, ballplayers, like most professional entertainers, frequently behave badly off the field.
Alongside the game’s reputation as an upright, all-American pastime, its culture continues to have a whiff of the unrespectable. Baseball has also had an archaic aura throughout most of its history, the heyday of modern industrializing America. It enshrined craft excellence at precisely the time industrialists were destroying craft production. As the traditional foundations of manhood were subjected to enormous strains, mostly young men who played baseball worried about devoting so much time to at child’s game and tried to distinguish their “manly sport” from “ boyish play.
Although baseball’s origins are urban, its myth is powerfully, stubbornly rural. While city populations swelled in the late nineteenth century, and mass entertainment was born at places like Coney Island, baseball fans flocked to watch a game featuring individuals, isolated and surrounded by the green grass of ballparks. The major league color barrier was breached in 1947 by the careful planning and daring of Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey and the courage, self-control, and baseball skill of Jackie Robinson, who Rickey invited to pioneer with his team.
Robinson’s talents and legendary aggressiveness made him into one of the best second basemen who ever played the game. Currently, baseball is integrated in that there are large numbers of African-American and Latin players; it is not unusual for a starting lineup to have a minority of whites. Still, the higher echelons managers, general managers, and owners are almost completely white, and there are many fewer African-American catchers and pitchers than there are outfielders and first basemen.