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Did baseball originate in New York? From the enthusiasm, it sure seems like it.
Maybe it did and maybe not! It is a complex history and the stories are engrossing.
Let’s have some fun looking at all that happened “back then”.
Always fascinated by New York and sports lore, we got interested again when we were writing a blog post on the Adirondacks.
The reason was that we could see on the regional map that Cooperstown was not far to the south.
We knew as everybody does, that town is home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. But, why is it there?
We did not know much about the place otherwise. But folks travel from all over the States (and even other countries where baseball is much loved) in order to visit.
Did baseball get its start in Cooperstown?
That the legend we heard was that baseball began there. And, apparently, a lot of people believed it. So much so, that the Hall of Fame and Museum got located there in 1939 for that reason!
The tale spread around in the early years of the twentieth century that Abner Doubleday, who was in his later life recognized as a Civil War hero for the Union, invented the sport in 1839 during a nice summer in central New York’s small town.
It was widely thought to be true for years. Eventually, many intrigued sports history investigators looked more thoroughly into the case and found out that it was not so.
So where and when was it invented?
The real answer is shrouded in time and possibilities. Truth be known, it is essentially certain that multiple sources and historical threads meandered for years, in fact, centuries, to eventually develop into the sport that this nation came to embrace.
Folk games that featured players using balls and sticks date back centuries, perhaps millennia.
Over a long period of time several British outdoor games evolved that were probably the precursors of our modern times:
- stoolball – 1000s
- cricket – 1500s
- rounders – 1700s or earlier
- base-ball – 1700s
Children in the American colonies played rounders, which is still practiced in schools in Britain.
There was no single inventor. The closest to this idea was when the rules got organized in the mid-1800s – and that did happen in New York.
Actually the set of rules, as written by Alexander Cartwright in 1845, laid out between over a dozen local sports clubs and applied only to their league, the Knickerbockers. For example, they described the diamond shape of the infield. Also, the “three strikes and you’re out” rule.
In subsequent years, widespread acceptance of the rules led to some calling Cartwright the “father of baseball”, at least of its modern form since then.
They had met in Madison Square Park in Manhattan. And that place has since been called where baseball was created.
According to a reading of the account’s commentary (see the previous two references), they sound like a leisurely group. Therefore, the Rules established a less onerous game than some of the more vigorous, might we say “rough and tumble” modes that some of the players favored when left without specific codes for how to play.
It is interesting, also, since baseball as we know it has always been a bit slower and avoided the aggressive action we find in a lot of other games (American football, for example).
The Hall of Fame and Museum
So even if it started for a reason that did not pan out, the “Doubleday Myth” was truly a myth, that doesn’t really matter after all these years.
The venue itself has turned out to be a smashing success.
It looks like it did, in fact, put the little village of Cooperstown on the map, as the saying goes.
A splendid museum there between the mountain ranges of the Adirondacks and the Catskills celebrating the National Pastime.
One of the first tasks carried out in 1936 was to name inductees to the Hall of Fame. This was quite a rigorous process and even reached back into the previous century of potential nominees!
The final decision on the honorees named five who were, obviously, already legends at that time:
- Ty Cobb – outfielder, “The Georgia Peach”, Detroit Tigers
- Babe Ruth – outfielder, “The Sultan of Swat”, New York Yankees
- Honus Wagner – shortstop, “The Flying Dutchman”, Pittsburgh Pirates
- Christy Mathewson – pitcher, “The Gentleman’s Hurler”, New York Giants
- Walter Johnson – pitcher, “The Big Train”, Washington Senators
The game in New York City
It is hard to think of the great eras of baseball in the United States without realizing that they are closely connected to their years in New York City.
For years the story of NYC ball was the intriguing rivalry of three amazing clubs: the New York Yankees, the New York Giants, and the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The Giants were there first, in 1883. It was just a few years after the National League started in 1876. (And the American League in 1881.) They were initially called the Gothams for a couple of seasons.
They came to fame around the turn of the twentieth century into the 1920s. Led by their brilliant manager, John “Little Napoleon” McGraw.
Beginning in 1902, McGraw ruled for 30 years.
He was called aggressive, actually, the exact term was “pugnacious”, arguing with the umpires regularly.
