Stories from PA History
Baseball In Pennsylvania
Baseball In Pennsylvania
Overview: Baseball in Pennsylvania

Color Currier and Ives 1866 of a baseball game in progress. Spectators stand along the playing field.
1866 Baseball Game
We will never know who first played a game with a bat and ball in America. But the first recorded mention of anything like the game that evolved into the National Pastime occurred at Valley Forge in 1778, when a young soldier in Washington's army noted in his diary that the troops played a game of "base" that day. We don't know exactly what the game looked like, who won, how many players were on each side, how many outs there were in an inning, or even what the rules were, but this diary entry marks the beginning of the recorded history of baseball on these shores.

Honus Wagner baseball card.
Honus Wagner baseball card
Perhaps it is only fitting that baseball managed to slip into the footnotes of the nation's battle for independence, for the evolution of the sport and the evolution of the country are intertwined. On some levels, of course, baseball is just a game designed for sunny afternoons in the fresh air: a game played by boys and girls, grown men and women, for fun and for profit, in towns and cities, on mowed fields and concrete schoolyards, and in the urban cathedrals of major league parks.

It was in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, however, that baseball managed to seep into the heart of the nation and become more than just a game. It became a tonic that helped boost the national spirit when low and a laboratory that has allowed us to observe who we are as a people, what we are willing to believe, and how far we will allow ourselves to be pushed. "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America," wrote the distinguished historian and cultural critic Jacques Barzun, "had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game."

Through its rules, realities, and myths, baseball has reflected the struggles and injustices of the American way of life as well as its virtues.
Umpire and player have a discussion while the catcher listens.
"The Argument"
Race and ethnicity were as troubling to baseball as they were to the nation, as was the sport's evolution from a community-oriented pastime for amateurs into a monopolistic and cutthroat business, characterized by worker exploitation and generations of struggle between owners and players.

Baseball also became a battleground in the culture wars of the early twentieth century, as teams and their fans fought against state "blue laws" that prohibited the playing of games on the Sunday Sabbath, and star players emerged as celebrities in the fast-growing world of American mass consumer culture. Americans would also witness how electric lights, radio, airplanes, television, and other new technologies would help transform professional baseball into an international, billion dollar industry.

Fans on rooftop watching game in Shibe Park, 1914 World Series.
Fans on rooftop watching game in Shibe Park, 1914 World Series
Reflecting the racial caste system that emerged in the United States in the decades following the Civil War, baseball also segregated blacks from whites. In 1867, just two years after the thirteenth Amendment permanently outlawed slavery in the United States, a superb team of African-American ball players from Philadelphia petitioned the National Association of Base Ball Players for admission. Their petition was quickly denied, and there was no mistaking the reason: the color of their skin. For the next eighty years, African Americans were denied the opportunity to play baseball at its highest level until Jackie Robinson broke the major league color barrier in 1947.

Josh Gibson poses in his Homestead Grays uniform in 1945.
Josh Gibson poses in his Homestead Grays uniform in 1945.
In between those two events, however, something remarkable happened. Black baseball teams evolved, and so did all-black leagues. After the Supreme Court's 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson gave constitutional sanction to racial segregation in the United States baseball was big enough to provide opportunities and a showcase for talent. Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and hundreds of other African Americans found a way to display their exceptional athletic abilities for teams like the Homestead Grays, Hilldale Daisies, and Philadelphia Stars.

Black baseball also meant black business and entrepreneurship. And the sport helped close the color gap, instilling pride in the black community and drawing respect from the white. Long before Robinson joined the major leagues, blacks and whites played with and against each other in sandlots, in industrial leagues, and on town teams that operated outside the rules of the major and minor leagues. It was no accident that America's segregation laws began to topple not long after the integration of the major leagues. Baseball, it seems, showed us what was possible.

The Homestead Steel mill team of 1910.
The Homestead Steel Mill baseball team, Homestead, PA, 1910.
Ironically, the Civil War that tore the nation apart played a major role in unifying the game and creating a national sport. Before the war, the game was largely confined to New England and a few eastern cities, but men from all parts of the country picked it up during their time in uniform. In its earliest forms, baseball was a chaotic affair, with different rules in different parts of the country and even in different parts of the same state. But by the late nineteenth century, one set of rules had been established.

