I Thought the Civil War Was Our National Pastime!

I see great things in baseball. It’s our game, the American game. It has the snap, go, fling, of the American atmosphere – belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our constitutions, laws: is just as important in the sum total of our historic life. It is the place where memory gathers. — Walt Whitman

July 10 is the All-Star Game. For Baseball. Remember Baseball? America’s National Pastime? With this joyous occasion upon us, and with the importance of Base Ball during the Civil War, I thought a tip of the kepi to the history of the game was in order.

Allegedly begun by General Abner Doubleday, a situation that will be discussed later, the game of Base Ball is actually much older than the good General. According to microfilm sources for the July 13, 1825, Delhi Gazette (New York), there is a notice that a challenge was issued to any team in Delaware County to a game of Base Ball at the home of Mr. Edward B. Chace. Nine men were listed as issuing the challenge, and the price of admission was $1.00 a game. Such a deal!

The collective authors of Baseball Americana tell us that the American Revolutionary Army mentioned “playing ball” in letters home as early as 1786. This book also has lovely illustrations of children’s books and woodcuts showing children playing what looks very much like–yes–baseball.

No matter how it got to America, apparently Base Ball landed on northern shores rather than those to the south. One of the earliest newspaper accounts of a game in the U. S. was in the New York Morning News on September 11, 1845.

By October of the same year, the New York Knickerbockers were playing regularly at Elysian Fields in New Jersey. These proto-Yankees were organized in the fall of 1845 as the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. They played by the “Twenty Original Rules of Base Ball.” This team and its organization served as the model for forming baseball teams, which sprang up frequently in northern cities and small towns. No one was paid to play, by the way. It was even in the rules that no one could be compensated for their efforts. How things change.

Another item in a long list of stuff the South got from the North–coffee, blankets, better marching bands, the Emancipation Proclamation–was Base Ball. Played long before the Civil War in the North, apparently the South used its leisure time differently. As men from both regions were forced into each other’s company, usually in prison camps, the Confederate soldiers watched the Union men play the Game. The Rebels began to see the value in engaging in a sport that did not feature killing someone to win, and when the soldiers returned home, farmers and factory workers all knew how to play Base Ball.

Baseball was important to soldiers and to their officers for several reasons, not the least of which was that it kept the men busily occupied chasing Daisy Cutters and Sky Balls instead of thinking up ways to cause trouble. Base Ball was also a very democratic game when played in the army. Both officers and men played together, and one’s standing on a team was based on his athletic abilities, not his social standing or military rank.

Baseball at Fort Tejon.

The Game was a morale-booster, and promoted physical conditioning as well. After long work details, or an extended period of forced inactivity, a Base Ball game eased the boredom of camp, and created team spirit among the men. The teamwork displayed on the makeshift diamonds often translated into teamwork on the battlefield.

Men mentioned Base Ball in letters home, such as Pvt. Alpheris B. Parker of the 10th Massachusetts:

The parade ground has been a busy place for a week or so past, ball-playing having become a mania in camp. Officer and men forget, for a time, the differences in rank and indulge in the invigorating sport with a schoolboy’s ardor.

Many soldiers even brought their Base Ball equipment with them, and when it broke or became unusable, they improvised. Sometimes the ballists, like Federal George Putnam, were taken by surprise:

Suddenly there was a scattering of fire, which three outfielders caught the brunt; the centerfield was hit and was captured, left and right field managed to get back to our lines. The attack…was repelled without serious difficulty, but we had lost not only our centerfield, but…the only baseball in Alexandria, Texas.

My personal favorite Base Ball quote comes from the journal of John Hay, Lincoln’s private secretary. In May of 1861, John Hay and George Nicolay had come to the camp of the 11th New York Fire Zouaves to visit their friend, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth. As mentioned above, officers and men played Base Ball together, and the secretaries drove up one evening after work to watch a game being played on the Zouave’s makeshift diamond. No one noted what position Ellsworth was playing, but Hay remembered: Ellsworth was playing ball with them as we approached, looking fine and blouzy in his red shirt.

A game of baseball.

The man erroneously credited with “inventing” baseball is General Abner Doubleday. Apparently something called the Mills Commission was established in 1905 to determine the origin of baseball in America. Their final report offered the opinion that baseball originated in Cooperstown, New York, and was devised by Abner Doubleday, in 1839. The report generously concluded:

. . . in years to come, in the view of the hundreds of thousands of people who are devoted to baseball, and the millions who will be, Abner Doubleday’s fame will rest evenly, if not quite as much, upon the fact that he was its inventor, as upon his brilliant and distinguished career as an officer in the Federal Army.

However, there is considerable evidence to dispute this claim. Baseball historian George B. Kirsch has described the results of the Mills commission as a “myth.” He wrote:

Robert Henderson, Harold Seymour, and other scholars have since debunked the Doubleday-Cooperstown myth, which nonetheless remains powerful in the American imagination because of the efforts of Major League Baseball and the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Upon his death, General Doubleday left many letters and papers, but none of them describe baseball in any way, or suggest that he considered himself to have had anything to do with the invention of the game. Abraham G. Mills, the chairman of the Mills Commission, had been a colleague of Doubleday during the Civil War. He was part of the honor guard for the General’s body as it lay in state in New York City. Mills claimed that he had never heard Doubleday even mention baseball, except casually.

Major General Abner Doubleday

There are many Vintage Base Ball teams around the nation that reenact the game as played by The Rules of 1860. The first I ever heard of were the Ohio Village Muffins. I read about them in a magazine and was immediately entranced (it doesn’t take much, I’m afraid). I was then a reenactor at Fort Tejon, in Lebec, California. Our group had been wondering what to do for the folks who showed up on Saturday for the battles, which were on Sunday. After a few letters and some arcane purchases, we had a Base Ball team. Our bleachers were old boards set on pickle barrels, and we made cones out of reproductions of Harper’s Weekly, and filled them with peanuts.

We created a pamphlet for the cranks, which introduced some vintage Base Ball vocabulary and explained a little bit about the game. It was great fun to watch our “boys” in blue and butternut hurl specially reproduced Base Balls toward the striker, hoping a hit toward the scouts would be muffed and an ace could be scored by crossing home point. That would really ring the bell!

Suggested Reading:

“Baseball and the Blue and the Gray,” by Michael Aubrecht:

“Pre-1845 Baseball: Was Abner Doubleday Really the Originator?” by Tom Helgesen

Baseball Americana, by Harry Katz, Frank Ceresi, Phil Mitchell, Wilson McBee, SusanReyburn. Smithsonian Books.

“Base Ball and the Civil War,” by Carole D. Bos, J. D.

Baseball and the Civil War

Michigan’s Walker Wheels

 Vintage Base Ball Association

 The Ohio Village Muffins

4 Responses to I Thought the Civil War Was Our National Pastime!

  1. Interestingly enough, one of the first references to baseball (and perhaps the first) occurs in a Jane Austen novel, Northanger Abbey, in which the heroine Catherine Moreland is said to be a fan of “base ball” as opposed to more girly pursuits. As the novel was written in the early 1800’s, and published around 1816, it would seem that baseball of some kind existed in England (probably in a cricket-like form) long before Doubleday.

    1. I had such fun researching this post! It was amazing what I had to leave out. Perhaps I shall revisit it. There were several ballplayers in the 1880s named Elmer Ellsworth Something–perhaps that might be an angle. I try to put a little EE in every post–LOL!

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