He had a near-record number of ejections from the ball game (118).
The team got to their first World Series victory in 1905 and he led them to two more as well as many National League (NL) pennants.
History of the Polo Grounds
Their venue was the Polo Grounds. It moved through several locations after its beginning in 1891. However, after some seasons they settled into where they would remain in Manhattan for over six decades.
So long ago, there were few restrictions on crowd movement. In fact, the crowds were not large and could mill about just behind the outer field.
Fans could arrive by horse-driven carriages and park just beyond the outfield to watch from there.
Or they could view the game from a higher vantage point, Coogan’s Bluff, a hill that rose behind the playing field.
The centerfield fence was amazingly far away, at over 460 feet. Over the history of the park, few participants hit home runs there, for obvious reasons.
This contributed to making feasible the amazing and famous “Catch” made by Willie Mays. (See below.) In another park, the outfielder would have had no chance of reaching the ball which would have clearly been out of the park as a home run.
The seventh-inning stretch
One origin story has it that the seventh-inning stretch, carried out in MLB, started with the Giants in about 1882.
There are few pro-level sports fan practices more charming, and necessary, than this ongoing tradition!
Take Me Out To The Ballgame
It was a hit song by the singer Edward Meeker in 1908 for the Edison Phonograph Company. Jack Norworth, the well-known Tin Pan Alley vaudeville performer and songwriter wrote: “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” while riding a Manhattan train; he revised it in 1927. Folks say that he got the idea when he saw a subway billboard: “Baseball Today —- Polo Grounds”.
Lyrics of the chorus
Take me out to the ball game,Jack Norworth, lyricist; Albert von Tilzer, music composer
Take me out with the crowd.
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don’t care if I never get back,
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game.
We also learned that it was only years later that the song got connected to the seventh inning. And that did not happen first in NYC.
Harry Carey, the broadcaster for the Chicago White Sox did that deed in the 1970s. The crowd carried it away.
The practice lives on during the seventh-inning stretch at most MLB even as we speak.
Having been founded in 1901 as the Orioles in Baltimore, Maryland, the Yankees moved to NYC two years later. They had the title of Highlanders, but in 1913 got their new and forever name. They’ve not left the Bronx.
The legacy of The Babe
Would we be enamored of this team after all these years, were it not for Babe Ruth? He came in 1920. As they say, the rest is history. The team scored a lot of American League pennants and the most World Series championships (27) ever as they dominated the sport for the next almost 40 years.
Did he call it or didn’t he? Watch the video with the commentary. Nobody knows for sure, but we all love the story.
Of course, not only the Babe but numerous individual players of considerable fame graced the club one after the other (and at the same time) throughout those years. He and Lou Gehrig were the starters in the 1927 Murderers’ Row, felt to be the greatest line up known.
As the successes of the ‘20s were receding into the past, along came the hitter Joe DiMaggio in the ‘30s.
On to the best of times
Probably the era best recalled today is the incomparable group the club had in the 1950s: Mickey Mantle at bat and Whitey Ford pitching. Not only a great catcher, but Yogi Berra’s lexicon will live on.
Yogi came up with so many priceless Berra-isms. We can’t pick just one. But, for the sake of finishing this article we must.
But if you have a yen for more, and I bet you do, read and laugh along with some of the best here.
You can observe a lot by just watching.Yogi Berra
Casey Stengel – Yankees
Leading them was Casey Stengel, a colorful manager in a sport of colorful managers. They were another generation of the Bronx Bombers.
Stengel had a lot to say during his many years leading the Yanks to seasons of success after success including 7 World titles during the 12 unforgettable years that began in 1949. Sometimes you could even understand him. It was called Stengelese.
Good pitching will always stop good hitting, and vice-versa.Casey Stengel
At age 70, he retired. A couple of years later he called himself back into the sport to become the first manager for the newly formed Mets. (See below.)
At first, the Yanks borrowed the Polo Grounds, but when their popularity grew they needed a space of their own. Yankee Stadium, built in 1922, was The House That Ruth Built.
While the Yanks became world-renowned, the Dodgers of those early years did not.
