Oxford AASC: Baseball


Americans had played bat-and-ball games for decades when, in 1845, Alexander Cartwright of New York devised the rules—foul lines, nine innings, three outs, ninety-foot basepaths—that created modern baseball. Cartwright's game quickly became popular with young clerks and urban craftsmen. By 1860, baseball had spread throughout the Northeast, and by 1870 to the rest of the nation.

The first teams were amateur, organized by men's clubs, the games ending with dinner and drinks. Some players earned good money from ambitious clubs, which charged admission in order to pay the players. The first wholly professional team was the Cincinnati (Ohio) Red Stockings of 1869, whose manager, Harry Wright, hired every player. Taking advantage of the burgeoning railroad system to tour the country, they challenged and defeated all teams they faced that year. In 1876, entrepreneurs formed the National League (NL), with salaried players and profit-seeking owners.

Baseball exploded in popularity in the 1880s as Irish and German immigrants embraced it. A new American Association (AA) challenged the NL with cheap tickets, Sunday games, and liquor. From 1884 to 1891 the champions of the NL and AA staged an early “World Series” featuring such luminaries as Cap Anson of the Chicago White Stockings, King Kelly of the Boston Red Stockings, and Charles Comiskey of the St. Louis (Missouri) Browns. Minor-league clubs proliferated, newspapers covered baseball avidly, and sporting-goods companies prospered manufacturing baseball equipment. Baseball now became what club owners and equipment manufacturers called it, the national pastime. Wanting their fair share, players formed a union and then, in 1890, the Players League. Both the Players League and the AA soon collapsed, however, leaving the NL standing alone through the 1890s, able to keep salaries low and players tied to their teams through a reserve clause.

In 1900, as player discontent grew and fan interest revived, a regional organization, the Western League, renamed itself the American League (AL). With such former NL greats as Comiskey, John McGraw, and Connie Mack as managers or owners, the AL stole dozens of NL players, including the era's greatest hitter, Napoleon Lajoie. By 1903, when the modern World Series was inaugurated, the new league was well established, as was a professional agreement to control players' movements and major-minor–league relations. Pitchers dominated this so-called dead ball era. Christy Mathewson of the New York Giants and “Three-Fingered” Brown of the Chicago Cubs hurled their clubs to repeated pennants. Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics, with the goofy left-hander Rube Waddell, and the Boston Red Sox, led by the brilliant young pitcher George Herman (“Babe”) Ruth, dominated the AL. Other stars included Detroit's hard-hitting Ty Cobb, the game's fiercest competitor, and the Pittsburgh shortstop Honus Wagner.

Two developments ushered in the “golden age” of the 1920s. First, eight members of Comiskey's Chicago White Sox conspired with gamblers to lose the 1919 World Series. The resulting trial and publicity sullied the reputation of baseball, whose owners created the office of baseball commissioner and filled it with the strong-willed judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Landis banned the eight “Black Sox” for life and ruled organized baseball with an iron hand for three decades. Second, Babe Ruth, now a full-time outfielder with the New York Yankees, started to hit home runs as no one ever had. As the Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert built a championship team around Ruth and a huge new stadium for his fans, the Yankees became a dynasty. Lively baseballs, sluggers, and big ballparks lifted baseball's popularity to new heights. Ruth retired in 1935 after setting career and season home-run records. The 1930s witnessed the first All Star Game, the first major-league night game (in Cincinnati), the opening of the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown New York, and Branch Rickey's creation of a “farm system” for the St. Louis Cardinals. In 1936, Joe DiMaggio first appeared in the Yankee outfield, continuing the dynasty.

Organized baseball had been segregated since the 1880s, forcing African Americans to form the Negro National and American Leagues. These leagues had such Hall-of-Fame players as the pitcher Satchel Paige and the catcher Josh Gibson, but playing conditions were poor and paychecks uncertain. All this changed when Branch Rickey moved from St. Louis, where his farm system had produced champions, to the Brooklyn (New York) Dodgers during World War II. Rickey found talent in the Negro leagues, signing UCLA athlete Jackie Robinson, who became the first black major leaguer in 1947 and led the Dodgers to six NL pennants in ten years. By 1960, the Negro leagues had collapsed, and every major-league club had black players on its roster, including Willie Mays, the brilliant New York Giants centerfielder, and Hank Aaron of the Milwaukee (Wisconsin) Braves, who hit more career homers than Babe Ruth. The 1950s also witnessed the first franchise movements in decades, including, with the advent of jet air travel, the move of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants to California, and televised baseball, which seriously damaged the minor leagues. Meanwhile, the Yankees rolled on. Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle replaced DiMaggio; manager Casey Stengel raised relief pitching and platooning to new heights; Roger Maris broke Ruth's season home-run record; and the catcher Yogi Berra was the AL's most valuable player three times. New York won a staggering fourteen pennants and ten world championships in seventeen years.

Several developments highlighted baseball's evolution after 1970. First, clubs discovered a new source of talent in Latin American players, including such greats as Juan Marichal and Felipe Alou of San Francisco. Second, clubs built parks with artificial turf, which made line-drive hitters and speedsters such as Cincinnati's Pete Rose and St. Louis's Lou Brock more valuable. Third, the players formed a strong union, achieving, among other things, free agency, or the right to market themselves to the highest bidder, and salary arbitration, which drove salaries sharply higher and distributed talent more evenly among clubs. Owner-union clashes also produced the sport's first strikes. Finally, more clubs moved and more cities gained franchises, necessitating intraleague playoffs to determine pennant winners.

By the 1990s, television—including “superstations” broadcasting local games nationwide, and television advertising— had come to influence baseball, as had competing sports, making franchises astonishingly valuable and producing a shift to corporate rather than family ownership. A team with superstation revenues, the Atlanta Braves, dominated the NL in the 1990s, not least through the efforts of Greg Maddox, the greatest pitcher of the decade. Live attendance flourished as well, thanks partly to the construction of “old-fashioned” stadiums with suburban amenities. Fans were rewarded in 1998 by the New York Yankees, who won 114 games, a new regular-season AL record, and Mark McGuire of the St. Louis Cardinals, who crashed seventy home runs, shattering Roger Maris's home-run record and besting the Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa, whose sixty-six homers also broke Maris's record.

More Latin American players entered the major league as the twentieth century ended, and baseball won fans in Japan with the success of stars like Hideo Nomo of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners. But the sport faced problems as well, some of its own making. Its fan base eroded as professional football and basketball gained in popularity, and in 1989, Pete Rose, holder of the all-time major-league hitting record (4,191), was barred from the sport for life by Commissioner A Bartlett Giametti for gambling on games, including games of his own team, the Cincinnati Reds. In 2002, charges that many players were using steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs further disillusioned fans.See also Sports.


  • Harold Seymour, Baseball, 2 vols., 1960–1971.
  • Jules Tygiel, Baseball's Great Experiment, 1983.
  • Lawrence Ritter, The Glory of Their Times, 1985.
  • Daniel Okrent, Nine Innings, 1989.
  • Joseph L. Reichler, ed., The Baseball Encyclopedia, 1990.
  • Andrew Zimbalist, Baseball Billions, 1992.
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