I’ve mentioned here before that Bill James has a running feature through a couple of his books called “Old ballplayers never die.” The premise is that for almost all of baseball’s history, old-time players have been saying that the game was better in their day. There’s also long been talk that the game was in trouble. That talk, I learned today, goes back almost to the beginning of baseball history.
As others, most prominently John Thorn have noted, baseball has a murky and gradual story of origin, not founded by Abner Doubleday in 1839 or Alexander Cartwright in 1846, but slowly evolved over a period of a least several decades. I think it’s why John entitled his 2011 signature history of the early game Baseball in the Garden of Eden.
That said, I’d posit that baseball first became popular on a mass level in the 1860s. The game’s first great star, Jim Creighton played for Brooklyn in the early part of decade. The game became professionalized when Philadelphia star Lip Pike signed baseball’s first contract, for $20 in 1866. And the Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted 20,000 spectators showing up for the 1865 championship.
In this time, baseball also began to see some of its first problems, notably the entrance of gamblers into the game. The 1866 championship in Philadelphia– which is chronicled in greater detail in this National Pastime feature– witnessed open betting in the stands and prompted a series of attacks on the game from Pennsylvania papers. The Pittsburgh Daily Commercial carried a piece October 3 entitled “The Base Ball Epidemic.” which noted:
In 1854 the excitement over cricket first began to assume formidable dimensions, and in 1857 it was at its height. We all remember the way in which it took off small boys from school, and enlisted even men in its ranks as victims. The excitement rose in an hour, and utterly subsided; and instead of being a rational amount of healthy exercise, it was either a mania or none at all. Within two years after the visit of the English eleven, there was not a dozen cricket clubs in the whole country.
Two years ago, base ball commenced, and the course of the epidemic is the same as that of its predecessor. It is to-day being carried to such an excess, that unless there is something like reason in the exercise, the whole game will completely disappear. What was originally a healthy sport has grown to be a positive dissipation. We hear complaints from all our business men, because of the continual absence of young men in that they may engage in the game. If it were once a week, it would be an excellent thing… But when it is four times a week, and sometimes more, it becomes a decided nuisance…
This state of affairs cannot continue, and as lovers of the sport we call upon those who actively engage in it “to draw it a little more mild,” as the meek philosopher says, and “not run the thing into the ground.”
Of course, we all know what’s come since. While the general state of dissipation continued through the formation of baseball’s first drunken attempt at a league, the National Association in 1871 and arguably has gone on ever since, the national pastime has grown to a $9 billion annual industry and looks as healthy as ever this season. Baseball history being what it is, reports of its decline and impending demise will likely continue as long as the game is played. And writers like me will keep poking fun.