Every story needs an underdog and while they were in NY, that’s what they were: “Dem Bums”. They were more like a local team and starting in Brooklyn that was fitting. It had actually for many years been an independent city until it became a borough of NYC in the late 1800s.
You’ve heard the old expression: ‘When they were good, they were very, very good. And when they were bad they were horrid’. Well, the phrase wasn’t written about them, but some people felt it was fitting.
Flatbush’s little ballpark
They had the most loyal and passionate fan base. Ebbets Field, which opened in 1913, was actually small. When you sat in the stands it was almost in your face.
“Wait ’Til Next Year” was the unofficial team motto. Eventually, they did make it too and won, the 1941 World Series.
Earliest pro ball appearance on TV
Television was demonstrated for the first time at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. NBC experimented with the new technology later that same year and ended up live televising an August game between the Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds. The home team’s erratic hitter, Dolph Camilli, slugged out the first big league home run on television and they won, too!
A historical first for American society
They weren’t bums when it came to what happened on this team in 1947. Like so many milestones in the sad history of our nation’s race relations, the “color barrier” was real.
It was up to Branch Rickey, general manager and reputed “baseball’s great innovator”, to change the sports world in a most dramatic way. He put an African-American, Jackie Robinson, into the lineup for the first time in Major League Baseball (MLB).
Robinson, coming to the majors late in his career, at 28 years old, became a master. From Rookie of the Year to a mischievous base runner and home plate stealer, the Hall of Fame was on his menu.
Over the years, many honors justifiably came his way.
Here is the Congressional Medal of Honor. President George W. Bush presented it after his death to his widow, Rachel Robinson.
A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.Jackie Robinson
Because of him, it was now possible for others
Once the barrier of segregation was hurdled, other black Americans were able to join teams. Notable was Willie Mays who became a terrific centerfielder for the Giants. And one of the triad of New York City wonders at that position during the decade of the 1950s. (See below.)
Baseball’s Golden Age
The heyday of the sport is generally acknowledged to be approximately between 1920 and 1960. Around the beginning of that time, rules changes livened up the game and made it more professional, including such things as allowing a new ball to be introduced during a game. Thus the “live-ball” era ensued.
But Babe Ruth had a whole lot to do with the rocketing of interest that affected the U.S. too. His astonishing number of home runs (54 in 1920, his record 60 in 1921) began to define a new way of playing. Emphasis on the hitters and sluggers. A more active, even aggressive way of playing compared with the earlier years.
It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.Babe Ruth
It was the Roaring Twenties and baseball was becoming the national pastime.
Of course, then there were down years of performance and interest, as the nation endured the Great Depression and then WW2, with a number of players drafted for the war effort. But the game was able to continue on.
It benefitted from the post-war boom as the country left the 1940s behind into the burgeoning culture of the 1950s.
Through 1964 the Yankees won a total of 20 World Series. It was truly the golden years for those premiere NYC players. They were well on their way to the record 27 that stands today.
The great centerfielders of the 1950s
There was an ongoing controversy (and it was exciting and fun) in those years as to which one of the fab NYC centerfielders was the best. One on each of the three pro teams! People still argue the case of their respective heroes to this day.
Oh, to be a center fielder, a center fielder – and nothing morePhilip Roth, American author
Willie Mays – “The Say Hey Kid” – for the Giants
Were it not for Jackie Robinson just a few years before, would we have ever heard of this top-notch player? What a shame that would have been. Willie Mays was noted as a phenomenal all-around. He could hit, he could field, he could steal bases.
Watch Willie Mays celebrated (incredibly difficult) catch at Polo Grounds in the 1954 World Series, which was won by the Giants against the Indians. (This is in game 1, top of the 8th inning).
It has been called the greatest play made in baseball.
It was far from the only time he was said to have made the play that was the finest. Sometimes, it seemed it was only himself he was competing with to make such records.
Mickey Mantle – “The Mick” – for the Yankees
Mickey was born to play baseball. His father, who himself was a semipro, named him after Mickey Cochran, catcher for the Detroit Tigers, renowned in the early ‘30s.
Mick’s dad taught him to be a switch hitter, and he became the best in the sport. He was an incredible home run hitter, despite many injury-prone seasons, both in numbers and distance, shadowing Ruth’s records during most of his career.
