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Spread of baseball project

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The Spread of baseball project is a history of the early playing of baseball and the locations and people involved. This is a project of SABR's Origins Committee. Their findings are published at the Protoball.org website.

Project Scope

Modern baseball is first seen in the Knickerbocker Rules, which were written in 1845 in New York City. By the late 1860s, "baseball fever" had carried the "New York game" far and wide in North America, and the worldwide spread began. The Spread of Baseball Project is a community effort to dig up facts on its arrival in many local areas. One of the goals is to understand how (and eventually, why) baseball reached some areas early and others only later on. For each locality, the project attempts to document:

  • When the first game occurred that used modern rules
  • When the first local baseball club formed
  • What game or games preceded modern baseball

Even in the mid-1850s, US newspapers were reporting much more cricket and horse-racing news than baseball. That all changed, and dramatically. The project explores when, how, and why, baseball so suddenly ensconced itself as America's national pastime.

On the Origins of Baseball

Few if any baseball historians, having weighed the evidence, now subscribe to the idea that baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, NY in 1839. Most, in fact, now doubt that anyone "invented" the game; many of the elements in the Knickerbocker rules, for example, can be found in accounts of pre-1845 ballplaying, and the premise today is that the game evolved in many increments over the years. Adult play of English base ball in the late 1700s and both round ball in New England and town ball in Philadelphia, PA involved adult players not long after 1800. For these games, batting and running and scoring and fielding evidently followed many practices that would later pass quietly into the New York game.

But over the years new historical research has cast dount on fixed theories about how baseball developed. A century ago, the contending origins dogmas were the Doubleday theory and the rounders theory, and neither has proved durable. Later, Knickerbocker Club members Alexander Cartwright and Doc Adams were suggested as the true inventors of the game. However, questions remain as to what they, or the Knickerbockers, did that was actually new, and information about earlier New York City ballplaying clubs has been discovered

The idea that baseball was preceded by a game known locally as "town ball" across the United States now appears much more doubtful than it did a few years ago. A decade ago, researchers had not yet learned that Gutsmuths had described "English base-ball" in 1796, nor that the two-base game of wicket, evidently an early offshoot of cricket, was the game of choice for much of western New England (and perhaps much further west) until supplanted by the New York game in the late 1850s. So current research may lead us to abandon long-held assumptions about how baseball actually evolved.

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