Like America's motto - "E pluribus unum," which means "Out of many, one" - baseball set standards and offered both an example and an arena that would help people from various backgrounds and traditions to become one nation. Whether you were Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish, German, Russian, or, later, Hispanic or Asian, baseball offered you multiple opportunities to become a part of a larger community, to speak a shared language, and to cheer a common team.

As the game grew, smart entrepreneurs realized how to make money from people's love of the sport.
Color photograph of Curt Flood in uniform.
Curt Flood
Some sponsored teams for the goodwill that it engendered in the community - an early form of advertising. Others, particularly those with larger businesses, formed teams to help boost worker morale. Still others, like Al Reach, a former ballplayer who in 1883 became the owner of a new professional team called the Philadelphia Phillies, realized the game could be a profit-making venture.

To maximize profits, nineteenth-century American businessmen vigilantly defended the sanctity of the free market system. Not surprisingly, baseball became an early battleground in labor relations, and not just over salaries. Off the field, baseball was a cutthroat, monopolistic business in which players were owned by their teams. Owners dictated salaries and placed a "reserve clause" in player contracts that prevented them from shopping their talents for a better wage.

By 1885, players had banded together into what was essentially baseball's first union, organized by Pennsylvania ballplayer-turned-lawyer John Montgomery Ward. Five years later, Ward led a players' revolt that resulted in the creation of short-lived Players League. But this and subsequent challenges of the reserve clause all failed until 1970 when St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood refused to be traded to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Flood's case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused–as it had in the past–to invalidate the clause. Finally, in a grievance filed by the players' association against baseball owners, an arbitrator in 1975 ruled that the reserve clause could no longer be applied into perpetuity. This decision opened the door of free agency and helped realign the power balance between owners and players.

The growth of major league baseball into the "National Pastime" also produced a deep schism in American society between the mid-1870s and mid-1930s over whether the game should be played on Sunday.
Forbes Field 1956 exterior
Forbes Field 1956 exterior
Those holding the traditional Puritan belief that the Lord had set aside Sunday as a "day of rest" argued that ball playing was inconsistent with strict observance of the Sabbath. But this entrenched view was increasingly challenged as the Industrial Revolution shifted political power from the countryside to the cities, and immigrants from continental European countries arrived with different attitudes about how to spend their Sundays.

Many of these newcomers to America's shores worked six days a week and found nothing wrong with sporting events on the one day they had to enjoy recreational activities. The battle over Sunday baseball took place on ball fields and in the press, in courtrooms, city council chambers, and state legislatures. In 1934, the prolonged fight was finally over as Pennsylvania became the last state in the country to allow baseball on Sunday.

Roy Campanella in catcher's gear
Roy Campanella in catcher's gear
To attract paying spectators to the sport, baseball owners built their stadiums in parts of cities easily reached by public transportation. New communities sprouted up around the life and commerce of ball parks, just as cities today are being revitalized by the intimate new ballparks in their midst. Then, as now, new ballparks were among the architectural wonders of their ages.
Photo of boys sitting under trees with baseball mitts and bats (circa 1890).
Boys sitting under the trees with baseball mitts and bats (circa 1890)

At the beginning of the twentieth century, ambitious owners built the biggest parks they could. To accommodate the largest possible number of paying fans, architects replaced the old wooden and brick ball parks with massive structures of concrete and steel. With the construction of Shibe Park and Forbes Field, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh boasted the first and second of these futuristic marvels. Pittsburgh also helped pioneer a new communication's technology that would broaden the game's popularity, when station KDKA in 1921 "broadcast" the first baseball game on a new wireless media called radio.

So, pay attention the next time you take in a game. Whether you're watching the Pirates, the Phillies, your local minor league, or some Little Leaguers in the park, there's a rich history of America condensed in every pitch, swing, and deep fly. That's the magic of baseball, really. Because even though it is much more than a game, it's still just a game -one of pitches, swings, grounders, and fly balls, the sole object of which is nothing more complicated than to arrive home safely one time more than the other side.

"It's a man's game," observed the great Dodger catcher Roy Campanella, who learned his baseball and a lot more on the Philadelphia sandlots, "but you have to have a lot of little boy in you to play it." For an activity so old, baseball does a terrific job at keeping us young and returning us home to remember who we are and from where we have come.
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