Mantle’s 1953 World Series Grand Slam took place in the fifth game, in the third inning (October 4).
It is during a contest with the Dodgers and the scene is Ebbets Field.
Many famous Dodgers are also in this scene: see Robinson and Snider in the outfield. Roy Campanella is the catcher.
Duke Snider – “The Duke of Flatbush” – for the Dodgers
He was given the nickname “Duke” by his parents when he was a child!
Observers of our sport’s history feel he continued to deserve it by his consistently terrific showings on the baseball field and behind the bat.
Fittingly, he hit the final home run out of Ebbets Field before the Dodgers left in 1957. (See below.)
The big moves
In some New Yorkers’ minds, 1957 lives in infamy. The beloved Bums were to be called the Brooklyn Dodgers no longer: They moved to Los Angeles! (gasp)
The Dodgers had had the best playing years coming up to that time, eventually dominating the National League. They had even beaten the Yankees in the World Series in 1955.
Still, despite the love of the community for them, they were not selling enough tickets for a healthy competitive future.
Ebbets Field had been built in 1912 and was now on its last legs and inadequate for the later decades of the century. Unexpectedly, the city planner would not okay a new facility in Brooklyn, considered essential by the team owner, Walter O’Malley.
Across the continent, baseball was really underdeveloped. Los Angeles wanted a team … and offered a stadium …
The National League was ok with it but said in order for the sport to get going on the West Coast, two were needed. Well, the Giants had an even shabbier Polo Grounds for their long term home in upper Manhattan. So, it was San Francisco here we come. After 75 years in NYC, the Giants said goodbye.
Years later, the Mets arrived
The Mets were founded in 1962, long enough after the losses of the two earlier NL teams to be welcome in the city as heirs to both. Their uniforms reflected that: Giants’ orange plus Dodgers’ blue (also seen on the NYC flag).
Guess who became their original manager? None other than the recently retired Casey Stengel from across town.
Enjoy this YouTube video of Stengel explaining his transition into managing again at age 72.
Then later during that first year, the manager famously asked, of the luckless 1962 Mets “Can’t anybody here play this game?”. (The question was further immortalized in a book by the journalist Jimmy Breslin.)
It is said they inherited their status as underdogs, which they certainly fit. They still hold the amazing record of 120 games lost coming out of the starting gate. But then … witness 1969, the “Miracle Mets” roared all the way to take over the World Series.
The Mets rallying cry “Ya Gotta Believe”, was coined by pitcher Tug McGraw during the 1973 season.
The loyalty and persistence of Mets fans, like the Bums before them … has been remarkable.
From Shea Stadium to Citi Field
Except for their first couple of seasons in the aged Polo Grounds, they played in their new digs, Shea Stadium in Queens.
Since 2009, however, they are now in the more modern Citi Field. Interestingly enough, in a nod to the remembrance of the beloved Ebbets Field of the Dodgers, this new venue has some architectural features built to emulate that old structure, notably the main gateway.
Some built features moved from Shea Stadium to Citi. The Mets franchise has always had a light-hearted touch to some things. Among them is the Home Run Apple, famous at the earlier location and has been replicated in the new. It raises up to celebrate every Mets home run.
This is a funny video that shows a good view of the Apple. It happened that the Dodgers’ batter actually hit the Apple with his home run! But the red thing goes up any time there is a Dodgers home run. Usually, it is not the specific target!
They were also the first to get a live human mascot: Mr. Met came on board coinciding with the move to Shea Stadium in 1964.
He disappeared for some years during the 1980s.
But then mascots became popular and were seen about different teams and other popular professional sports.
So following fan requests, he returned in the mid-1990s.
The Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants pretty well thrived in their new locations. And continued their long-standing National League rivalry. A generation of fans on the West Coast no longer recalls or cares that much how the teams once were so much a part of New York lore.
The ancient Polo Grounds had been razed for housing. But, in 2010, a retired-from-baseball Willie Mays came to the physical site of a kids’ school by where it had been. He was now on a mission from San Francisco when the team prevailed in the World Series. It had been 57 years since their last and a continent away. He carried the trophy to show. Pretty cool.
