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The 1860's - When Men Were Men and They Played Baseball in Washington

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 5, Number 10

For a city that doesn't have a team of its own, it's hard to believe there was a time when baseball held sway in the District of Columbia, played regularly on the lawn right in front of the President's House. Of course, the story of baseball didn't start here, but it was the soldiers stationed in Washington DC during the Civil War that propelled the sport into the National Pastime we know today.

The game originated, or evolved, from common street games in the larger cities of England and the US. Before the modern version, there were many variations and a variety of names for the sport, including town ball, baste ball, pick-up, and goal ball. As the country urbanized and industrialized, people had more free time and needed outdoor recreation. Unlike its predecessors, baseball started not as a game reserved for city street urchins, but as a gentleman's sport.

One afternoon in 1842, a group of well to do young men in New York City met in a vacant lot to play "baseball." The event was so popular that they were playing groups from as far away as Hoboken. Before long, there were organized leagues and written rules for the game. This was done not by General Abner Doubleday, but Alexander Cartwright, bank clerk and member of the first organized team, the Knickerbocker Ball Club of New York City.

It was Alexander Cartwright who wrote out the first rules of baseball. His rules instituted foul lines, limited teams to nine players, games to nine innings, fields shaped in a "diamond," determined that three strikes made an out, with three outs per inning. The few differences from today's game are mostly in the language. Outfielders were called scouts; the pitcher's mound was the pitcher's point; runs were called aces; batters were called strikers. Fans were called cranks (some still are); players were fined for disrespect or using profanity (rarely today); the first team reaching 21 "aces" won; and, bunting the ball was held in low esteem. The ball clubs originally voted against uniforms because they didn't want to look like a "flock of birds" on the field.

Team membership was by election to the club, which limited membership to the upper social classes. Even attendance at games was by invitation only. (This didn't stop free African Americans in the city from starting their own clubs). By 1860 there were 50 established baseball teams. But baseball wasn't America's pastime quite yet. It wasn't until some of these New Yorkers came to Washington to play-not baseball, but war; not in striped flannel shirts and straw hats but kepis and blue uniforms of shoddy wool-that baseball became democratized.

The newly arrived New York soldiers found that the clerks in the Treasury Department already had formed the Washington Base Ball Club with a winning team, the Washington Nationals. It didn't take long to organize games between the Washington teams and the New York regiments. The New Yorkers usually won, with scores like 62 to 22, and 41 to 13. (They didn't always use the New York rules.)

The game's growing popularity alarmed the owners of Washington's famous Willard's and Ebbitt's taverns, who feared losing good-paying customers and the soldier trade to this more wholesome endeavor. Throughout the war, baseball was played on the President's Park (Ellipse), at the grounds of the Capitol, in the forts surrounding the outskirts of Washington, and wherever troops were encamped.

It wasn't the rules, but the soldiers themselves that made baseball the all-American team sport we know today. Players were chosen for their athletic ability, not their social standing. Officers joined the soldiers and competed as equals on the field. Although the wartime game required using poles or fence rails instead of regulation bats, and balls made of tied rags, the games went on and the fans roared with every hit.

Baseball enhanced camaraderie, sustained the soldiers' morale, helped pass the time, and united the soldiers to their cause like nothing else could. When the war ended, the soldiers returned home bringing the game to every corner of the country, along with a new sense of democracy and union.

Why do they say Abner Doubleday invented baseball? The answer-marketing! Albert G. Spaulding was a former pitcher who later started a company to manufacture baseball equipment. It was long after the Civil War, and nearing baseball's 50th anniversary, when Spaulding searched for documentary evidence that baseball was invented in America. His goal was to establish a patriotic theme for the 50th celebration, and to increase his bottom line. Eventually, a letter came to him with unverified statements that it was Abner Doubleday, the famous Civil War general from Cooperstown, New York, who invented the game.

By this time, every young boy had memories of seeing aging veterans march or hobble in their town's Fourth of July or "Decoration" Day parades. The Civil War was now idealized and romanticized, with very few people left who remembered the agony and horror of it. For Spaulding, it was a natural! Doubleday and the Civil War, combined with New York, home of the first ball club, was enough for Spaulding to promulgate the myth while he promoted baseball and potential sales of his company's regulation balls, bats, and uniforms. Luckily for Spaulding, neither Doubleday nor Alexander Cartwright, the real "inventor" of baseball, was available to correct the record.

Baseball and marketing, two of America's favorite pastimes, and both invented in America! It was a natural!