Nineteenth century baseball was considerably different than today’s game.
From 1845 through 1864, fair or foul batted balls caught on the fly or one bounce, retired the batter. However, the more skilled players always attempted to catch batted balls on the fly.
Beadle’s Dime Base-Ball Player is first published following the March 14, 1860 convention, held in New York. The book provides a very brief history of base ball, the rules for the 1860 season and explains particulars of each playing position and how to lay out a field. It is the first of its kind and was published each year until 1881.Until the start of the 1877 season, batted balls were considered fair or foul based on where the ball first struck the playing field or the player.
Although overhand pitching was legal in the National League in 1884 and in the American Association on June 7, 1885, the game took on a more modern appearance beginning with the 1887 season. Starting that season, pitchers were required to start from a fixed position and pause between pitches.
Most players were bare handed until the mid-1880’s; however, a few catchers began wearing a glove or gloves in the mid 1870’s. Cincinnati Reads second baseman Bid McPhee, the last of the bare-handed players, opened the 1896 season on April 16, wearing a glove.
A Brief History of the Game
It is generally accepted by historians that American base ball evolved from an English game known variously as base, base-ball, or rounders.
In New York City, in 1842, the famous Knickerbocker Base Ball Club was formed by former members of the Gotham Club. The Gotham Club was formed in 1839.The Knickerbockers began the process of formalizing the rules they used (eliminating “soaking” or hitting base runners with the baseball and establishing foul territory, etc.) in 1845. Establishing foul territory was a significant step in separating what would become the New York Game from the Massachusetts Game and Town Ball, which was popular in Philadelphia. The Knickerbockers modeled their club after the gentlemen’s clubs that had been organized in cricket. They seemingly had more rules and regulations about gentlemanly behavior than the game itself, such as being fined for using inappropriate language.
By the mid to late-1850’s, more than two dozen clubs in New York (Manhattan today) and Brooklyn began to play the Knickerbocker of New York style game of base ball.
At the conclusion of the 1857 base ball meetings in New York, the National Association of Base-Ball Players was formed.
The popularity of the game, changes in the work schedules of many laborers, and the prospect of charging admission (first done in July of 1858) lured some working-class clubs into the game such as the powerful Brooklyn Atlantics whose main interest was to win.
By 1860, the number of teams playing matches vastly increased as new clubs formed in surrounding states such as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut as well as Massachusetts and upstate New York. The New York rules were preferred, virtually eliminating the Massachusetts game and Town Ball.
Baseball continued to be played during the Civil War. Interest and popularity of the game grew immensely during the post-war years.Former Eckford of Brooklyn player Al Reach, opens the first player owned sporting goods business in Philadelphia in 1865.
As the popularity of baseball grew, clubs began to regularly charge spectators, increasing the need for the more popular clubs to attract talented players.
In 1869, former Knickerbocker Harry Wright announced his Cincinnati club as the first openly professional team.
The first professional league in America was formed in 1871, ceasing operation in 1875. The National League was established in 1876 and remains in business today.
Ladies Vintage Base Ball
In the novel Northanger Abbey, completed in 1803 but not published until 1818, Jane Austen’s character Catherine is described as follows:
“…It was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had by nature nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, baseball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books…”
Enlightened ladies of the 1860s did understand the need for exercise, and baseball found a place in a few locales. However, most Americans considered it too rough and tumble for young ladies, and by the mid-1870s, inappropriate. Etiquette books of the 1870s and 1880s from the likes of Professor Thomas E. Hill suggested croquet parties and fishing excursions as suitable activities for women. According to the Vassar College website the first documented mention of women playing baseball anywhere in the United States was in a letter from Vassar student Annie Glidden to her brother on April 20, 1866.
“They are getting up various clubs now for outdoor exercise. They have a floral society, boat clubs, and baseball. I belong to one of the latter, and enjoy it hugely, I can assure you.”
The Girls of Summer
A history of the Resolutes and period base ball at Vassar was published in the July-August 1994 issue of American Heritage. Titled “The Girls of Summer” by Gene Smith, the 1876 Resolutes pictured here were, in fact, one of the last two clubs at Vassar. In Annie Glidden’s day, the game was considered good for the mind. Base ball’s popularity peaked in 1875 at Vassar. However, Smith writes,
“But increasingly the baseball clubs were also seen as vulgar.”
Public pressure against girls playing base ball killed off the game at Vassar shortly after the June 1876 photo was taken.
However, times changed. In the 1890s, the novelty of barnstorming ladies “Bloomer Girls” teams attracted attention. These clubs usually had a few (typically 1-3) male players and would play against men’s clubs. Perhaps the most successful female player and ultimately team owner was Maud Nelson. Born April 27, 1911 in Italy in 1881 to the name, Clementina Brida, Nelson became the premier female pitcher of latter 19th and early 20th century. She played on the Boston Bloomers and the Star Bloomers before joining forces with her husband, John Olson, owner of the Cherokee Indian Base Ball Club in 1908. In 1911, Nelson created the Western Bloomer Girls club which was a huge success. After two years, she sold the Western Bloomer Girls to her partner and went on to create another ladies club–a pattern she would repeat several times.
Ladies base ball would thrive until the Great Depression when many clubs (both male and female) folded in hard times. In addition, the game of softball was starting to take hold in the 1930s and women stopped playing base ball for the most part. The last gasp of air for ladies base ball was the The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, 1943-1954 which was, of course, the inspiration for the movie, A League of Their Own.
The women of the WWII Girls Baseball Living History League honor the women of the All-American Girls Baseball League (AAGBBL) by playing recreational competitive 12″ softball games at various Historical Reenactments, Museums and special appearances through out the Midwest; primarily in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana. The league portrays Women’s Baseball as it was played by the AAGBBL during their first season of play in 1943 when underhand windmill pitching and a 12″ softball was the rule. The original league was made up of only four teams which they portray: the Kenosha Comets, Racine Belles, Rockford Peaches, and South Bend Blue Sox. This living history league is four years old and is open to all women who wish to interpret WWII home front baseball history and have a little fun doing it. They also welcome men who are interested in team coaching and umpire opportunities. Please click here if you are interested in trying out. Help build the our league. “Dirt in the Skirt Ladies!”