The Yankees are still the Yankees. The Golden Age is over. But their long-standing numbers were, in many instances, far above the pack for such a long time. No other team has come close to winning 27 World Series. No other team will ever have a Babe. So much has earned them life long respect at the center of our country’s ongoing love of the sport.
The view from shortstop
Derek Jeter played in both the old and the new Yankee Stadiums and was at shortstop all his 20-year career that began in the mid-1990s. “The Captain” prevailed from Rookie of the Year through All-Star designations, just like the Bronx Bomber greats of yesteryears.
He made many wonderful plays, but this one was perhaps most unexpected: the Dive.
It was on July 1, 2004. Nevertheless, the Red Sox won that day.
The Sandman broke bats
Mariano Rivero, “The Sandman”, played for the Yanks in the same era, but he was in a position that didn’t use to exist in the old days, that of “closer” relief pitcher. Or at least the teams called it something else.
They played “Enter Sandman” by Metallica whenever he walked on up to the mound.
Unlike starting pitchers, this position was not that celebrated, but this man changed all that.
He came in late in the game and was the dreaded one you couldn’t beat.
Not only inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but he is also a major philanthropist. In 2019 President Trump presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian award.
An updated stadium for the Bronx
By 2009 it was time for a new modernized stadium in the Bronx.
A tribute to the past is a replica of the iconic frieze on the original Yankee Stadium that now circles part of the brand-new grandstand along the upper deck.
Brooklyn still remembers the Dodgers
Robinson’s heritage and number 42
Well, all the MLB teams got together for this for the first time in 1997. They agreed to the retirement of number 42 and that no other player would use it. Wow, that is a definite accolade if we ever heard of one. You see because this meant players of any team, not just Jackie Robinson’s team the Dodgers.
Note that Mariano Rivera of the Yankees had the same number and he could continue with it until he retired, too.
Another kudo for the memory of Robinson’s singular achievement came on April 15, 2004. They set aside the date of April 15 every year to honor him on Jackie Robinson Day.
A very cool additional point is that on that day, the baseball players can wear his number! This has resulted in some striking images. Sometimes confusing if you don’t know what’s going on.
Ichiro Suzuki, batting for the Seattle Mariners on April 15, 2012.
His usual number is 51. He is a recognized hit king himself.
Here he is wearing number 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson Day.
The Boys of Summer
In 1972 Roger Kahn wrote a nostalgic non-fiction book, called The Boys of Summer. It was about the Dodgers as they led up to their win in the 1955 World Series and subsequent lives of the stars. Duke Snider was in it, as was Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, and other teammates whose names you will recall. The story became widely enjoyed and the title stuck to the team and to the widespread practice of the ball game.
This timely review of the book in the NY Times is worthwhile to get a feeling for the interesting tome as well as the times it depicts.
The theme took a more universal turn as an ode to reminiscence a decade later (1984) when it got turned into a song.
Popularized by Don Henley, it earned him a Grammy and continues to be played today.
Like this music, baseball is universally appreciated and timeless.
Time marches on for America’s Pastime
The fast-moving football and basketball games, with rising popularity a century after baseball, eventually eclipsed it.
However, it’s still America’s Pastime. In fact, local fans seem as strong and devoted as ever. They still sit in the bleachers, cheering and catcalling as they have for more than 100 years.
But it has also been obvious that it still is, and probably always, will be considered America’s signature spectator sport. Somehow it is ingrained in our self-image. It is part of our passion and who we are.
The fledgling years of baseball in the latter half of the 1800s and early part of the 1900s and the middle years of greatness during the mid-twentieth century are intertwined with its growing up in this city and state.
We shudder to imagine how diminished the story of American baseball would be without its longstanding presence in New York.
Before you go
The story of baseball in New York cuts across more than a century of United States cultural history. You may enjoy other articles we’ve written about the turn of the twentieth century and the Roaring Twenties.
We also have written about the American Dream in the 1950s. The triumph of the ball game in this decade was certainly part of that.
Did you enjoy reading about the early recording of the song “Take Me Out To The Ballgame”? You may like another article we have about early phonograph records and the gramophone.
Are you a sports fan? New York, of course, is noted for involvement in many sports. Take a look at another one that we love.