A History of Major League Baseball, Part I: The Knickerbocker Rules

This is a contribution by Jason E. Castro. Jason is a writer from Staten Island who has published several short stories in on-line literary magazines such as Danse Macabre, MediaVirus Magazine, Sparkbright Magazine and Greensilk Journal. He also has two books to his credit, “Rowdies” published in 2011 and “Cricket for Souls” which has been accepted by Muse It Up Press.

This will be a multiple part series.

A History of Major League Baseball Before the Modern Era


Good day, dear baseball fan. Have you ever, while seated in your expensive skybox high within Yankee Stadium (or in that ruined thing you call an easy chair on the living room floor that glues itself to your butt every night), wondered about where it all began?

I’m talking about Major League Baseball. You’ve heard of Babe Ruth, right? Ty Cobb rings a bell, too. Cy Young was the guy who got the pitching award named after him. Honus Wagner is on that baseball card that could put your kids through college (or give you enough cash to impress the roulette table girls at Harrah’s). You know some names.

But you’ve never actually stopped to think about it. They have a section on this stuff at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but the last time you stopped in there you got stuck admiring Roger Maris’s sixty-first home run bat (“Sixty, count ’em, sixty! Let’s see some son-of-a-bitch match that!” Babe Ruth bellowed after originally setting the record in 1927). Baseball is something that has been around forever, perhaps just dropping down from the heavens like the Garden of Eden.

And you might be right about that.

Alexander Joy Cartwright inventor of baseball

Alexander Joy Cartwright

Baseball’s true origins are as muddy as they come. Bat and ball games have been around for centuries, with myriad regulations and equipment and names. It is believed that the American pastime evolved from a British game called “Rounders,” which has strikingly similar rules (and was indeed referred to as “base-ball” in a 1744 British children’s tome called A Little Pretty Pocket-Book). Early American colonists in the mood for recreation (or procreation, as Rounders was a co-ed game) likely chose to partake in such diversions, and passed them on to the youth. Around the time of Andrew (the guy on the twenty-dollar bill) Jackson’s presidency, folk derivatives known as “Town Ball,” “Goal Ball,” “Stool Ball,” and “One Old Cat” had become staples in towns across the country.

However, the first sets of rules for the game we know today were not established in a rural backwater town. The “Knickerbocker Rules” are believed to have been created by Alexander Joy Cartwright, Jr., a volunteer firefighter in New York City, as a result of being forced out of a vacant lot at Madison Avenue and 27th Street (in the area now known as the Flatiron District, close to Madison Square Park) where he often gathered with other amateur town ball players. On September 23, 1845, Cartwright and a committee known as the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club established formal regulations intended to govern gameplay as well as to collect dues to help pay rent on a new playing field in Hoboken, New Jersey. While many were probably archaic even then (it is said that one rule was to “have the reputation of a gentleman”), others such as Rule #4 (The bases shall be from “home” to second base, forty-two paces; from first to third base, forty-two paces, equidistant—if a pace is equal to three feet, distance between each base works out to ninety feet), Rule #15 (Three hands out, all out), and Rule #18 (No ace or base can be made on a foul strike) are still staples of the game. In particular, Rule #13 (A player running the bases shall be out, if the ball is in the hands of an adversary on the base, or the runner is touched with it before he makes his base; it being understood, however, that in no instance is a ball to be thrown at him) is often cited as the rule that made the New York game stand out from other bat and ball games.

The New York Knickerbockers Baseball Club

The New York Knickerbockers Base Ball Club

While many undocumented, or lightly documented, matches appear to have been played over much of the next year, the first “official” baseball game under the Knickerbocker Rules was played on June 19, 1846 at a site called Elysian Fields in Hoboken. The Knickerbocker Club’s opponents that day were the New York Baseball Club, better known today as the “New York Nine.” It is said that the Nine was made up of disgruntled former Knickerbockers who refused to travel regularly to New Jersey. The Nine won, 23-1. As far as anyone maintaining a gentlemanly reputation…well, Cartwright (who didn’t play, but umpired) wound up handing out a hefty six-cent fine to a participant for swearing.

While the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club had a short shelf life (Cartwright himself abandoned the east coast by 1849, opting to chase gold in California rather than advance the game he helped build), the rules they created had a huge impact. New York City and its surrounding regions (including Brooklyn, which was a separate city until 1898) soon became a hub for base ball organizations created by young professionals inspired by the Knickerbocker Rules. Popular teams such as the Excelsiors, Eckfords, Atlantics, Gothams, and Union Club of Morrisania in the Bronx gained footholds throughout the area, and were soon joined by strong Nines from Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and Newark, New Jersey. In 1857, many of these organizations became members of the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP), which would later become the first professional baseball league. And while Civil War soon enveloped the nation as a whole, special things were happening in Brooklyn. Cue the game’s first superstar, and its first statistical genius.

Part II: The National Association


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