By Fred Veil

The notion that Civil War general Abner Doubleday invented the game of base ball is a myth, promulgated and perpetuated by a group of Americans who, in the early-1900s were bound and determined to establish an American origin for a game that had become a truly American sport.  In fact, the origin of the sport can be traced to 17th century England and a school children’s game known as “Rounders.”

The evolution and development of the game as our national pastime, however, is truly of American origin. In 1845, a group of young men from New York City formed the New York Knickerbockers, a club established for the purpose of playing the “manly game of base ball.” The organization of other clubs followed, mainly throughout the east, and an association of base ball players––the National Association of Base Ball Players––was formed. By 1861, the NABBP had 61 member clubs spread across the county from Maine to Oregon.

Aided by the post-Civil War westward movement of soldiers, homesteaders, adventurers and others seeking a new life, the game found its way to unsettled and unexplored parts of the country, including Arizona where base ball clubs were formed in frontier military camps and in communities like Prescott, Bisbee, Tombstone, Yuma and Tucson. As early as 1873, a game played at Ft. Grant on Christmas Day caught the attention of the Arizona Miner: “In the afternoon, an exciting game of base ball took place. This occupied the attention of both of the combatants, until one o’clock when the welcome call of dinner was wafted to our ears, and readily responded to.”

Base ball was founded as an amateur sport, but that changed in 1869 when the first professional club was formed. The success of the Cincinnati Red Stockings spawned the formation of other professional clubs and the organization of professional leagues, the most important of which was the National League. The NL, established in 1876, was the major league of professional base ball and would dominate the game for the next 25 years.

The NL’s dominance as the major league of professional base ball came to an end in 1901, with the emergence of the American League as a competitive force at the major league level.  Initially the NL fought the AL’s intrusion into its domain, but its efforts were largely unsuccessful, and at the end of 1902, the NL owners acknowledged defeat and recognized the AL as a major league with co-equal status. This led inevitably to a season-ending championship series between the pennant winners of the two leagues. In the first “World Series,” held in October 1903, the AL’s Boston Pilgrims defeated the NL’s Pittsburg Pirates, five games to three.

The emergence of the AL coincided with the beginning of a period characterized by baseball historians as the Deadball Era. Baseball in the Deadball Era was a game that emphasized good pitching, a strong defense and run-producing strategies that relied upon speed, smart, aggressive base-running, good bunting techniques, and timely hitting.  The home run had yet to emerge as a major offensive weapon.

Base ball in the Deadball Era was a rough game. Base runners were subject to being “clotheslined” as they ran between bases. Pitchers were not shy about throwing at batters. Fights were commonplace. Spike wounds were an occupational hazard. Ty Cobb, one of the greats of the era, reportedly said that when he slid into a base he came in “with his metal showing.” But above all, base ball in the Deadball Era was a game of strategy, not power, as the dead ball and the large, spacious ball parks of the era, provided no incentive for the players of the day to “swing for the fences.”

By 1920, the Deadball Era was over.  The introduction of a livelier ball, several rule changes that shifted the advantage from pitcher to hitter, and the emergence of a young phenom named George Herman Ruth, who, in 1919 hit an unprecedented 29 home runs for the Boston Red Sox, signaled the end of the era.

And something else changed with passing of the Deadball Era, the game’s name was evolving from base ball to baseball.

The author will present a free lecture on the history of “Base Ball” at the Sharlot Hall Museum’s Lawler Building Saturday, May 9 at 2 p.m.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit ideas for articles to dayspastprescott@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastprescott@gmail.com for information.